Stable and safe but equally adrenalin-inducing, Costa Rica offers plenty for families and adventure junkies alike, says Chris Moss
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With its towering volcanoes, Pacific and Caribbean seaboards, teeming wildlife, rainforests, ranches and coffee estates, Costa Rica is one of those countries that fully satisfies many travelers’ expectations of Latin America. For walkers and climbers, cyclists and surfers, birdwatchers and botanists, it offers countless opportunities to be outdoors and active.
With no fewer than 35 conservation areas, protecting more than a quarter of its territory, Costa Rica is widely recognized as a leader in wildlife tourism — some 894 bird species have been recorded, and there are equally impressive butterfly and mammal counts, as well as a huge variety of plant life. Rugged highlands stretch across the country, ranging from 3,000 to 6,000ft, punctuated by chains of volcanoes.
Local tour guides are skilled at showing off all these natural riches, at rafting hubs like Turrialba, hiking hotspots in the Monteverde Cloud Forest, cycling paths around the Arenal volcano and horseback riding ranches in Guanacaste. Costa Rica pioneered the so-called canopy tour, so there are lots of raised walkways and ziplines for adrenalin junkies; all activities involve local people and Costa Rica’s approach to integrated tourism is regarded as a model for Latin America.
Firmly established as Central America’s leading adventure destination, Costa Rica is also one of its stablest and wealthiest nations. In recent years, it’s been attracting a growing number of expatriates and retirees from North America and Europe. The country is forever expanding its luxury offering — five-star hotels and lodges abound — while key lifestyle aspects such as gastronomy, well paved backroads and infrastructure are always improving.
GIMME 5: MUST SEES
1. Arenal Volcano: An active stratovolcano and the icon of Costa Rican adventure travel. The closest town, La Fortuna, is a base for exploring its rainforest-clad slopes, waterfalls, lakes, lava flows and wildlife, on foot or on mountain bike. Wind down with a dip in a thermal spring at one of the area’s many lodges. The popular Monteverde cloudforest, 84 miles away, is a great side-trip.
2. Manuel Antonio National Park: Established in 1972, this national park offers well-marked trails through rainforests that back on to tropical beaches and rocky headlands. It’s a good spot for seeing iguanas, howlers, capuchins, sloths and squirrel monkeys. If you’re an angler, the Pacific coast has world-class sport fishing for all levels.
3. Tortuguero: This popular spot on Costa Rica’s Caribbean coast takes its name from the Spanish word for the giant sea turtles (tortugas) that nest on the beaches here every year between early March and mid-October. Tortuguero is surrounded by a dense rainforest that’s a habitat for howler and spider monkeys, three-toed sloths, toucans and macaws.
4. Nicoya Peninsula: Loved by surfers and hipsters, this large peninsula on the Pacific coast is still off the map for many travelers. Malpais and Santa Teresa are ultra-fashionable surf hubs, while Playa Samara and Playa Nosara are emerging as contenders. Nicoya is easy to combine with nearby Guanacaste.
5. Guanacaste: This is Costa Rica’s driest area and the site of most of its tourism developments. As well as beautiful sandy beaches, the inland is known as Costa Rica’s ‘Wild West’ — a place to spend nights at ranches beneath the Rincon de la Vieja volcano and days on easy rides across grasslands and through forests with sabaneros (cowboys).
Costa Rica has a great diversity of options, from functional three-star hotels in the capital to rustic lodges out in the mountain ranges. Beach properties in the Nicoya Peninsula range from exclusive designer boutique hotels to surf shacks and good-value rental homes.
The capital San Jose, often overlooked by travelers, has new mid-market hotels, including Holiday Inn, Aloft and Hyatt Place properties. High-end openings, such as the Kura Design Villas eco-lodge in Ballena Marina National Park, and Rio Perdido lodge in the San Bernardo Lowlands of Guanacaste, show how Costa Rican hoteliers are combining sustainability with luxury.
Popular with backpackers, Costa Rica has inexpensive B&Bs, guesthouses and hostels in all its tourism centers, and there’s an evolving but still basic camping scene.
Arenal Observatory Lodge: Originally a Smithsonian Institute research station, this simply decorated hotel in La Fortuna is set on a ridge opposite the imposing Arenal volcano. The large windows offer fabulous views and the setting is a private reserve, with lots of walking trails. arenalobservatorylodge.com
Andaz Papagayo: With 153 lavishly appointed guest rooms and suites with balconies, two multiple cascading outdoor infinity pools, three themed restaurants and an Arnold Palmer 18-hole championship golf course, this December-opened Hyatt brand hotel on the Papagayo Peninsula raises the game in Costa Rica. papagayo.andaz.hyatt.com
Hotel Lagarta Lodge: This small, modestly priced Nicoya Peninsula property has a great location, with rooms looking out to the beach and forests of the beautiful Reserva Biologica Nosara. The entrance to the reserve is through the hotel’s lobby and there’s a good trail into the reserve — ideal for hikers, birdwatchers and nature-lovers. lagarta.com
1. Costa Rica is considered Central America’s safest and most stable country, while being one of the most family-friendly destinations in Latin America and the Caribbean.
2. A long record in adventure and ecotourism means facilities here are tried and tested, sustainable and reassuringly safe.
3. The country’s relatively small size means you can visit two oceans and many inland towns and parks in a one-week vacation.
4. Costa Rica’s biodiversity is amazing, and there are excellent English-speaking wildlife and nature guides as well as very good books and field guides.
5. Costa Rica packs a lot of experiences into relatively small spaces, so you won’t spend all day driving to whitewater rivers or volcanoes.
Eyewitness: Lay of the land
It might look small on a map, but Costa Rica is full of deep folds and seismic fissures, ravines and peaks. If you could flatten the country out to show its real size, it would be considerably bigger. I know, as I drove from the airport at San Jose to Arenal via the mountain roads.
The Panamerican Highway was fairly easy-going, but on the high roads to Turrialba, my little rental car huffed and puffed. It can be sunny down below and cloudy up on top, such is the altitude of the backroads. But the rewards are ample. Costa Rica’s interior is sublimely beautiful, and once you leave the metropolis behind you’re in small towns and agricultural hamlets. When you climb, you’re surrounded by true wilderness: cloud forest, rainforest, and all the shades in between.
At Turrialba, I went rafting on the Rio Pacuare rapids. I always thought assistant paddlers are somewhat superfluous, such is the skill of the pilots, but our eight-strong group certainly worked hard on the whirlpools and rocky sections. Our guide said a black jaguar had been seen on the banks, but we saw only iguanas and a sloth, lazily looking down on us from his secropia tree.
When I reached La Fortuna, it was too dark to see the Arenal volcano, but flashes of orange glowed near the active summit. After dinner at the lodge, I sat on the balcony and watched a storm come in. It was a big one, with dramatic lightning and hammering rain.
By morning, the sky was clear, so I joined a cycling excursion around the lower-reached section of the volcano. The land here is scrubby and almost desert-like, but the paths wide and flat. I’ve hiked up volcanoes before and it can be tediously slow, but the bike ride was a great workout before picnicking beside a lake for lunch. After another two hours of gentle slopes, we debiked to soothe our saddle sores in hot springs.
Later, in Guanacaste, I lodged at a hacienda and joined a local sabanero — like a gaucho — on a ride over the shoulder of the Rincon de la Vieja volcano, the slopes swathed in dense vegetation and low-slung trees. The sky was moody, but the rain held off as we walked and occasionally cantered around an old cattle-raising estate.
By the time I got to the Nicoya Peninsula, I was ready for the beach. At Malpais, I found a budget shack and hit the hammock to read a book and enjoy good ceviche. I’d spent 10 days exploring Costa Rica’s north-western highlights. I’d driven all of 300 miles, but it felt like a whole lot more.
PUBLISHED IN THE SPRING 2014 ISSUE OF ASTAnetwork