Christopher Columbus became Costa Rica's first tourist when he landed on this stretch of coast in 1502 during his fourth and final voyage to the New World. Expecting to find vast mineral wealth, he named the region Costa Rica ("rich coast"). Imagine the Spaniards' surprise eventually to find there was none. Save for a brief skirmish some six decades ago, the country did prove itself rich in a long tradition of peace and democracy. No other country in Latin America can make that claim. Costa Rica is also abundantly rich in natural beauty, managing to pack beaches, volcanoes, rain forests, and diverse animal life into an area the size of Vermont and New Hampshire combined. It has successfully parlayed those qualities into its role as one the world's great ecotourism destinations. A day visit is short, but time enough for a quick sample.
Ships dock at Limón's spacious, spiffy Terminal de Cruceros (cruise terminal), one block south of the city's downtown. You'll find telephones, Internet computers, a crafts market, and tourist information inside the terminal. Step outside and walk straight ahead one block to reach Limón's downtown.
Limón. "Sultry and sweltering" describes this port community of 90,000. The country's most ethnically diverse city mixes the Latino flavor of the rest of Costa Rica with Afro-Caribbean and Asian populations, descendants of laborers brought to do construction and farming in the 19th century. As in most of the rest of Costa Rica, you'll see no street signs here. Locals use a charmingly archaic system of designating addresses: The place you're looking for may be "100 meters south and 75 meters west of some landmark," where"100 meters" equals one city block, regardless of actual distance.
Just north and east of the cruise terminal lies the city's palm-lined central park, Parque Vargas, with a promenade facing the ocean. Nine or so Hoffman's two-toed sloths live in its trees; ask a passerby to point them out, as spotting them requires a trained eye.
Rain Forest Aerial Tram. This 4-square-km (2½-square-mi) preserve houses a privately owned and operated engineering marvel: a series of gondolas strung together in a modified ski-lift pulley system. (To lessen the impact on the jungle, the support pylons were lowered into place by helicopter.) The tram gives you a way of seeing the rain-forest canopy and its spectacular array of epiphyte plant life and birds from just above, a feat you could otherwise accomplish only by climbing the trees yourself. Though purists might complain that it treats the rain forest like an amusement park, it's an entertaining way to learn the value and beauty of rain-forest ecology. Braulio Carrillo National Park, 120 km (76 mi) west of Limón.
San José. Costa Rica's sprawling, congested capital sits in the middle of the country about three hours inland from the coast. Despite the distance, San José figures as a shore excursion-a long one to be sure-on most ships' itineraries. (The vertical distance is substantial too; the capital sits on a plateau just under a mile above sea level. You'll appreciate a jacket here after so many days at sea level.) Although the city dates from the mid-18th century, little from the colonial era remains. 160 km (100 mi) west of Limón.
The northeastern San José suburb of Moravia is chock-full of souvenir stores lining a couple of blocks behind the city's church.
The Teatro Nacional ($; National Theater) is easily the most enchanting building in Costa Rica, and San José's must-see sight. Coffee barons constructed the Italianate sandstone building, modeling it on a composite of European opera houses, and inaugurating it in 1897. Plaza de la Cultura, Barrio La Soledad.
The Museo Nacional ($; National Museum) is housed in a whitewashed fortress dating from 1870. Notice the bullet holes: this former army headquarters saw fierce fighting during a brief 1948 civil war. But it was also here that the government abolished the country's military in 1949. C. 17, between Avdas. Central and 2, Barrio La Soledad.
Tortuguero Canals. The largely forested region north of Limón is one of those Costa Rican anomalies: roadless and remote, it's nevertheless one of the country's most-visited places. A system of inland canals runs parallel to the shoreline, providing safer access to the region than a dangerous journey for smaller vessels up the seacoast. Some compare the densely layered greenery highlighted by brilliantly colored flowers, whose impact is doubled by the jungle's reflection in the mirror-smooth canal surfaces, to the Amazon. That might be stretching it, but there's still an Indiana Jones mystique to the journey up here, especially when you get off the main canals and into the narrower lagoons. Your guide will point out the abundant wildlife: sloths hang in the trees; howler monkeys let out their plaintive calls; egrets soar above the river surface; and crocodiles laze on the banks. North of Limón.
Volcán Irazú. ($) Five active volcanoes loom over Costa Rica's territory (as well as many inactive ones). Irazú clocks in at the highest at about 3,700 meters (11,000 feet) and the farthest east and most accessible from Limón, though still a three-hour drive. The volcano last erupted in 1965, but gases and steam have billowed from fumaroles on its northwestern slope ever since. You can go right up to the top, although cloudy days-there are many-can obscure the view. 140 km (84 mi) southwest of Limón.
The cruise-ship terminal contains an orderly maze of souvenir stands. Vendors are friendly; there's no pressure to buy. Many shops populate the restored port building across the street as well. Spelling is not its forte, but the Caribean Banana (50 m north Terminal de Cruceros, west side of Parque Vargas) stands out from the other shops in the cruise-terminal area with a terrific selection of wood carvings.
Beaches. The dark-sand beaches on this sector of the coast are pleasant enough, but won't dazzle you if you've made previous stops at Caribbean islands with their white-sand strands. Nicer beaches than Limón's Playa Bonita lie farther south along the coast, and can be reached by taxi or organized shore excursion. Strong undertows make for ideal surfing conditions on these shores, but risky swimming. Exercise caution.
Playa Bonita (2 km [1 mi] north of Limón), the name of Limón's own strand, translates as "pretty beach," but it's your typical urban beach, a bit on the cluttered side.
Playa Blanca (44 km [26 mi] southeast of Limón, Cahuita), one of the coast's only white-sand beaches, lies within the boundaries of Cahuita National Park, right at the southern entrance of the pleasant little town of Cahuita. The park's rain forest extends right to the edge of the beach, and the waters here offer good snorkeling.
Playa Cocles (63 km [38 m] southeast of Limón, Puerto Viejo de Talamanca), the region's most popular strand of sand, lies just outside Puerto Viejo de Talamanca, one of Costa Rica's archetypal beach towns, with its attendant cafés and bars and all-around good times to be had.