Costa Rica Travel Guide
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San José
San José, the Capital of Costa Rica, located at 1149 m above sea level, maintains an average all year round temperature of 24°C and is home to the main museums and cultural centers. This is where you might spend your first night before embarking on the unforgettable experience of discovering the natural beauty this small country has to offer.

The National Theater
San José's foremost architectural showpiece, the National Theater is a source of pride to Costa Ricans everywhere. Inaugurated on October 19, 1897 with a performance of "Faust" by the Paris Opera Company, the building's origins date to 1890 when the Italian opera singer, Angela Pelati, gave a number of performances in Guatemala but refused to come to Costa Rica due to the lack of a proper theater. The members of the country's coffee elite proposed that a theater be built in San José to correct this situation and agreed to contribute five centavos per exported sack of coffee to finance the construction.

National Museum
Best known for the variety of pre-Columbian artifacts on permanent display, the National Museum also has exhibits dedicated to Costa Rican religious art and the history of the country since the Spanish conquest. The building itself has historic significance since it was once a military fortress and after the abolishment of the army, following the Revolution of 1948, was converted into the museum.

Gold Museum
Operated by the Central Bank of Costa Rica, this museum houses an extensive collection of pre-Columbian gold in which the level of artistry achieved by native craftsman working with this precious metal is easily appreciated.

Jade Museum
Although the numerous pre-Columbian jade pieces on display are among the most impressive anywhere, the museum also features excellent examples of indigenous craftsmanship in stone, ceramics, and gold. Housed on the 11th floor of the National Insurance Company (INS) building, the view of the city and surrounding mountains is an added attraction to a visit to this museum.

Costa Rican Art Museum
Rotating selections from the permanent collection together with temporary exhibitions showcase the artwork of Costa Rican painters and sculptors in a building that was once an airport terminal. The Sabana Metropolitan Park which stretches west behind the museum was formerly the international airport landing strip in the days prior to jet planes.

Children's Museum
Many hands-on exhibits designed to make learning fun are a highlight of this museum which brings science, culture and history to life (or at least nearly so through the use of robotized Costa Rican personalities). One of the country's newest museums (inaugurated in 1994), it occupies what was once a prison.

Cerro de la Muerte
Along this approximately 50-kilometer stretch of the PanAmerican Highway, one can see practically all of the country's highland flora and fauna, thus making a drive across Cerro de la Muerte like visiting Mount Chirripó, but without all the strenuous effort. To the North American who is familiar with the vegetation back home, many plants along the Cerro will look familiar. There are alders, blueberries (not a very juicy variety), gooseberries, lady's slippers, Indian paintbrush, giant thistles, and St. John's worts. Nonetheless, botanical surveys of the area show an even stronger affinity with Andean flora.

Los Cusingos Neotropical Bird Sanctuary (Dr. Skutch's farm)
This small forest reserve has been the private home of Dr. Alexander F. Skutch since 1941. When Dr. Skutch first purchased the land, the cleared area around the house was one of the few clearings in the entire valley of San Isidro del General. By the close of the 20th century, his property has become one of the last remaining forested patches in this now agricultural landscape, where he and his wife live much as they did when they first settled the land -- without motor vehicles, electricity, or telephones.

El Rodeo Forest Reserve
Almost 400 hectares of forest still remain on this large cattle ranch in the southwestern corner of the Central Valley. The forest is not all in one block, however, but scattered about the property in patches of varied sizes. Some of the larger sections are across from the old hacienda building and beyond the United Nations University for Peace (the Costa Rican campus of this prestigious institution is also located within El Rodeo land). You have to cross some pasture to get to these forests. Another alternative is taking the gravel road to the right just before reaching the University for Peace and following it down towards the community of Piedras Negras, stopping whenever you come to some forested portions.

Simón Bolivar National Zoological Park
This small zoo is operated by the National Park Service, and although it is not on a par with modern zoos in more developed countries, it does provide an opportunity to view numerous species of native wildlife that are not all that easily seen in the wild, even after a week or two of walking trails through different national parks.

Monteverde
This small community in northwestern Costa Rica was founded by Quakers in 1951 and is now a popular and interesting destination for both local and international visitors. The small town of Santa Elena is the closest settlement to the Monteverde cloud-forest reserve but the road leading from the town's center to the reserve is clustered with attractions including the butterfly garden, the serpentarium, a cheese factory, a and number of art galleries.

Pacific Beaches
If you've seen one too many macaws, you can swim or relax on one of Costa Rica's beaches. The Pacific coast has a pleasing mixture of luxury resorts and deserted beaches. Golfito is on the southern Pacific coast, tucked in a small bay off Golfo Dulce and is an important port and jumping-off point for the region's fantastic beaches. Heading northeast from the town, the coast features numerous remote coves, with jungle-lodge accommodations and virgin rain forest backdrop. The coastal Parque Nacional Corcovado, on the Península de Osa, has a huge colony of scarlet macaws. Beaches worth pausing at include Playa Cativo, Playa Zancudo (claimed by the locals to be the best swimming beach) and Pavones (which has some of the best Pacific surf).

Arenal Volcano National Park
Arenal Volcano, Costa RicaArenal has been a dormant strato-volcano. Young deposits were of the slopes of the volcano but it had not erupted in historic time. Arenal's status changed dramatically in July of 1968. An explosive eruption produced hot avalanches and ejected blocks that devastated the west flank of the volcano and killed 78 people. Arenal has been continuously active since 1968. It rises 1,633 meters above sea level and casts an almost flawless silhouette on the land below it. Arenal's last explosion was in 1969 but this volcano is far from dormant. Its constant rumblings are Arenal's most popular characteristics. Often spewing ash and smoke, the volcano provides a striking backdrop for photographs and video. There are several excellent look out points along the highway and several resorts and spas that have developed in the area. Starting point for all excursions is the picturesque town of La Fortuna, located about 8 km east of the volcano. Most of the hotels and lodges are situated along the road between La Fortuna and the Arenal Volcano National Park.

Caribbean Coast
The Caribbean has more cultural diversity than the Pacific coast. Half of this coastal area is protected by national parks and wildlife refuges, which has slowed development and the building of access roads, making it an especially verdant place to get away from it all. The main city is Puerto Limón, which has a tropical park teeming with flowers and sloths. Parque Nacional Tortuguero is the most important Caribbean breeding ground of the green sea turtle and has plenty of birds, monkeys and lizards. The Creole beach paradise of Cahuita has a nearby national park with attractive beaches, coral reef and coastal rain forest. Bribrí culture can be experienced in the surfing mecca of Puerto Viejo de Talamanca. Handicrafts, reggae, homestays and cultural tours make Puerto Viejo an especially interesting destination.

Environment

Costa Rica is bordered to the north by Nicaragua and to the southeast by Panama. It has both a Caribbean and a Pacific coast. A series of volcanic mountain chains runs from the Nicaraguan border to the Panamanian border, splitting the country in two. In the centre of these ranges is a high-altitude plain, with coastal lowlands on either side. Over half the population lives on this plain, which has fertile volcanic soils. The Caribbean coast is 212km (131mi) long and is characterised by mangroves, swamps and sandy beaches. The Pacific coast is much more rugged and rocky, and, thanks to a number of gulfs and peninsulas, is a tortuous 1016km (630mi) long.

The country's biodiversity attracts nature lovers from all over the world; its tropical forests contain 1500 tree species. National parks cover almost 12% of the country, and forest reserves and indigenous reservations boost the protected land area to 27%.

Costa Rica's jungles provide a variety of habitats for the country's fauna including four types of monkey, sloths, armadillos, jaguars and tapirs.The primary attraction for many visitors is the 850 recorded bird species, which include the resplendent quetzal, indigo-capped hummingbirds, macaws and toucans. There are also a number of dazzling butterflies.

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