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Urban Travel Guide: Big City Life in Costa Rica

Costa Rica’s natural attractions draw ecotourists from around the globe. Costa Rica is a country with just about everything: nearly 30 percent of its territory is protected, making it a tourist’s paradise. Here is the introduction of three major cities worthy of  a sightseeing  in Costa Rica.

San Jose
The capital of Costa Rica is a modern, rapidly growing city that also serves as the country’s transportation hub. San Jose sits on the floor of Meseta Central, 3,773 feet above sea level, with a mild climate throughout the year. Visitors usually stay a day or two—at least—to enjoy such cosmopolitan pursuits as the theater, opera, and fine dining.

The city’s architecture is another of its attractions: it is quite diverse, reflecting influences that range from the Spanish Colonial to neo-Gothic. There is even an impressive metal structure that was originally built in Belgium and transported to Costa Rica in the 1890’s. Thanks to the surge of economic growth brought on by the 19th century coffee plantations, there are today religious, governmental and educational buildings that serve as city landmarks. The Teatro Nacional is an excellent example. And in accordance with the country’s “greener is better” motif, there are plenty of parks throughout the metropolis, with colorful gardens and shade trees.

San José is also where the shopping is. Visitors will find department stores and shopping malls, as well as several mercados, such as Mercado Nacional de Artesanías and La Casona. A visit to the Mercado Central is a must for the best souvenir of all: fresh coffee beans!

San Jose, Costa Rica is famed for its museums, which include the Jade Museum, boasting the largest collection of American jade sculptures; the Pre-Colombian Gold Museum; the National Museum, offering visitors a visual history of the country through exhibits of archeology, jade and gold, colonial and religious art, colonial furnishings and much more; the Natural Sciences Museum; the Costa Rican Museum of Art (notable for its fine sculptures); and the Museum of Art and Contemporary Design.

The second largest city of Costa Rica and only 10 miles from San José, Alajuela is also the birthplace of the national hero, Juan Santamaría; the international airport is named after him. It’s an interesting place to visit with a great central mercado. Just outside of town are a number of attractions, including Zoo Ave in the town of La Garita and the Butterfly Farm in La Guácima de Alajuela.

The capital of the Guanacaste Province, Liberia is home to some 40,000 ticos. This is the transport hub for the northern area of the country, and serves as a base for touring the many nearby parks, which include Parque Nacional Rincón de la Vieja, with its active volcano; Parque Nacional Santa Rosa, an important sea turtle nesting site and home to the largest remaining stand of tropical dry forest in Central America; and the famous Parque Nacional Volcán Arenal, with its impressive light show of a volcano.

Need a place to stay? Recreo Costa Rica is a 63-acre eco-resort community in Guanacaste. The property is situated in the Tropical Dry Forest, with a private, secure entrance leading to the resort’s villas. Each villa offers extraordinary Pacific Ocean views and spectacular vistas. The resort is just a short distance from two of the most pristine beaches in the world – Playa Rajada and Playa Jobo. Fitness center and sports are offered including horseback riding, tubing, snorkeling, kite sailing, windsurfing, white water rafting, fishing and more. Fly into Liberia or San Jose.

Don’t Miss

There are quite a few museums to tour in San José, among them, the important Museo de Jade, which boasts the largest collection of American jade sculptures. In the spirit of all things precious, visitors won’t want to miss the Museo del Oro Precolombino, with its show-stopping collection of pre-Columbian gold. A few hours’ visit to the Museo Nacional, housed in the Bellavista Fortress, will give tourists an idea of the history of Costa Rica through exhibits of archeology, jade and gold, colonial and religious art, colonial furnishings and clothing and natural history displays (for more on the latter, there is the Museo de Ciencias Naturales off of Sabana Park). Other museum and exhibit themes include criminology, insects, butterflies, a museum for children, a herpetological collection and two art museums: the Museo de Arte Costarricense (notable for its fine sculptures) and the Museo de Arte y Diseño Contemporáneo, with changing exhibits of contemporary local artists.

Founded by Quakers in the 1950s, this small community is the gateway to the Monteverde Cloud Forest Biological Reserve. Famous for its magical beauty, it is a favorite of birdwatchers—especially those interested in spying the mystical quetzal (best seen in March and April). The nearby Santa Elena Reserve is very similar to Monteverde, and boasts a trail with a good view of the Arenal Volcano. Both parks are best visited with guides if you want to catch sight of the local wildlife.

Parque Nacional Volcan Arenal
The Arenal is the country’s most active volcano, still spewing lava and red-hot rocks high into the air. It’s located about 55 miles northwest of San José. The park protects important species of flora and fauna, emphasizing Costa Rica’s incredible diversity. Night tours to view the volcano in all its glory are unforgettable, though you need to check the weather first to make sure the clouds will cooperate. The best views are from the northern and western sides. By day, this nearly-mile-high cone towers above the small township of La Fortuna, your base of operations.

Parque Nacional Santa Rosa
Santa Rosa is also in the Guanacaste province, only 22 miles from Liberia. The oldest of its kind, it is also the most important historical spot in the country: it was here that the heroic Batalla de Santa Rosa took place in 1856. The park itself serves to protect and restore the habitats of the region denominated as Dry Pacific. There are some 10 habitats present, ranging from evergreen forests to swamps and mangroves. Its two beaches, Nancite and Naranjo, are not only known for their beauty, but for their importance as a nesting site for several species of marine turtles.

Parque Nacional Corcovado
This large park located in the province of Puntarenas on the southern Pacific coast encompasses an area of tropical rainforest that is considered a living laboratory, where naturalists study the structure and function of tropical ecosystems. The protected forests are not only the best representatives of these ecosystems in the Pacific, but also the last of their kind in Central America. There are some 500 species of trees here, representing a fourth of all the tree species in the country, within several different habitats including the cloud forest, swamp forest, mangroves and others. Several animal species in danger of extinction also make their home in Corcovado.

Pacific beaches Costa Rica’s Pacific beaches offer visitors everything from luxury resorts to empty stretches of fine sand. Of the many northern Pacific beaches in the Guanacaste region, Flamingo stands out as a magnificent stretch of white sand, home to the largest sport-fishing fleet in the nation, as well as some very upscale villas. Foreign travelers flock to Tamarindo, so-named because of the tamarind trees that line the shore, even though it is somewhat off the beaten path thanks to a lack of paved roads. Surfers know it for its three fine breaks, including a river-mouth break. Conchal has been called one of the most beautiful beaches due to its glistening white sand, made up of tiny shell fragments.

Near the tip of the Península de Nicoya are two paradisiacal beaches, Sámara and Montezuma. The central Pacific area is known for the Gulf of Nicoya with its many small islands (many of which are biological preservation areas); the village of Quepos, which serves as a gateway to the much-visited Parque Manuel Antonio and its palm-fringed beaches; and Jaco Beach, a favorite of tourists for its proximity to San José and of surfers for its waves.

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