Costa Rica may be renowned as a compact country that’s easy to explore yet the diverse topography means that you will discover an immense diversity as you travel through the country. So, if there is something very specific you have in mind, it is a great idea to have an overview of what each province has to offer to experience the best of Costa Rica.
Here is your guide to Discover the Best Costa Rica – Province by Province.
Overview of Costa Rica Provinces
Each province in the country boasts a capital city bearing the same name. These towns don’t just make for brilliant base points from which to explore further but they also offer a glimpse of the country’s culture and history. Although ‘nature’ certainly takes center stage all over the country – with most visitors simply wishing to spend as much time as possible in one of the many revered national parks – spending a few days in the main towns, to meet locals, get a sense of the Pura Vida philosophy for which the country is beloved, visiting museums and enjoying the local cuisines are all very rewarding experiences.
San Jose – The Central Valley
The greater province of San Jose is arguably the most developed region of all, boasting highways and great tourist infrastructure. This central region also boasts the highest population density in the country although the moment you step away from the city’s outskirts you’ll mainly see villages and settlements and not large cities, as such. San Jose is very fertile and boasts many ranches and coffee plantations, amongst its luscious verdant hills. The province is actually quite extensive and covers just under five million hectares of stunning lowlands and steep volcanoes, stretching from the capital city, which is in the northern border, all the way south past Uvita. The highlights of San Jose Province are the Chirripo National Park (with Mt Chirripo offering excellent options for volcano and mountain climbing – read more about Chirripo permits before visiting) Los Quetzales National Park (comprising cloud forests set amidst the high peaks of the Talamanca Mountains – a protected home for the magnificent quetzal bird) and La Cangreja National Park, home to an impressive number of migratory birds and beloved by bird enthusiasts. All three major parks offer an array of hiking options. Due to the sheer variety of activities, ease of access and great infrastructure and accommodation options, the San Jose Province is perfect for honeymooners, families and active tourists alike. Most especially those who are limited on time.
Alajuela – The volcanic hub of the north
North of San Jose Province, Alajuela reaches to the border with Nicaragua and boasts four of the country’s biggest highlights: the Arenal Volcano National Park, La Fortuna Waterfall, La Paz Waterfalls Garden and the Poas Volcano National Park, the latter boasting one of the largest volcanic craters in the world. The region’s capital is the second-largest city in Costa Rica and is also renowned as an enticing cultural hub, yet it’s the natural highlights of the province which demand the most attention. Fantastic thermal springs and endless hiking options suit active and less-active travelers. Poas, in particular, boasts very easy walking trails which lead to breathtaking viewpoints, so if you want to soak up the views but not overdo it, this is a great park to visit. Take note, parents! With the sheer abundance of waterfalls, thermal springs, hiking and mountain biking options, as well as canyoning, ziplining, kayaking, whitewater rafting, horseback riding and more, Alajuela is perfect for an adventure vacation in Costa Rica.
Guanacaste – The northwestern Pacific coast
The beach hub of Tamarindo is the epicenter of Guanacaste’s seaside fun and attracts families and honeymooners as well as surfing buffs and snorkelers. Extensive stretches of idyllic white-sand beaches and warm waters teeming with underwater life are the calling cards of the northern half of Guanacaste, whilst the south boasts wonders like the Las Baulas Marine National Park and Rincon de la Vieja National Park, among quite a few others. The absolute must-visit province for beach lovers, Guanacaste offers endless coastal adventures mixed in with enough mountainous destinations, volcanoes and wildlife-brimming forests to make it an unparalleled all-rounder. This region covers the northern half of the Nicoya Peninsula, revered for its untouched wilderness and lack of crowds. Brimming with wildlife reserves, postcard-perfect beaches and kaleidoscope of adventures in drop-dead-gorgeous forests, Guanacaste is ideal if you want a taste of all that Costa Rica has to offer.
Puntarenas – the central and southern Pacific coast
Puntarenas follows the western coastline of Costa Rica, starting from the Gulf of Papagayo in the north (and covering the southern half of the Nicoya Peninsula) and stretching all the way south to the border with Panama. Narrow yet extensive, Puntarenas is the most diverse in terms of accommodation choices, with a vast array of luxurious resorts on the northern coast of the mainland. Among the many attractions of this very extensive province are the Manuel Antonio National Park (the most visited in the whole country), the spellbinding Monteverde Cloud Forest and the Corcovado National Park in the Osa Peninsula, one of the remotest and least developed nature reserves of all. For water-based activities, you really can’t go past Puntarenas, with the region’s best beaches home to surfing camps and a host of beachside fun, like SUP, kayaking, snorkeling and diving. If you have more time and an adventurous spirit, don’t miss a chance to visit Corcovado, a treasure of nature that’s brimming with an impressive cache of wildlife. Head south during whale migration season and you can enjoy one of the most unforgettable Costa Rica experiences of all.
Cartago – The central valley and eastern volcanic hub
East of Puntarenas and bordering the San Jose Province, Cartago joins the latter in comprising the remainder of the Central Valley. A thrilling destination for active tourists, Cartago is home to Irazu and Turrialba volcanoes and shares an entry into Chirripo National Park. Irazu is one of the most active volcanoes in the country and a very popular destination, with plenty of hiking options available. The mountainous topography of Cartago lends itself well to adventure tours and it is right here that the mighty Pacuare River originates. The Pacuare is the base for our thrilling whitewater rafting and kayaking tours which we run from the Limon Province, just to the east.
Heredia – A small northern pocket of unexplored wilderness
An often-overlooked province due to its remoteness and lack of infrastructure, Heredia takes up the northern fringes of the country and is tucked right between the Alajuela and Limon provinces. Mostly wild and inaccessible, Heredia is home to the stunning Braulio Carrillo National Park, one of the least visited but most impressive parks in the entire country. The park boasts a brilliant eco-friendly cable-car which gets you into the rainforest with very little effort, and is home to the vertiginous Barva volcano, a stratovolcano complex which stands at a breathtaking 9500 feet. The hike up the volcano is challenging yet immensely rewarding and attracts active visitors looking for loads of adventure in the heart of a splendid and lesser-visited national park. Despite the remoteness of the province, the volcano is only a short drive north of San Jose so super easy to access, even if you’re short on time.
Limon – The unspoiled Caribbean coastal hub
Aside from a sensational array of adventures, Limon is also home to some of the country’s most magnificent parks, including Tortuguero National Park, one of the world’s most precious turtle nesting sites. Limon’s Caribbean beaches are unspoiled and less frequented and the province’s remoteness means both local and tourist numbers are contained, spawning a spectacular concentration of unique and rare wildlife species. Puerto Viejo and Tortuguero are the two most popular bases here and, despite the province’s lack of major tourist infrastructure, there are still plenty of fantastic options for families and honeymooners who wish to experience untouched wilderness yet still enjoy modern comforts. If you wish to get off the well-trodden path in Costa Rica and relish its incredible natural treasures, then you’ll find no better province to visit. Especially on a fully-organized and guided adventure tour.
Want to know more about Costa Rica’s magical provinces? Visit our Destinations Page for more details on the kind of adventures you can expect in every corner of the country and check out our adventure tours page for start dates and availability of our Week of Adventures, Week of River Kayaking, Honeymoons and Family and Custom Tours. We run the most respected and professional adventure tours in Costa Rica and take pride in showcasing the very best of Costa Rica. For more details and come see for yourself how unforgettable this country really is!