With tourism up by 9% in 2015, Costa Rica’s spectacular volcanoes, stunning beaches and abundant wildlife are magnets for the US market, finds Heidi Fuller-Love
Home to volcanoes, stunning beaches, and around 6% of the world’s flora and fauna, Costa Rica is rapidly becoming one of the world’s most popular eco tourism destinations, with the US market key to this growth. More politically stable than its neighbors, this Central American country, fringed by the Pacific and Caribbean, has a year-round tropical climate, with a dry season from December to April.
Not for the faint of heart, Costa Rica’s centrally located capital, San Jose is a raucous town whose potholed roads are packed with lively markets, striking architecture and world-class museums. With reasonably priced internal flights and a wide-ranging bus network, San Jose is also an excellent hub for exploring further afield, although Liberia, the capital city of Guanacaste Province, is the best arrival point for visitors who want to spot the abundant wildlife in the Rincon de la Vieja Volcano National Park, or chill out on the palm-lined beaches of the Nicoya Peninsula, home to one of the country’s best golf courses.
Further along the Pacific Ocean coast, surfers head for Dominical, where the nightlife is almost as legendary as the barreling beach-break, while scuba divers take a boat ride to Cocos, an island 186 miles off the coast where deep waters abound with hammerhead sharks.
Grab a typical tico gallo pinto rice-and black-bean breakfast at Soda Yogui’s, on San Jose’s Avenida Centrale, then lap up some culture at the Museo del Oro museum, where exhibits include glittering jewelry and striking Pre-Columbian artifacts.
Art lovers should head for La Sabana, San Jose’s version of New York’s Central Park, where the country’s largest art collection is housed in the Costa Rican Art Museum. Travelers with kids will prefer Pueblo Antiguo, however. This heritage theme park on the outskirts of town has antique trains, vintage houses, live shows and old-fashioned fairground rides.
End the day on a cultural high at the National Theater of Costa Rica. With its gloriously ornate frescoes, red velvet carpets and marble hallways, this striking building, erected in 1897 with money from the coffee barons (whose plantations put the ‘rich’ into Costa ‘Rica’), hosts frequent concerts and has an elegant cafe serving drinks and cakes.
Rise with the dawn and make the three-hour drive along winding, forest-fringed roads to Tabacón Grand Spa Thermal Resort, in Arenal Volcano National Park. This luxury hotel’s vast grounds are studded with hot pools and waterfalls, and there are hot springs close by.
Soak away travel pains in the hotel’s hot mineral pools, then go horseback riding, or join a hiking tour to explore the 30,000-acre park, which is home to tapir, howler monkeys, rare orchids, and the Arenal Volcano, a looming, lava-topped giant that regularly grumbles into life.
It’s only 85 miles from lake Arenal to Monteverde, but it’s a rough ride over potholed roads. Save time with a taxi–boat tour organized by Anywhere Costa Rica. The spectacular trip from Fortuna to Monteverde only takes two hours, leaving plenty of time to enjoy the gourmet burgers and other fine food on offer at The Belmont Hotel’s restaurant in the heart of this mountaintop town.
Wreathed in mist and surrounded by dense forest, Monteverde was founded by the Quakers in the 1950s. Dirt tracks lined with cafes, restaurants and art galleries lead to the Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve, where attractions include a butterfly garden with live specimens and a spooky twilight-lit bat jungle.
Before heading out on one of the park’s Sky Adventure tours, be sure to visit the orchid gardens, packed with rare specimens, then choose between an energetic hike across bridges high in the forest canopy or a less strenuous Sky Tram ride to spot hummingbirds, sloths and even the rare, rainbow-colored quetzal bird.
Around 70% of Monteverde’s wildlife is nocturnal, so an evening hike by flashlight with Santa Maria’s Night Walk is the best way to spot shy, raccoon-like kinkajous, tree climbing olingos or hand-sized tarantulas, in their natural habitat.