4 of us are heading to Costa in Jan, and dont know where to start! we are thinking of starting in Monterverde for a few days, then catching bus thru San Jose to Puerto Vierjo (spelling??) then down the coast a bit. Heard the carribean side has better beaches (beauty wise) than pacific for swimming. (not surfing).
we want to see wildlife and beautiful beaches, we are not intersted in concrete sights, but in natural sights, and in swimming/relaxing and also day-hikes.
we are going for 11 days only, and want to go cheaply but in clean places. any suggestions??? kat.
My favorite experience when I was in Costa Rica was my visit to Tortuguero (on and near the Caribbean coast in the North). Its a real rain forest, you take a boat for 4 hours through the rain forest to get there. I stayed at the Jungle Lodge right in the park. We saw crocodiles, little poisonious frogs, sloths, tucans, Jesus Christ lizards, etc.. I also went to Monteverde but liked Tortuguero much more. Monteverde looked kind of similar to some of the hills and mountains I've seen in Pennsyvania. The rain forest, on the other hand, was totally different.
Just saw that you're from Australia, so Monteverde would probably also be different. Plus you guys have some rain forests up near Caines (complete with lots of mosquitos).
Make sure you also go to bocas del toro in panama. It is alot of fun out in those islands and quite interesting getting there! I really liked peurto viejo on the carib. On the pacific, I liked samara because it was the perfect balance in it's relative lack of turism. Tamarindo is a hole though. I'd also recommend that you go to san juan del sur in nicaragua. More stamps and more culture.
Here was the "dream" 2 week iternary I came up with for a friend...
I spent two weeks in Costa Rica. Went to San Jose, Monteverde (in the mountains), Montezuma (Nicoya peninsula) and Manuel Antonio (Pacific coast).
If you fly into San Jose and are looking for a place to stay, The Hotel Aranjuez (http://www.amerisol.com/costarica/lodging/aranjuez.html) is very nice. We had a superior room for $38 (Double) and that includes a TV. Free breakfast with someone making you omletes in the morning. They take reservations, but are VERY strict on them - make sure you call to reconfirm when they say. A cab from the airport is $10 - $ 12.
By far, Manuel Antonio was the best destination. Lots of wildlife, both in the national park and just outside hanging around. I saw both capuchin and squirrel monkeys, and my friend saw a few sloths (including a mother and child). It's a little more expensive to eat and drink than some of the other locations, but still very worth it.
I stayed at the Cabinas Piscis. Highly recommended hotel. $43 / night for a double room with private bath. Very basic, and cold showers, but it's only 100 meters to the beach, and the beach is near deserted. The beach and sea bottom are all sand. The surf is good - not too big that you can't swim, but big enough that you can pull out a surfboard or boogie board for some fun.
From 4:30 - 6:30 go to the Marlin Restaurant for 2 for 1 drink specials. For dinner, head to the Costa Verde restaurant for excellent BBQ (it's pretty pricey though, so save up a few bucks). Eat breakfast on the beach at one of the sodas for a few bucks.
Based on what I heard from other travellers, there are a couple of places that I didn't get to that I would have loved to have seen.
The Arenal Volcano (which I saw from afar in Monte Verde) is supposedly quite impressive. If I go back to Costa Rica, I would for sure dedicate a day to the Volcano.
As well, Corcovado is supposed to be jam packed with wildlife. There are some nice tent camps in Corcovado park, where you sleep in a "tent" (which is really a wood floor with a canvas covering). These are supposedly REALLY nice, and go for $80 or $90 a night. A little pricey (compared to a hotel), but you get to sleep right on the beach.
If I were doing my "dream" two week itinerary, it would probably go something like this:
Fly into San Jose, stay at the Hotel Aranjuez for 1 night, leave the next day for La Fortuna.
Spend the night in La Fortuna, go to Arenal Volcano the next day (day 3), leave La Fortuna on day 4 for Manuel Antonio.
Spend 3 days in Manuel Antonio (day 5, 6, 7). One day for the national park, one day as a beach day and one day to do some fishing or some other activity. Leave day 8 for Corcovado.
I'd spent days 9, 10 and 11 in Corcovado hanging around. Probably do some of the zip-line / canopy tour thing, a day in the park looking for wildlife, and a beach day.
Day 12 travel Corcovado -> San Jose.
Day 13 is open for you to do whatever - white water rafting or seeing the sights in San Jose (which really only takes about two hours).
Day 14 leave.
Actually, you can stay in a Corcovado Tent camp for as little as $65 a night, and with one in particular I know of, that price includes use of surf and boogie boards, snorkeling gear, kayaks, fishing gear, and meals are included.
You said that you heard the caribbean side beaches are the prettiest. It's kind of true. They're cool because of the black and white sand and palm trees, but I think they are inferior to the pacific side for several reasons:
There is a lot of drug traffic on the east coast, and because of the pesticide runoffs from the massive eastern plantations the reefs have seen some decline in recent years. Still, you should at least visit it if you can fit it in. Cahuita is a great town for white sand beaches and Reggae.
But the beaches of Drake bay and all the osa peninsula are, to me, by far superior. If you want a great view of the mangroves, take a boat down the Sierpe River to Drake Bay. You won't regret it. If you have time for two places, Corcovado and MonteVerde are the two must-sees. Plan those two for sure and plan your itinirary around them.