For big savings, think small: Costa Rica

Special to The Times

TOURISM is booming in Costa Rica. Many Americans want to visit the Central American country, but they don’t know what to see or do there.

Visitors fly into the capital city of San Jose (home of the area’s only international airport) and stay overnight. They then choose among four locations that feature superb beaches or mountain scenery and wildlife.

Monteverde, the “Green Mountain,” is among the latter. At once remote and connected (a four-hour drive northwest of San Jose), it’s best known for its “cloud forest” reserve, a jungle cloaked in a misty humidity that makes it amazingly fecund and otherworldly. You’ll want to hire a guide to help you spot wildlife, such as howler monkeys, sloths and the legendary blue-and-green quetzal bird. Admission plus guide is $28 per person.

Other attractions include an insect museum, a serpentarium, a butterfly enclosure, hummingbird feeding grounds, suspended bridges that let you stroll above the treetops. Scattered about are more than 60 hotels, all with 100 rooms or fewer and rarely costing more than $70 or $80 for a standard double.


The Arenal Volcano, next in preference, is more accessible from San Jose than Monteverde (three hours on gentler roads). Its main lure is the nighttime show put on by the high-altitude caldron. The volcanic activity has given rise to landscaped hot springs and baths. And there’s the usual panoply of horseback riding, caving, canopy tours and trams, with the added twists of windsurfing, rafting and boating on Lake Arenal. In the town down the hill, La Fortuna, are several blocks of inexpensive lodgings where rents for presentable rooms start at $35 for a double.

Manuel Antonio is another treat. It’s Costa Rica’s original Pacific Ocean beach town, and although the coast farther north, in Guanacaste, has become better known and increasingly colonized by condos and big resorts, I prefer this popular getaway, which is a three-hour drive from San Jose. It boasts a national park with powdery sands, lovely islets and lots of wildlife (especially squirrel monkeys); resorts that are intimate rather than overbearing; and a spectacular setting amid forested hills. The surrounding area offers plenty of adventures, including rafting and canopy tours. The best budget accommodations are in the neighboring town of Quepos.

And finally, the beaches at Limon -- on the Gulf of Mexico -- don’t get nearly the attention the Pacific side does. Yet down here you’ll find beautiful, unspoiled sands (some with superb surfing); eco-tourism opportunities such as excursions to see giant sea turtles lay their eggs in the sand; funky little beach towns and nighttime cafes; and above all, the fascinating mosaic of Latin, Afro-Caribbean and Indian cultures. The main town is the laid-back Puerto Viejo, a 3 1/2 -hour drive from San Jose, where lodgings tend to be cheaper (and simpler) than at other tourism centers in the country.