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Must see locations, events and places to travel and enjoy in Costa Rica.
Must see locations, events and places to travel and enjoy in Costa Rica.
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.
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.
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.
This beautifully situated cattle ranch is one of Costa Rica’s most favored rain forest getaways. Located in the Tilaran Mountain range, one of the most biologically diverse areas in this verdant country, the Chachagua’s 50-acre spread nestles up against the Children’s International Rain Forest, which in turn joins the Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve: Potential for bird and wildlife viewing here is tremendous.
Arenal Volcano and Lake are an easy four-wheel drive away; there is spelunking, white-water rafting, and rappeling for those who aspire to do it all, and the Tabacon Hot Springs for those who don’t. In this working cattle ranch, a stable of fine horses is on standby, and resident naturalists act as your guides. At the end of every perfect day, your handsomely appointed bungalow awaits by a mountain-clear stream. Chachagua could only be the brainchild of an owner dedicated to detail and creature comforts; the kingpin behind this smoothly run operation is the charismatic Carlos Salazar, who – with a lifetime of experience in the hotel industry – enjoys himself as much as all his international guests put together. Let him loose in the kitchen (much of the fruit and produce is grown on the ranch), and dinner becomes an event. Let him loose in the dining room, and he’ll convince you that nothing less than a lifetime in Costa Rica will do.
Of Costa Rica’s dozens of national parks, Manuel Antonio has long been one of the jewels, an idyllic combination of exuberant forest, white-sand beaches, and rich coral reefs. The guardians of this beautiful wilderness are now attempting to harness its popularity by limiting the number of ecotourists and diverting some to other, less-visited parks. Manuel Antonio is one of Costa Rica’s smallest parks, and one of the last remaining habitats for the red-backed squirrel monkey. Few parks boast a coastal location, but here there is snorkeling, skin diving, surfing, and fishing galore.
After a visit to the rain forest gets you hot and sweaty, nothing beats jumping into the refreshing ocean … unless you’re lucky enough to have booked at La Mariposa, dramatically sited on a cliff above the sea. Its six split-level Mediterranean-style villas are enveloped in a riot of hibiscus and bougainvillea and flawlessly integrated into the hillside. Astounding 360-degree panoramas may distract one from the excellent meals served in the open-air dining room. So captivating are the full-circle vistas that guests linger long after the brilliant colors of the sunset dissipate and the margaritas disappear. Some never make it down to Manuel Antonio, happy in their bird’s nest above it all.
With one of the world’s best systems of reserves and national parks, Costa Rica’s thirty-five wildlife refuges protect more than 25 percent of the country’s territory; choosing where to head first is a visitor’s toughest choice. Covering one third of the remote Osa Peninsula that juts into the Pacific Ocean, in what National Geographic called “the most biologically intense place on earth,” the Corcovado National Park is difficult to reach. You may, at times, feel like the only human interloper on the trails (there are no roads) meandering through its 100,000 acres.
Corcovado is one of the country’s largest and wildest parks, safeguarding virgin rain forest, deserted beaches, jungle-rimmed rivers, and a large, inaccessible swampland. Within its broad range of habitats live more than 140 species of mammals, from tapirs to ocelots and cougars. It has the largest remaining population of scarlet macaws, which – together with the 375 other species of birds in the park that occupy more than 850 kinds of trees – vie with four species of monkeys to be heard amid the wildlife cacophony.
At the park’s southern border, the Corcovado Lodge Tent Camp is the highlight of a Costa Rica trip for many ecotourists. There’s no electricity, shared baths only, and drinking water comes from a crystal-clear stream that runs by the twenty platformed tents. A unique “canopy tour” hoists awed guests up eight stories by pulley into the dense jungle canopy. Neither the canopy tour nor the Tent Camp is for everyone: Where the road from civilization ends, it is a forty-five-minute walk along a pristine beach for arriving guests, while luggage is transported by horse cart.
If roughing it is not to your taste, then consider Lapa Rios, a bungalow hideaway perched 350 feet above the Pacific in its own lush 1,000-acre nature reserve on the outskirts of Corcovado. Its American owners have created an intimate setup where guests can learn all about the encroaching rain forest. But school was never this much fun, or fascinating, or luxurious. Spread over three panoramic ridges above the Golfo Dolce in a self-contained corner of the Osa Peninsula, Lapa Rios’s wondrous exposures of ocean and forest are evident everywhere from open-air observation platforms, the bar-restaurant, and the fourteen simple guest rooms appointed in polished tropical woods. Days revolve around nature, beginning with an early-bird tour that lets you share the sunrise with the indigenous bird species (Lapa Rios means “Rivers of the Macaws”) and ending with shaman-guided medicinal treks and night nature walks.