Costa Rica - The Insider's Guide
Costa Rica - The Insider's Guide
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Captivating Costa Rica
This biological and geological wonderland is packed with possibilities for adventure, education, amusement and amazement – here’s how to get started.
Captivating Costa Rica
by Mara Vorhees, Telegraph Travel expert
Pura Vida is the mantra of this peace-loving, good-vibe country in Central America. It may be used as an exclamation of camaraderie, a statement of agreement, a salutation or a valediction; but it is always an expression of contentment, awe and appreciation for the “pure life” of Costa Rica. It is a relatively small country that is packed with life – boasting ecological and geological diversity and visionary efforts to protect these natural resources.
Costa Ricans, or Ticos, are eager to show visitors their amazing little piece of the planet. The long Pacific coastline offers endless beaches, surf breaks and snorkel coves. The arid landscape in the northwest – rare tropical dry forest and expansive cattle grazing pastures – gives way to coastal rainforest, dense with life, in the southwest.
Birders and wildlife enthusiasts will have a field day. Inland, a series of mountain ranges - Cordillera Volcánica Central, Cordillera de Tilarán y Cordillera Volcánica de Guanacaste and Cordillera de Talamanca - bisects the country. Active volcanoes spew steam and sulphur, putting on a show for spectators and heating up springs for soakers. Forest-covered slopes climb through the clouds, culminating in rocky peaks with views of two oceans. In the east, rivers rush down these mountains and out to the Caribbean Sea. Along this coast, beaches, mangroves and rainforest are home to an incredible array of creatures; and Caribbean breezes blow in spice-filled aromas, reggae beats and easy-going attitudes. There’s a lifetime of adventures to be had in Costa Rica – a pure life, indeed. Pura Vida!
Tropical forests, volcanoes and oceans… which Costa Rica do you want to explore?
Explore the ecological richness of the planet’s most life-filled habitat
When you visit the tropical rainforest, you’re bound to get wet. Even the “dry season” is really just less rainy, as this habitat sees 150mm to 600mm of rain per month year-round. The trade-off is that the precipitation supports an amazing variety of life, both flora and fauna. And that’s what you’re here for.
The real attraction for travellers is the number of exotic and intriguing rainforest species
Plant life ranges from delicate orchids and vibrant heliconias to parasitic strangler figs and massive ceiba trees. For animals, common sightings include mammals (monkeys, sloths, peccaries, coatis), reptiles (caimans, iguanas and lizards), and birds – hundreds of birds. The largest tract is La Amistad International Park (which is shared with Panama), but it’s not well developed for tourism. Better places include Corcovado National Park (on the Osa Peninsula), Tortuguero National Park and Gandoca Manzanillo Wildlife Refuge (both on the Caribbean coast), and private reserves near Puerto Viejo de Sarapiquí.
Cinco Ceibas Rainforest Adventure Park (cincoceibas.com) Tours US$125
Osa Conservation Area HQ 00 506 2735 5036, Corcovado admission US$15
Osa Wild (osawildtravel.com)
La Selva Biological Station OTS Organization for tropical studies (threepaths.co.cr) guided hikes US$35-50
Tortuguero National Park Open 6am-4pm, admission US$15
Feel the magic of having your head in the clouds
Welcome to the tropical montane cloud forest, where the air swirls with moisture, feeding the thirsty epiphytes and hiding hundreds of species of birds.
The lush vegetation includes moss, ferns and bromeliads, not to mention 1300 species of orchids.
A hike through the cloud forest is a foray into a misty, mysterious world, with many endemic species of flora and fauna. Monteverde is the most famous cloud forest (the reserve was founded by a group of Quakers who fled the US to avoid conscription into the army). Further south, cloud forest covers large swathes of the Talamanca Mountains. Near San Gerardo de Rivas, Cloudbridge Nature Reserve and Talamanca Reserve are private reserves laced with hiking trails and luscious waterfalls.
Look for hummingbirds, as well as the resplendent quetzal and three-wattled bellbird
Costa Rican conservation efforts are restoring this unusual and endangered habitat
The tropical dry forest receives less than 2000mm of rain per year. The flora is distinct – deciduous broadleaf trees and scrubby evergreen undergrowth – and animal life is surprisingly prolific and varied. It’s best to come during the six to eight month long dry season, when the animals are easy to spot congregating around watering holes.
It may not seem as enticing as its wetter counterparts, but the tropical dry forest is in fact a rare habitat
The Guanacaste Conservation Area (ACG) protects the largest remaining tract of tropical dry forest in Central America. The ACG comprises several different sectors – most significantly, Santa Rosa and Rincón de la Vieja – which are laced with trails. The smaller Lomas de Barbudal Biological Reserve is another option for off-the-beaten-track independent hiking.
If you time your visit with the simultaneous blooming of the corteza amarilla trees (March or April), you’re in for a treat.
Lomas de Barbudal open 7am-4pm daily, admission US$15
Rincón de la Vieja, open 8am-4pm closed Monday, admission US$15
Santa Rosa open 8am-4pm daily, admission US$15
Feel the heat from the fiery mountains
Costa Rica’s tourism industry grew up around Arenal Volcano. For years, adventurers came to hike along old lava flows, soak in hot springs, and watch the volcanic fireworks. In 2010, Arenal went suddenly quiet. Fortunately, the hiking is still rewarding and the soaking is still relaxing; and on a clear day, you can still see smoke rising from the conical mountain top.
Volcano Arenal at sunrise
That said, there are other active volcanoes in Costa Rica (and more than 60 dormant ones). The easiest to access is Poás Volcano, just 108km north of San José. Travellers can drive right up and walk 1.6km around the crater, peering into the boiling, bubbling cauldron. Get an early start, as clouds and crowds roll in around mid-day. It takes more legwork to witness the geothermal activity at Rincón de la Vieja, 25km northeast of Liberia. But it’s worth the effort. In the Las Pailas sector, walk a 3km loop to marvel at boiling mud pots, sulphurous fumaroles and a mini steaming volcancito. In the Santa María sector, hike 2.8km then soothe your aching joints in all-natural sulphurous hot springs. Rincón de la Vieja is one of the country’s most feisty volcanos: the hike to the crater was closed after a 2012 eruption.
Arenal Observatory (arenalobservatorylodge.com)
Arenal Volcano National Park Open 8am-4pm, admission US$15
Rincón de la Vieja National Park Open 8am-4pm, closed Monday, admission US$15
Poás Volcano National Park Open 8am-4pm daily, admission US$15
Dive into an underwater wonderland in the Caribbean or the Pacific – or both
With the Pacific Ocean at its front door and the Caribbean Sea at its back, Costa Rica promises vast and varied marine habitats. Conditions for snorkelling are highly variable; but some 120 species of fish and 40 kinds of crustaceans inhabit these parts.
Isla del Caño is a small island formed by protruding rock formations. It is unique in the Pacific for its variety of coral (15 different species). The large numbers of fish attract predators such as dolphins, whales and sharks. The island is uninhabited, but tour operators bring snorkelers and divers here. Elsewhere, the Pacific waters lack the colourful corals of the Caribbean, but the marine life is abundant. From Playa del Coco, divers go offshore to Isla Santa Catalina and Isla Murciélago to see calving humpback whales, migrating manta rays and resident bull sharks. While Marino Ballena National Park protects its namesake humpback whales, which can be spotted on whale-watching trips from July to April.
Bad Bart’s Adventure & Dive Shop, Manzanillo (badbartsmanzanillo.com) Guided snorkelling and diving/gear rental
Bahía Aventuras, Uvita (bahiaaventuras.com) Whale watching trips, snorkelling tours to Isla del Caño and Marina Ballena National Park
Deep Blue Diving, Playa del Coco (deepblue-diving.com) dives to Santa Catalina (US$115) and Murciélago (US$155)
Pacheco Tours, Bahía Drake (pachecotours.com) Snorkel tours to Isla del Caño US$85
Snorkeling House, Cahuita (snorkelinghouse.com) Snorkelling tours US$25 including equipment
From its wave-crushed coastlines to its rugged peaks, Costa Rica offers thrills and chills for adventurous souls
Costa Rica has 1290km of coastline on two different oceans: that’s a lot of waves to ride
There’s decent surf all over, but a handful of destinations are world-class, attracting surfers in search of long lefts and righteous rights. These waves are the stuff of legends, memorialised in films such as Endless Summer II. Back in the day, intrepid surfers would hitchhike down the coast, braving teeth-rattling roads and camping on the beach. In some cases, diehards still do that (most notably, at Playa Naranjo in the Santa Rosa Sector), but most surf destinations now offer more comfortable accommodations. We still can’t vouch for the roads.
Jutting out into the Pacific Ocean, the Nicoya Peninsula is lined with surfing beaches
There's fun-loving Playa Tamarindo in the north, remote hippy-hipster surfer outpost Mal País in the south, and back on the mainland there are plenty of places to catch some waves around the rowdy party town of Jacó and the sleepy village of Dominical. Pavones is supposedly the second-longest left-hand break in the world. The Caribbean coast boasts fewer breaks but they are no less potent, especially the infamous Salsa Brava at Puerto Viejo de Talamanca.
White water rafting
Ride Costa Rica’s raging rapids through lush tropical forests and dramatic river canyons
In Costa Rica, three primary rivers attract rafters. La Virgen is a white water capital, thanks to the bubbling, boiling Río Sarapiquí. Class III and IV rapids and the pristine rainforest around Braulio Carrillo National Park make this river a top spot for running the rapids (by raft or kayak) – as well as for spotting birds and other wildlife along the way.
“Forward!” commands the guide, and all paddles are in the water
The other hub for white water rafting is Turrialba, with access to two wild and scenic rivers. The Río Pacuare cuts through a stunning river gorge, which is draped in velvety rainforest and gushing with waterfalls. The river combines the country’s most spectacular scenery and thrilling Class III and IV rapids. Set amid more mountainous scenery, the Río Reventazón boasts the country’s biggest white water. The stretch known as Pascua includes 15 different Class IV rapids, which will get your heart racing. Other great rivers for rafting include Reventazón, Naranjo, Tenorio, Peñas Blancas, Savegre, Cucaracho and Corobici. Trips can also be arranged from San José, La Fortuna or other tourist centres.
Soar across the treetops and see the forest from above
Here’s an outdoor adventure that requires no special training, skills or previous experience. All it takes is a willingness to let go and… fly. In Costa Rica, zip-lines are called “canopy tours” for the unique opportunity to see the forest from above.
Not that you see much, when your zipping down the line at full speed, feeling the damp air on your face and clutching the rope for dear life. A keen eye might spot birds or other creatures from the platforms; but the real appeal of zip-lining is the adrenaline rush – the pure sense of freedom and flying. The first zip-line in Costa Rica (now called the Original Canopy Tour) was established in Santa Elena in 1994. Nowadays, the area around Santa Elena and Monteverde is still the epicentre of zip-lining in Costa Rica, but there are canopy tours all over the country.
Cool off under a high-pressure, all-natural, rainforest shower
For sheer beauty and unharnessed power, it’s hard to beat a rainforest waterfall, gurgling through the vegetation, gushing over rocks and cliffs, and plunging into an inviting pool.
Up close, the force of the falls is nothing short of awesome
Near La Fortuna, the waterfall of the same name is a 70m stunner, thundering over the cliff and into the pool below. It’s spectacular from a distance (which you’ll see as you descend nearly 500 steps to get there). Llanos de Cortés is a sublime spot near Bagaces – a favourite of local families. At 12m high, the waterfall is not as exhilarating as Fortuna, but it’s better for swimming, floating beneath the falls and exploring behind the curtain of water. At the southern tip of the Nicoya Peninsula, Montezuma Falls is a three-tiered waterfall. It’s a 40-minute hike up the river to the first cascade, but the higher you go, the better it gets: the upper falls offer sweet swimming pools, cliff jumping, and even a rope swing.
Reach the peak of Costa Rica’s highest mountain
It normally takes two days to ascend (and descend) Cerro Chirripó (3,820m), the gloriously rugged pinnacle of the Talamanca Mountains. The first day hikers cover 14.5km to Crestones base lodge, which offers a hot meal and a warm bed. On day two, you’ll depart before dawn for the last 5km, reaching the summit in time for a spectacular sunrise. The scenery at Chirripó is quite a contrast to other parts of Costa Rica. Starting at an altitude of 1220m, your head is in the clouds from the outset.
Resplendent quetzals and other cloud forest species hide in these mist-cloaked trees
Around 3,400m, the cloud forest gives way to páramo, a sort of high-altitude tundra that is unique to Central and South America. By now, you are above the clouds and tree growth is stunted, which makes for spectacular, wide-open mountain views. At the top – when skies are clear – you’ll relish a 360-degree panorama, with glimpses of both the Caribbean and the Pacific. The hike to Chirripó is not technically difficult and trails are well marked, so there’s no need for a guide. That said, it can be difficult to make reservations at the base lodge and secure permits for hiking without local assistance.
Hear the call of the wild in Costa Rica’s forests, wetlands and beaches.
Let an avian expert introduce you to Costa Rica’s most colourful characters
At last count, the Ornithological Association of Costa Rica had recorded 918 species of birds (that's more than Canada and US combined). Some of these are migrants and a few are accidental, but that still leaves some 600 resident species – the greatest density of birds in the Americas.
The resplendent quetzal is highly conspicuous during nesting season (February to May) in the cloud forests around Monteverde and San Gerardo de Dota
Many of the most impressive species are not so difficult to spot, if you know when and where to look. Scarlet macaws are pervasive in the Osa Peninsula and Carara National Park. Green macaws are not uncommon in the Sarapiquí Valley and Boca Tapada area. Whether you’re going for quantity or quality of bird species, it’s worth hiring a guide. Guides are trained and licensed. They know the birds’ calls and they often know where they nest or feed. They may carry a scope, which gives clients a closer-up view of the target. And not the least, they can identify the species – not only the macaws and the quetzals, but also those LBBs (little brown birds).
Turtle Nesting Tours
Witness the sea turtle’s elaborate but essential nesting rites
The life cycle of a sea turtle is a bizarre and beautiful thing. The female sea turtle returns to her natal beach to nest, sometimes travelling hundreds of kilometres to get there. She returns to the sea, leaving her offspring to make their own way when they hatch several weeks later. During turtle nesting times, licensed guides lead tours to witness the primordial event: it is an awe-inspiring experience that reminds us of both the fragility and durability of life.
Awkward on the sand, the mother turtle hauls her heavy body up onto the beach
Four types of sea turtles nest on the Caribbean coast from March through October: green, leatherback, hawksbill and loggerhead. The best places to see them are Tortuguero and Gandoca-Manzanillo Wildlife Refuge. Leatherbacks nest at Las Baulas National Marine Park on the Nicoya Peninsula, and further south, olive ridley turtles nest en masse at Ostional Wildlife Refuge.
Association of Local Guides – Ostional (00 506 2682 0428; facebook.com/GUIASAGLO) US$10
Association of Guides – Tortuguero (00 506 2676 0836; asoprotur.com) US$20
Las Baulas National Marine Park (00 506 2653 0470), US$30
Samara Adventure Company (00 506 2656 0920; samara-tours.com) US$50
Corcovado National Park
Count off the creatures that inhabit this ecological wonderland
Covering about 40 per cent of the Osa Peninsula, Corcovado National Park is 424 sq km of pure wildness. This rainforest is home to 140 species of mammals, 116 species of reptiles and nearly 500 species of birds, not to mention some 6000 species of insects. (Don’t worry, you probably will not see all of them.)
Anywhere in the park, a keen eye might spot scarlet macaws, white-tailed coati, three kinds of monkeys and two kinds of sloths. For rarer critters, the serious animal enthusiast should make their way to Sirena ranger station, in the south-west corner of the park. Here, it’s not unusual to see endangered species such as Baird’s tapir and squirrel monkeys, as well as silky anteaters, American crocodiles and both white-lipped and collared peccaries. Other celebrity residents (though rarely spotted) include the giant anteater, the harpy eagle and king jaguar himself.
Reaching Sirena station requires a long day’s hike from the park entrance at Carate or La Tarde (both accessible from Puerto Jímenez) or a charter flight. All hikers should make advance arrangements to eat and sleep at Sirena station. Hikers must also be accompanied by a licensed guide, who can help spot and identify the creatures of Corcovado.
Two types of sloth inhabit Corcovado
Osa Conservation Area Headquarters, Corcovado (00 506 2735 5036) admission US$15
Osa Wild (osawildtravel.com)
Cruise through the waterways of this jungly wilderness
Tortuguero National Park is famous for one kind of animal, thanks to its name. But this Amazonian landscape has much more than just turtles: caimans and crocs, monkeys and sloths, lizards and frogs are all abundant. The endangered West Indian manatee is frequently spotted swimming in its waters. More than 300 species of birds nest in the mangroves and rainforests. Laced with waterways and lush with vegetation, Tortuguero is one of the ecologically richest parts of the country.
It is so wet that the only way to get there is by boat (or plane). The highways and byways are rivers, lagoons and canals; and the best way to explore is by canoe. Boat tours are also popular, though the noise of the motor may disturb the wildlife. In any case, it’s an atmospheric cruise through inky waters and jungle, with monkeys, crocs and other wildlife spying from the side lines.
Canal tours depart from Tortuguero village or from Puerto Limón.
Follow the waterfowl to this fascinating, ever-changing wetlands
In the far north of Costa Rica, way off the beaten track, the Río Frío is so much more than a river. During the rainy season (May to December), it floods the surrounding landscape, forming a massive lagoon that supports a slew of water-based species. When it stops raining, water levels drop and the lagoon nearly dries up. This unique ecosystem is a paradise for wildlife enthusiasts.
You’ll spot the same howler monkeys and green iguanas that you see in other parts of the country. What is really special here is the avian life, as the wetlands attract hundreds of species of water birds. Take a tour around the lagoon, and you’re likely to spot different varieties of anhingas, cormorants, ducks, herons, ibises, kingfishers, rails, spoonbills and storks.
The birding is best during the dry season, when the animals congregate around the shrinking water supply. Many tours come for the day from La Fortuna, but it’s worth spending a night or two in this quaint community and getting an early start on the water.
Keep your eyes peeled for the distinctive jabiru, the country’s largest bird
Caño Negro Natural Lodge (canonegrolodge.com) Accommodations (from US$130) and tours (from US$47)
Hotel de Campo (hoteldecampo.com) Accommodation (from US$100) and tours.
History & Culture
Learn about the people, places and events that built the green, peaceful paradise that is contemporary Costa Rica
Explore the only major pre-Columbian archaeological site in Costa Rica
The appeal of archaeology, perhaps, is in uncovering the mystery. If that is the case, then the Guayabó National Archaeological Monument is appealing indeed, as so little is known about this pre-Columbian city, which supposedly thrived from about 1000BC until it was abandoned in the 1400s.
Guayabó's 232 hectares are still largely unexplored
Guayabó is not as grand as the Maya and Aztec ruins around Central America; but it is unique in that it is the only major site in Costa Rica. So far, excavations have uncovered a wealth of pottery and gold (now on display at the National Museum in San José), an impressive 8km stone-paved road and a still-functional aqueduct system, as well as a burial site and some petroglyphs. Interestingly, Guayabó was never mentioned in any historical accounts, so it’s not clear if explorers encountered this civilisation, and there is no known explanation for its demise. The site is 20km north of Turrialba, on the southern slope of the Turrialba Volcano. It is a fascinating destination for a change of pace in your Costa Rica itinerary, especially if you hire a guide to explain what you are looking at.
Guayabó National Archaeological Monument Open 8am-3:30pm, admission US$6
U Sure Association of Local Guides (usurecr.org) 90-minute tours for one to three people US$20
San José Museums
Investigate the history of Costa Rica at the capital’s excellent museums
San José is not on every traveller’s itinerary, but the capital is a fine place to spend a day or two. The best of the museums are located near the Plaza de la Democracía. The centrepiece, the Jade Museum is the collection of jade artefacts – reputed to be the largest in the world.
The Jade museum displays jewellery, carved figurines and musical instruments crafted out of the mesmerizing material
The sage-coloured mineral was a valuable commodity among the pre-Columbian cultures, especially the Chorotega of northwest Costa Rica. Nearby, the atmospheric Bellavista Fortress is a historic site in itself. It was here that fighting took place during the civil war in 1948, and that the military was abolished in 1949. The fortress is now home to the National Museum, its butterfly garden, archaeological artefacts and the private residences of former commanders.
Museo Nacional, Plaza de la Democracia
The highlight is the new exhibit on the “Living History of Costa Rica” which focuses on society and culture from the 16th century to present.
Fiesta de los Diablitos
Elaborate masks, festive dancing and plenty of chicha enliven this three-day celebration.
It’s not easy to learn about Costa Rica’s indigenous peoples, which represent less than 2 per cent of the country’s current population. After the arrival of the Spanish, exploitation and disease nearly decimated the native populations. But there’s at least one indigenous group that considers that it was victorious against the Spanish, as it continues to preserve its language, legends and cultural traditions, even now.
The Boruca celebrate this victory every year at a raucous, three-day festival, known as the Fiesta de los Diablitos (held in the villages of Brunca and in Rey Curré in January and February, respectively). The diablitos or “little devils” represent the ancestral spirits, who take on a mighty bull representing the Spanish conquistadors. The villagers don colourfully painted, hand-carved balsa masks and re-enact the conflict in the form of a dance, which culminates with the triumph of the diablitos and the burning of the bull in a huge bonfire. Much celebrating ensues, including the drinking of chicha, a fermented corn beverage that is sipped from a calabash gourd.
Villagers don colourfully painted, hand-carved balsa masks and re-enact the conflict in the form of a dance
The ritual is a rare glimpse into how this age-old culture views its own place in the midst of the European imperialism that has dominated more recent Costa Rican history.
Drive through this green valley to visit quaint colonial villages and admire lovely scenery
The highlight of this off-the-beaten-track destination is the scenery, with grand volcano vistas, quaint colonial churches and terraced, coffee-covered hills. Spend a day driving the Route 224 loop, from Paraíso to Orosi to Ujarrás, to see the sights and to take in the spectacular countryside.
A coffee plantation in the valley
Stop first at Finca Cristina in Paraíso for your coffee fix. You’ll learn how the beans are planted, harvested and roasted on this organic farm. Coffee cultivation transformed this country in the 19th century, and it’s still a critical part of the Costa Rican economy. Next, venture south to Orosi, a delightful colonial-era village with magnificent vistas all around.
The centrepiece is the charming 18th-century village church, Iglesia de San José, which is apparently the country’s oldest in operation. Continue on Route 224 around the Lago de Cachí to old Ujarrás. The crumbling walls of the 1693 stone church – Iglesia de Nuestra Señora de la Limpia Concepción – make for a picturesque spot for a picnic before heading back to Paraíso.
Finca Cristina, (506-2574-6426). Call ahead for tours
Marvel at the architectural masterpiece that is the epicentre of San José cultural life
Here’s something you might not expect to see in Costa Rica: a sumptuous, neo-Classical theatre, complete with columned façade and lavish marble lobby. Opened in 1897, the National Theatre was financed by a tax on coffee, and it stands as a symbol of the wealth, status and European tastes of the coffee barons - note the statues of German composer and Spanish writer in front of the building.
Hear performances by the National Symphonic Orchestra, as well as opera, drama and dance
Don’t miss the celebrated ceiling mural Allegory of Coffee and Bananas, which depicts the harvesting of the country’s most important crops.
The irony is that the Italian master had apparently never set foot in Costa Rica. The painting depicts coffee growing near the sea, though it’s normally cultivated in the mountains. The farmer is mishandling his bananas by holding the giant bunch upside-down, instead of hoisting it over his shoulder as was the normal practice. On site, the Alma de Café is wonderful at any time of year.
Indulge in a little self-care, whether soaking in hot springs, ambling through gardens or relaxing on beaches (or all of the above)
Lounge on a sun-soaked stretch of sand and dip into inviting azure waters
The country’s most popular beach destination is Manuel Antonio National Park – and with good reason. Three pristine beaches are backed by lush rainforest, where monkeys, sloths and coatis spy on sunbathers and swimmers. A sprinkling of offshore islands make for gorgeous sea views, with the occasional dolphin pod making an appearance. Just outside the park, the town of Manuel Antonio offers some of the country’s most sophisticated dining.
Puerto Viejo de Talamanca
On the Caribbean coast, the beach town of choice is Puerto Viejo de Talamanca, once a surfing outpost, but now appreciated by all. Puerto Viejo clings proudly to its Caribbean roots, blasting reggae and cooking up spicy rondón in its kitchens. South-east of town, a series of picture-perfect beaches sprawls out along the coast, backed by lush rainforest teeming with howler monkeys.
Montezuma is a laidback, happy, hippy town, with easy access to powdery white sand and warm turquoise waters. Beach trails lead to hidden coves, freshwater pools and even a waterfall, crashing onto the beach.
Manuel Antonio National Park 7am-4pm, closed Monday, US$16
Soothe your soul in a garden bursting with blooms, butterflies and birdlife
It was Rumi who noted that “Beauty surrounds us, but usually we need to be walking in a garden to know it.” In Costa Rica, tropical gardens abound, awakening the senses with their wonderful displays of colour and mind-boggling diversity of species.
The country’s premier example, Wilson Botanical Gardens contains thousands of examples of plant life from around Costa Rica and around the world. Some 2,000 native species include bromeliads, orchids, philodendrons and heliconias by the hundreds. The blooms attract butterflies, birds and bats, as well as the occasional iguana. Visitors can discover the garden’s biodiversity on a general tour, or explore more specific flora on specialty tours of trees, palms, bamboo and more. Orchidaceae is the world’s second-largest plant family – and it thrives in Costa Rica, with more than 1,300 species. See these stunners (usually in bloom from March to May) at the Orchid Garden near Monteverde or at Lankester Gardens near Cartago. The latter is one of the only places where travellers can purchase orchids to take home with them.
Soak away your sorrows in a volcano-heated pool
After all that action and adventure, nothing beats easing your body into a natural pool filled with geothermal-heated waters. The hot springs experience can vary quite a bit – and not just the temperature. If you’re looking for lush and luxurious, head straight to La Fortuna, the hot-tub hub on the flanks of Arenal volcano. The original hot springs resort – and still a favourite – is Tabacón, complete with waterfall, water slide and swim-up bar.
A more intimate, arguably more authentic option is Eco Termales: it lacks the fancy amenities, but makes up for it with gorgeous green gardens. Springs also bubble up in the Río Negro, heated by Rincón de la Vieja volcano. Ten man-made pools of varying temperatures are spread out along the gurgling river, connected by wooded paths and hanging bridges. Río Perdido is a dramatic river canyon surrounded by dry forest and rock formations. Heated by Miravalles Volcano, eight springs feed into the cool rushing river, creating dozens of bubbling, swimmable pools.
Eco Termales Hot Springs, La Fortuna (ecotermalesfortuna.cr) 10am-9pm, admission US$36, reservations recommended
Río Negro Hot Springs (guachipelin.com) 8am-5pm, admission US$20
Río Perdido (rioperdido.com) day pass US$40
Tabacón Hot Springs, La Fortuna (tabacon.com) 10am-10pm, day pass US$85
Do your sun salutations in an open-air studio with glorious views of forest, sea or sky
Yoga is always a sure-fire way to refresh the body and renew the soul. But what about practicing yoga in the midst of a wild tropical rainforest or on the edge of a pristine wave-crashed beach? Many retreat centres offering incredible, immersive itineraries that revolve around practicing yoga in spectacular settings. Anamaya Resort is an excellent example.
Anamaya yoga deck
Built into the side of a cliff high above Montezuma Beach, the yoga deck at Anamaya looks over the marvellous forest canopy and out to the big blue Pacific. Further north, Nosara is an epicentre for yoga in Costa Rica, due in part to institutions such as Bodhi Tree Yoga Resort. Here is another gorgeous place to practice, as the yoga shala is void of walls, offering 360 degrees of unimpeded forest views. On the opposite coast, near Puerto Viejo de Talamanca, SamaSati Retreat is set on a 250-acre rainforest reserve laced with hiking trails and waterfalls. Retreat centres generally offer a range of accommodation options, healthy meals and daily yoga classes, as well as options for surf lessons and spa treatments.
Anamaya Resort, Montezuma (anamayaresort.com) Seven-day retreat from US$995 per person
Bodhi Tree Resort, Nosara (bodhitreeresort.com) Rooms from US$75 per person
SamaSati Retreat, Puerto Viejo de Talamanca (samasati.com) Rooms from US$76 per person
Indulgence and environmentalism go hand in hand at these luxurious eco-resorts
Costa Rica demonstrates a pioneering approach to eco-tourism; but if you also look forward to a certain level of luxury when you travel, never fear. This is one place where caring for the earth and caring for yourself are not mutually exclusive endeavours.
Lapa Rios is an eco-chic resort that was the first to earn the maximum five-leaf rating by the country’s Certification of Sustainable Tourism (CST). On a 1,000-acre rainforest reserve, the lodge invests in guest education and community engagement, in addition to its eco-sensitive infrastructure. But the place does not skimp on the finer things – think open-air, ocean-view bungalows, all equipped with indoor and outdoor showers.
El Silencio Lodge is another gorgeous facility that has earned a five-leaf CST rating, this one set on the flanks of Poás Volcano. Each suite has a private deck complete with handcrafted rocking chairs, hot tub and glorious cloud forest view. On-site activities include waterfalls hikes and hummingbird gardens; plus every guest is invited to plant a tree on the grounds.
Where to stay
Whether you're looking for a natural retreat or ultimate luxury, Costa Rica will never fail to impress
Hotel Banana Azul
Romance and relaxation on Costa Rica’s funky Caribbean coast
This charming oasis is about a mile north of Puerto Viejo. Tucked among tropical gardens off a quiet gravel road, the property features a virtually private stretch of chocolate-sand beach perfect for a morning walk or swim.
Travellers have plenty of options – from tanning at the Playa Negra to enjoying a dip in the pool or a beachfront massage, and throughout the property, tropical trappings such as brightly colored hammocks and decorative shells make guests feel relaxed and welcome. Some accommodations boast private pools, hot tubs and ocean-view terraces; all feature a dreamy, jungle-inspired design achieved with local materials and art. The Howler suite — a corner room with killer views – is a top choice.
Howler Suite terrace
Rooms are intentionally devoid of technology (so no phones or televisions) because the point here is to disconnect.
Double rooms from £86 in low season; £123 in high.
Playa Negra, Puerto Viejo de Talamanca, Límon, Costa Rica (00 506 2750 2035; bananaazul.com)
This Cloud Forest lodge will take you to Cloud Nine
Peace Lodge is one of Costa Rica’s most magical hotels, high in the cloud forest. The grounds offer storybook villas with stone fireplaces and bubbling hot tubs, dramatic waterfall hikes, close encounters with rescued wildlife, and pools aplenty – including a trout-fishing pond. It is reached up a meandering country road lined with blooming hydrangeas and organic strawberry stands.
Peace Lodge perches on a Central Valley mountainside
This boutique is an imaginative, unrestrained ode to the natural world with Mediterranean trimmings and tumbling cascades at every turn. In shared spaces, lustrous hardwood, faux stone and swirling wrought iron dominate, creating an atmosphere that might feel extravagant if it weren’t so cosy and inspired.
Fish for lunch at the trout pond, hand-feed toucans and hummingbirds, and watch three jaguar cubs – the first to be born in captivity in Costa Rica – devour fresh meat. A clear winner for families, Peace Lodge offers an arcade and games room, a kiddie pool and complimentary cots. Babysitting services are available for a fee, and the property’s hikes and wildlife encounters will hold equal appeal for children and adults.
Double rooms from £265 in low season; £325 in high.
Vara Blanca, Costa Rica (00 506 2482 2100; waterfallgardens.com)
Tortuga Lodge & Gardens
This sophisticated and intimate river lodge is the ultimate glamp, bringing guests close to nature without ever subjecting them to its discomforts. Top draws include 20 hectares of private jungle trails, a relaxing pool surrounded by hammocks, and a delicious Caribbean restaurant.
The lodge sits on a canal by Costa Rica’s northeastern seashore in close proximity to legendary turtle nesting sites and Costa Rica's flourishing canal system, known also as Tortuguero National Park. It is not possible to drive here, as there are no roads, so guests usually arrive by bus and boat. The plantation home-style accommodations feel like something out of a luxury safari camp, but with heavy Caribbean influence, and the onsite, riverfront restaurant serves up Caribbean and Costa Rican dishes.
Double rooms from £147 in low season; £209 in high.
One mile north of Tortuguero City, 6941, Costa Rica (00 506 2257 0766; tortugalodge.com)
Kura Design Villas
Lovebirds looking to escape from it all can't do better than the Kurà Design Villas, the country’s sexiest hotel. This modern Shangri-La, set at the top of a mountain overlooking the southern Pacific coast, contains six exclusive and sensual bungalows, a salt-water infinity pool, relaxing spa and first-rate restaurant.
Views of the ocean, jungle-covered mountains and sunset are unparalleled, and through a Vortex telescope, visitors can get a close-up of the distant coastline that resembles a whale’s tail at low tide and may be lucky enough to see real migrating humpbacks. At the edge of the property, the exceedingly tranquil Spa Shà features a variety of treatments including an hour-long couple's massage dubbed 'Kura Paradise'. The kitchen specialises in fusion dishes and seafood, offering a tantalising octopus and avocado cocktail and a delicate yellow fin tuna sashimi. There is no better spot for a jaguar colada than the sky lounge, a private deck atop Kurà’s restaurant, where couples celebrating an occasion can also opt for a candlelit dinner under the stars.
Double rooms from £507 in low season; £644 in high - Children under 16 are not allowed.
Uvita de Osa, Bahía Ballena, Costa Rica, 00011 Uvita, Costa Rica (00 506 8448 5744; kuracostarica.com)
The real deal when it comes to eco-lodges
Costa Rica’s farthest-flung haven, tucked into the wilds of the Osa Peninsula, reflects an intense spirituality and obsession with nature. Guests stay in deluxe bungalows or upscale tents, practise yoga, and explore the country’s most biodiverse jungle, right at the lodge’s doorstep.
With a top-notch spa, salt-water pool, and mountaintop yoga deck, the lodge is a destination in its own right, and its backyard is the country’s best natural playground – Corcovado National Park. The stylish, well-constructed bungalows dot the mountainside without dominating it, and the use of stone, palm fronds, and glistening hardwoods give this boutique Shangri-La its earthy vibe. The main rancho, an open-air common space where guests take meals, is defined by its vaulted rooftop, natural woodwork and leather rocking chairs.
For an off-the-grid nature retreat, this place has a lot to offer.
Double rooms from £308 in low season; £353 in high. All meals included.
2 km north of Carate, 68203 Carate, Puntarenas Province, Costa Rica (00 506 4070 0010; lunalodge.com)
Experience paradise in Costa Rica
Discover beautiful beaches, breathtaking nature and action-packed adventure in this tropical wonderland
By Michael Meadows
Top 10 reasons to visit Costa Rica
There are at least a hundred reasons to visit Costa Rica – but we’ve narrowed the list down to just 10 that highlight the natural bounty and vibrant spirit of this colourful country.
1 Manuel Antonio National Park
Picture in your mind a perfect tropical beach and you are likely to come up with something that looks like Playa Manuel Antonio.
Discover some of the world’s best beaches
A narrow isthmus fringed by white sands and bright blue ocean connects to a rocky outcrop topped by tumbling foliage.
Yet the glorious beaches are just one of the attractions of Manuel Antonio National Park on Costa Rica’s Pacific coast.
About 80 miles from the capital San José, this park may be the country’s smallest but it teems with wildlife in a series of ecosystems.
Scarlet macaws share the branches of the dense rainforest with cute three-toed sloths and chattering capuchin monkeys. Down below, armadillos and iguanas scurry in the undergrowth.
Offshore are a string of untouched islets – best viewed from one of the higher-level hiking trails or from the outcrop, Punta Catedral.
Dolphins patrol this pristine coastline while beneath the waves are remarkable coral formations that make this spot a favourite with snorkellers and divers.
Should you wish to engage further with the seascape, there are opportunities for surfing, paddleboarding and kayaking along nearby shores where coconut palms provide the shade.
All this natural bounty is accessible, too, with a range of accommodation just up the road in the town of Quepos.
2 Tortuguero National Park
The powder sands and crystal waters of Costa Rica’s Caribbean coast form a rare habitat for some of the world’s most threatened creatures – turtles.
Take a wildlife spotting tour
Along a 20-mile stretch of shore in the Tortuguero National Park, four species – leatherback, loggerhead, green and the critically endangered hawksbill – return each year to lay their eggs in the sand.
The park’s remoteness and the efforts of dedicated conservationists help ensure these gentle and fascinating creatures have a future.
The egg-laying season depends on the species but runs from March to October, with the leatherbacks – which can be up to six feet long – the first to arrive.
It may be possible to witness a hatching when, with a qualified guide, you can watch the baby turtles scramble into the sea in the moonlight. Tortuguero has many waterways and coastal features that provide a home to big numbers of plant species and a wide variety of animals and birds.
The swamps and channels are home to waterbirds such as herons and spoonbills, otters, manatees and more than 50 amphibians including poison-dart frogs. Among the trees flash the bright bills of toucans, the iridescent plumage of parrots and colourful butterflies.
Sloths, monkeys and various reptiles – including caiman – live here too, plus there’s the chance of seeing a silent jaguar slinking through the forest. Exploring by boat or kayak is the best way to observe this remarkable environment.
3 Osa Peninsula and Corcovado National Park
The deep appeal of the Osa Peninsula, on the Pacific coast, is that it is partly cut off from the rest of the country – and, seemingly, from the rest of the world.
Keep your eyes peeled for cheeky squirrel monkeys
Wrapping round the pristine Golfo Dulce (Sweet Gulf), this rugged peninsula has very few roads – a fact that appeals to intrepid visitors who know that their trekking efforts will be well rewarded.
Much of the peninsula is protected as the Corcovado National Park – the most biodiverse region of this size anywhere on Earth and sheltering half of Costa Rica’s species.
The landscapes and seascapes are wonderfully varied, from old-growth forest to mangroves and marine habitats.
It’s in this Lost World that you stand the best chance of seeing extremely rare animals – jaguars and red-backed squirrel monkeys, for example – though others, such as Baird’s tapirs, boa constrictors, hummingbirds and one of the largest eagles, the harpy, may be easier to find.
Deserted beaches and hidden waterfalls are other lures for trekkers, though there is no need to bring survival gear. Carefully situated eco-lodges are scattered around the peninsula to provide adventurers with well-earned comforts after a day’s adventures.
The Golfo Dulce also has ample opportunities for boat trips, kayaking and dolphin-watching.
There’s intriguing history here too, in the form of giant, ancient stone spheres weighing up to 20 tonnes at the mainland end of the peninsula.
4 Limón and Carnival
Costa Rica is not all about the nature. Come during October and you’ll find Limón, one of the country’s bigger cities, a riot of colour and life to rival that of the jungles.
Feel the carnival spirit
Carnival is as celebrated here as in Rio. Limón’s multi-cultural population celebrates its diversity in a week-long spectacle of dizzying parades, outrageous costumes, music, dance and fireworks, with food and art providing pleasing diversions.
Limón was founded in 1502 by Christopher Columbus and it is this event on which the festival is based, although the lines have become blurred over the years as the people come together in a city that wears its heart on its sleeve. The “big day” for many is dubbed the Day of Cultures.
The Afro-Caribbean influence is especially strong, reflected in the reggae and calypso music and dishes such as spicy rice and beans with coconut that can be bought from various stalls. You will also find cashew nuts in recipes and an abundance of fruit. Look out also for the children’s parade, in which participants don giant masks. Outside Carnival, Limón has interesting architecture and a vibrant market that is a good place to choose souvenirs such as wood carvings. Great beaches are just a bus ride away to help you recover from the festival’s exuberance.
5 Puerto Viejo de Talamanca and the Caribbean Coast
Sometimes all we want to do on holiday is relax in the sun and this is where compact Costa Rica scores so highly. You can have adventures in the jungles and mountains then be on an exotic beach a short time later.
Both coasts have laid-back resorts and one that is always popular is on the Caribbean side – Puerto Viejo de Talamanca.
This ethnically mixed town is the place to meet locals and visitors with roots around the world in an atmosphere that swings from placid to party.
Many visitors come for the surfing, for some of the nearby beaches are regarded as having the most sought-after breaks, especially Salsa Brava. If you prefer land to water, there are chances to ride a horse or a mountain bike in the lush hills.
There’s a strong Rasta vibe to the town because many of the early settlers were from Jamaica. You’ll come across clubs and bars playing dancehall and reggae along with shacks selling jerk chicken and other tasty Caribbean treats.
A short way along the coast is Manzanillo, a village known both for its amazing palm-lined beach and succulent seafood. Just offshore, rich coral reefs crammed with tropical fish lure snorkellers, while those with the energy can take a hike to observe playful monkeys.
This stretch of coast boasts a good range of rustic accommodation from jungle lodges to cabins by the beach.
6 Arenal Volcano National Park
Costa Rica’s volcanoes are truly spectacular, each boasting unique characteristics. One is Arenal. Looming above a mantle of deep green rainforest, this symmetrical cone is like something out of a fantasy movie.
This National Park is an adventure playground
In 1968, this brooding hulk exploded so fiercely that a nearby town was crushed. It continued to rumble regularly until appearing to go to sleep about seven years ago.
Nobody knows when it may come alive again but at the moment this slumber means all sorts of outdoor activities can be enjoyed around its flanks.
You cannot climb up to peer into its crater at 5,400ft but there are superb hiking routes around its perimeter and that of Arenal’s little sister, Chato, with local guides who will help you negotiate the trails, pointing out the flora and fauna as well as once-malevolent lava flows.
The landscape is doused with rivers and lakes. Rafting, swimming in waterfall pools, fishing, canopy walks and zipwires are among the activities that complement the excellent hiking.
Most visitors stay in or around La Fortuna, a friendly service town with a good range of accommodation, restaurants and adventure companies.
A short distance from the town is one of Costa Rica’s most impressive waterfalls, also called La Fortuna, plunging more than 200ft into a blue pool that begs to be swimmed.
Too chilly? Then end your day at one of the region’s hot springs, warmed by the energy that caused Arenal to blow its top.
7 Monteverde Cloud Forest
Is there a more evocative term than “cloud forest”? The name conjures images of mist swirling around steep hills smothered in evergreens, with the chatter of birds and the prospect of all kinds of creatures lurking in the dark depths.
Take a canopy tour
And that’s exactly what you get at Monteverde.
The name means Green Mountain and it is one of Costa Rica’s richest regions in terms of biodiversity.
Up here above 4,000ft along the country’s mountainous spine, the air is cooler and attracts a plethora of wildlife, especially birds, along with giant ferns, numerous orchids and hundreds of species of tree. A main quarry for birdwatchers is the elusive and beautiful quetzal with its distinctive red-and-green plumage.
There are plenty of hiking trails but the most enthralling way to appreciate this environment is via the canopy walkways and observation towers (much of the forest’s wildlife lives high above the ground) or, for those more brave, via the ziplines.
One great hike is into the neighbouring Santa Elena reserve, where there is a towering waterfall.
Should you hear a loud bellowing along the way, it will be one of the howler monkeys letting you know who’s boss.
As an alternative day out, there are plantations in the region that grow the coffee for which Costa Rica is famous and which welcome visitors.
There’s a surprisingly good range of accommodation in Monteverde, from elegant lodges to budget options.
8 The Pacuare River
Spinning down from the Talamanca Mountains to the Caribbean coast, the Pacuare River is one of the best places for rafting in the world.
Have a go at white-water rafting
And what a journey it is, with rainforest hugging steep slopes, waterfalls pouring from tributaries and all manner of exotic wildlife to be viewed as you tumble along the rapids or pause to rest in a calmer spot.
The river is about 70 miles long and various sections suit different abilities and desires, though much of the waterway is quite challenging, with rapids coming one after another.
Reputable local companies – who can often pick you up from your accommodation – offer day trips and multi-day adventures and can pick you up from resorts and cities.
The longer adventures, especially, will open up a Costa Rican world seen by few others as you’ll stop for hikes, perhaps glimpsing sloths, monkeys, toucans, butterflies and bright-hued frogs. Rarely, jaguars are spotted coming down to the water’s edge.
Guided kayaking is an alternative to rafting and, again, single or multi-day trips are on offer. Pacuare is the location of one of the country’s most luxurious lodges, where many guests choose to arrive by raft.
9 Guanacaste and Santa Rosa National Park
Volcanoes, jungles, beaches, wildlife, activities… if you can only visit one region of Costa Rica, Guanacaste makes a strong claim to offer something for everyone.
You are spoilt for choice in Guanacaste
Many flock to the Pacific coast and some of the most glorious beaches in Central America; classic tropical paradises where tangled vegetation yields to silky sands that are washed by turquoise waters.
Tamarindo is a great starting point, a leisurely town with all the facilities for a perfect holiday, not least a beach that is famed for surfing and where friendly instructors will get beginners up and riding the waves. The westernmost town in the country, it is blessed with many hours of sunshine and low humidity.
Inland, the Rincón de la Vieja National Park beckons with nine volcanic craters, clusters of cloud forest and waterfalls, but it’s another Guanacaste park that deserves special mention – Santa Rosa, which juts into the Pacific.The natural diversity here is off the scale, with Central America’s most important dry forest along with mangrove swamps and grasslands. More than 100 species of mammal live here – and at least 10,000 insects.
It’s not impossible to see pumas, while down on the shore leatherback and ridley turtles swim in the shallows and intrepid surfers make their way along the dirt road to Playa Naranjo and its emblematic Witches Rock.
10 Uvita Beach and Caño Island
Look at Uvita Beach from the air and this spit of sand looks just like the fluke of a humpback whale. At certain times of the year, look even closer and you may well see the real thing.
Take a whale-watching tour
Two groups of humpbacks, the northern and southern, pass this Pacific coast on their long annual migrations.
Take a boat trip from July to October and again from December to March and you may well see these magnificent beasts swimming, breaching and diving.
This is the Marino Ballena (Marine Whale) National Park and also harbours at least two species of dolphin, turtles, iguanas and coral reefs, as well as sea caves. Kayaking is another good way to explore.
Offshore is one of the world’s finest diving spots, Isla de Caño. The whales pass close by this island but it’s mainly for the sharks that scuba-lovers come to these transparent waters.
Hammerheads gather around its fringes, along with the white-tipped reef variety, huge manta rays, moray eels and occasionally whale sharks and pilot whales.
The coral here is the most extensive on Costa Rica’s Pacific side, with brain and fan varieties among the many structures. The underwater scenery is impressive too, with cliffs and canyons.
For more holidays to Costa Rica, visit tgr.ph/costarica