Costa Rica is known for being a haven of stability in troubled Central America, and for having an incredibly diverse and abundant natural world. When you add flesh to these bare generalizations, the country’s appeal only strengthens. In 2012 the New Economics Foundation placed Costa Rica first on its Happy Planet Index. It’s a small, easily navigable country, with only 0.1% of the world’s landmass – but it contains 5% of the world’s biodiversity. Twenty-five percent of Costa Rica’s land area is in national parks, the highest proportion in the world. What all this means is a spellbinding natural world of rainforests, volcanoes and coastlines, all teeming with wildlife, colour and unpredictable activity, shot through with some great spots for surfing, diving and dancing until sunrise.
Usually, people go to Costa Rica for its vibrant natural world and not its urban scene. But it is worth pausing for a day to see San Jose’s highlights, resisting the lure of the lush green valleys and mountains that circle the city. The Pre-Columbian Gold Museum, situated underground beneath Plaza de la Cultura, contains a fascinating collection of 1600 pieces of pre-Columbian goldwork, dating between 500 and 1500 A.D. The second floor provides insight into the cultures of Costa Rica’s Pre-Columbian societies, helping bring the rest of the collection – and the rest of the country – to imaginative life. The hour-long drive out to see the incredible landscape of Poás Volcano National Park is also an essential activity while in San Jose, where various walking trails will lead you up the rocky mountainside to see the volcanic craters, including the vivid green crater lake of Botos. And finally you can collapse in luxury in Hotel Grano de Oro, an intimate boutique hotel located in a converted Victorian mansion.
Arenal is a dramatic national park with bare, rocky volcanoes rising out of dense and verdant rainforest. Looming over it all is Arenal Volcano itself, the most active in Costa Rica and a frequent performer of flickering pyroclastic displays. On a clear day or night, when the cone is in full view, you might see the glowing lava flows and red hot boulders thrown frequently from the volcano’s mouth. Alongside Arenal, hikers can also tackle Volcano Chato, a safer proposition which last erupted 3500 years ago, and which cradles a beautiful blue lagoon in its crater. The park’s diverse ecosystems are home to a vibrant world of wildlife: most of Costa Rica’s 850 species of birds can be found here, living alongside jaguars, capuchin monkeys, deer and loads of lizards and snakes. A tour on Arenal Hanging Bridges lifts you up into the rainforest canopy, the natural habitat of many of these creatures, or you can whizz through the treetops on a zipline. A great place to stay in the heart of this wild natural world is Tabacon Grand Spa & Thermal Resort, which harnesses the hot springs created by Arenal’s ongoing activity.
Along Costa Rica’s west coast, rainforests fringe the Pacific Ocean, secluded coves alternate with long stretches of white sand beach, kaleidoscopic coral glints beneath the surface of the ocean, and mist-swathed mountain peaks form a jagged backdrop. This beautiful shoreline’s most spellbinding features are concentrated in the tiny 2000 hectare space of Manuel Antonio National Park. This patch of jungle and coast has a controversial history, which you can step into in El Avion, a cafe and bar located in an American military aircraft that was shot down by Sandinista fighters in the ‘80s, triggering one of the U.S.A’s biggest Cold War scandals. There is also a gorgeous, innovative and eco-friendly rainforest resort, the Arenas del Mar, where you can stay. But really Manuel Antonio is about the Costa Rica coast’s abundant natural world, particularly its wildlife. It has a phenomenally high level of biodiversity for an area of its size, with at least 109 mammal and 184 bird species. Among much else, the forest is home to sloths, howler, squirrel and capuchin monkeys, iguanas, snakes, bats, toucans, and vultures, while dolphins and the occasional migrating whale can be seen travelling through the Pacific. SCUBA diving, snorkelling, sea kayaking and hiking are all wonderful ways to encounter this wildlife. A local guide can be invaluable in helping you find it.
Jaco was the first settlement on the central Pacific coast to explode into mass tourism, and the result today is a rough-round-the-edges seaside town that is one-third luxury resort, one-third chilled-out surfer haunt, and one-third ambivalent Tico locals. It has perhaps the liveliest nightlife in Costa Rica, with drinking beginning on Jaco Beach and continuing until sunrise in clubs such as Vibe, Monkey Bar and Beatle Bar. Terrific waves wash the 3km Jaco Beach, drawing surfers from around the world, and there’s also fantastic diving and snorkelling further out from shore. A little inland, 15 miles north of Jaco, you can visit another utterly enchanting national park, Carara, with a wet climate creating a densely-packed rainforest environment that feels wilder than any other park in Costa Rica. Carara is particularly good for birdwatching, and you can zipline through the rainforest canopy with the Vista Los Suenos tour company.