There are seven provinces in Costa Rica. The central part of the country is divided between four smaller provinces that share many common geographical features, attractions and climate. The three remaining provinces are spread along both coastlines.
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Central Valley (San Jose, Alajuela, Heredia, Cartago)
The Central Valley is known as the heart of the country with San José, the seat of government and culture, located here. About two-thirds of the population live in and around the long-time capital, providing it with rich heritage, vibrant nightlife and a variety of museums, restaurants and theaters. San José manages to remain cosmopolitan without succumbing to the overcrowding, pollution and traffic problems that plague so many other capital cities in Central America.
The majority of the expatriate community lives in the Central Valley, as it is home to the larger foreign companies and the Costa Rican government offices, as well as having the most reliable phone and internet service in the country. The Central Valley typically enjoys moderate temperatures compared to the extreme heat of the coastal areas.
The Central Valley is also home to the most popular tourist attractions in the country. Lake Arenal and its companion Arenal Volcano are only a few hours north of the capital city. This large lake is known for its fishing and windsurfing. Arenal Volcano may be the most spectacular, active volcano in the world, with nightly shows of glowing lava and ash.
Monteverde Cloud Forest Biological Reserve is now believed to be the country's second most popular tourist destination. The reserve, 17,000 hectares of pristine jungle, is home to a variety of unique plants and animals, and tour companies offer just as many ways to experience the forest reserve. Nature lovers can choose hikes, horseback rides, bird-watching tours, canopy tours and skywalks to view the resplendent quetzal bird, over 300 species of orchid and even the elusive golden toad.
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North Pacific Coast (Guanacaste)
The North Pacific Coast is exploding with tourist activity and is becoming one of the more expensive places to live in Costa Rica. Besides San José, the only other international airport in the country is located in Liberia, the capital of Guanacaste province. The airport is currently expanding its capacity to accommodate even more direct flights from the U.S., filled with tourists anxious to enjoy the long summer days on the beaches of the Pacific.
Another reason for the area's increasing popularity is the high-end developments planned for the Golfo de Papagayo area. The country's most expensive hotels are located here and more five-star resorts are under construction.
Those looking for a less expensive beach location on the Pacific will have no trouble finding it on the North Pacific Coast. Beaches like Playa Ocotal and Playas del Coco are havens for surfers, divers and those who just want to enjoy a sunny day on a spectacular beach.
The North Pacific has a hotter and drier climate than the rest of Costa Rica which encourages the large tropical dry forests that spread along the coast. These forests are home to a wide variety of animals, including many species of monkey. Marino las Baulas National Park, north of the city of Tamarindo, annually hosts thousands of leatherback sea turtles which come ashore to lay their eggs in this protected area.
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Central Pacific and Nicoya (Puntarenas - North)
Not surprisingly, the most popular destination in the country is also the most accessible from the capital and the Central Valley region. A short drive from San José toward the Pacific Coast puts you on some of the most stunning beaches and best surf in Central America. The beauty of the region is enhanced by the lush, green mountains in the background which provide a slightly cooler temperature and less humidity than the Caribbean coast or South Pacific regions.
The jewel of the Central Pacific region is Manuel Antonio National Park. Boasting a mix of rain forests, beaches and reefs, this park has something for everyone. The crystal clear water makes it ideal for snorkeling and the forests are home to a multitude of wildlife, including the rare Squirrel Monkey. The booming tourist town of Quepos, known as the sport fishing capital of the country, is a central base to use when visiting the park.
The Central Pacific region is also home to amazing surf breaks, including Playa Hermosa which hosts an international surfing competition each year. The nearby town of Jacó boasts a non-stop nightlife popular with younger tourists. But if you want your surf without so much disco, head to Dominical, a quieter tourist town with some of the best surf and seafood in Costa Rica.
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South Pacific and Osa (Puntarenas - South)
The South Pacific region, including the Osa Peninsula, remains underdeveloped and isolated due to its remote location, higher temperatures and large amounts of rainfall. Of course, this is exactly why people visit this region. The coastline hosts large, uninterrupted tracts of tropical rainforest dotted with secluded, uncrowded beaches.
The fact that few people bother to come to this area of Costa Rica doesn't mean that there isn't anything here to see. The rainforests host some of the world's most endangered species and habitats, which you can view while staying at one of the many ecolodges in the area. Divers and snorkelers should head to the underwater marine world off the Isla del Caño where, on any given day, you can view whales, turtles and rays swimming by.
A surfer's secret spots lies on the mainland just across from the Osa Peninsula. The beachfront town of Pavones is home to the longest left break in the world where experienced surfers can ride waves for over three minutes in ideal conditions. However, there is little else to do in Pavones except surf as the beach and riptide make swimming dangerous. For a more well-rounded surf vacation, head north a bit to Playa Zancudo, a black sand beach that is regarded by some as the best beach in Costa Rica.
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Caribbean Coast (Limón)
Crossing over to the Caribbean side of the country is a study in contrasts. The deep blue Pacific water and Spanish-European cuisine gives way to the turquoise water of the Caribbean and Creole cooking. Many of the people here are of Afro-Caribbean descent, brought to the country to work on the banana plantations, which is still a booming business today. In any town along the Limón coast, you'll hear reggae and calypso music in the streets, a strange mix of Spanish and English being spoken and be welcomed by dreadlocked Rastafarians. Visiting Puerto Limón, the provincial capital, is akin to being transported to another world; one that's completely different than San José.
Hot and humid for most of the year, this coast receives the most rainfall in the country. When the weather allows, sport enthusiasts enjoy the surf breaks, beaches and excellent sportfishing. Nature lovers flock to Tortuguero National Park, where sea turtles come to nest, and Cahuita National Park, home of the largest coral reef in the country.
The Caribbean Coast was cut off from the rest of the country until just a few decades ago when a highway was finally built between San José and Puerto Limón. Now, there's a thriving tourist industry but still many places to find a quiet spot on the beach.