If someone asked you to describe the perfect tropical destination, what would you say?
The short answer for me would be the tropical Caribbean Sea on my right, the deep Pacific on my left, and Edenic rainforest soaring between the two. I’d want a host of exciting adventure activities to keep me busy too, since just lying on the beach bores me. Nothing overly dangerous, mind you — I don’t think “perfect” and “peril” go well together.
So I was thrilled to discover that Costa Rica, on the Central American mainland, is now just a three-hour flight from Trinidad via BWIA. Within its borders you’ll find an astonishing five per cent of the world’s biodiversity, with more of its land area under conservation than any other nation in the world. There are tropical rainforests, active volcanoes, jungle-lined rivers, and white sandy beaches on both the Pacific and the Caribbean coasts — plenty to keep you busy.
One week was far too short to pack everything in, but on my seven-day trip I was determined to try a little bit of everything — just to whet my appetite for next time. Take a look at my checklist, and you’ll see why I came back both tired and happy.
Costa Rica is famous on the world surf scene — anybody with a love for waves knows about the perfect lefts of the Pacific coast and the warm beach breaks of the Caribbean Sea. The varied coastline is ideal for longboards, with a lot of sandy bottoms instead of sharp rocks. The most famous spots include Boca Barranca, Playa Escondida, Pavones, and Mal Pais (a.k.a. Bad Land). Renting boards is easy and cheap, although any “dings” will probably cost you a little cash. If your surfing experience is limited, don’t be afraid to ask for lessons, which are inexpensive.
These little four-wheelers are the perfect way to move between the various beach towns on either coast. Mal Pais is about a one-hour quad ride (US$50 per day) from the surfing village of Montezuma. Take the quads through the jungle, crossing streams, bending round sharp corners, and skidding on the gravel roads. We made it with local directions, without a map.
Not for the faint-hearted, or those who get motion sickness, but whitewater rafting is one of the most exciting ways to take in the Costa Rican landscape. Rivers flowing down from the mountainous spine are varied and abundant. Many are grade one — basically, small, regular rapids, great for taking in the natural splendour of the surroundings. Others go all the way to grade six — rivers described as “nearly impossible. For a team of experts only” by the International River Rafting Association.
Most operators can pick you up from San José and transport you to the river bank for a day run, returning to the city in the evening, or you can take a multi-day expedition, camping at various points along the way.
Straddling Costa Rica’s high central ridge, 4,662 feet above the sea, is the Santa Elena and Monteverde Cloud Forest, a paradise of natural wonders, home to more than 100 mammal species, 30 kinds of hummingbird, tens of thousands of insect species, and 2,500 species of plants (420 kinds of orchid alone).
Unsurprisingly, the forest is a major attraction for visitors. With suspended walkways and observation platforms high in the treetops, and rappels (vertical descents on ropes) down some of the biggest, tallest trees in the world, the views are breathtaking. From as high as 130 feet above the forest floor, you can experience an intimate encounter with one of the world’s most biologically diverse eco-systems.
If you’ve ever had a Tarzan fantasy, the Monteverde Cloud Forest is just the place to try zinging through the treetops. Part of the canopy tour, zip lining is the most exciting way to enjoy the jungle. First you hike or climb to reach the first in a series of tree platforms connected by a system of cables, ranging from 131 feet to 2,525 feet long. The fun part is zipping from platform to platform via the cable and pulley system. It requires little energy to carry on like a monkey through the canopy, and you feel completely safe — you’re securely strapped on. You can’t help but be overwhelmed by the amazing vistas.
Passing under, through, and over the forest at Monteverde, comfortable two-person cable cars offer bird’s-eye views, great for those not too keen on zip lining at high speeds. The cars drift sedately along for an hour and a half, passing through green tunnels of moss-clad trees and misty clouds. Hummingbirds hover alongside, while capuchin monkeys playfully rock the branches, creating a shower of leaves and twigs falling onto the roof. They seemed slightly disappointed when we failed to be alarmed by their antics.
Away from Costa Rica’s main highways, there is a network of little-travelled back roads. These are usually bumpy, full of dust, and notorious for potholes — but great for taking in the scenery. Most routes involve a fair bit of uphill riding, but the downhill sections — a combination of mountain roads and backcountry trails — are well worth the effort. Biking tours are best undertaken with advice of tour operators, who can supply helmets, gloves, and lightweight bikes with front wheel suspension (very useful when the bumps in the road are endless).
One of the best trails we experienced was from Playa Tamarindo to Samara on the Pacific coast. It was a breathtaking tour, with dazzling blue waters on one side and broad flat shorelines on the other.
You’re on a steep hillside overlooking the Nicoya Gulf. The wind whips past you. As you approach the edge of the cliff, you jerk your wings, building momentum, until you leap off into the air, soaring hundreds of feet above the ground, heading skyward. No, you’re not dreaming you’re a bird, you’re paragliding — using lightweight nylon wings and a sturdy harness to take off into the air, riding the wind currents and thermal pockets.
Paraflight Costa Rica in Puntarenas is a pioneering school of paragliding, and will let anyone up and off the cliff if they’re accompanied by an experienced pilot, or solo with proper certification. The tandem tour, when you are strapped to a certified paraglider, provides a nicely measured dose of thrills. The flight is remarkably calm and silent, allowing you to enjoy the view; landing back on the cliff is the scary part!
Costa Rica sits along the Pacific Ring of Fire — dozens of steaming volcanoes dotted across the country offer living proof. Some of the most famous lie within the boundaries of national parks, and a volcano visit is practically obligatory.
Irazu, Costa Rica’s tallest volcano, and the closest to San José, is almost moonlike, its grey, barren landscape dotted with craters and devoid of plant life. With clear skies and good timing, it’s possible to see both the Caribbean Sea and the Pacific Ocean from its slopes at the same time.
Just 16 kilometres from the Monteverde cloud forest, Arenal, with its almost perfect cone shape and picturesque lake, and regular columns of smoke and ash winding skyward, is one Costa Rica’s most visited attractions. For good hiking, visit Rincón de la Vieja, which boasts many trails leading to waterfalls, warm springs, and swimming holes. Bubbling mud cones, pots, and geysers are frequent sights.
But the Costa Rican volcano which keeps geologists balancing on their toes is Poás, one of the largest active craters on earth, 9,000 feet above sea level. At lower altitudes, the national park offers many safe trails for exploration and a visitor centre.