Lonely Planet's top 10 natural beauties of Costa Rica
A brilliant green hummingbird stops for a rest in Monteverde Cloud Forest. (Damien Turski/LPI)
There are other countries in the world that enjoy divinely inspired natural landscapes, but Costa Rica boasts a higher biodiversity than Europe and the United States combined. Its small size also means that travelling from cloud forest to coastline and from summit to savanna is quick, easy and a matter of course. Here are the top 10 natural beauties of Costa Rica.
This iconic cloud forest was first settled by a community of Quakers who sought to protect their invaluable watershed. Home to such rare fauna as the resplendent quetzal, which is the Maya bird of paradise, Monteverde is partly responsible for Costa Rica's international fame as an ecotourism hot spot where you can be inspired about the possibilities of organic farming and alternative energy sources.
2. Manuel Antonio
One of the country's original ecotourism destinations, Manuel Antonio practically put Costa Rica on the map for international jet-setters. While the secret has long been let out, capuchin monkeys bounding across a tropical beach remain an arresting sight, as are iguanas, howlers, sloths and squirrel monkeys, which may be the cutest fur balls you have ever seen.
Manuel Antonio is a coconut-filled paradise. The park's clearly marked trail system winds through rainforest-backed tropical beaches and rocky headlands, and the views across the bay to the pristine outer islands are unforgettable.
Arenal has been producing menacing ash columns, massive explosions and streamers of glowing molten rock almost daily since 1968. Miraculously, the volcano has retained its picture-perfect conical shape despite constant volcanic activity, though its slopes are now ashen instead of green. In the shadow of Arenal, there is something for everybody including luxurious hotels, romantic restaurants and Tabacón Hot Springs, man's recreation of the Garden of Eden.
Famously labeled by National Geographic as "the most biologically intense place on earth", this national park is the last great original tract of tropical rainforest in Pacific Central America. The bastion of biological diversity is home to Costa Rica's largest population of scarlet macaws, as well as countless other endangered species, including Baird's tapir, the giant anteater and the world's largest bird of prey, the harpy eagle. Corcovado's amazing biodiversity has long attracted a devoted stream of visitors who descend from Bahía Drake and Puerto Jiménez to explore the remote location and spy on a wide array of wildlife.
A laid-back, budget beach town with a hippie vibe (locals call it "Montefuma"), beautiful beaches, a chill atmosphere and great restaurants. It is the perfect base for exploring the southern part of the Península de Nicoya.
Up until the late 1990s a traffic jam in Montezuma was getting off your bike to shoo some cows off the road. Montezuma is still a charming village, and foreign travelers continue to be drawn here by the laid-back atmosphere, cheap hotels and sprawling beaches. And while nothing ever stays the same, Montezuma has managed to hang on to its tranquil appeal.
There is a loyal surfing contingent, resident North American expats and international developers who bill Jacó as the ultimate central Pacific destination and one of the country's most rapidly developing cities. Truth be told, the surfing is excellent, the restaurants and bars are cosmopolitan, and a skyline of future high-rise apartments and luxury hotels is rapidly being constructed. While it could not be classified as the "real" Costa Rica, it is fun. There may be better surf spots and cleaner beaches, but its bar, restaurant and club scene is the best you will find along the entire Pacific coast.
7. Cahuita and Puerto Viejo de Talamanca
By day, lounge in a hammock, snorkel off uncrowded beaches and visit the remote indigenous territories of the Bribrí and KéköLdi. By night, dip into zesty Caribbean cooking and sway to reggaetón at open-air bars cooled by ocean breezes. Nearby, you will find rainforest fruit farms set to a soundtrack of cackling birds and croaking frogs. The villages of Cahuita and Puerto Viejo de Talamanca seem to have it all.
Watch endangered sea turtles practice the millennia-old ritual of building a nest and laying their eggs on wild black-sand shores in this charming Caribbean jungle town. Tortuguero is more than just turtles; it is thick with wildlife, and you will find sloths and howler monkeys in the treetops, tiny frogs and green iguanas scurrying among buttress roots, and mighty tarpon and endangered manatee swimming in the waters.
A permanently chilled-out beach town where time slows down to a crawl, Dominical has a way of forestalling your future plans. But when the surf is crashing and the sun is blazing, few travelers seem to really care.
10. Llanos de Cortés
If you have time to visit only one waterfall in Costa Rica, make it Llanos de Cortés. One of the most dramatic waterfalls in Costa Rica, it cascades into a tranquil pond with a white sandy beach. Scramble behind the falls with your sweetie to reach romantic nooks veiled by curtains of water.