Planning Your Time
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- Costa Rica’s Unique Retreats & Resorts
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- Off-The-Beaten-Path Eco-Adventures
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You could well spend two weeks touring the highlands, but for most folks three or four days should prove sufficient. Ideally you’ll want your own car, although tour operators in San José offer excursions. Don’t underestimate the time it can take to move between destinations: Roads are convoluted and signage is poor. Touring the highlands en route to another region makes sense; choose your destinations accordingly.
West of San José, the town of Escazú melds quaint historical charm with a cosmopolitan vibe and offers some of the nation’s finest dining, plus nightspots that draw the youth from San José. Nearby, and long a staple of the tourist circuit, the Butterfly Farm will teach you all about butterfly lore, while the Andalusian horse show at Rancho San Miguel is breathtaking.
Northwest of San José, two must-sees are Poás Volcano National Park, where you can peer into the bowels of a living volcano, and La Paz Waterfall Gardens. The drive up the mountain slopes is tremendously scenic, although the same can be said for any journey into the mountains. If heading for Ciudad Quesada, Highway 141 will deliver you via the World of Snakes, the crafts town of Sarchí (to be avoided on weekends, when tour buses crowd in), and the delightful village of Zarcero, renowned for the topiary in the church plaza.
From here, nature lovers might make the side trip to Bajos del Toro and its Bosque de Paz Rain/Cloud Forest Biological Reserve. Alternatively, the fast (perhaps too fast) Highway 1 speeds you westward via La Garita for the Botanical Orchid Garden and a few hours at Zoo Ave, the nation’s finest zoo. Travelers heading to La Fortuna might consider hiking in Los Ángeles Cloud Forest Reserve and, for active adventurers, an adrenaline-packed ride through the forest at the San Lorenzo Canopy Tour.
Heredia, north of San José, is appealing for its colonial-era cathedral and fortress. To learn about Costa Rica’s grano de oro (coffee), stop in at Café Britt near Heredia. Nearby, node:25386 link INBioparque] is a worthy place to learn about the nation’s diverse ecosystems, while the montane rainforests of Braulio Carrillo National Park offer tremendous hiking opportunities for the hale and hearty.
A less daunting, albeit longer, route to the Caribbean is via Cartago, worth a stop only for its Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels. If you’re planning on driving from San José to the summit of Irazú Volcano National Park, I recommend the scenic route via Rancho Redondo. Monumento Nacional Guayabo, east of Cartago, is a great bird-watching spot and of interest for anyone keen on pre-Columbian culture, while the colorful and varied Lankester Gardens thrills everyone fond of gardens.
A sojourn in the Orosi-Cachí Valley makes a thrilling scenic excursion, as do the rugged journey to the off-the-beaten-track hamlet of Moravia del Chirripó; a drive along the Ruta de Los Santos, which begins due south of San José; and the daunting drive to Cerro de la Muerte, from which you might visit Los Quetzales National Park or descend to San Gerardo de Dota to view quetzals.
Lastly, white-water enthusiasts can get their kicks on the Ríos Reventazón or Pacuare, offering tremendous opportunities for viewing wildlife, as does the easily accessed Tapantí–Macizo de la Muerte National Park.
© Christopher P. Baker from Moon Costa Rica, 8th Edition