White sand beaches and clear waters flanked by lush vegetation are hallmarks of Manzanillo, a quintessential Caribbean fishing village where not too much has changed in the past fifty years or so. Small houses are built on stilts and colorful fishing boats dot the shoreline, and the water is usually ideal for swimming and snorkeling. The vibe is as low-key and laid-back as it gets, and the most action happens at Maxi's Place, a Rasta-styled restaurant reknowned for its fresh seafood and ocean breezes. The best way to reach Manzanillo is by bike, but if you're not up for a scenic ride, buses run to and from a few times a day from Puerto Viejo.
Recommended for Free Things to Do because: This beautiful beach and fishing village offers boatloads of free entertainment.
Sophia's expert tip: Keep your eyes peeled for dolphins just off the coast- three species inhabit the waters around Manzanillo.
Playa Chiquita is a small stretch of coast with a narrow white sand beach and calm water that is often ideal for snorkeling in between the coral reef. This is the most hidden beach in the area, due to the dense rainforest that separates the water's edge from the road, and a lack of signage- but that's part of why it stays so special. A few trails lead to secluded coves and sparsely populated beaches lined with palms and coconut trees. During high season, Playa Chiquita is a popular beach for families, dogs, and nudists, who come to revel in the privacy and play in the gentle water- the rest of the year it may be found nearly deserted.
Recommended for Free Things to Do because: Discover the beautiful tide pools and secluded coves just south of town, all free to explore.
Sophia's expert tip: Pick up snacks at El Duende Gourmet Market on the main road, and ask there how to find a path leading to the coast.
Cocles Beach, called "Beach Break" by locals, is the most popular beach in the area among locals and tourists, for its long golden sand beach and for its consistently good surf. A majestic craggy rock sits a few meters off-shore, and legend has it that pirates buried their booty there years ago. Cocles has the only lifeguard station in the region, but it's not always occupied. Look for flags to signal riptides, which are common and strong at Cocles. Rent a surf board on the beach, and refresh with a smoothie from one of the small cafes that line the roadside across from the sand.
Recommended for Free Things to Do because: Sunbathe, swim, and body surf at Puerto Viejo's most popular beach; it's free.
Sophia's expert tip: To get to Cocles from Puerto Viejo on foot, find the unmarked path that leads through the forest, starting at Salsa Brava.
Let there be no mistake, Costa Ricans take their horses very seriously. As much as they like to have fun, showing off their steeds is both a theatrical and dramatic show that leaves a lasting impression. Held the day after Christmas, downtown San Jos�'s distinguished horse parade is one of the country's finest. Guests are treated to a dizzying array of sights and sounds, beginning with horses and riders decorated in colorful costumes and continuing to live bands playing after the official horse show. Ethnic foods, contests, dancing and an evening "Festival of Lights" parade ending with a fireworks demonstration add to the excitement of the event.
An otherwise quiet place the rest of the year, Zapote is transformed into the hottest place in the country for the last week of December. To ensure that the New Year is ushered in with appropriate applause and the old year is sent packing with just the right amount of respect, Josefinos celebrate with Festejos Populares, held the last week of the year in Zapote, an eastern suburb of San Jose. Visitors thoroughly enjoy themselves by partaking in lively street parties that center around eating, drinking and dancing the nights away. Additionally, a number of amateur and professional bullfights are staged at the Zapote Fairgrounds, home of this exciting festival.
Las Ruinas de la Parroquia, or Las Ruinas as they are commonly called, are one of Cartago's greatest calling cards; only the skeleton of a Romanesque church including some walls and staircases remain, but ever since its inception Las Ruinas has been an attraction to all who know about it. Originally, the church was intended to be devoted to the apostle St. James, but an earthquake interrupted progress, and though re-construction began in the second half of the nineteenth century, another earthquake in 1910 halted further building for good. Even without being finished, Las Ruinas have always drawn the attention of visitors and locals.
Recommended for Free Things to Do because: This free site is part of Costa Rica's rich cultural heritage.
Sophia's expert tip: Bring your camera to this highly photogenic historical site.
The Basilica de Nuestra Senora de Los Angeles is a Roman Catholic church in classic Byzantine style, located in the heart of Cartago, Costa Rica. Built in 1639, this basilica is officially sanctified to the Virgin of Nuestra Senora de los --ngeles, a small statue of the Virgin Mary holding the baby Jesus. Soon after it was built, the basilica was partially destroyed by an earthquake, and a series of earthquakes that followed kept it crumbling and incomplete. In 1912, The Basilica de Nuestra Senora de Los Angeles was restored by architect Lluis Llach Llagostera, a project that lasted 12 years and was completed in 1924. Each August, over 2 million pilgrims make a 22 kilometer spiritual journey to the basilica, many of them on their knees, originating from various points throughout Costa Rica.
Recommended for Free Things to Do because: If you've come to Cartago, it would be silly not to visit this basilica.
Sophia's expert tip: If you have a health problem, bring a silver medallion in the shape of the body part to leave in front of "La Negrita"- legend has it she can cure it.
Once upon a time, El Museo de Arte Costarricense (MAC) was Costa Rica's main airport terminal. Now it is home to a diverse collection of works by some of the country's most revered artists and serves as a celebration of national talent. Upstairs, a bas-relief on the walls of a conference room tells the story of Costa Rica, and an outdoor sculpture garden is a delightful addition to the permanent collection of painting and prints within. Though it's small, one can spend hours exploring. Rotating exhibition and special shows by visiting artists keep things fresh year-round. Find it next to the Sabana Metropolitan Park, a lovely place for a stroll.
In an newly refurbished factory in Ciudad Colon, a neighborhood of San Jose, a couple of beer afficionados are going against the grain, crafting artisanal beer using only whole grains, hops, yeast, and water. The concept is novel in a country that loves its national beers, Imperial and Pilsen, but CRCBC's beers stand up to high tasting standards. CRCBC's signature craft beers are the golden Libertas ale and the red Seguas, but the company is in the process of introducing several new beers in 2015 including a Scottish Ale, Malacrianza. Every Wednesday through Friday from 4pm to 6pm they offer a tour and tastings of more than seven different types of beer.
Recommended for Free Things to Do because: Not only free, but craft beer samples are par for the course.
Sophia's expert tip: CRCBC's first beers, Libertas Golden Ale and Segua Red Ale can be tasted on a tour of the brewery.
Since 1880, the Central Market has been a staple shopping hub in San Jose, providing for a unique shopping experience in the country's capital city. Prices are relatively reasonable, and the goods are varied, with everything from fresh flowers and produce to clothing and smoke shops. Knick-knacks, souvenirs and t-shirts are also in-stock aplenty. The Mercado Central of San Jose is not just a commercial place but a part of the country's culture and history, people meet at the market to catch up and discuss current affairs, not only to shop. Look for one of the many entrances from the street into this labyrinth-structure, where one can easily spend hours browsing.