The three most important botanical gardens in Costa Rica - Wilson Botanical Gardens, Lankester Gardens and Arenal Botanical Gardens. Each of these venues is quite different from each other in terms of design, location and focus. If you are botanical enthusiast, it wouldn't hurt to visit all three venues. To follow is a brief description of all three:
Wilson Botanical Garden
Located in southern Costa Rica near the Panamanian border at an elevation of 4500 feet above sea level, Wilson Botanical Garden covers an area over 25 acres and were designed in part by the famous landscape designer and architect, Roberto-Burle Marx. The gardens are operated by the Organization of Tropical Studies (OTS) as a center for research, scientific study and public education in tropical botany. The gardens are terraced to give it sort of a natural feel; plants of the same culture requirements are grouped together - Bromeliads, marantas, heliconias, gingers in particular are well represented here.
There are over 700 species of palms alone, the second largest collection worldwide. Easy to navigate walking trails circle the entire property which abuts a private biological reserve. Believe it or not, this is one of the most popular venues for the birdwatcher crowd. Nearby is the quaint little town of San Vito which was founded by Italian immigrants sometime after World War II; there are several great pasta and pizza ristorantes in the area.
Located in the Central Plateau near the historic colonial city of Cartago, Lankester Garden is operated by the University of Costa Rica. It's an easy 1-hour drive from San Jose. The gardens are located on a relatively flat terrain at an elevation of about 3,000 feet above sea level; while it does not have the raw and wild look of Arenal Gardens or the classical natural terraced landscaping of Wilson's, it is still an absolutely delightful place to see and is especially popular with visiting Tico Families from San Jose.
Featuring over 1,100 different species of orchids including the most important collection in the world of the miniature Pleurothallids, Lankester is definitely the place to go if you're an orchid enthusiast. Walking inside their Orchidarium there are many unusual and colorful species of cattleyas, ladyslippers (Phragmepidiums), moth orchids (Phaelonopsis) oncidiums, stanhopeas as well as the tiny looking “dwarf orchids". For your information, The National Orchid show, a special weekend festival in San Jose takes place every year in March.
Arenal Botanical Garden and Serpentarium
Located about 3 1/2 hours northwest of San Jose, Arenal Botanical Garden is situated on a sloped hillside directly across from Arenal Lake. These gardens are primarily a native species preservation project; it definitely has the wildest feel of the three described venues and features many native Costa Rican plants, trees and flowers in addition to a good selection of imported and introduced species. Overall, 2,200 species are represented here including an extraordinary collection of Cycads and ferns. The trails climb a relatively steep grade and circle the entire facility. There is also a small Serpentarium on site - if you're interested in becoming familiar with some of the indigenous snakes of Costa Rica, this is definitely the place to visit. Boas, pythons and poisonous species are equally represented here
There lots of attractions in this region of Costa Rica, including the majestic Arenal Volcano, one of the most active volcanoes in the world; in addition there are some small butterfly gardens in the area and several venues with thermal hot springs. Sportfishing and windsurfing are two of the most popular activities at Arenal Lake, a large manmade lake, located just east of the volcano.
In addition, if you're staying in the San Jose Area, you must visit the lovely gardens at the Bougainvillea Hotel, located in the quiet San José suburb of Santo Domingo.