Off the Beaten Path in Central America
Nearly 2 million people come to enjoy the beaches, volcanoes and rainforests every year. The country’s most popular attractions, such as Arenal, Manuel Antonio, and Tamarindo, receive hundreds of thousands of visitors annually. During peak season, some people look to escape the crowds.
Fortunately, it is fairly easy to get off the beaten path. There are still many destinations that remain below-the-radar and best-known among locals. What follows are some of the less traveled destinations.
A few miles north of the Papagayo Peninsula in northern Costa Rica is the quiet beach of Playa Cabuyal. Cabuyal’s white sands and the cool blue waters of the Pacific Ocean make this beach one of the hidden gems of the Guanacaste province.
Cabuyal extends nearly a mile in length and is a relaxing place to spend the day picnicking with friends and family. It is also an important nesting site for East Pacific green, olive ridley and leatherback turtles.
Cabuyal is a 30-minute drive from the Liberia International Airport and a 45-minute ride from the popular beach town of Playas del Coco. Most of the road is in decent condition and having a 4×4 vehicle is not necessary.
A 40-minute drive from the outpost of Puerto Jiménez is the remote town of Cabo Matapalo. It is located in the heart of the mystical coastal rainforest of the Osa Peninsula. The three major beaches in the area – Backwash Beach, Playa Pan Dulce, and Playa Matapalo – are a draw for surfers and nature lovers alike.
Some of the most popular ecolodges on the Osa Peninsula, such as the Lapa Rios Lodge and Osa Clandestina, are in Matapalo. Visitors from around the world come in hopes of seeing monkeys, sloths, birds, and even humpback whales.
The road from Puerto Jiménez to Matapalo is in poor condition, so a 4×4 vehicle is required. Traveling here during the rainy season from May through November can be particularly challenging.
The fishing village of Manzanillo is a 20-minute drive from the popular beach town of Puerto Viejo de Talamanca on Costa Rica’s Caribbean coast.
The area is best-known for the Gandoca Manzanillo National Wildlife Refuge, a 9,450 hectare reserve located at the end of the village’s main road. The white sand beaches, turquoise waters and surrounding jungle make the beaches among the country’s most picturesque. A guided tour can help spot the local plants and wildlife, such as howler monkeys, eyelash vipers and poison dart frogs.
After a day at the refuge, the Cool & Calm Cafe offers some fresh seafood and local cuisine. You might want to try the fresh red snapper cooked in Caribbean sauce served with rice and beans stewed in coconut milk, thyme and Panamanian chiles.
The road to Manzanillo is in good condition and can be easily accessed by bus, taxi, or bicycle. You can stay in Puerto Viejo or spend a few nights at the beautiful Almonds and Corals Hotel, located between Punta Uva and Manzanillo.
Eólico del Valle Central Park
The wind turbines perched on the Tacuacorí mountain of the San José suburb of Santa Ana make this a hotspot among locals.
Eolico del Valle Central Park’s 17 wind turbines are visible from miles away and play an important role in the country’s decarbonization efforts. Last year, the turbines generated enough energy to avoid the emission of more than 9,600 tons of carbon dioxide equivalent into the atmosphere.
On the weekend, you will see families picnicking on the park’s rolling green hills and enjoying beautiful views of the Central Valley. The park is pet-friendly and a great place to let your dog get some exercise. While the road to the park is in good condition, the drive is very steep, so be sure that your car can handle the incline.
Bajas del Toro
Standing at 270 feet is the country’s highest waterfall, Bajas del Toro located north of San José in the province of Alajuela. The trails of the Catarata del Toro Adventure Park are surrounded by lush vegetation from the rich volcanic soils of the nearby Poás Volcano. Wear some comfortable hiking shoes while you go down the steps to reach the falls.
If you’re feeling adventurous, you can also visit the nearby Blue Falls right outside the park’s entrance. A guided tour of the falls will take you on a hike to the nearby turquoise river and series of cascades, where you can cool down with a dip in one of the swimming holes.
Near the park’s entrance is the secluded ecolodge, El Silencio Lodge & Spa, which seeks to balance luxury with sustainability and provide its guests with an authentic Costa Rican experience. Its Las Ventanas Restaurant is built upon a beautiful backdrop of the rainforest canopy and offers a delicious farm-to-table dining experience.
Bajas del Toro is a 90-minute drive from downtown San José, making it an inviting day trip for those looking to escape the bustle of the Central Valley. The roads to Bajas del Toro are paved, so a 4×4 vehicle is not necessary.
A 12-minute drive south from the town of Uvita is the stunning beach of Playa Ventanas. It is named for its window-like caves that become filled with water during high tide. Playa Ventanas is a favorite among locals who come from the nearby towns to picnic on the beach and enjoy the crashing waves of the Pacific.
Playa Ventanas is very secluded so make sure to bring some lunch or snacks if you are planning to stay for a while. Also, like many of the beaches in Costa Rica’s Southern Zone, be mindful of the beach’s strong undercurrents when going for a swim.
The beach is located right off of the Carretera Pacífica Fernández Oreamuno highway (National Route 34). It can be accessed without a 4×4 vehicle. Parking is available for a small fee.
The tranquil island of Isla Jesusita is in Costa Rica’s Gulf of Nicoya and is best known for being the site of the Isla Chiquita Glamping Hotel. Guests come here to enjoy the island’s calm waters, remote beaches, and fresh seafood.
Isla Chiquita offers a number of unusual tours. The guided night-time bioluminescence tours of light-emitting plankton are among the most memorable in Costa Rica. The island hopping and artisanal fishing tours are also popular.
Isla Chiquita can be accessed by a water taxi from the Pacuare Ferry or by private boat.
Tucked into the mountains of the Cartago province is the small city of Turrialba, named after the nearby volcano. A two-hour drive from downtown San José, Turrialba can be a great base for your next adventure.
The area is home to some of the country’s best whitewater rafting on the nearby Pacuare River. You can also take a guided tour of the botanical gardens at the renowned Tropical Agricultural Research and Higher Education Center’s (CATIE) campus. The 20-hectare Guayabo National Monument, located northwest of the city, contains pre-Hispanic architectural structures and is also worth a visit. Although it has been closed since 2012, Turrialba Volcano National Park is scheduled to reopen on December 4, 2020.
Downtown Turrialba is home to a number of good and cheap restaurants offering traditional meals. If you are in search of something more upscale, Casa Turire, a colonial deco boutique hotel, has an international menu. While visiting, make sure to try some locally-produced Turrialba cheese.
Located in Costa Rica’s Blue Zone, on the Nicoya Peninsula, is the bohemian beach village of Montezuma. The beaches, surrounded by lush vegetation, make Montezuma a popular hub for locals and tourists alike.
The Montezuma Waterfalls are a popular draw, with people come to hike, picnic and even jump off these cascades. The 224-hectare Romelia Wildlife Refuge is located just a few minutes northeast of town and is a famous nesting spot for sea turtles. Farther north is Tortuga Island, which forms part of the Islas Negritos Biological Reserve. You can book a tour in downtown Montezuma to explore the island by boat.
Montezuma is about four-and-a-half hours from downtown San José and just a 30-minute drive from the Tambor airport. If you are coming from the Central Valley, you will have to take ferry from the beach town of Puntarenas.