After all these years, Costa Rica is still the kind of place whose very name sends a tingle up my spine. There is something magical about the land of Pura Vida. It’s not the people. It’s not the food.
What it is, is nature at its finest. This is the best nation on earth to experience the glories of our natural world. There are no ugly places to go. And even better, outside of a few neighborhoods in the capital, Limon, and Jaco it’s a very safe country (like Switzerland safe). And did I mention it’s all beautiful? Beaches, volcanoes, jungle, cloud forest. Costa Rica has it all.
Yes, there is a whole nation full of the best nature has to offer. So where to begin?
Luckily, within a few hours of the Capital, San Jose, there is a plethora of activities (and you will probably fly in to San Jose, only other airport is in Liberia). While San Jose has lovely gold and jade museums and top notch accommodations, the best thing you can do is get out of ugly, modern San Jose, and the best way to do so is to rent a car (super affordable down there) and head North.
About a half hour from the capital is a little coffee town called Heredia. Heredia is home to Café Britt, Costa Rica’s largest and most popular producer of coffee. On top of getting a chance to go out and explore the plantation and see how the coffee is manufactured for consumption, you’ll also get a chance to give the product a taste in their tiny museum and shop. After a few hours of enjoying the some of the world’s best cups of Joe, head north for about an hour to the Poas Volcano.
Poas is Costa Rica’s most visited National Park. It is also one of Costa Rica’s most accessible ones. The volcano stands over 2700 meters and covers 6 microclimates. It is home to all of Costa Rica’s most famous bird species including toucans, macaws, and the elusive quetzal.
Another great feature of Poas that helps make this park a no brainer is that unlike most volcanoes, you can drive to the crater. You are only allowed to stay at the top for 15 minutes, but you can drive it, saving hours of exertion.
While in Poas, travel a few miles north of the summit to the La Paz Waterfall Gardens and Lodge. Entrance is a staggering £27 ($40 US), but the view of the 37 meter cascade is stunning, and the gardens and wildlife mesmerizing. The onsite hotel is a great choice to stop at for the night if you don’t mind the £227 price tag.
The next morning try to wake up early and get going. Your heading to the Arenal area and it’s a 3 hour drive. The Arenal area is well worth a day or two as there is a lot to take in. your first stop will be a little town just before Arenal National Park, La Fortuna. Fortuna is a sleepy little town that has one major draw other than the lush forest, The 73 meter La Fortuna Waterfall (entrance £8, open 7-4).
After a few hours at the falls, head in to Tabacon, the world famous hot springs. The springs are geothermally heated by the nearby Arenal volcano. , and make a terrific area to stop for the night as there are many four and five star rated hotels ranging from £65 all the way up to many thousands of quid a night.
After sleeping and sufficiently enjoying the hot springs, you may want to go for a hike in the nearby Arenal National Park. If you are lucky, you’ll catch a glimpse of the massive 1600 meter high Arenal Stratovolcano. Proyecto Asis, a nearby wildlife sanctuary and animal rehabilitation clinic, is one of the top places to learn about and interact with native wildlife.
Arenal has some excellent accommodations and is a terrific place to halt for the night in hopes that you may get to catch a nocturnal show from its pyroclastic flow. Once you have had your fill of Volcano, get in your car and continue along highway 142 around Lake Arenal. Lake Arenal is Costa Rica’s largest body of freshwater and makes for a beautiful drive with the volcano, forest, water, and rolling hills all in the background. After 3 hours or so you will reach the town of Monteverde.
Monteverde is famous for two very important reasons. One, they have a phenomenal canopy sky bridge which gets you a chance to get up close and personal and really explore the tree tops 100 feet above the ground. The second reason is, and this is a significant contribution to the world, Monteverde is where they invented the zip line canopy tours. This shit is fun. If you have ever wanted to go flying by monkeys at break neck speeds, this is for you.
To be fair, if that scares you, you can control how fast you go. Or at least my 65 year old grandmother was able to. Expert tip, keep your hands behind the pulley! Both Skytrek and Selvatura offer fantastic zip line experiences. And start at as little as £40 per person. Monteverde has the full gambit of high quality, low cost hotels if you have the desire to spend the night amongst the trees.
Following Monteverde, its beach time. Get in that car, and take the arduous three and a half hour drive down to Manuel Antonio. Manuel Antonio is a beachcombers Mecca. Let me be frank, this is the most beautiful beach I have yet discovered. Granted, it has commercialized some over the last few years, but Playa Manuel Antonio and Playa Escondido (lost beach) in the National Park are among the crown jewels of beach life. Nowhere will the gently sloping hills covered in palm trees meet the crystal clear water in such a fashion.
When I said tingle up the spine, Manuel Antonio National Park is the reason. Forbes rated it as one of the worlds 12 best national parks. Yes, it’s that good. The park itself is home to not only magnificent displays of sea creatures, it’s also the top place to spot three and two toed sloths. In my time there, I saw deer, motmots, capuchin monkeys, and dolphins.
For me, when you find a beach of this quality, you spend a day or two (or five). Always check tripadvisor.com for the best deals going, but Manuel Antonio has everything from five star all inclusive mega resorts to little bungalows on the beach. While there, be sure to take in some snorkeling or diving and if it’s your fancy, Costa Rica has excellent billfishing (Sailfish season is April to September, I reeled in a 38 kg monster). Most resorts also have an onsite cigar roller who uses the finest local tobaccos. Again, if it’s your fancy, give it a try.
After having sufficiently enjoyed some of the world’s finest beaches, it’s time to head back to San Jose. This part sucks. There is no joy in leaving this natural fantasy land. But upon leaving, you will contemplate how lucky you have been to get an opportunity to walk the sand, fly through the rainforest, and take in the natural world in all its splendor.