While most visitors come to Costa Rica for the country’s endless beaches and natural beauty, the majority of Costa Ricans themselves live in cities or their surrounding metropolitan areas.
With a population of just over 5 million people, Costa Rica won’t wow tourists with the size of its cities. The country’s most populous city, San José, has a population of just 300,000 people! Still, Costa Rica’s cities are economic and cultural hubs for the Central American nation.
Even if your goal is to immerse yourself in wildlife, your trip here will likely begin and end in a Costa Rican city — so let’s take a look at what they have to offer.
Major Cities in Costa Rica
About two-thirds of Costa Ricans live in cities and towns in Costa Rica’s Central Valley. This region is also the first place that most visitors experience when they come to Costa Rica.
Costa Rica’s busiest airport, Juan Santamaría International Airport (SJO), is located immediately south of Alajuela, the capital city of a province by the same name. While Alajuela doesn’t cater heavily to tourists, it has a large mall, a cultural museum and Alejandro Morera Soto Stadium, known as the cathedral of Costa Rican soccer.
About 12 miles east of Alajuela is San José, Costa Rica’s capital and largest city. San José is the nexus of the country’s political and economic activity. It’s replete with museums — including the National Museum — and also houses, the ornate National Theater, the bustling National Craft Market, and La Sabana, the country’s largest metropolitan park. Barrio Escalante, a neighborhood on the eastern side of San José, has some of Costa Rica’s best restaurants, while Saturday’s Feria Verde is an upscale farmer’s market worth visiting.
Exploring San Jose’s Central Market Like a Local
Farther southeast is Cartago, which once served as the capital of Costa Rica. Nestled at the base of Irazú Volcano, Cartago is the site of an annual pilgrimage, or romería, where hundreds of thousands of people visit the city’s beautiful Catholic church. Cartago’s central park contains the Santiago Apóstol ruins, a Costa Rican cultural heritage site, and a central market that sells an immense variety of fruits and vegetables.
Outside the Central Valley, Costa Rica’s cities are generally smaller, with some exceptions. Limón (on the Caribbean coast) and Puntarenas (on the Pacific) are the country’s major shipping ports that also receive cruise ships.
Finally, Liberia is the capital and largest city of Guanacaste province, and it’s the gateway to the Nicoya Peninsula. The city also contains Daniel Oduber Quirós International Airport (LIR). Guanacaste Day, which recognizes Costa Rica’s annexation of the province in 1824, and is celebrated there (and throughout the country) annually on July 25.
The Best Cities for Tourists in Costa Rica
While many Costa Ricans live and work in the country’s largest cities, many smaller ones are popular with tourists and expats since they combine the allure of a metropolitan area with access to nature.
One example is Turrialba. Surrounded by mountains, volcanoes, and rivers, Turrialba’s climate and fertile soil have long made it popular with farmers. (Turrialba cheese is well-known across Costa Rica.) It has a rich indigenous history and has grown into a small city of about 35,000 people with supermarkets, banks, and a hospital.
Jacó & La Fortuna
Similarly, the small cities (or large towns) of Jacó and La Fortuna are known as tourist hotspots — for Costa Ricans as much as foreigners. La Fortuna is surrounded by rainforest, Arenal Volcano National Park and is minutes from Costa Rica’s largest lake. Jacó is the closest beach to the San José area and a great jumping-off point for adventure tourism.
Playas del Coco
On the Nicoya Peninsula, Playas del Coco has expanded rapidly from a small village into a bustling hotspot for nightlife and tourism. On the Caribbean Coast, Puerto Viejo de Talamanca has a similar allure and is flanked on either side by protected wildlife areas.
Of course, every location is different, but you can count on finding a grocery store and health clinic virtually anywhere you go in Costa Rica. And, of course, the heart of every Costa Rican town or city has a church and a soccer field.
There’s no “best city” for tourists in Costa Rica, but these smaller cities provide the best of both worlds for visitors who want to enjoy nature without straying too far off the beaten path.
Staying Safe in Costa Rica’s Cities
Costa Rica is relatively safe, but you should use common-sense measures to protect yourself and your belongings throughout your visit.
According to the U.S. Embassy, petty theft is the principal risk for tourists in Costa Rica. They recommend traveling with only what you need and leaving the rest — your passports, electronics, and extra cash — locked in a hotel safe. You should also avoid storing valuables in your car.
In San José and other Costa Rican cities, avoid solitary streets and late-night walks. When possible, walk with someone you trust, and don’t leave a bar or similar establishment with a stranger. Be discreet with valuables, such as jewelry, cameras and cell phones.
Though some people have malicious intentions, the vast majority of Costa Ricans welcome tourists with open arms. Remember that millions of people visit Costa Rica each year, and simple precautions like the ones we shared here will help you return home with only positive memories of this beautiful country.
When you visit Costa Rica, your priority may be to find the closest beach (or sloth) but don’t count out the country’s cities.
Costa Rica is recognized as one of the world’s happiest countries, and that’s in large part due to the communities that comprise its towns and cities. Whether it’s browsing the market in Cartago, relaxing in La Sabana Park, or dancing in the Guanacaste Day festival, exploring the nation’s cities will give you a peek into “real life” for many Costa Ricans.
And hey, if you look hard enough, you may even find the secret to happiness — Costa Ricans seem to have it figured out, anyway.
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John Rabenau has been working in the eco-tourism & adventure travel industry in Costa Rica since 2002. He has worked in a variety of capacities from Outdoor Educator & Principle Guide to Itinerary Design Manager & Business Owner for numerous organizations. He has grown Costa Rica Escapes into one of the most reputable Costa Rica travel agencies since its creation in 2006, hosting more than 5,000 people with custom vacation itineraries.