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Costa Rica: the ultimate (affordable!) tropical vacation

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Costa Rica has something for everyone.Whitney Tressel

No matter what your "vacation personality" is, Costa Rica has something just for you: Relax, go green, see the bucket-list sights, eat, or try some exciting (but easy and safe) adventures--like zip-lining over a cloud forest!

We can almost guarantee that if you haven't been to Costa Rica yet, one of your travel-crazy friends has. And they've told you all about it, right? The beaches and the rain forests. The food. The eco-resorts. And, of course, the zip-lining. Yes, it really is as great as your friends say it is. And, yes, you can try zip-lining over a cloud forest no matter what your level of daring is! Here, five ways to see this tropical paradise suited to five types of "vacation personalities." But the truth is, in Costa Rica you can really do it all.

Take a tour of Costa Rica

RELAX!

Sure, Costa Rica is known for its thrill factor, but its local greeting, pura vida, is a reminder to take it easy and enjoy yourself. The country's string of gorgeous, warm Pacific beaches is just the place to do it, and Blue Water Properties has more than 50 vacation rentals over several beaches (bluewaterpropertiesofcostarica.com, 813/579-3350). In Tamarindo, Blue Water's Casa Ruby offers a private back yard pool, three bedrooms, Wi-Fi, and daily housekeeping. Head south on the Nicoya Peninsula for some rest and relaxation on the almost-private beach Playa Samara, and stay at Entre Dos Aguas, treehouse lodging that can start as low as $25/night (hoteldosaguas.com, 011/506-2656-0998). Of the region's many tempting hot springs, the sulfur springs of Rio Negro in Rincon de la Vieia National Park--heated by a nearby volcano--are the way to go.

GO GREEN!

In a country that practically invented ecotourism, the Ecolodge San Luis, run by the University of Georgia (externalaffairs.uga.edu/costa_rica, 706/542-6203), is a bargain (from $102 per night during the high season) and a must for back-to-the-earth vacationers who want to mix their R&R with cow milking and demonstrations on farming and sustainable living. At the neighboring La Finca Bella coffee and sugarcane farm, you can sample locally sourced raw sugarcane, or watch the sugarcane go through a manual juicer to create an irresistibly super-sweet drink. Want a unique, earth-friendly souvenir? Take a tour of the tiny paper-making center launched by local women who wanted to get out of the house and start a business and help their community. EcoBambu sells handmade notebooks, bookmarks, and stationery sets made from 100 percent recycled materials.

CHECK OFF THE MUST-SEES!

If zip-lining through a rain forest isn't near the top of your bucket list, it should be. Selvatura Park's canopy tour will have you "flying" along 15 cable lines through the famed Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve (selvatura.com, 011/506-2645-5926). Exploring the park on nature hikes and birdwatching walks is just as thrilling, with 400 species of birds--including the endangered three-wattled bellbird with its deep "boooooong" call and the fabled blue, green, and red quetzal. North of the rain forest, Arenal Volcano National Park is dominated by the 5,437-foot volcano presiding over the lush green parkland. On the park's east side, jaw-dropping La Fortunawaterfall is worth the hike--and jumping into its icy cold waters is one of those "why not" moments that belongs on your list!

EAT!

The University of Georgia campus at Santa Elena offers an incredible experience-learning the art of cooking the perfect empanada or arepa with a Costa Rican family for $6.50 per person (externalaffairs.uga.edu/costa_rica, 706/542-6203). Nearby Cafe Cabure Restaurant & Chocolate Shop offers a $10 tour filled with "bean to bar" info and tasting of the rather bitter cacao nibs and hands-on truffle-making (cabure.net, 011/506-2645-5020). Most Costa Rican menus will feature casados: meat or fresh fish served with rice, black beans, salad, and plantains. Yeah, it's as good as it sounds! But you can also switch it up when you get to the Pacific coast--Cala Moresca at Cala Luna Boutique Hotel & Villas, near Tamarindo, offers "gourmet fusion" style dishes and was the first restaurant in Costa Rica to serve exclusively sustainable, organic food with a biodynamic wine list (calaluna.com, 011/506-2653-0214).

GET DARING!

You haven't really surfed, ridden a horse, or floated down a river until you've done it Central American style--which, quite honestly, should be reserved for adrenaline junkies only. The legendary Witch's Rock surf spot, featured in the film Endless Summer II, is a bit gnarly for novices, but the Witch's Rock Surf Camp provides lessons on the sand and, if you're so inclined, will get you up and hanging ten in no time (witchsrocksurfcamp.com, 011/506-2653-1262). Northeast of the beaches, in Guanacaste, the Hacienda Guachipelin adventure tour company leads horseback rides that plow across creeks and up and down forest trails, culminating at Victoria Waterfall, where you'll switch to rafts for floating the rough rapids of the Rio Negro--a far cry from the leisurely pace of your run-of-the-mill water park (guachipelin.com, 011/506-2666-8075).