This small Central American state surrounded by two oceans is home to 6% of the world’s biodiversity. A slower lifestyle and unspoiled nature, where you can be lulled to the rhythm of the “Pura Vida”.
The surf of the Caribbean and Pacific waves, the clamor of howler monkeys, the silent lethargy of lazy people, the song of the resplendent quetzal: an ode to ecology, Costa Rica listens to, admires and breathes itself. Here, the protection of the environment is not a formula and it is conjugated at all times.
Since the 1970s, the small “Switzerland of Central America” has converted a quarter of its territory into a protected area. In 1994, it even enshrined the “right to a healthy and ecologically balanced environment” in its constitution. Thanks to this political will, the forest has regained its rights and today covers half of the land. Costa Rica even aims to become carbon neutral by 2021, to celebrate 200 years of independence.
A pioneer in ecotourism, the country is attracting more and more visitors every year who are seduced by its lush vegetation but also by the country’s gentle way of life, whose inhabitants are said to be among the happiest in the world. The Costa Ricans, nicknamed the Ticos, give travellers a jovial welcome, introducing them to the “Pura Vida”. An expression that can mean “hello”, “thank you” or “all is well”, but which carries with it an art of living and the pride of an entire people.
From the colonial remains of Cartago to the coffee plantations of Orosi
Get down to earth in San José, the capital and nerve center of economic activity. It is here, in the heart of the Central Valley, that coffee cultivation took root two centuries ago. If you land in the evening, book a room at Casa del Café, located about 20 minutes from the airport. Miguel will welcome you with extreme kindness in his colonial house. Don’t linger in San José but go straight to Cartago, the capital until 1823. This city is home to heritage jewels such as the ruins of the church of Santiago Apóstol and the basilica Nuestra Señora de los Ángeles.
Before starting this cultural trip, climb early in the morning to the Irazu volcano to admire its crater gorged with an acidic cyan lake. A “lunar” escapade that is definitely worth the detour, even if some visitors regret its shortness: 13 euros per entry, for a twenty-minute walk. Then plan an afternoon in the Orosi Valley, to visit a coffee plantation and enjoy its thermal waters.
The Afro-Caribbean vibe of Puerto Viejo
In the direction of the Caribbean, turn south to Limon, the most important port of the country where bananas and pineapples are loaded for Europe. During the last hour of the trip, you will see colorful wooden houses, banana plantations and exuberant coastal vegetation. Let go when you arrive in Puerto Viejo, a fishing village with an Afro-Caribbean soul. The opportunity to taste the patty, a small meatloaf, or the unavoidable rice and beans, whilst listening to reggae music.
On both sides of this town nicknamed “Little Jamaica”, stretch sublime beaches lined by jungle. In the north, park up in Puerto Vargas where you will pay about four euros to enter the park of Cahuita. This soft walk in the shade of the vaulted palm trees next to the translucent sea will leave you with an imperishable memory. Allow at least three hours. In order to protect the coral reefs, snorkeling is only possible with a guide. To the south, a few kilometers from Panama, is the Manzanillo Park, which can be reached by bicycle from Puerto Viejo. Make a stop at Playa Cocles, world famous for its surfing competitions.
Tortuguero, “the little Amazon”
Head north of the Caribbean to discover another atmosphere. Here, there isn’t a paradisiacal beach but an immersion in nature. It takes about four hours to reach the guarded parking lot (9 euros per night) at the Pavona pier before boarding one of the four daily boats to Tortuguero. The trip to this typical Caribbean village is an experience in itself, especially if you choose the last crossing at 4 pm at sunset.
Known as the Little Amazon for its maze of canals and abundant wildlife, Tortuguero is the gateway to the eponymous national park, which you can explore on foot and by canoe. Here you can observe countless birds, reptiles and mammals. The luckiest will even be able to see a puma. Opt for an early morning guided tour along the water before taking a free afternoon stroll. The night tour will not leave you out in the cold: the beaches of Tortuguero are home to green sea turtles from mid-July to mid-September. Jessica, from Tortuguero Guide, will talk to you in French about the local turtle conservation project before taking you to watch the turtles lay their eggs.
At the foot of the Arenal volcano in La Fortuna
It will take you less than three hours to reach La Fortuna, a village overlooked by the majestic Arenal volcano. Gateway to the Guanacaste mountain range, this cone-shaped volcano often plays hide and seek in the clouds. And even though its ascent is forbidden, many hikes offer magnificent viewpoints.
Take half a day to explore the national park, which is divided into four trails with different views of the volcano and the lagoon. Take the big loop to get the most out of this rainforest walk, home to a gigantic ceiba (tree of the cheesemaking family) that is over four hundred years old. The Arenal Observatory Lodge also offers beautiful walks at the foot of the volcano. Four waterfalls to refresh oneself are hidden in this private domain.
In the late afternoon to relax, reserve access to the Tabacon thermal waters. Not cheap (for 60 €, dinner is included) but these hot springs remain the best equipped in the area and also the most popular. To enjoy a free bath, walk to the Rio Cholin, a few meters after the entrance of Tabacon.
Dive into the divine blue of the Rio Celeste
Rather than drive along the winding and endless shores of Lake Arenal, follow Highway 4 through pineapple fields to reach the Tenorio Volcano Park. If tourists go there, it is not to climb this sleeping volcano, but to marvel at the divine blue of its river. Legend has it that God rinsed his brushes there after painting the sky. Avoid rainy days or you may find brown water and an impassable path.
The highlight of this hike in the tropical rainforest is the famous thirty-meter waterfall and its milky blue basin.
After climbing the 250 steps, continue to the Laguna Azul. Swimming is forbidden in the park, so go further one kilometer, after the exit, to swim in this turquoise blue water. You can stay at the Finca La Amistad (80 euros minimum per night), in a cocoa plantation with charming cottages overlooking the jungle. After breakfast, Luis will tell you everything about cocoa farming, from collecting the pods to roasting.
Monteverde, head in the clouds
The trip to Santa Elena and its cloud forest will keep you on your feet: dusty tracks and potholes are on the program for the last few kilometers. With your luggage in this village nestled at an altitude of 1,400 meters, let yourself be bewitched by its mystical atmosphere with the false air of a winter sports resort. Bring a fleece because the thermometer may drop in the evening.
Tangle of trees, impenetrable vegetation, flight of resplendent quetzals… The Monteverde reserve, wrapped in its foggy coat, will offer you an abundant picture of biodiversity. Thrill-seekers will also find something for them in one of the parks where zip-line circuits and suspension bridges have been set up.
● Our tip
It is difficult to make a choice when faced with the many attractions on offer in Monteverde. Opt for the Selvatura park, located in the heart of the cloud forest, it combines a walk in the canopy on eight suspension bridges at 170 meters and a course of thirteen zip lines, including the famous Superman where you will be harnessed headfirst, as well as a Tarzan jump for a last dose of adrenaline.
Sámara and Montezuma, in the rhythm of the “Pura Vida”
The coast road, which includes several river crossings, is only passable from mid-December to the end of April. Head for Sámara, a charming white sandy beach on the Pacific coast. The atmosphere in this paradise for beginner surfers sums up the “Pura Vida” by itself. Contrary to the resorts of the North Pacific, urbanized and Americanized, Sámara has kept its authenticity. Ticos and expatriates, many of them French, form a warm community.
To explore the wild beauty of the surrounding beaches, go horseback riding with Melissa of Horse Jungle who will express her love of local nature in French. Before embarking on an epic three-hour ride to Montezuma, you’ll be captivated by Carrillo’s beautiful beach. Close the windows to avoid the dust on this particularly perilous trail and hang on to the river crossings. When you arrive in this bohemian village, sip a cocktail at the Playa de los Artistas bar-restaurant. And don’t forget to refresh yourself at the waterfall located 30 minutes walk from downtown.
Around Uvita, humpback whales and fusion restaurants
Seen from the sky at low tide, Uvita beach looks like a whale’s tail. It is an unusual sight for this marine national park where schools of cetaceans migrate offshore from December to April and then from July to November. Book a boat tour to see this fascinating ballet and pantropical, spotted dolphins.
Fifteen minutes to the south is Ojochal, the country’s gastronomic capital, home to a community of expatriates from Europe and North America. Enjoy a delicious dinner at the Exotica or Citrus, one of the village’s fusion restaurants.
● Our tip
To reach Uvita, it takes six hours to travel from Montezuma, including the ferry crossing from Paquera to Puntarenas. On the way, stop at the Tarcoles bridge for a spectacle as fascinating as it is frightening: down below, dozens of crocodiles, among the largest in Costa Rica, laze in the sun.
Into the deep jungle of Corcovado
Remote and difficult to access, the Corcovado National Park is hard earned. There are two options to reach this natural setting: leave your car at the guarded parking lot in Sierpe and then head to the peninsula by boat or venture out on the rugged tracks that lead to Bahia Drake. Favour a stay in this village rather than Puerto Jimenez, further away from Corcovado. This national park rivals all others. It is the richest in biodiversity, one of the oldest in the country, but also the most regulated: you will have to be accompanied by a guide to access it.
The largest primary forest on the American Pacific coast, this Garden of Eden is home to an impressive array of flora and fauna that you can discover in one day by taking the Sirena trail. The most courageous can also be tempted by a night in the depths of the jungle, a unique opportunity to spot a tapir or a jaguar.
For a magical stay, cut off from the world, choose Punta Marenco Lodge. This hotel located in a biological reserve offers full-board accommodation with ocean views. The owners, committed to ecotourism, will organize your excursions. Don’t miss Isla Caño for diving in the crystal clear waters, populated by manta rays, white tip sharks and other tropical fish.
Manuel Antonio, the planet of the monkeys
For many guides, it is a must. If you haven’t had the chance, during your stay, to see wild animals, they won’t escape you in this open-air “zoo”. The hotel offer has grown so much around Manuel Antonio that the wildlife is now living indoors. However, at the end of the signposted paths, idyllic beaches await you. Don’t leave your belongings unattended. Capuchin monkeys, raccoons and other coatis in search of food have an annoying tendency to snatch bags.
● Our tip
On the way to the national park, imposters in guard uniforms will try to block the road to sell you their services. Don’t be fooled and continue on to the official parking lot, located near the souvenir stores. A guided tour is not necessarily necessary, but be aware that official guides are posted in front of the ticket office. At the entrance of the park, your bags will be searched to confiscate cigarettes, chips and cookies. Only sandwiches are allowed.
Our itinerary advice
Here are our three suggested itineraries offering a glimpse of the diversity of Costa Rica’s landscapes. Note that, whatever the park you visit, it is before 9 am or after 3 pm that you will see the most animals.
● Itinerary 1 (12 days)
Land in San José (1 night), Tortuguero (2 days), La Fortuna (2 days), Rio Celeste (1 day), Monteverde (2 days), Sámara (3 days), Manuel Antonio (1 day).
● Itinerary 2 (15 days)
Landing in San José (1 night), La Fortuna (2 days), Rio Celeste (1 day), Monteverde (2 days), Sámara (3 days), Montezuma (2 days), Uvita (1 day), Corcovado (3 days)
● Itinerary 3 (21 days)
Landing in San José (1 night), stay in Orosi (1 day), Puerto Viejo (3 days), Tortuguero (2 days), La Fortuna (2 days), Rio Celeste (1 day), Monteverde (2 days), Sámara (3 days), Montezuma (2 days), Uvita (1 day), Corcovado (3 days).
When to go to Costa Rica?
The whole country enjoys a tropical climate but there are 150 micro-climates in Costa Rica. The year is divided between the dry season, from December to April, and the green season. While rainfall can be abundant in May, June and especially September-October, the weather remains very mild in July-August. Note however, that on the Caribbean coast, the seasons differ slightly: October is very sunny while it rains heavily in December-January.
Prices are in line with the seasons. You will be able to benefit from more advantageous rates outside the dry season, when the cost of accommodation explodes between Christmas and New Year’s Eve and during Holy Week.
How to get around
Don’t rely on the number of kilometers but on the travel time. Be prepared to spend many hours on the road to explore Costa Rica. For complete freedom, rent a car, preferably a 4×4, which is better suited to rough trails and river crossings.
Always keep an eye on the tank: gas stations are not on the road. For those who end their trip on the Corcovado, you can drop off your rental car on the spot in order to take an internal flight back to San José.