Rated the happiest country in the world, while leading the way environmentally with a low carbon footprint, Costa Rica is fast becoming the go-to destination for travellers looking for a good mixture of beach life, wildlife and culture.
I spent a life-changing two weeks here in early 2017, travelling across five areas that incorporated the perfect balance of relaxation and activity.
Our first stop on New Year’s Eve was San Jose, the capital of Costa Rica. For a capital city, it’s unusually quiet over the NY period with many families opting to shut shop and spend time with family. I’d save your NY celebrations for other capital cities. However, most large hotels hold smaller celebrations and celebratory activities. We stayed at the Hilton Garden Inn whose small bar and restaurant were perfect for seeing in the new year.
Spending just a day here, our second stop La Fortuna, a small town in Costa Rica, north-west of the capital, San José. The gateway to Arenal Volcano National Park, and comprising of 2 volcanoes, the active Arenal Volcano is still laced with lava flows. Hot springs dot the foot of the volcano, on the thermal Tabacón River. Dormant Chato Volcano has a crater lake and rainforest trails leading to La Fortuna Waterfall, with many natural pools.
There are many opportunities for adventurous activities like zip wiring, white water rafting in La Fortuna – but if you only do one thing, then you must do a rainforest trek at the Arenal Volcano National Park where you’ll see sloths, monkeys and other incredible wildlife the country is renowned for. Check out Montana Tours for a range of activities.
A wonderful area for organic foodies – check out Inspira and Organico Fortuna for fresh, clean seafood and smoothies. For an elegant dinner with a partner and friends head to Don Rufino mixing the best local food with world cuisine in elegant, yet friendly surroundings.
Think spa hotels with volcano views between all your extream sports and rainforest trips. We stayed at the beautiful Montana De Fuego Resort & Spa.
Leading on the nature elements of our trip our next stop Monteverde. Established in 1972 and initially covering some 810 acres of forested land – today it’s protective reach extends over 35,089 acres and covers eight life zones atop the Continental Divide. There are over 100 species of mammal, 400 species of birds, and 1,200 species of amphibians and reptiles living there. It’s a truly beautiful area for hiking and nature trails and one of the few remaining habitats that support all six species of the cat family – jaguars, ocelots, pumas, oncillas, margays, and jaguarundis.
We stayed at the stunning Cloud Forest Lodge who are all about an environment-friendly and nature-friendly stay. They are happily on-hand to organise treks and activities and have a beautiful restaurant view where you’ll get to have breakfast in full view of monkeys and hummingbirds. Check out the night walk adventure too. Derek our guide was a bit of a character to say the very least!
The beaches in Costa Rica are stunning, and you’ll find it difficult not to fall in love with the sunsets. Heading to the coast after our nature part of our trip was a warm welcome.
Best known for watersports culture is a heady mix of fun, relaxation, great food and surf life; Tamarindo is predominantly an American tourist destination. You’ll find a mix of young and older tourists soaking up the beach life in style here.
You’re spoilt for choice with the surf culture in Tamarindo. So if you want something more active than simply lying on a beach then check out Dream Surf Camp where you can glamp, indulge in surf, yoga, and bond with new people over bonfires.
With a good mix of hostels and beach fronted hotels, we stayed in the beautiful Ocho Artisan Bungalows, set right on the beach front with its own pool, bar and fancy rooms. Fully kitted out with the finer aspects of a luxury apartment decked out with air conditioning, mod cons, cooking facilities should you need them the bungalows have stunning open air bathrooms (look up, and you might spot a monkey while you’re showering!)
Green Papaya was a wonderful shout. The taco’s, and quinoa bowls are satisfying and fresh, and you can opt for a swinging hammock if you wish in this quirky little spot. The Bamboo Sushi Club was also stunning. Think Nobu in a romantically lit setting! The food and cocktails were second to none.
This little hippie town was a perfect stop between the more commercial areas of the coast. We knew most people by the end of our 5 days here! Everyone is friendly and warm, and of course, the beaches are serene and quiet. Like we discovered with the majority of our time in Costa Rica bars and nightlife are pretty infrequent and most bars close at 11pm/12pm. Whether this will change as the country develops its tourist trade remains to be seen. But there was something rather lovely about not seeing people falling out of bars…
Tortuga Island, a boat ride away from Montezuma, this beautiful little island is a great spot for snorkelling and soaking up the sun. Check out Zuma Tours for further details.
For Yoga, enthusiasts head to a candle light session at Hotel Los Mangos.
Great hotels are far and few between in Montezuma and book up quickly. If you’re on a budget, there are plenty of hostels, but if you’re after something a little fancier than check out Ylang Ylang or Amor Del Mar where we stayed who were most helpful with transfers from Tamarindo.
For simple, and reasonably priced meals check out the many soda’s in the area (and across the country) serving traditional dishes like rice, black beans and chicken. We also loved Organico for healthy dishes (and live music in the evenings), and Cocolores one of the top restaurants in the area with stunning beach views in a tranquil setting (be sure to book in advance, you’ll find it difficult to get a table just turning up!). I highly recommend the coconut chicken curry.
Our last stop on this whirlwind tour of the country was Manual Antonio. Perfect for those short on time in the country, as the area encompasses everything you’ll ever want to do in Costa Rica. From the National Park for treks and spotting sloths, monkeys, intertwined with beautiful beaches, sunsets and a landscape that reminds me of southern France with its steep rooftop hotels and bars.
Catch the sunset at El Avion bar and restaurant. The service isn’t great, so I recommend a drink here before heading on elsewhere for food.
We stayed at the very plush Parador Resort & Spa. Although the decor is slightly old fashioned, the service, food and general atmosphere were wonderful. Great for families and those who want a restful poolside stop with facilities all in one place.
For those on a budget and those looking to meet people and a vibrant nightlife, you must head to the Selina hostel, opposite El Avion. This seemed like it was the only place open beyond 12pm and for those looking to work remotely, there is a coworking area upstairs. We were lucky enough to meet the owners who are planning an expansion of these hostels come coworking spaces across the country over the next few years so keep an eye out freelancers!
If you’re craving carbs after all the fresh, healthy dishes in Costa Rica, then head to El Wagon next to El Avion. Marlin restaurant on the beach front in town is great for fresh seafood, and taco’s and more sunset views head to Ronny’s Place for tasty dishes and live music.
As Brits struggle with the exchange rate, it’s not a cheap place to visit so you may want to take that into consideration before a trip. In general, we found eating and drinking out to be fairly similar to London prices, so you may want to cook or eat in your own accommodation if you’re on a budget.
Colones is the local currency, and you’ll get a better rate paying in local currency. However, most places take US dollars.
All the hotels we stayed in had helpful staff who arranged our transport between areas and our next hotels. Travel is a little interesting in the country as there’s no main transport infrastructure. However, it’s very simple to arrange shuttle buses or private buses and cars to different destinations. Make contact with your hotels before travelling to see what they can offer.
Uber is available in San Jose. But be aware, cabs prices outside of the capital are unpredictable. While some offer flat rates, we had many long journeys that cost more than our shorter trips. Check with your hotel and a local cab company for best rates and negotiate before booking and travelling.
Meaning “Pure Life” Pura Vida has a profound meaning to the people of Costa Rica, and I can see why. I can not express how special this country is to me. I felt a real shift in my being in this tranquil and spiritual place. I know I’ll be back there very soon…
Fly with British Airways who now run direct flights from Gatwick to San Jose.