As we suggest in our blog post Costa Rica Hotel Tip: Can you name your Arenal or Monteverde hotel?, Costa Rica is notorious for using repeat words and phrases to describe different items (did you know that there are more than 20 accommodation options around the town of La Fortuna alone that have the word Arenal in the title?). For this reason, travellers planning a vacation to Costa Rica should proceed with caution when selecting the in-country destinations they wish to visit. Not only are some areas of the country easily mistaken for others because names are carelessly and interchangeably used, but many locations share the exact same name, creating a headache for many travellers. Fortunately, knowing this in advance can avoid confusion and frustration down the line, so taking a minute to familiarize yourself with a correct understanding of each is well worth the time to do so.
LA FORTUNA VS. ARENAL
The Arenal region of Costa Rica is a well-known and well-publicized one. Guide book readers know that tourism is booming in the area, as popular sites such as the Arenal Volcano and numerous volcano hot springs draw visitors in. Come to be known as Arenal, the town’s true name is La Fortuna de San Carlos (or La Fortuna, for short). While these two names are used interchangeably, the overuse of both words has tricked travellers into believing that two separate towns exist, leaving some to question whether it is Arenal or La Fortuna that they want to visit during their vacation. Since both titles refer to the same area, travel to either La Fortuna or Arenal will lead you to the same place.
To add extra confusion to the mix, west of La Fortuna is a town called Nuevo Arenal. This small town is anything but the tourist destination travellers aim to visit with La Fortuna (or Arenal) in mind. Although a prime area for foreign visitors looking to purchase lakeside real estate, the town of Nuevo Arenal must not be mistaken for the town of La Fortuna. It is not the Arenal area that the guide books rave about and the town most travellers want to add to their trip itinerary.
MONTEVERDE VS. SANTA ELENA
For those who plan to visit the Monteverde / Santa Elena area, we recommend reading our related blog post I’m going to Monteverde, not Santa Elena, so why do both towns keep popping up during my research?. In the post we explain how the region known as Monteverde is comprised of three separate areas: Santa Elena, Cerro Plano, and Monteverde. Since the title Monteverde has been adopted by the guide books, most travellers assume that it is Monteverde – not Santa Elena or Cerro Plano – that they should plan to visit. In actuality, Monteverde’s downtown core is the town of Santa Elena itself – the area where most travellers prefer to stay in order to have a hotel within walking distance to the center of town, access a variety of restaurant and shopping options, and be close to other “good-to-haves” such as banks and grocery stores. Alternatively, downtown Santa Elena’s outskirts (Cerro Plano and Monteverde alike) offer their own set of advantages such as distance from the downtown core and proximity to the Monteverde Cloud Forest Biological Reserve, so deciding to stay in Santa Elena directly is not an obvious choice. The point however, is that distinction exists between three regions that are more often than not blanketed by the general title Monteverde. In order to make an informed decision as to the best region to visit, start by recognizing the differences between each and let your preferences guide your choice.
QUEPOS VS. MANUEL ANTONIO
As is the case with La Fortuna vs. Arenal, popular tourist areas are often known by their nickname more so than their official title. The same is true for the town of Quepos, or as the region is more commonly referred to, Manuel Antonio. Just outside of the town of Quepos runs a road toward the Manuel Antonio National Park (as well as the Espadilla public beach). The national park is the area’s main attraction, as is the park’s prized asset – the Manuel Antonio beach (access to the Manuel Antonio beach is available from within the park only and a park entrance fee is required for the visit). Given the ever-growing popularity of the area, the stretch of road between the town of Quepos and the beach/national park is where the majority of hotels are located. Although both Quepos and the beach/national park are on beach level, the road connecting the two is quite mountainous (which is why so many Manuel Antonio hotel options offer incredible views overlooking the pacific ocean). In addition to the magnitude of hotel development in the area, a plethora of restaurants, souvenir shops, and grocery stores exist along this road, making the area a well-suited one to handle the high degree of tourism that the park and beach attracts.
Travellers who plan to visit the Manuel Antonio area should avoid staying directly in Quepos and instead opt for an accommodation option that falls between the town of Quepos and the beach/national park. This being said, when making transportation arrangements to/from the Manuel Antonio area, some transfers are available to/from Quepos only. Domestic flights to/from the Manuel Antonio area are available via Quepos’s domestic airport, although additional ground transportation is required to travel between the Quepos airport and any Manuel Antonio hotel. For the majority of shared shuttle services and private transfer services, transportation to Manuel Antonio hotels (beyond the town of Quepos) is more often than not provided.
PUNTA UVA VS. PUNTA UVITA
As a result of their similar-sounding names, Punta Uva and Punta Uvita are commonly mistaken for one another. Rest assured, two separate towns exist. While Punta Uva is a small coastal area in the southern Caribbean region of the country (7km south of the more well-known Puerto Viejo de Talamanca), Punta Uvita is a small coastal area on the Pacific side of the country (located between Dominical and Drake Bay). Although both towns are similar in style, misunderstanding one for the other could change your trip plans significantly, so be sure to re-confirm your preferred destination with any and all transportation service providers you opt to use throughout your trip to ensure that you end up on the side of the country you intend to visit.
PUERTO VIEJO X 2, PLAYA HERMOSA X 4, MANZANILLO X 4, & MATAPALO X 4
Costa Rica has seven provinces: San Jose, Cartago, Limon, Heredia, Alajuela, Guanacaste, and Puntarenas. For the most part, travellers do not need to concern themselves with being able to identify the province they intend to visit during their trip, unless of course they intend to visit one of a number of towns or beaches that shares it’s name with another area of the country. In these cases, quoting the province following the name of the town/beach you wish to visit can help ensure that you end up at the location of your choice, not simply the location you can name.
The following is a list of destinations that shares its name with at least one other area of Costa Rica. If any of the following locations are listed on your trip itinerary, take a moment to double-check that the town/beach you reserved your accommodations at and arranged your transfers to and from is the specific town/beach you wish to visit.
Puerto Viejo (province: Heredia) – formally known as Puerto Viejo de Sarapiqui is a town known for its lush surroundings and nearby ecolodges/biological station
Puerto Viejo (province: Limon) – formally known as Puerto Viejo de Talamanca (or informally known as Puerto Viejo de Limon) is a popular beach town located along Costa Rica’s caribbean coast (pictured at the bottom of this post)
Playa Hermosa (province: Guanacaste) – is a small beach town located along Costa Rica’s northern pacific coast, sandwiched between the popular beach town of Playa del Coco to the south and the Papagayo Gulf to the north (pictured at the top of this post)
Playa Hermosa (province: Puntarenas) – is a small surf community located along Costa Rica’s central pacific coast, found along the stretch of land that runs between Jaco and the Esterillo Oeste (West) and Esterillo Este (East) beaches in the direction of Manuel Antonio
Playa Hermosa (province: Guanacaste) – is a beach located on Costa Rica’s Nicoya Peninsula, northwest of the surf community of Santa Teresa and Manzanillo beach
Playa Hermosa (province: Puntarenas) – is a beach located along Costa Rica’s central pacific coast, found just northwest of Punta Uvita in the direction of Dominical
Playa Manzanillo (province: Limon) – is a small beach town located along Costa Rica’s caribbean coast, southeast of the popular town of Puerto Viejo (de Talamanca) and not far from the Panama border
Playa Manzanillo (province: Puntarenas) – is a beach located on Costa Rica’s Nicoya Peninsula, northwest of the surf community of Santa Teresa
Playa Manzanillo (province: Guanacaste) – is a beach located along Costa Rica’s northern pacific coast and part of the Papagayo Gulf
Playa Manzanillo (province: Puntarenas) – is a small town located on the east side of Costa Rica’s Golfo Dulce (Osa Peninsula) nearby the Panama border
Playa Matapalo (province: Puntarenas) – is a beach located along Costa Rica’s central pacific coast, found along the stretch of land that runs between the more popular areas of Manuel Antonio and Dominical
Playa Matapalo (province: Guanacaste) – is a town located in-land from Costa Rica’s northern pacific coast, nearby popular Conchal beach to the north and Tamarindo beach to the south
Playa Matapalo (province: Puntarenas) – formally known as Cabo Matapalo refers to the coastal area at the southern tip of Costa Rica’s Osa Peninsula
Playa Matapalo (province: Guanacaste) – formally known as Punta Matapalo is a beach located on Costa Rica’s Nicoya Peninsula (within the boundaries of the Guanacaste province), west of Samara beach
THE GENERAL GUANACASTE, NICOYA PENINSULA, & OSA PENINSULA AREAS
Geographically speaking, Costa Rica is small. From a large-scale perspective, it cannot compare to travel across Canada, the US, or Europe as its landmass is only a fraction of the size. This being said, as tiny as Costa Rica may appear on a map, making one’s way around the country is not as quick a task as most travellers may think. Costa Rica’s mountains, rain season, and far-from-standard road conditions (in some areas of the country) are challenges that drivers (both international visitors and tourist professionals) regularly face, which can make a quick road trip a long and drawn out one.
So why does this matter? Well, it shouldn’t. At least to those travellers who are able to leave their expectations at home and embrace the good and the bad that comes with the country they have chosen to visit. However, understanding that point B is not always quick and easy to get to from point A is an important lesson to learn, and one worth learning before traveling to Costa Rica. We often hear travellers refer to either Guanacaste, the Nicoya Peninsula, or the Osa Peninsula as the location they plan to visit during their trip. While this information narrows down the region of the country they have selected, travellers should also be able to identify exactly where within the chosen area they intend to visit. We recommend that travellers know so in order to be able to examine their location in relation to everything around them, such as popular attractions, dining options, shops, and nearby towns/beaches. After all, maps are great at telling travellers where to go but they are limited in their ability to describe the travel experience along the way. Since travellers are not always equipped to recognize whether a multi-hour, inconvenient, or uncomfortable drive is ahead of them when they set out to visit ‘the next town over’, we caution travellers to look past location proximity on a map (as short as some routes may seem) and instead aim to obtain a more comprehensive understanding of the area(s) they plan to visit. Doing so is the very best way we have found that travellers can avoid misunderstandings and mishaps throughout their vacation. After all, educated travellers make the happiest travellers!
QUESTION TO COMMENT ON: Have you run into any Costa Rica misunderstandings of your own? What confused you during your travels?