Introduction to the Central Highlands
The Central Highland region of Costa Rica has some of the highest mountains in the country and it is a land of cool, misty cloud forests and rushing rivers. This mountain range, which runs from Nicaragua in the north to Panama in the south, marks the dividing line between the Caribbean and Pacific sides of Costa Rica, and as such creates two very different climatic regions which sit side by side. Though the area is dotted with the odd small village, it is a quiet, undeveloped region where nature flourishes and human impact is kept to a minimum. The few locals that do live here, such as the pioneering Chacón family on the Pacific side, make a living by dairy farming and harvesting fruit orchards, especially apples. On some of the lower-lying land on the Caribbean side around Turrialba, coffee used to be big business and continues to be produced on a smaller scale to this day.
In recent years tourism has become very important in the highlands on a number of different counts. The wild Pacuare River is well known among whitewater rafters the world over, and is credited with being in the top five rafting destinations on the planet. As well as adrenalin junkies the region attracts those who come in search of quieter pursuits, such as trout fishing and birding. The Los Quetzales National Park, near San Gerardo de Dota, on the Pacific side, is one of the best places in Costa Rica to catch a glimpse of the rare and beautiful quetzal, as well as all sorts of other exotic birds and wildlife.
What not to miss in the Central Highlands
If you dream about rafting on a wild tropical river with warm water, the celadon-colored Pacuare is a dream come true! Rated one of the top rafting rivers in the world, you’ll experience the intimate nature of the rainforest as you whitewater raft your way right through it on 19 miles of Class III-IV rapids.
San Gerardo de Dota
San Gerardo de Dota is home to some of the most spectacular birdlife in Costa Rica. Birders flock here in search of the rainbow plumage of the rare quetzal, but there are all sorts of other birds putting on a display too including, hummingbirds, woodpeckers and toucans.
Costa Rica’s Central Highlands are a haven for hiking enthusiasts. The best of the region’s hiking can be found around the town of San Gerardo de Dota nestled within the Savegre River Valley and the Talamanca Mountain Range.
Irazu Volcano is the highest active volcano in Costa Rica, though at present it is (relatively!) calm. It has several craters, mostly black and barren, but there is one with a brightly colored mineral lake. Standing at the summit on a clear day you can see both the Caribbean Sea and the Pacific Ocean.
Natural Pools & Waterfalls
Close to Turrialba is the Aquiares Waterfall. A short hike through coffee fields lead to this spectacular waterfall where you can take a refreshing swim and enjoy a natural water slide! Also close to Mount Chirripo, the highest mountain in Costa Rica, are several hikes that lead to secluded and beautiful waterfalls.
The Tropical Agricultural Research and Higher Education Center (CATIE) is one of the world’s premier centers dedicated to research in the management, conservation, and sustainable use of natural resources. With 50 manicured gardens you’ll be able to spot all types of exotic birds, butterflies and lizards.
What you need to know
When to go
The highlands have two distinct climates divided between the Caribbean and Pacific sides of the central mountain range. On the Pacific side the dry season runs from January to April, while on the Caribbean side from June to October. Rainy seasons are also opposite, and the months between are a transition period when it can be rainy or sunny on both sides. December to April is the best time of year to see the quetzal and other birdlife around San Gerardo de Dota. At the start of the rainy season, from around June, this region is especially beautiful as the rain turns the whole area a rich, vibrant green. Further along in the season some of the winding mountain roads can become difficult to traverse as mud and cascading water start to stake their claim on the land. The rainy season is also the best time for whitewater rafting with the rivers at their peak and providing an even greater thrill.
How to get there
You can get to the Central Highlands by flying to either San Jose’s International Airport or Liberia’s International Airport. From there you can book a transfer or get a taxi to one of the towns in this area.
Where to stay
From eco-resorts to hotels and lodges, the Central Highlands has a wide range of accommodation options to suit every need.
While all of the towns in the Central Highlands area are connected by regular buses, booking a tour or renting a car gives you the opportunity to explore the many worthwhile hard-to-reach corners.