We all know it’s the white sand beaches and swaying palm trees that attract most people to Costa Rica, but upon arrival, most visitors to this small country are shocked by the natural diversity. From tropical beaches, to misty mountains and rocky volcanic land, Costa Rica’s got it all. This country, barely the size of West Virginia, sports some of the most diverse geographical regions and all the flora and fauna that comes with them. And while you may be excited about your beach vacation, it would be a shame to visit Costa Rica and not experience the wealth of geographical diversity available. To better help you plan your vacation or long-term stay, we’d like to introduce you to the 7 provinces of Costa Rica.
Alajuela province is the home to Alajuela City, the second largest city in Costa Rica which briefly served as the capital of the country. This province, located in the Central Valley, is famed for having the best weather in the entire world. The region’s tropical zone maintains a temperature in the mid to upper 70’s year-round, with dependably low humidity when not in the rainy season. Despite the tropical weather, Alajuela is not beach area. This province is one of the greatest examples of Costa Rica’s diversity, as this one zone has mountains, volcanoes, and dense urban areas. Visitors to Alajuela come to hike in the mountains, tour coffee plantations, bathe in waterfalls, and horse-back ride up volcanoes.
While the mountains and volcanoes will call to the more adventure-focused visitor, Alajuela City also offers malls, restaurants, a zoo, and many lodging options. With a major city nearby, this province has become a very popular tourism destination, as visitors feel free to explore the dense forests while depending on the security of the city at the end of the day. During your trip, you will not only tour old local churches and natural waterfalls, but will also taste some of the most amazing local coffee available.
Alajuela holds special significance to the locals of Costa Rica as the center of the revolution and independence from Spain. This is also the birthplace of the national hero Juan Santamaria, a humble drummer boy who saved his country and sacrificed his life in the battle of Hacienda Santa Rosa. The patriotic pride of this province becomes clear during the month of April, when the entire province gathers in Alajuela City to celebrate Juan Santamaria Day with festivals and community fairs. Another great time to visit is in July for the annual Mango Festival, complete with multiple days of food, concerts, and parades.
Cartago province is another Central Valley department, located just east of the capital of San Jose. This central region is highly agricultural and produces orchids, potatoes, and onions. While this used to be the focal point of the county’s economy, recent computer technology industries have now taken the lead. Cartago is another central county without beach area, but makes up for it with one of the most spectacular displays of plant life in Central America. While hiking thickly forested trails in the mountains and visiting the county’s many gardens, you’ll experience a range of climates. In the summer months, Cartgo will maintain a tropical climate in the 70’s to high 80’s. Closer to December and January, you’ll enjoy an escape from the heat and experience weather in the 60’s, dropping to the 50’s at night. These temperatures will vary somewhat, as the higher you go into the mountains, the colder the climate becomes.
Although Cartago is one of the smallest provinces in Costa Rica, it is one of the most visited for its maintenance of Spanish era colonial sites. Visitors to this county sight-see around the Basilica, historical ruins, a large central market, and multiple historical museums. People seeking more adventure also take advantage of botanical gardens, nature and wildlife reserves, the Angelina Mountain bike path, many mountainous hiking trails, and scaling the volcanoes. You can’t visit Cartago without venturing out of the city at least once to enjoy the variety of plant life in the region.
Cartago sports old fashioned charm, and while resorts and chain restaurants are found easily in other parts of Costa Rica, Cartago is identified by its small family stores and cafeteria style restaurants. You’ll eat traditional food during your stay in Cartago and although you may not find much of a nightlife, you’ll be tired after days of hiking and volcano climbs.
Guanacaste is the most popular province for tourists and long-term residents alike, and it’s no mystery why. This county, occupying the northwestern region of the country, is pure beach bliss. With 400 miles of Pacific coast line and warm, tropical waters, this province is truly the vacationer’s paradise. Guanacaste boasts some of the most developed beach towns in Costa Rica and offers beach-front property for those ready to stay long term. While the majority of the population will stay near the beaches, this county also has lowland mountain forests and tropical dry forests. While the incredible beaches will be easy to find, you’ll want to tear yourself away from the surf at least once to enjoy the mountainous hikes and wildlife reserves.
At first glance, Guanacaste seems to be comprised of small-town beach villages and a relaxing, vacation-oriented lifestyle, but the province is more than meets the eye. There is a booming tourism industry offering some of the best employment and entrepreneurship opportunities in the entire country. Many new incomers to Costa Rica choose to reside permanently in Guanacaste, as the industry is good, English is widely spoken in beach towns, and shopping malls and quality education are easy to find. International flights arrive directly to Guanacaste through the Liberia Airport and transport, lodging, and a variety of food is easy to obtain.
This family-friendly destination will require very little vacation planning on your part, as attractions span as far as the eye can see. The many beaches in Guanacaste vary from shaded and relaxing, safe for a family to run about freely, to hot and action-oriented, offering all types of water activities including surfing, rafting, snorkeling, and parasailing. Once the heat sets in, your family will be more than happy to visit the cities, mountain trails, and wildlife reserves.
Heredia is a northern-central region, bordering Nicaragua on the northern side and spanning into Central Valley on the southern edge. This thickly forested area is nicknamed “the city of flowers” for good reason. Nature lovers and extreme hikers cannot visit Costa Rica without planning a couple days in this small province.
The entire county of Heredia is laid-back and slow paced, yet still offers some of the greatest city assets, such as top-notch universities, employment in the booming coffee industry, and large city markets and parks. With mild and temperate weather year-round, this is a popular destination for those looking to retire in Costa Rica. The county, generally-speaking, is comprised of thick forests and agricultural land, yet the city of Heredia offers all the urban attractions and necessities the residents require. Heredia City is a colonial town with traditional architecture and art throughout the city. Most tourists choose to take walking city tours or visit cultural museums, as Heredia is the ideal place to learn of the country’s traditional ways. The adventure-seekers will experience no hardships in finding activities either, as the province is filled with hiking trails, eco-tours, and wildlife reserves.
While traveling outside the Heredia city limits and into the forested region may feel adventurous and isolated, it is actually quite easy to explore the area without sacrificing living comforts. There are countless quality hotels, transportation systems, and tour operators throughout the province, and even many of the coffee plantations will rent rooms to visitors, complete with local, organic meals. The San Jose International Airport is only a 20-minute drive from the Heredia City limits, making this area the ideal mixture of convenient and off the beaten path.
Limon spans the entire tropical Caribbean coast, meeting Nicaragua in the north and Panama in the south. For those looking to find a vacation spot offering a different aspect of Costa Rican culture, you’ve found your destination. Limon is teeming with Caribbean beauty, from the beaches to the people and their culture. This large county offers the most diversity among the population, as the locals are comprised widely of people from Afro-Caribbean and indigenous origins, with a small concentration of a Chinese-Latino population as well. Several indigenous languages will also be spoken in this area, including Limon Creole. The culture of Limon spans much further than the languages, and you won’t make it even an hour in the province without hearing reggae music or smelling Caribbean cuisine.
Visiting Limon province is almost like stepping into a different country completely. Not only are different languages spoken, but the province doesn’t even follow traditional Costa Rican weather patterns. While the rest of the country experiences a 6-month dry season followed by a 6-month rainy season, the Caribbean coast experiences both rain and sun monthly, enjoying the driest seasons in September and October while the rest of the country is under water. Experiencing this unique culture is alone enough reason to visit Limon, but the province also offers pristine beaches, mangroves, mountain trails, and national parks. The booming capital, Puerto Limon, offers urban necessities while still maintaining a tropical charm.
If you are planning a trip to Costa Rica in October, Limon can’t be left out of your itinerary. Every second week of October, the entire city of Puerto Limon takes to the streets to celebrate their carnival. Carnival is typically about a week and a half of parties dedicated to music, food, dancing, parades, and local activism by community members, as the date coincides with Columbus Day and the community moves to promote local cultural education.
This oddly shaped province spans the majority of the Pacific Coast line, and unlike other provinces, Puntarenas is comprised mainly of one geographical micro-climate: tropical beaches. The development of the cities in this province are strongly influenced by the relaxing beach culture, and most urban areas will be long, brightly colored, and coastal. While once a major port area for trading, this region is now the #1 fish and seafood provider for the country. Visitors to the province will doubtlessly be tempted by the availability of fresh, top quality seafood, and buying lobster or shrimp at a beach front restaurant with a couple of drinks still won’t break the bank.
The most popular destination for tourists to Costa Rica lies in the Puntarenas province: Jaco beach. Once a pristine beach, Jaco has turned into a resort town dedicated to family fun and water sports. The weather stays in the 80’s and 90’s and the town experiences an enormous surge of tourists, both foreign and local, throughout the entire year. Just north of Jaco, dense rainforests offer activity options for the hiking-focused visitor.
A trip to Puntarenas will prove to be beach-focused, regardless of your reason for coming. But when your family tires of the sun and waves, several small cities can be found with beautiful colonial architecture and incredible dining and shopping options. During the tourism high-season, the coffee shops fill up quickly with travelers looking to discuss vacation plans and adventure opportunities with anyone they meet. The entire province is tourist-friendly and you’ll have no difficulties finding quality lodging, nightlife, or transportation.
The San Jose Province is in the Central Valley and home to the country’s capital and largest urban city, San Jose. This valley region is active and diverse, from the sprawling metropolis to the mountainous cloud-forest regions. Although most tourists and long-term residents to Costa Rica are not aiming to tour urban areas, San Jose City is truly a sight to be seen. This urban city combines classic, traditional culture with modern “North Americanized” city living, with an urban center significantly more developed than any other Central American capital city. Bars, restaurants, nightlife, and shopping can all be easily found. Not only the center of commerce, San Jose is also the hub for all political and economic activity. While comfortable living and ease of access to services and products convinces locals and foreigners alike to relocate, San Jose is still a big city with its problems as well.
The majority of your vacation in Costa Rica will revolve around outdoor activity and beach sports, so San Jose is a great excuse to explore the culture of your host country. This area has the best theaters, book stores, museums, and sponsored cultural events of the whole country. You’ll also have access to Spanish schools and any products or services you need.
Being the capital city and centrally located, San Jose is a good hub during your stay in Costa Rica. You will be able to fly directly into the city and easily find transport to any part of the country as well as all the supplies you’ll need while you’re away. There are many tour operators and travel agencies, so you’ll be free make plans for accommodations upon arrival.
The 7 Provinces
Each of the 7 provinces of Costa Rica offers a unique view into the culture and geography of this small country. While each area will provide tourism activities as well as a vibrant cultural life, each province will also have something unique to offer. While you may feel drawn to one province rather than another after having read these descriptions, we always encourage new visitors to explore as many areas as possible, especially if considering a long-term or permanent move. Regardless of in which province you choose to focus your trip, we know you’ll have the experience of a lifetime.