Miles of beaches and a number of national parks and reserves provide the perfect playground for rafting through the wilderness surfing epic breaks or hiking through clouds.
Home to one of the longest left-hand breaks on the planet, Pavones is legendary among surfers and, on a good day, can offer a satisying two-or three-minute ride. Conditions are usually best with a southern swell but if you’re there when the waves aren’t, just head a short distance further south to Punta Banco, a reef with decent rights and lefts.
This Caribbean break near Puerto Viejo has the country’s biggest surf and, in December, waves can reach 7m high. The swell pulls in from the east, pushing a wall of water against the shallow reef, in the process generating a thick and powerful curl. The wave, baptised by some locals as ‘the cheese grater’, has turned Puerto Viejo from a barely accessible town 30 years ago into the world-class surf destination it is today.
A wide, gorgeous beach that, by day, has steep and powerful waves, and by night sees the arrival of nesting leatherback sea turtles. It’s Costa Rica’s most accessible, reliable break and draws hourdes, though it’s so big that it never seems crowded. Rent boards, sign up for lessons and recover with a deep-tissue massage at Frijoles Locos Surf Shop.
RAFTING AND KAYAKING
The Rio Sarapiqui isn’t as wild as the white water on the Rio Pacuare, but the dense jungle that hugs the riverbank is lush and primitive. You can run the Class II-IV rapids year round – the river fluctuates with rainfall so if it’s been raining, the river will be at its best. It’s also a great place to learn how to kayak and several operators offer lessons.
The Rio Pacuare arguably offers the most scenic rafting in Central America. The river plunges down the Caribbean slope through a series of spectacular canyons clothed in virgin rainforest, through runs named fort heir fury, and separated by calm stretches that enable you to stare at near-vertical green walls towering a hundred metres above. Exploradores Outdoors runs rafting trips.
Canals of Tortuguero
Created in 1974 to connect a series of lagoons and meandering rivers, the canals are an excellent introduction to the Parque Nacional Tortuguero, a huge coastal park that’s the most important breeding ground of the green sea turtle. Kayaking through the canals will get you up close to abundant birds and wildlife, such as kingfishers, herons, turtles and caimans. Hire a canoe or kayak in Tortuguero village.
Parque Nacional Corcovado
Labelled by National Geographic as ‘the most biologically intense place on Earth’, this national park is home to scarlet macaws, Baird’s tapirs, giant anteaters and harpy eagles. Paths are primitive but provide a supreme look at the wonders of the rainforest. You’ll need a guide – Osa Wild is excellent.
Monteverde Cloud Forest
There are eight miles of marked and maintained trails within this virginal forest dripping with mist, sprouting with ferns, dangling with mossy vines and gushing with creeks. The most popular trails make a triangle to the east of the reserve entrance. Note, trails can be muddy, and you should arrive early as visitor numbers are restricted.
Parque Nacional Volcán Tenorio
The heavenly blue river, waterfalls and lagoons here are among the most spectacular natural phenomena in Costa Rica, which is also why the park is known to locals as Rio Celeste. There’s a well-signed trail that circles volcanoes and misty waterfalls – it’s about four miles in total, but allow three hours as some parts are steep and rocky.
COSTA RICA ESSENTIALS
BA flies from Heathrow to Aeropuerto Internacional Juan Santamaria, 10 miles northwest of San José. There are frequent buses to San José. If you have the budget, chartering a private plane is the quickest way to travel around the country – it takes under 90 minutes to fly to most destinations. Costa Rica’s airlines are Nature Air and Sansa. Or consider a private bus for door-to-door service, with companies such as Interbus.
WHERE TO STAY
Just 200m north of the entrance to Parque Nacional Tortuguero, Cabinas Tortuguero has 11 brightly painted bungalows surrounding a neat garden. Rooms are simple yet immaculate and there are hammocks for lounging.
Hotel Banana Azul sits astride a tranquil black-sand beach in Puerto Viejo. Best is the Howler Suite, a corner room with multi-directional views. There’s also an onsite bar-restaurant.
Every room at eco-resort Hotel Belmar has an incredible view of forest or gulf, or both. Wooden furniture, high-thread-count linens and floor-to-ceiling windows feature as well as large balconies. There’s also a spa and a great restaurant.
Costa Rica is a veritable Eden, with varied birdlife…
Toucan: Costa Rica has six species of this classic rainforest bird. Huge bills and vibrant plumage make the chestnut-mandibled toucan and the keel-billed toucan hard to miss.
Scarlet macaw: Unmistakable for its size, red body and ear-splitting squawk, it’s common in the Parque Nacional Carara and the Peninsula de Osa.
Resplendent quetzal: The dazzling quetzal once held great ceremonial significance for the Aztecs and the Maya. Look for its iridescent-green body, red breast and long green tail near Parque Nacional Los Quetzales. Hummingbird: More than 50 species of hummingbird have been recorded in Costa Rica, and most live at high elevations. The largest is the violet sabrewing, with a striking violet head and body and dark-green wings.