There is little to see in town. The small Southern Regional Museum (Calle 2, Avenida 1, tel. 506/2771-5273, 8 a.m.–noon and 1–4:30 p.m. Mon.–Fri., free) tells the story of the local indigenous peoples. More impressive, the modernist concrete cathedral on the east side of the plaza has lovely stained-glass windows.a.
This 142-hectare bird sanctuary (contact the Centro Científico Tropical, tel. 506/2253-3267, cusingosreservation [at] cct [dot] or [dot] cr, www.cct.or.cr , 7 A.M.–4 P.M. Mon.–Sat., 7 A.M.–1 P.M. Sun., $10), in Quizarrá de Pérez Zeledón, is on the lower slopes of Chirripó, near the small community of Santa Elena, 15 kilometers southeast of San Isidro. The former home of the late Dr. Alexander Skutch (co-author with Gary Stiles of Birds of Costa Rica), now lies within the Alexander Skutch Biological Corridor.
Run by the Tropical Science Center, the reserve is surrounded by primary forest, home to more than 300 bird species. You can tour Skutch’s simple clapboard home, retained as it was when he and his wife lived here. Skutch is buried in a simple tomb of raised earth. An hour-long trail, muddy and slippery in parts, leads to a rock carved with pre-Columbian petroglyphs.
You get there via General Viejo (5 km east of San Isidro from the San Gerardo de Rivas road, then south for Peñas Blancas) or from Highway 2 via Peñas Blancas  (then north for General Viejo). Turn east for Quizarrá–Santa Elena, two kilometers north of Peñas Blancas, then follow the signs for Quizarrá.
La Gran Vista Agro-ecological Farm (tel. 506/8924-8983, www.lagranvista.com ), at El Peje de Repunta, 15 kilometers south of San Isidro, teaches sustainable agricultural practices to local farmers. It relies on travelers for volunteer labor. Accommodation is in dorms ($20 pp, including all meals) with hot showers. A minimum weeklong stay is recommended.
La Ribera Centro Ecológico (tel. 506/2737-0004, www.lariberaecoturismo.com ) is at Mollejones de Plantaneres, 22 kilometers south of San Isidro, on the road to Pejibaye. It has waterfalls, a tropical forest, and natural swimming holes as well as hand-built swimming pools and a restaurant. It’s a popular weekend destination for locals.
Finca Ipe (www.fincaipe.com ) is a self-supporting commune on a 12-hectare farm, 20 kilometers west of San Isidro. You can volunteer (a two-month minimum is required; from $300 for 30 nights); five hours of labor a day is expected. Free time grants a chance for hiking, horseback riding, or yoga. Nearby, at San Antonio de Pejibaye, you can swim in pools at the base of the Cataratas Namú (tel. 506/8345-2952, www.cataratasnamu.com ) waterfall.
Finca Tres Semillas Mountain Inn (tel. 506/8371-5869, www.experiencecostarica.org , $60 pp including meals, $25 students, $20 volunteers including meals) is about 35 kilometers northwest of town, in the Río División valley. At this organic farm, you can volunteer to teach English to local children through hands-on activities, including on the farm and in the kitchen. The kids (and you) learn about organic farming and sustainable living practices in an experiential setting. It adjoins the Los Santos Forest Reserve, perfect for nature hikes and horseback rides.
The town comes alive late January and early February for its Fiesta Cívica, when agricultural fairs, bullfights, and general festivities occur. The best time to visit, however, is May 15, for the Día del Boyero, featuring a colorful oxcart parade.
The upstairs open-air Restaurante Bar La Cascada (tel. 506/2771-6479) is the local gathering spot of choice. Hotel del Sur Country Club (tel. 506/771-3033, fax 506/771-0527) has a casino. On weekends, dance-happy Ticos flock to Disco Scorpio (tel. 506/2771-4015), on the highway about two kilometers south of town. It also has a karaoke bar.
In town, the best option for budget hounds is the Hotel/Restaurante Chirripó (tel. 506/2771-0529, fax 506/2771-0410, $12 s or $17 d shared bath, $18 s or $25 d private bath), on the southwest side of the square, offering 41 minimally furnished rooms; some have fans and shared bathrooms, while air-conditioned rooms have TVs and even WiFi. It also has a pleasing outdoor restaurant.
The Hotel El Valle (Calle 2, Avenida 0, tel. 506/2771-0246), one block west of the square, is a similarly priced alternative. Again, you pay a premium for air-conditioning, private bath, and TV.
A better bet is the modern Hotel y Restaurante San Isidro (tel. 506/2770-3444, www.hotelsanisidro.com , $20 s, $35 d), two kilometers south of town. Centered on a two-story atrium, it has 75 smallish air-conditioned rooms modestly furnished with contemporary decor, fans, cable TV, clean bathrooms with hot water, and WiFi. Nothing to write home about, but sufficient for a night passing through town. It has an Internet café, secure parking, and a lap pool.
The bargain-priced class act in town is the Hotel Diamante Real (Calle 4, Avenida 3, tel. 506/2770-6230, http://on.fb.me/gy7YhR , $40 s/d standard, $50 suite, $60 deluxe), which offers elegant art deco furniture and beautiful bathrooms, some with whirlpool tubs. Its restaurant is San Isidro’s finest.
If the Diamante Real is full, consider Hotel Los Crestones (Calle Central, Avenidas 10/12, tel. 506/2770-1200, www.hotelloscrestones.com , $31 s or $43 d with fan, $36 s or $52 d with a/c), a tranquil three-story property done up in a complementary cream-and-green color scheme, with tasteful rattan furniture. It has 17 rooms with cable TV, balconies festooned with climbing plants, and modern bathrooms.
The other hotel in this price bracket—Hotel del Sur Country Club & Casino (tel. 506/771-3033, fax 506/771-0527), six kilometers south of San Isidro—is popular with businessfolk but is less appealing, despite having a pool, tennis, and a casino.
At Finca Tres Semillas Mountain Inn (tel. 506/8371-5869, www.experiencecostarica.org , $60 pp including meals, $25 students, $20 volunteers including meals), outside town, Tamara Newton and Geraldo Saenz welcome guests seeking a genuine Costa Rican experience. Their ecolodge is a simple but charming four-person bungalow in campesino (country farmer) style.
Larger parties can be accommodated at the nearby Buenaventura Eco-Lodge (tel. 506/8884-6560, www.buenaventura-ecoadventurelodge.com , closed Sept.–Nov.), with a three-bedroom hostel ($40 pp), a small cabin ($75 s/d), and one- and two-bedroom bungalows ($100 s/d) on a 180-acre riverfront property. Feeling adventurous? Opt for a fully equipped mountaintop tent ($125 s, $150 d including three delivered meals) on a summit with spectacular views. It primarily caters to “theme” groups, including Burning Man Camps, so expect some wild and wacky times. It’s a rugged drive over fog-bound mountain ridges to get here, and not easy to find either! Check the website for driving directions.
You can eat cheaply at sodas at the Mercado Central, adjoining the bus station.
The Restaurant Chirripó (tel. 506/2771-0529, 7 A.M.–10 P.M. daily), on the south side of the plaza, is recommended for breakfast and casados (set lunches). For lunch, I gravitate next door to Taquería México Lindo (tel. 506/2771-8222, 9:30 A.M.–8 P.M. Mon.–Sat., $2–10), where a Mexican cook produces the real enchilada, plus burritos and other dishes. Be sure to try the coconut and vanilla flans.
The always packed and lively Bar Restaurante La Cascada (Avenida 2, Calle 2, tel. 506/2771-6479, 11 A.M.–midnight daily), with an open-air terrace, has a reasonably priced international menu.
Bazookas (on the Pan-American Hwy., tel. 506/2771-4065), gets great reviews for its clean and cozy ambience, tasty local and continental fare, and good service. It makes a pretty good burger. One block south, Delji (tel. 506/2771-7070) serves roast chicken (KFC-style); it has two other outlets in town.
Avenida 8 between Calles 0/2 has a fistful of good options, including Pizzería Primaveras (tel. 506/2772-1975, 10:30 A.M.–10:30 P.M. Thurs.–Tues.) for tasty pizzas. Next door, Café Deliciosa (tel. 506/2771-0476, 8 A.M.–7 P.M. Mon.–Sat.) has a patio for enjoying baked goods, cappuccinos, and espressos.
My favorite spot, however, is Valley Coffee (tel. 506/2771-1738, 7 A.M.–7 P.M. Mon.–Sat.), a clean, modern, well-lit coffee shop owned by the local coffee cooperative. It has an inviting ambience for enjoying combo breakfasts, salads, sandwiches, crepes, tiramisu, cheesecake, and coffee drinks such as ice cream mocha. It has WiFi.
For a bohemian ambience, I prefer Kafé de la Casa (Avenida 3 at Calle 4, tel. 506/2770-4816, 6 A.M.–9 P.M. Mon.–Fri., 6 A.M.–7 P.M. Sat., 8 A.M.–5 P.M. Sun.), housed in a charming wooden colonial home.
Musmanni bakery has outlets three blocks southwest of the plaza and at Avenida 0, Calles 0/2. The Feria del Productor (Avenida 6, Calles 3/5, tel. 506/2771-8292, 3:30 A.M.–10 P.M. Wed.–Thurs., 6 A.M.–2 P.M. Fri.) farmers market is perhaps the best-organized market in Costa Rica; more than 300 farmers sell their fresh produce.
Musoc buses (tel. 506/2222-2422) depart Calle Central, Avenida 22, in San José  hourly 5:30 A.M.–5:30 P.M., plus express service at 1 P.M. and 4 P.M. Return buses (tel. 506/771-0414) depart from Highway 2 at the junction of Avenida 0 in San Isidro 5:30 A.M.–5:30 P.M.
Tracopa (tel. 506/2221-4214) buses depart Calle 5, Avenidas 18/20 in San José 14 times daily, 5 A.M.–6:30 P.M.; returning 5 P.M.–8:30 P.M.
The regional bus station in San Isidro is at Calle Central and Avenidas 4/6. Transportes Blanco (tel. 506/2771-2550) buses depart for San Isidro from both Quepos  and Dominical  five times daily; from Puerto Jiménez  at 1 P.M.; from San Vito  four times daily; and from Uvita  at 6 A.M. and 1:45 P.M.
Buses depart San Isidro for Dominical at 7 A.M., 9 A.M., 1:30 P.M., and 4 P.M.; for Puerto Jiménez at 6:30 A.M.; for Quepos at 7 A.M., 9 A.M., 1:30 P.M., and 4 P.M.; for San Gerardo de Rivas at 5:30 A.M. and 4:30 P.M.; for San Vito at 5:45 A.M., 8:15 A.M., 11:30 A.M., and 2:45 P.M.; and for Uvita at 9 A.M. and 4 P.M.