Costa Rica offers something for everyone, whether you're a beach bum, risk taker, or animal lover.
There are so many amazing places to visit in the world that provide the opportunity to sit back and relax or go on an adventure. The problem many face is the time it takes to get to certain locations—about six hours from New York to London and 14 hours from Los Angeles to Australia—and the cost of vacationing at such spots. Consider Costa Rica the solution to these problems. What was once a small, unknown country—roughly the size of New Hampshire and Vermont combined—has become a major tourist hotspot within the past 10 years. With coastlines along the Pacific Ocean and Caribbean Sea, Costa Rica features a wide spectrum of ecological environments—beaches, volcanoes, mountains, and rainforests—that make it a unique place to visit. Who doesn’t want to see lava pouring out of a volcano or fly through a forest canopy on a steel cable?
This diversity means Costa Rica offers something for everyone, whether you’re a beach bum, risk taker, or animal lover. With so many places and activities from which to choose, let’s take an insider’s look at the best of the best.
Located on the Pacific coast and just minutes from the “airport”—it’s really just a landing strip with a restaurant—in Quepos, Manuel Antonio is a beautiful tropical forest, featuring spectacular beaches and about 100 species of mammals and 180 species of birds. Although Manuel Antonio is one of the most popular tourist destinations in Costa Rica, it is still worth a visit.
There are many great hotels in Manuel Antonio. During the dry season (January-May), the hotels will be completely booked early, so make sure to plan way in advance. Because Manuel Antonio is a national park, many of the local hotels are not right on the beach, but most come with amazing views of the Pacific Ocean. Hotel Villas El Parque features balconies sporting comfortable hammocks—perfect for relaxing and taking in the view. While you’re hanging out, watch for the monkeys that are frequent visitors to the hotel in the morning or evening. Make sure to keep your camera handy to take up-close photographs, especially of the endangered squirrel monkey.
Rent this villa
If you plan to spend your entire Costa Rica vacation at the beach, you should consider renting a villa. This will give you the freedom to cook your own meals and have more space to hang out. Next to Villas El Parque is the amazing Jungle Villa. This open-air, 4,000-square-foot house features three swimming pools, a bathroom for each of the five bedrooms, and three full-time staff members, all for $2,000 to $5,000 per week, depending on the season. If you elect to rent a villa, you’ll want to visit the farmer’s market, open on Saturday mornings, to stock up on fresh fruits and vegetables, like jacotes, mammon chinos, and pineapple.
So little time, so much to do!
There are so many things to do in Manuel Antonio that even if you stay for a whole week you won’t be able to do it all. Book activities in advance, but leave room for spontaneous adventure or places recommended by hotel staff and locals.
Manuel Antonio National Park
You can walk through the park on your own, or hire an experienced guide who will point out animals and plants that may otherwise be difficult to find. Bring lots of water to drink and some snacks when you hike the three-mile rain forest trail. Also, make sure to take a break at the beach to swim, relax, and watch the white-faced capuchin monkeys, who are not afraid to steal your food or belongings.
Manuel Antonio offers some of the best deep-sea fishing in the world. With marlin, sailfish, and wahoo in abundance along the coast, fishermen from all over come to try their hand at reeling in one of these giants. To search for a boat charter, visit Tico Travel www.ticotravel.com/index/fishmain.htm.
The beach can get pretty hot, so if you are looking for a cool snack, try an inexpensive, but delicious, treat—shaved ice with flavored syrup—sold by gentlemen pushing small, covered wagons.
Where to eat
Rice and beans is the staple food in Costa Rica, served almost every lunch and dinner, and sometimes breakfast (gallo pinto). If you want to experience traditional Costa Rican cuisine (tipico)—chicken, beef, or fish; rice and beans; plantains; and salad—visit a “soda,” one of the inexpensive, independently run restaurants found all over the country.
In Manuel Antonio, most restaurant menus feature seafood and tipico cuisine. Seafood fans will enjoy the tuna, mahi mahi, or red snapper, each equally delicious no matter where you dine. Standout restaurants include Marluna, Issimo Suites Core Boutique Hotel and Spa gourmet restaurant, and Ronny’s Place, where the sangria is highly recommended.
Originally settled by Quakers, Monteverde is a six-hour, bumpy car ride from La Fortuna that is well-known for its biodiversity (it boasts more than 100 species of mammals, 400 birds, and 400 varieties of orchid), which is why more than 250,000 tourists visit each year.
Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve
Monteverde has comparatively cooler weather and is always green, thanks to the 80-120 inches of rain that falls each year. It is home to the Resplendent Quetzal—the most beautiful bird in the world—and many snakes, frogs, tarantulas, sloth, howler monkeys, hummingbirds, jaguars, ocelots, and butterflies. Make sure to take one of the day or night tours to see the forest firsthand.
Tree Canopy Tour
One activity that Costa Rica is famous for is the tree canopy tour. After you strap on a helmet and gloves and put on gear with pulleys and metal clips, you’ll slide via steel cable from one platform to the next, some as high as 100 feet in the air. There are many tours to choose from, and some may even include Tarzan swings and/or suspension bridges for getting across from one platform to another. These tours are a lot of fun and a great adrenaline rush.
Where to eat
A majority of the restaurants in this small town serve excellent, eclectic cuisine. Make sure to dine at Flor de Vida; Morpho’s Restaurant, where the pasta dishes are recommended; and the Lazy Frog Café, where live music is a staple.
Where to sleep
The Monteverde Lodge is a hotel you should seriously consider. With the cloud forest close by, you can sit in your room or the enormous jacuzzi and animal watch. The hotel restaurant serves good breakfast, and the staff is extremely helpful.
La Fortuna is a small town in northwest Costa Rica that is known for its active volcano, Arenal, and La Fortuna waterfalls. Although overrun by tourists in the dry season, the essence of what the town used to be like can still be felt when gazing over the vast, open fields.
Arenal is one of the 10 most active volcanoes in the world. Every day, it releases huge puffs of ash from its cone-shaped top, loud rumbles, and red-hot lava that can be seen easily at night during the dry season. On a clear night, take a walk along the specially marked trail to the base of the volcano to watch the lava flow.
If you enjoy horseback riding, hiking, and swimming, take a trip to La Fortuna falls. To get to the bottom of the waterfall, you must climb down a steep path that can get slippery when it rains, despite built-in steps and railings. If you’re daring enough, hike along the path that leads behind the waterfall; the view is worth the risk.
Thermal hot springs
The hot springs are a “can’t miss” attraction. At the Baldi Thermae Hot Springs, the springs become hotter the closer you get to the volcano, until you can barely get in. The springs provide some well-needed recuperation for your muscles after a day of horseback riding.
Where to stay
Watch the puffs of smoke and lava flow from Arenal while sitting on one of the balconies at the upscale Arenal Lodge, but you’ll have to navigate up a mountain on a heavily potholed, unpaved road to get there.
To become completely immersed in the Costa Rican culture, but at
the same time learn about the country and witness its beauty, Tortuguero is perfect.
The little hotels in town provide the local flavor you’ll miss if you stay at one of the all-inclusive resorts located downriver from town. One of the best of the small bed-and-breakfasts and inexpensive hostels in town is Casa Maribelle, nestled next to the Dorling Bakery. The bakery opens at 5:00am—perfect timing for a sunrise boat ride through the Tortuguero National Park canals—and offers wonderful snacks; the banana bread and apple turnovers are especially delicious.
Tortuguero National Park
To explore the smaller nooks of the park, choose the peaceful canoe rides, during which you’ll see spider, white-faced, and howler monkeys; iguanas; butterflies; toucans; green parrots; and more. Local guide and legend Castor Hunter Thomas is the best guide for this, as well as the night turtle tour. The national park can also be explored on foot on your own or with a hired guide.
Tortuguero, which means “turtle place,” is where four out of the eight species of sea turtles—Atlantic green, leatherback, hawksbill, and loggerhead—lay their eggs, from March to October. Watching the turtles lay their eggs is one of the biggest attractions in Tortuguero, with tours only offered in the evening. Visitors are barred from bringing cameras or flashlights; each guide has a special flashlight to help avoid beach debris.
Traditional home-cooked meals
The best restaurants in Tortuguero serve traditional Costa Rican cuisine, with Miss Miriam’s, La Casona, and Miss Junie’s among the top.
To learn more about what Costa Rica has to offer, visit www.tourism.co.cr, www.tourism-costarica.com, or www.visitcostarica.com; or visit your local bookstore to purchase a Lonely Planet or Frommer’s Costa Rica guidebook.
*All referenced points of interest and accommodations are easily found online.
Keli Rising is a world traveler who lived in Costa Rica for four months.