Costa Rica may not count much in terms of sheer numbers of new activities and sights opening in the past year, but, as always in this country, quality trumps quantity. The big news is that San José and the Central Valley, areas occasionally overlooked in tourism roundups such as these, have seen a small explosion in their “What’s New” tallies.
The National Theater (www.teatronacional.go.cr), San José’s most famous sight and the jewel in Costa Rica’s architectural crown, now shimmers under a new system of nighttime illumination, thanks to French designer Alain Guilhot, who also engineered the lighting system on Paris’ Eiffel Tower. The coppers, golds and whites of the new outdoor illumination better highlight the architectural detail of the 1897 building. Enjoy it nightly from 6 p.m.-5 a.m.
The University of Costa Rica Planetarium (202-6302, www.planetario.ucr.ac.cr), a joint venture of the university and the government of Japan, now brings lights of a different kind to the eastern suburb of San Pedro. The planetarium’s schedule includes three programs on astronomy daily: “The Celestial Zoo” (geared toward very young children), “Myths and Legends” and “Jewels of the Firmament.” Default programming is in Spanish, but presentations in English can be arranged with advance notice.
Diesel trains rumble across the capital once again these days. The Costa Rican Railroad Institute has resurrected train service after a hiatus of more than a decade with an east-west San Pedro-Barrio Escalante-Los Yoses-Barrio Luján-Plaza Víquez- La Sabana -Pavas route. With three trips in the morning, two in the afternoon and three daily on weekends, service is geared more toward workaday commuters than the tourism trade. But railroad buffs (or anyone who wants a glimpse of the San José that once was), hop aboard.
A Sunday train will also transport you out to the Central Valley community of Balsa de Atenas for a day on the farm with America Travel’s Tico Train and Rodeo excursion (233-3300, [email protected]). The outing includes a visit to the Central American School of Animal Husbandry – its crocodile farm is a crowd pleaser – a rodeo and a casado lunch.
Some 15 kilometers north of the artisan town of Sarchí lies Catarata del Toro (761-1355, www.catarata-del-toro.com). The 120-meter waterfall may be as old as nature itself, but the complex of rappelling, rock climbing and nature trails (with a zipline tour soon to be added) is a new addition to the northern Central Valley.
The Else Kientzler Botanical Garden (454-2070, www.elsekientzlergarden.com), 800 meters north of Sarchí’s stadium, has been in development since 1998, but opened to the public this past year. The collection spreads out over a seven-hectare complex and exhibits 2,000 species of plants, native to Costa Rica of course, but also to many climes around the world.
Farther afield, in the north-central mountain town of Monteverde, the new Bat Jungle (645-6465) exhibits 11 species of 100-plus bats, all behind glass. Opening hours vary, making maximum use of light, or the lack thereof preferred by its charges. The complex will also soon include the Museum of Monteverde, dedicated to the history of the area, as well as a small auditorium that will host community events.
Costa Rica’s northwestern province of Guanacaste evokes the African savannah, so it was just a matter of time before Africa came to Costa Rica in the form of Africa Mía (661-8161) private wildlife reserve. Zebras and ostriches are among the imported animals that roam the cage-free park at El Salto, nine kilometers south of Liberia. A safari style jeep tour makes for the best way to view the animals. A hotel, water park and butterfly conservatory are in the works.
Florida’s Sea World has nothing on Eco Shark (670-1455, www.ecosharkcostarica.com), except perhaps size and scope, of course. The new educational marine center at Playas del Coco, on the northern Pacific coast, offers the opportunity to swim with Gisy the nurse shark – she’s quite docile – as well as spotted eagle rays. Children can wade in the contact pool with starfish. Clown fish – think the title character in the animated movie “Finding Nemo” – and octopi are behind glass, aquarium style.
Every year sees the continued expansion of the web of air routes to and within Costa Rica. The northwestern province of Guanacaste is more accessible than ever with American’s launch of twice-weekly flights from Dallas to Liberia’s Daniel Oduber International Airport and Continental beginning weekly Newark-to-Liberia service.
The new routes complement an already robust schedule to and from Guanacaste. Costa Rican domestic airline Nature Air began flights from San José to Bocas del Toro, Panama, this year (see separate story), and reestablished its long-dormant service to La Fortuna, in north-central Costa Rica, last year. The company, which claims the distinction of being the world’s first and only net zero-emissions airline, balancing carbon emissions with contributions to reforestation, is also scheduled to begin service to the Caribbean port city of Limón in September.
A new joint airline venture was launched in January, bearing the names Air Panama and Air Costa Rica (TT, Jan. 13). Both share service from San José to David, Panama.