“The most beautiful island of the world”, was Jacques Cousteau’s reaction when he visited Isla de Coco, or Coco Island.
Coco Island is located in the Pacific Ocean, 532kms southwest from White Cabo. The Coco Island National Park could be compared to the Galapagos Islands. It really consists of the summit of an extinct volcano. Over the millennia it was colonized, finally resting in the control of the Costa Rican government. The island is covered by a very dense rainforest and the broken surface gives way to beautiful waterfalls that throw themselves in the sea in the most spectacular fashion. The coast has an infinite number of caves to explore, some as deep as 183 meters. The species of animals found on the island have evolved separately from the rest of the world, and as a result, many of them are endemic to the region (not found anywhere else). This includes the Cocos Cuckoo, the Flycatcher, and the Finch, different from his cousin the famous Darwin’s finches of the Galapagos Islands. Other Cocos endemic species include two types of reptiles, a small lizard and a salamander, a fresh water fish and some 64 species of insects. Out of its 235 species of plants, 70 are also endemic.
The marine life of Coco Island is also exceedingly impressive and is now under protection; the white-fin shark, the hammerhead shark, the whale shark and the tuna, etc. It is, needless to say, this is a must-visit for scuba divers. Many, many years ago, it is said that pirates used the island to bury their treasures of gold and silver. According to the legend, Edward Davis was there in 1685, Benito Bonito in 1820, and William Thompson in 1821. If they did indeed bury treasure, it has certainly never been found! Up to 500 expeditions were organized — even the government of Costa Rica tried its luck after taking possession of the island on September 15th 1869! No treasure. What they did do was leave a dangerous and harmful legacy: Pigs and goats were left to breed for their future trips, as well as rats, which were left inadvertently. Needless to say these mammals constitute a severe threat to the native species of the island.
The unique diversity of Coco Island led to a decree in 1978 transforming it into the Coco Island National Park. Efforts are now being made to protect it, and plans have also been made to remove the pigs, goats and rats introduced by humans. Sport and commercial fishing is now illegal around the island.
Up to the mid 80s, most visits to the island were research related, however, tourism soon started to point its nose, and it did not take long for tours and charters to be organized for fishing expeditions. The ecological impact of all this sport fishing and treasure hunting was heavy. Now only research permits are granted, to protect all the island has still has to offer.
Scuba diving enthusiasts make it there if they are tenacious as getting there is not easy and certainly not cheap. The journey may take up to 36 hours by boat and it is really advisable to contact a tour company. It is only possible to anchor in two bays, Wafer and Chatham, as the others all consists of coral reefs. Then you have the anchoring rights to pay, this can go up to $150, and the admission fees of $25. Once on the island, do not expect to see any hotels, bars or restaurants. Neither are there any shops to buy food. Everything must be taken care of before leaving the mainland and food must be prepared and consumed on board. There are however showers there, as it gets pretty hot.
Coco Island can be considered the trip of a lifetime. Even just getting there is an adventure. The rainforest, the waterfalls, the biodiversity, the diving it has to offer is unique and special, and can be seen nowhere else in the world. The island indeed is a treasure by itself.
The Braulio Carillo National Park is an excellent place to visit a tropical rain forest just as we imagine it should be, like the ones we see in adventure movies, or in documentaries. It is important to remember that only some 20 years ago, this is how most of the country looked! The flora and fauna, thick and emerald green is brilliant and full of life, the symphony of birds and insects together with the songs of the frogs and the crystalline sound of the waterfalls add to its splendor and majesty. Deep canyons, abundant rivers, volcanoes and endless clouds, a climate going from permanent humidity to torrential rains, with an annual rain fall that ranges between 400 and 800 centimeters, this is a chance to experience the real thing.
The park was established in 1978 following the construction of the highway that had caused much deforestation and devastation in the area. Many species of trees are protected in the park, like the Palmito for example. It is also a sanctuary for the animals that are threatened by extinction. The park measures over 44,099 hectares with at least 84% of primary forest, going up 2,906 meters high if you are on top of Barva down to 36 meters above sea level in La Selva Biological Reserve in Sarapiqui. These differences of altitude make this park unique in Costa Rica.
With such climatic variations, a lot of micro climates are found here, with an impressive array of flora and fauna. Five life zones can be recognized in the park, ranging from tropical humid to cloud forest, and it is home to over 600 species of trees, at least 500 species of birds and some 135 species of mammals, including howler monkeys, capuchin monkeys, pumas, jaguars, ocelots, deer, pacas, raccoons and peccaries. Snakes are also plentiful as well as many other types of reptiles. Watch out for the Matabuey (”cattle killer”) snake and definitely keep an eye for the feared Fer de Lance or Terciopelo, which is very venomous. Birdwatchers will not be disappointed with plenty of quetzals in the park, as well as many other shy and often hard to spot species.
The variety of trees and plants here is awesome as well. The famous umbrella leaves, or elephant ear-size leaves are everywhere; they are called “sombrilla del pobre”, or poor man’s umbrella. Some friends of mine decided to get married in this inspiring and mystical setting, near a canyon. Before they had time to exchanges vows, it started to rain, so we all grabbed those giant leaves and the ceremony just carried on normally!
Braulio Carillo is only a few minutes away from San Jose. You simply take the road to Limon and before long, you pass a tunnel and there you are! There are two main entrances to the park; the first one you will see is 500 meters past the Zurqui tunnel, where you will spot the dwellings of the Puesto Carrillo ranger station. They sell maps that are quite helpful so you can keep track of where you are and what to look for. Just across the road is the Capulin trail, taking you on a one and a half hour hike, up and down the mountain, and into the jungle.
The other trails are located some 15 kms further down the road from the Puesto Carrillo, including the Sendero Natural Botarrama, which is much shorter than the first trail with only 1.6 km and La Botella, with waterfalls and awesome views down the canyon. If you are up to it, take a left down La Botella where a sign says Sendero, and you have another 30 minutes of thick deep jungle right down to the Rio Sanguijuela. There is even a place to camp although it is really on a shoe string as there are absolutely no facilities there. It is located south of Puesto Carrillo, you will find the camp by following the trails to Rio Patria, bear in mind that this is for the adventurous only!
There are two other stations to look out for, Puesto El Ceibo and Puesto Magaly, on the western side of the park. These are very remote and are difficult to reach; they can be found south of La Virgen on the main road to Puerto Viejo de Sarapiqui.
Because it is a rain forest, remember that the trails are always muddy and sometimes very slippery, so it is advisable to wear appropriate shoes. It is also very important to remember to stick to the trails. Braulio Carrillo is huge, and some people, feeling that the trails were limited and wanting to see more, set off by themselves on a discovery adventure, and got lost. They never found the way back to the trails or to the entrance of the park.
No visit to Braulio Carillo would be complete without having a ride in the Aerial Tram, right at the end of the protected area, going towards Guapiles. This is the best way to appreciate what a canopy is really like, and to understand what it feels like to be up there, seemingly on top of the world, in this different world where some species spend their whole lives and never ever go down to the ground. There is a restaurant at the entrance of the Aerial Tram, which is wonderful as by this time people usually find it, they have build an appetite.
Braulio Carillo is the easiest park to reach from San Jose; if you come by bus, there is an excellent service provided to and from the park and by car it takes no more than 15 to 20 minutes to reach the first entrance.
Alajuela is the closest city to airport, only 3 kms away in fact, and about 20 kms northwest of San Jose. The city was founded in 1782, and the church was originally called the parish of La Lajuela. Over the years it became the city of Alajuela. It actually served as the capital of the country for just one year in 1834! Alajuela is the hometown of Juan Santamaria, a simple drummer boy who gave his life to preserve the independence of the country during the famous battle of Hacienda Santa Rosa. Today his act is still remembered and celebrated every year on Juan Santamaria Day on April 11th.
Alajuela is known for its warm climate, being right in the middle of the central valley, with an altitude of 957m. It is actually the capital of the Alajuela Province, and is still the main trade centre for cattle, coffee and sugar. It has been nicknamed the city of mangoes for its abundance of the fruit and during the season, it’s mango fiestas everywhere!
Visiting the sunny Alajuela is never on top of the list but the city does have amenities and entertainment to offer; a movie theatre, a shopping mall, casinos, nightclubs and restaurants, it has everything to please, and let’s not forget of course its natural attractions. With its proximity to the airport it is a good base for touring the area and see the mighty Poas Volcano (2.704 meters/8.871 feet), to go to the Zoo Ave a beautiful park with an amazing collection of birds and monkeys and small mammals; like a zoo, but with a unique flair! and to do the coffee tours of the famous Doka Estate. See also the waterfalls of the Celeste River that are simply breathtaking, and do not miss the sculptures and figures that have been shaped out of cypress trees in the Zarcero Park, and finally the famous go to the wonderful Venado Caves.
The province of Alajuela is rich in flora and fauna, with micro ecosystems that change on the crossing of a river. It is a large province stretching all the way to the Nicaraguan border. La Garita, only a few minutes away from the city, on the Jaco/Puntarenas road, is a popular little town with a whole array of typical restaurants serving food made out of corn. Hundreds of people gather there on Saturdays and Sundays to spend the day. La Garita is said to have the best climate of the world!
Alajuela is famous for one thing in Costa Rica, and one thing only; La Liga, or La Liga Deportiva Alajuelense soccer team. Usually they play against Saprissa, and it seems the country is divided in two, those supporting La Liga and those supporting Saprissa!
Second in size in the country, the city of Alajuela has a good choice of places to stay. It has a certain soul and feel to it, which you will not find anywhere else. The alajuelenses are famous for giving nicknames to everyone, whether friends or complete strangers, and they are good at it too! Anything is fair game and used to create this nickname and it will stick to you, whether you like it or not! It is good to relax in the picturesque Central Park, in front of the church and watch people passing by, it is also the main meeting point of the city, where adults catch up with gossip, make business agreements or just observe others while children play by the fountain.
If you happen to be in Alajuela on a Saturday morning, make sure to visit the outdoor market, it’s probably the biggest outdoor market of the country where you can find handicrafts, flowers, fresh fruits and vegetables, with local music playing in the background. It will give you a good insight of the typical Costa Rican way of life.
Heredia is the capital of the province of the same name, Heredia. It is a small city, which was founded in 1705. It is easy to handle because of its size yet it offers all the amenities that San Jose could possibly have. It may only be 20 minutes away from the capital, but it is less chaotic, it looks better, it is friendlier, and gentlemen, they say that this is where you will see the most beautiful girls of the country. Because of the University, Universidad Nacional, there is always a large amount of students in Heredia. There are a good variety of bars and restaurants and the city is young at heart!
It has that feel of a smaller city and has managed to preserve most of its colonial feel. The main plaza is the meeting point of the city, and the historic church La Inmaculada Concepcion that was built in 1796; the bells were brought all the way from Peru, while the stained glass paintings in the church are the oldest in Cost Rica. This plaza, or Parque Central, has a nice variety of restaurants and coffee shops to choose from.
Heredia is often called the “city of flowers” because of all the gardens and vegetation in the area. The climate is cool but not cold and usually quite pleasant. There are many shops for those who like shopping and it has a pleasant mall, Paseo de Las Flores as well as many big supermarkets. The central market is also an interesting place to go to and this is where you may well find the little souvenir you were looking for. There is an old music temple and an impressive colonial tower, vestige of an ancient Spanish fort in the Parque Central near the church. Indeed the tower can be seen from many different spots throughout the city! La casa cultural also holds artistic and historical exhibitions.
Coffee plantations surround Heredia and some of the country’s best coffee grows around the city. The chain of volcanoes stands majestically above it, Poas and Barva being of great interest, indeed, Barva is one of the few volcanoes which can be climbed entirely on foot. The Braulio Carrillo National Park, which is a must if you want to experience a cloud forest, is lush and thick, green and even greener. You can find shelter from the mist under one of the huge umbrella leaves, catch a sight of a resplendent quetzal, maybe a puma, or a tapir, and watch out for the mischievous White Faced Monkeys. It is important however to remember to always stick to the trails, one can be lost for days and needless to say, exposure may be fatal. The trails however are very well marked. For some parts it is even a good idea to go with a guide, as they know the flora and the fauna so well, they can give some very interesting information and facts and spot certain birds you would have otherwise missed.
If you wish to visit Heredia, you can reach it either by bus from San Jose, or by car or even by taxi. Remember, it is only 20 minutes away from the capital, but it is so much nicer!
Puerto Limon, is the capital of the Caribbean, aka the province of Limon. It is chaotic, disorganized, wonderful, colorful, scary, dirty, vibrant, full of life, and very friendly. It is also located on the Caribbean Sea! What also makes it special is this fusion of cultures, with the native Bribri indians, the blacks who were brought from Jamaica to build the banana train, the Chinese, and of course, the Costa Ricans. No wonder it is so vibrant, with this diverse population of 76,000 people.
Like all Caribbean city, Limon has an annual carnival which lasts a week. It is known as Las Dias De Las Culturas, and falls around Columbus Day. It is definitely a wild, noisy affair, just like carnivals should be! Musicians, dancers, tourists of all kinds, and locals: everybody loves Limon’s carnival. Bare in mind that hotels are full during this period so if you are keen on being there for this event, make sure you reserve in advance.
Limon however doesn’t need a carnival to be full of life. It is most and foremost a working city and seaport. Cruisers reach the port of Limon on a regular basis. Visitors love the tropical atmosphere and the walking tour of the city, admiring its colorful buildings and its friendly people.
All is not always so friendly. All is not always as it seems. Tourists were robbed on more than one occasion when coming down from the ships, right there in the souvenir market just outside the docks. Precautions must be taken, and it is a good idea to remain alert at all times, to avoid displaying expensive items and to keep money in a safe place. If this is done, then there should be nothing to worry about. Most visitors enjoy wandering through the streets of Limon. Its Afro-Caribbean atmosphere is too irresistible. The original Spanish constructions always have their charms, and a visit to the central market or Mercado Central, is simply fascinating. The old seawall, along the eastern edge of town, is also another popular tourist attraction.
It would be fair to say however that Puerto Limon holds historical interest due the arrival of Christopher Columbus in 1505. The city was called Cariari then, and was no more than a small fishing village. Columbus actually landed on a small island in front of the city, Isla Uvita.
There are lots of places to visit in a around Limon, indeed the whole province of Limon is full of surprises and interests. Tortuguero, along the canals, is famous for the turtles coming ashore to lay their eggs along the coast every year. Close to the city of Limon, following the road along the shore, you will find Cahuita, and further South, Puerto Viejo, two beautiful spots with some of the most beautiful beaches of the country. In fact, it keeps going until you hit Panama and is near the popular destination, Bocas del Toro.
Puerto Limon does have a reputation; however, once some common sense is used and certain precautions taken, it is really a fantastic place to visit and indeed it should not be missed. Nothing in Costa Rica compares with the tropical forests and flora and fauna of Limon. The colors are bright, the heat is strong, the sand is magic, the sea is soft, and even in the rain, Limon is beautiful. The food is maybe of the best you will try in this country with more heat and flavor than your typical meal (try the coconut rice and beans), and the people are simply wonderful.
Liberia is the capital of the northwestern province of Guanacaste, and home to an International Airport with flights arriving from Houston, Atlanta, Miami, New York and Los Angeles. Many tourists see it as a ’stop-over’ to get to the Guanacaste gold coast, or on their way to Rincón de la Vieja National Park. However, if you want to experience a ‘real’ Costa Rican town, there is some charm to spending a day or two in the area. The central park, flanked by a large white church, is home to a hodge podge of stray dogs, birds, bums, couples and skaters enjoying the beautiful pink sunsets.
The town has a colonial look and feel to it, very similar to its neighboring towns in Nicaragua, which is not surprising when one considers that up to only about one hundred years ago, Guanacaste was part of Nicaragua. The narrow streets keep you cool, and the adobe whitewashed old houses are very full of charm. For this reason, Liberia is known as the white city, la “Ciudad Blanca”.
There is a wide array of open air restaurants, ice cream shops and clothing stores to wander through during the day. At night, the far end of town on the other side of the town’s only red light, becomes a non-stop party until sunrise. From electronica to reggae to local bachata, cumbia and salsa music, this strip has it all. For a tamer night the city center, the bars will give you a great view of typical life in the area, and they all close around midnight. The new Santa Rosa shopping complex also houses a great Spanish-owned Italian restaurant and some shops geared toward the surf-crowd.
The pace of life here is slower and more casual, with most people traveling by foot or bicycle. The dress code is beachy with flip flops and tight clothes for the ladies, to match the steamy temperatures of the driest region in Costa Rica.]]>
The city of Cartago was first built in 1563, and suffered various disasters including floods and destructive earthquakes. It was the capital of the country until 1823, when it was moved to what is now San Jose. It suffered more serious damages to its colonial buildings with the devastating 1910 earthquake in the Central Valley. In 1963, the eruption of the Volcano Irazu destroyed even more of the city, but it also gave way to creating a very fertile region with rolling green hills carved out by some rivers great for white water rafting. Nearby Orosi and Paraiso have their own charm as well.]]>
Puerto Viejo is the complete package. If you’re ready for some excitement you can partake in a variety of water sports, hike up some intense trails, or research Puerto Viejo’s bumping night life. However, if you’d rather leave the adventure seeking up to other visitors, you’ll be just as welcomed by museums, galleries, and other forms of subdued entertainment. As the most popular town in the southeast, you’re bound to find yourself foot tapping to the reggae and calypso beats—absorbing that laid-back feeling the Caribbean is famous for. Puerto Viejo’s Caribbean shore is a great alternative to the more built up and faster-paced Pacific Coast. Costa Rica surfing here is renowned as it’s said to have the heaviest wave in Costa Rica named Salsa Brava (brave sauce), for reasons only true surfers know. Only these surfers can navigate Puerto Viejo’s jagged reefs and powerful waves, so unless you’re nickname is “hang ten” you should keep a distance.]]>
Playa Avellanas may be most famous for its outstanding surfing, and not without reason, but it is also the most magnificent and magical spot you will find in Costa Rica. This 10km stretch of beautiful white sand is hard to compare to anything else. Some of the best night skies can be observed there, lying on the beach in the dark, getting lost in time, maybe because of the lack of city lights and noise.
Avellanas is not a village, it is just a beautiful beach with a nice variety of good cabinas and hotels as well as restaurants and bars that perfect for finishing the day. There are also lots of trees that provide a welcome shade on the beach, a must in Guanacaste! It goes all the way to Playa Langosta in the north and Playa Negra in the south, going from flat stretches of white sand to rocky parts with turquoise colored tide pools, ideal if you are exhausted from surfing or playing in the waves!
The waves. Surfing is famous in Avellanas, on a worldwide basis; it is good basically all year around, swells coming from the northern as well as from the southern hemisphere, most breaks it must be pointed are really for experienced surfers, no amateurs, please! Surfers are not put out by the rains and the beach, although never crowded, always holds a good friendly and entertaining atmosphere.
Las Olas is a nice pleasant place to stay, and from the bar/restaurant, there is a wooden trail on stilts taking you all the way to the beach, very pleasant. Lola’s beach bar though is the place to be seen! Or not seen, depending on what you want; this beach bar, or lounge as it is now referred to, offers good cocktails together with great long chairs to relax in while viewing the scenery which is everywhere, and eating a slice of their delicious pizza. You may want to stay there, forever! Nothing seems to be important anymore, so why leave this fabulous spot? Lola, by the way, was given this name because of Lola the pig, this huge old fat thing that actually swims in the ocean, everybody there knows Lola the pig! It is rather hard to miss her by the way; she might weight a few hundred pounds! Lola’s bar also has a great parking space that is usually under surveillance, a useful perk these days.
For how much longer will Playa Avellanas manage to stay this way? It is now getting harder and harder to find pristine beaches in Costa Rica. Already, a lot of the land has been bought, soon the road will be fixed, and then, who knows what will happen. Right now, you need your own transport to reach it and it needs to be a 4X4. Once on the coastal road, Avellanas is North of Playa Junquillal and Playa Negra, about 15 kms away from Tamarindo. You cannot get lost!
Matapalo is on the Southern Pacific Coast, just about 45 minutes south of Manuel Antonio. Playa Matapalo, although nested between Manuel Antonio and Dominical, has kept its quiet, pristine beach look with an old fashion atmosphere that is full of charm, soothing and peaceful.
There is nothing to do there but laze about on the beach, take an early morning swim in the company of Howler monkeys and tropical birds. There are scattered houses, cabinas, and small bars and restaurants along the beach, which seem to have always been there for the local people, and they have retained their humble and friendly look.
The little town of Matapalo is a couple of kilometers on the main Pacific Road; therefore many travelers bypass the beach. Going south, the beach finishes in a dead end with the small Rio Portalon. Because there is no development, the wildlife is still there to be admired: Toucans, Howler Monkeys, Iguanas, Red Macaws, White Faced Monkeys, Sloths and even some small wild cats.
Fishing is extremely rewarding in Matapalo; Snappers reaching as much as 30 pounds are not uncommon. The mouth of the Rio Portalon is the local’s favorite spot. Horseback riding is another possibility and tours can be organized, either along the beach or inside the surrounding forests, where beautiful fresh waterfalls are hidden.
Matapalo gives an insight of what Costa Rica really means, in a country where development is racing and pristine beaches are becoming harder to find. In 2003, it was awarded the Blue Flag Award with two stars; the Blue Flag is only offered to beaches in Costa Rica that are clean and ecologically sound.
The surf there is good but this is not a guarantee, and luck is a major factor. Swimming, however, is always wonderful. There is no national park to visit, and there aren’t any five star restaurants or hotels, but rum in a coconut on the beach will do nicely. A simple meal of fried fish and rice and beans while watching a magnificent sunset in quiet surrounding is sometimes all that is needed. Surrender to the slow Latin pace, Manana is another day! Beware; you may not want to leave as soon as planned.
Matapalo is easy to reach by road. You will cross a couple of small bridges, and traffic is low. Coming from Dominical, take the Manuel Antonio road, and once you pass Hacienda Baru, you know that you are almost there.