Costa Rica is a home to verdant cloud forests, steaming volcanoes and stunning beaches. It tops the list of Central American countries for adventure holidays. The country offers an unbeatable combination of dramatic landscapes and the range of unforgettable experiences. Staying in eco-lodges and boutique hotels, travel from the capital city of San Jose and its colonial mansions to the northern lakes and the southern pacific beaches. You’ll hike across the Arenal National Park in the shadow of towering volcanoes in search of steaming hot springs, trek through a private reserve protecting 500 acres of tropical cloud forest, white water raft down rapids and watch sea turtles nesting on the beaches of the Nicoya Peninsula.
ARENAL VOLCANO NATIONAL PARK
BEST FOR: Hiking, cycling, birding, hot springs, windsurfing shadow of the great volcano.
WHEN TO GO: May-November, the rainy season – the volcano is more likely to be visible after a shower.
Once a small farming town, La Fortuna – 130km north-west of San Jose – is now a popular base for organizing active adventures. Nearby Arenal Volcano National Park provides several opportunities for hiking, including a trek on a lava flow, with level trails around the volcano’s base ideal for mountain biking. The forest that carpets the Arenal National Park sprawls out from the foothills of the picture perfect Arenal Volcano cone and the Monteverde Cloud Forest houses. There’s also a good chance of seeing toucans, parrots, tanagers, oropendolas and agoutis; Other attractions in the area include the pretty La Fortuna Waterfall, southwest of La Fortuna, and a number of hot springs, notably at Tabacon, and a man-made lagoon – Lake Arenal. A further 90-minute drive takes you to Monteverde Cloud Forest, where wide, well-planned footpaths and canopy tours open up a misty jungle with rare animals and bird spieces.
BEST FOR: Beach bumming, surfing, snorkelling, diving.
WHEN TO GO: November-April – dry season.
The Nicoya Peninsula beaches and ocean are just glorious, and there are plenty of opportunities for snorkeling and scuba diving to see reef sharks, nurse sharks, manta rays, angelfish and lovely coral. The gorgeous beaches are backed by felled forests. A 4.5km trail leads through old-growth tropical forest to a white-sand beach.
SAN JOSE & THE CENTRAL VALLEY
WHEN TO GO: May-June and November – transitional seasons, good for wildlife and greenery.
San Jose is only a mini-metropolis, but it does have some smart hotels located in old coffee-growers’ mansions, and it does give a taste of ordinary urban life. As well as the plaza and fruit-full central market, visitors should head to the impressive Gold Museum and Costa Rican Art Museum, built in a former air terminal beside the pleasant La Sabana Park. A short ride from the capital, there’s superlative white-water rafting on the Pacuare River. Alternatively, take a sloth-speed ride across the canopy of a private reserve near Braulio Carrillo National Park on the Atlantic Aerial Tram. The national park itself, spread around the dormant Barva volcano and a chain of mountains, is under-explored and bursting with biodiversity. This includes 500 bird species, including quetzals, toucans and eagles, as well as white-faced monkeys, jaguars, peccaries and Costa Rica’s biggest venomous snake, the matabuey. Two other nearby national parks, Turrialba and Poas, boast active volcanoes.
THE CARIBBEAN COAST
BEST FOR: Boat trips, jungle lodges, riverine wildlife
WHEN TO GO: March-September, dry season on the Caribbean coast; July-August is peak turtle season.
Take the 25-minute non-stop flight from San Jose or 3-4 hours by boat service, from the working port town of Limon to get to Tortuguero, a bustling village of colorful houses and shack-like cafes sited on a sandbar. It’s the place to embark on jungle trails, canoe excursions and day-long boat trips through the freshwater channels of the Tortuguero National Park, looking out for river otters, caiman and endangered manatees.
WHEN TO GO: December-April, dry season.
Puntarenas is a slender peninsula sticking out into the Gulf of Nicoya. Ferries to the Nicoya Peninsula depart from here, as do two-hour trips to the tranquil Isla de Chira. The journey south takes in the coastal townships of Tacoles, Herradura and Jaco before arriving at the densely forested slopes and sandy beaches of Manuel Antonio – Costa Rica’s smallest and busiest national park. Here, you’ll spot three monkey species, coatis, iguanas, two- and three-toed sloths, and myriad multihued birds on the park’s canopy walks and short hikes. Paving and power may have turned Playa Dominical, a surfers’ favorite 44km south-east of Quepos, into a major tourism centre, but it’s also the access point for the private 3.3 sq km Hacienda Baru rainforest reserve, which contains 7 km of walking trails and unspoiled orchid and butterfly gardens.
UNSPOILED OSA PENINSULA
BEST FOR: Pristine landscapes, beaches, wildlife, marine life
WHEN TO GO: November-late April, the dry season.
South of Playa Dominical, the road towards Osa Peninsula is flanked by beautiful beaches on the right and rainforest on the left, broken only by the occasional farming village. The first major stop is Marino Ballena National Park, a land and marine park around Uvita and Bahia that protects humpback whales, several dolphin species and nesting sea turtles. Corcovado National Park is said to be the most biodiverse in Costa Rica – great for monkeys and scarlet macaws.