San Jose, Costa Rica

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San Jose

Costa Rica has become synonymous with ecotourism travel, capturing the hearts of those interested in spectacular scenery (volcanoes to rainforests to beaches), biological diversity (100 species of frogs!) and adventure sports (river rafting, hiking, scuba diving, surfing, ziplining, for starters) that capitalize on the great outdoors. It’s amazing how many of these interests can be pursued from San Jose, a pleasant city that also serves as a base for many close-by excursions. The country’s capital offers visitors high-caliber hotels and first-rate guesthouses; sophisticated and informal restaurants; appealing artisan boutiques and the lively indoor market, Mercado Central. Additionally, the museums are top-rate: the National Museum, documenting Costa Rican history and culture from ancient to modern times; the Jade Museum, with the largest collection of pre-Columbian jade in the world; and the Gold Museum, displaying a glittering 1,800-piece collection of pre-Columbian gold.

San Jose sits in the Central Valley, a world of bucolic landscapes of green coffee estates, winding rivers and charming small towns such as Grecia, Sarchi and Zarcero. Here, day trips from the capital lead up a switchback road to a moonscape of craters atop Irazu Volcano; to the national park of Poas Volcano for a look down into its bubbling cauldron of magma; to Braulio Carrillo National Park for hiking, birding and riding high on the Rainforest Aerial Tram; and to touring the La Paz Waterfall Gardens or day cruising on the Gulf of Nicoya. Sure you can make just a day of white-water rafting on the Pacuare or Reventazon rivers, but the experience is at its best for those who tarry longer at say Pacuare Lodge or Hacienda Tayutic, then make a real vacation of it all and head for Arenal Volcano National Park, the multi-sport corner of the country, offering hiking, birdwatching, canopy tours, horseback riding, mountain biking, canyoning and caving. The quintessential nature adventure is a guided walk along the Hanging Bridges, and for the more relaxed tropical chill-out, area hotels—the Arenal Nayara and the Arenal Kioro, for instance—offer spa treatments and a deep soak in the thermal waters that spring out of the volcano. Also in this north-central region is the mist-enshrouded and marvelous Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve, a favorite among birdwatchers who come to spot 400 species, particularly the resplendent quetzal, and to chill out in lovely mountain lodges.