7 Things to Know Before You Go To Costa Rica - United Hub

7 things to know before you go to Costa Rica

By Nick Harper

Squeezed in between the Pacific Ocean and Atlantic Ocean, wedged in between Nicaragua and Panama, the tiny republic of Costa Rica is a destination that should be towards the top of every traveler's bucket list. A land of almost unrivalled wildlife, volcanic scenery, adrenaline-fueled adventure and pristine white beaches, the Costa Rican saying of "pura vida," or “pure life," could not be more fitting.

Comparable in size to West Virginia, it's possible to see almost everything Costa Rica has to offer in a single visit – although one visit will never be enough. To help you get your bearings, here are seven key things to know before you arrive.

1. A tale of two cities

Costa Rica's big cities are small in number and population. Most travelers fly into the capital, San José, with a population of more than 330,000, and venture on from there. Located at the heart of the country, 'Chepe,' as the capital is affectionately known, appears unremarkable at first glance — a sprawl of concrete and noisy traffic. Stay a couple of days, however, and you'll find a city of historic neighborhoods full of contemporary art galleries, museums and fine cafés, restaurants and bars.

Your other option is to fly into the new Daniel Oduber Quiros International Airport in Liberia, with a population of around 60,000. This once-sleepy cowboy town has been reinvented as a modern-day tourism hub, but it's less a destination in which to dwell and more a jump-off point for exploring the Parque Nacional Rincon de la Vieja and the beaches of the Peninsula de Nicoya, both of which are highly recommended.

Hanging Bridge over Monteverde Cloud Forest

2. Get closer to nature

Most visitors flock to Costa Rica for its natural habitat. Nowhere in the world will you find so much diversity squeezed into such a tiny space. As much as 25 percent of the country is now protected by national reserves, with dense rainforests and dramatic cloud forests home to thousands of creatures both large and small. Of the many options, we suggest you prioritize the two below.

For lush tropical rainforests, head for Manuel Antonio National Park on the Pacific coast, taking trails through the forest to pristine beaches, past capuchin monkeys, iguanas and sloths. And for Costa Rica's best cloud forest, head further up the coast to Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve. Under constant cloud cover and across more than 35,000 acres, it's home to more than 100 species of mammals, 400 species of birds and 1,200 species of amphibians and reptiles. More impressive still, it's one of the few remaining habitats that support all six species of the cat family – jaguar, ocelot, margay, jaguarundi, puma and oncilla.

3. Eco-friendly accommodations

Costa Rica has been at the forefront of the sustainable tourism movement for many years, and its best accommodations come in the form of eco lodges – designed to have minimum impact on the natural environment in which they're located. This means the best places to stay are well away from the concrete cities. Of the many options dotted throughout the country, the five-star Lapa Rios is arguably the best. Set within a 1,000-acre private nature reserve in the Osa Peninsula, it boasts 17 bungalows with breathtaking views of the Pacific Ocean and the rainforest. Luna Nueva, La Cusinga and Finca Rosa Blanca Country Inn are just three other excellent alternatives among many.

Arenal Volcano, Costa Rica.

4. Go with the flow

Another of Costa Rica's biggest attractions are its volcanoes. More than 60 dot the landscape, most in the northern part of the country and in the Central Highlands, but only a handful of them remain active. Most tourists are drawn to Arenal Volcano, less than three hours north of San José. Arenal's conical peak rumbles and smokes, but since 2010 its explosions and lava flows have decreased significantly – it's considered to be alive but currently sleeping.

Even idle, Arenal is a sight to behold, and with its numerous hiking trails, hot springs, canopy walks and zip-lines through the treetops around it, its popularity is easily understood. Indeed, with 90 percent of the country's wildlife and 50 percent of its plant species living in the upper levels of the trees, taking a zip-line through the forest canopy is an essential experience.

5. Action and adventure

Blessed with two coasts, white-water rivers and the aforementioned volcanoes, Costa Rica offers rich pickings for adventure seekers. Zip-lining down the slopes of Arenal Volcano will have your heart beating faster, while the mountainous terrain and heavy rainfall combine to create perfect white-water rafting conditions – La Fortuna is just one standout stretch among many.

For a more sedate alternative, Arenal river tubing takes you through the heart of the North Central region's jungles, past a cast of crocodiles and caiman, kingfishers and iguanas. If you want to explore the deep blue depths, head across to the Caribbean coast to scuba dive and snorkel among the manta rays, manatees and whitetip sharks or surf the legendary Salsa Brava, translated as 'angry sauce'. As the name suggests, approach with great caution.

6. Sunshine and sand

Life shuffles by at a more leisurely pace on Costa Rica's two coasts, home to a seemingly endless array of breathtaking beaches. On the Pacific coast, Manuel Antonio is one of Costa Rica's most celebrated — with a rocky headland shielding the beach from powerful waves, making it a very family-friendly option. The same can be said about the soft sand that slopes gently into the ocean at Playa Flamingo.

For a livelier alternative, follow the crowds to Tamarindo in the northwestern province of Guanacaste, where surfers seek out the swells and the parties stretch long into the night. Playa Conchal, with its white sand and turquoise water, is a snorkeler's paradise and beautiful secret to all those in the know. Likewise, if you know to follow the unmarked dirt roads to Punta Uva on the Caribbean Coast, you'll be rewarded with pristine water, coral reefs, palm trees and a sense of supreme, smug solitude.

7. Party on

The fastest way to understand a new culture is by observing people in their natural habitat. Smaller festivals take place across Costa Rica throughout the year and offer a window into Los Ticos (an affectionate name for the people of Costa Rica). But, to truly immerse yourself, consider one of the main events. Fiestas Zapote takes place in December in San José and features rodeos, fair rides and bull fighting.

Limón Carnival takes place in October in the port city of Limón and is a smaller-scale version of Rio's Carnival — a riot of costumes, floats and flamboyance. Fiestas Palmares, in the town of the same name, is Costa Rica's biggest cowboy party, with a two-week celebration of rodeos, carnival rides and beer.

And Fiestas de los Diablitos takes place in two indigenous communities, Boruca and Rey Curre, in December and February, respectively. There, the villagers don masks and costumes symbolizing ancestral spirits and reenact victory over the Spanish conquistadors.

Getting there

United Airlines flies to two locations in Costa Rica; the capital San José (SJO) and Liberia (LIR). For more details and to book, visit united.com or use the United app.

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