Costa Rica’s rainforest reserves and protected peninsulas are stunning – but crowded. For a more tranquil experience you need to stay in the right placesStepping into virgin rainforest for the first time is a mystical experience. A dark green world, densely interlaced with leaves, trunks and creepers, the undergrowth shivers with unseen birds; the ground is alive with motorways of leafcutter ants. The soundtrack is an experimental symphony of chirruping cicadas, rumbling howler monkeys and the precise tunes of tropical song birds… until a less exotic call slices the air: “Oh my gAAHd!”
Twenty tourists have just seen a resplendent quetzal, and 20 digital cameras bleep. Minutes later, a whooping and whirring above the tree canopy signal the appearance of a human being, flying through the air on a suspended wire. Monteverde – cloud forest or crowd forest?
Costa Rica is a land of natural wonders: live volcanoes, pristine beaches and the most protected expanses of rainforest on the planet, home to an astonishing 6% of the entire world’s species – in an area just two-thirds the size of Scotland. One of the safest countries in Central America, with friendly Tico inhabitants, it’s a wonderful place to see the rainforest at close quarters.
But at less than four hours’ flight from Houston, it’s no surprise that tourism here is geared to the North American market and adrenalin-rush activities are stealing star billing from the natural world. Costa Rican culture is often overlooked as visitors are whisked between bland commercialised hotels in transfer buses.
In search of a more natural Costa Rica, I hired a car, tuned the radio to calypso, and stopped at roadside sodas (cafés) for ceviche and chilled Imperial beer. And I found places to stay that took me into the heart of this astonishing country.
Go for... Tropical trees & big biodiversity
In a mountainous jungle region, draped in mist and thick with more than 400 bird species, the world’s first cloud forest reserve was established to protect the rare golden toad. Though the toad is now extinct, it spawned a healthy tourist enterprise, with hotels and internet cafés crowding the small town of Santa Elena.
Keen to spot quetzals and mot mots, I hired a private guide. Giovany’s method involved alternately whistling and yelling into the treetops with considerable menace: “¿Dónde estás bebe…? Where are you my baby?” But within an hour he’d charmed 17 different species out of the trees, making them leap into his telescope lens like a circus ringmaster.
I marvelled at the exquisite blue-grey tanager, the yellow-throated euphonia and two scarlet-thighed dacnis. Giovany drew quite a crowd, vying with the other tour guides to get an elusive bird in his sights. “I got it! Grr!” he’d grunt, kicking the air in triumph, waiting for the applause. He was a demanding diva.
Where to stay: True tranquillity lies out of town at El Sol: just two stylishly rustic cabins, romantically isolated, with splendid views over the dramatic hills. This is a truly magical place, complete with infinity pool offering amazing views over the valleys below, and horseriding with local guides to picnic by waterfalls in the jungle. Dinner with neighbours Manuel and Edith is a feast of Costa Rican treats, and a rare chance to chat with Ticos about their farm and its history.
Need to know: El Sol; 30 minutes from Monteverde; www.elsolnuestro.com
Alternatively… Much closer to the reserve, Monteverde Lodge offers excellent service
Go for… A picture-perfect cone, always active
Long before I reached it, Arenal volcano demanded respect: belching plumes of ash into the sky by day and spewing streams of red-hot lava down its flanks at night. Yet zip-wiring and hot springs were equally popular attractions, designed to keep visitors within sight of the smoking cone. My visit to Tabacón hot springs was given an extra frisson when a local remarked casually that, if Arenal erupted, Tabacón would be hit first.
The springs were a landscaped concoction of rocky pools and waterfalls, with volcanically heated waters tumbling through exotic vegetation: a vision of Eden from a 1960s biblical epic. But as the sky darkened and lights came on in the foliage, illuminating clouds of steam billowing up over the heliconia, it seemed the perfect setting for a disaster movie. Couples cavorted innocently in darkened corners, and 20-year-olds plunged down chutes into crowded pools, screaming “Yay!” and swimming up to the bar. I could easily imagine them all being buried in pyroclastic flow.
Where to stay: Finca Luna Nueva Lodge, just 19km away, is paradise regained. An airy guesthouse in a biodynamic turmeric farm, with hammocks slung on wide balconies and open views over gardens and jungle, it has an idyllic swimming pool and solar-powered hot tub. Owner Steve Farrell gives a revelatory tour of the rainforest, unveiling magical interactions of plants and animals in this fragile ecosystem: ants become heroes of the plant world, and fungi are unsung saviours. Steve plucks delicious berries from strange trees and shows guests medicinal plants in his ‘Sacred Seeds’ garden. It’s the perfect introduction to the rainforest.
Need to know: Finca Luna Nueva Lodge, San Isidro de Peñas Blancas, San Ramon
Alternatively… The luxurious casitas at Arenal Nayara have perfect views of Arenal: watch eruptions from bed!
For a volcano without crowds, Poás, further south-east, has a turquoise pool in its crater, and is easily reached from exquisite cloud forest lodge El Silencio.
Go for… Rainforest-backed beaches & many monkeys
Costa Rica’s top destination is one of its first – and smallest – national parks. Here, the wildlife was easily accessible (perfect for children) and there were three pretty beaches to lounge on when we tired of bats, frogs and monkeys. It was here that I fell in love with a three-toed sloth: we watched transfixed as he descended to earth, moving painfully slowly, for his weekly poo. But he’d picked a hanging dead branch and only when he’d lowered himself to its end did he realise that his slow-motion mission was impossible. He hung there, looking dejected, before wearily climbing back up, hand over hand. It was peculiarly touching.
Beyond the park, though, was the now familiar hive of hotels and bars. Condominiums were springing up, too, tempting me to ‘Own a piece of Paradise!’ and even ‘Own the BEST piece of Paradise!’ (There are bad bits?) But the beaches were sublime; it was just a question of reaching one.
Where to stay: Arenas del Mar combines green credentials with elegant style. Its owners are pioneers of Costa Rica’s sustainable tourism movement, who insist that sustainable needn’t involve suffering. Rooms are chic, the organic food is top notch, and there’s an authentic Costa Rican atmosphere generated by warm, outgoing staff. The beautiful beach is secluded, and the resident naturalist gives superb early morning birding tours.
Need to know: Arenas del Mar, Manuel Antoni
Alternatively… Less splendid but just as green, Hotel Si Como No is a nearby alternative
Go for… Misty views – & few tourists
The wilder reaches of Costa Rica’s Central Highlands are often overlooked. Yet high above the capital San José sit picturesque rolling hills carpeted in coffee plantations; beyond them, a vast wilderness of impenetrable virgin jungle accessible only to birds, beasts and those reckless enough to raft the surging white waters.
Travelling by river gave special sightings of kingfishers, toucans and caiman, and the inescapable certainty that I was a long way from civilisation. The world-renowned Pacuare River is churned by grade IV-rated rapids, and our boat went spinning and diving into whirlpool eddies before hurling us, gasping, onto smooth water on the other side. “High five!” shouted our guide, and everyone touched oars, giggling breathlessly with relief.
Nights immersed in this splendour were more thrillingly, romantically isolated than I could have imagined. Howler monkeys woke us, hummingbirds flitted around as we breakfasted, and I hiked with a local guide up to a mountaintop where the chief of the Cabécar indigenous community showed me his village: an extraordinary privilege.
Where to stay: After two hours on the water, the thatch roof of Pacuare Lodge comes as a surprise, rising from tropical gardens at the water’s edge. There are eight simple garden-view cabins, or four pricier river-view suites – worth it for the hammocks, spacious verandas and outside showers. All are lit only by candles, but the food is superb, and excellent caipirinhas are served under the stars.
Need to know: Pacuare Lodge, Central Highlands; www.junglelodgecostarica.com
Alternatively… Make day forays into the rainforest from welcoming Finca Rosa Blanca, set in an organic coffee plantation
Go for… Pristine bays & forests, heaving with wildlife
Unquestionably the highlight of my trip to Costa Rica was the Osa Peninsula, a tongue of land curving around the Golfo Dulce bay, at the southernmost reach of Costa Rica’s Pacific coast. It’s largely uninhabited – only Bahía Drake is popular with tourists as a sport-fishing and scuba-diving centre. Whales and dolphins bask in the warm waters, and an extraordinary confluence of migratory birdlife gathers in the untouched rainforest.
Half of the peninsula is protected by Corcovado National Park, a rain-drenched wilderness hosting poison-dart frogs and the largest population of scarlet macaws in Central America. But lacking the will to hike two days into the park, or the means to hire a biplane, I stayed instead at Cabo Matapalo, where much of the same wildlife can be seen at Lapa Ríos reserve.
Here I hiked the Osa Trail with a guide who’d spent all his life on the peninsula, and seemed intimately connected to the land and its creatures. He showed me a tree where myriad species of birds had gathered to feast on insects fleeing the march of army ants. We watched baby spider monkeys tumbling playfully through trees, and red-capped mannequins dancing just a metre away. Before breakfast one morning I saw 12 scarlet macaws take flight from a tree. This was the Costa Rica I came for.
Where to stay: Lapa Ríos is the country’s first and finest ecolodge, perched high on a ridge so that each of its 16 elegant-rustic cabins has a balcony overlooking the ocean. Most impressively, all the staff are trained local people whose friendly, smiling presence creates a special atmosphere. It’s a short walk to a stunning beach.
Need to know: Lapa Ríos, Osa Peninsula. Doubles from US$255 [£156] pppn, all-inclusive
Alternatively… Stay at the beachfront tents of La Leona Ecolodge