Hop on a plane almost anywhere in the US, and just hours later you can be in a world of nesting turtles, volcanic highlands, and hike-in tropical beaches where humpback whales rule the roost. Costa Rica is at once incredibly exotic and almost fantastically accessible. Let us show you how to get far from the madding crowd in sophisticated style.
Writing in 1917, American entomologists Amelia and Philip Calvert had the following to say of Costa Rica and “her high mountains, her rushing rivers, her great variety of climate and of natural products”:
This little republic is so readily accessible, it is so easy for foreigners to travel there and it offers such wonderful inducements to naturalists and entomologists (for many of whom the time and expense involved in visiting most portions of the American tropics are absolutely prohibitive) that it certainly should be much better known than it is at present.
Dive head-first into some of the most spectacular biodiversity.
Little has changed in the intervening 100 years, save for the fact that the wonders of modern science allow us to back up the Calverts’ assertion with concrete proof that little Costa Rica punches way above its weight. Despite taking up a mere 0.03 percent of the earth’s surface, the tiny nation contains nearly six percent of the world’s biodiversity!
Read on to find out how to get the most out of this small and diverse nation, where transfers are always only a few hours, and you never have to take the same road twice.
The Caribbean jungle enclave of Tortuguero is less than four hours from the capital city of San José. But the fact that it’s inaccessible by road makes it feel half a world away. The hour-long boat trip to your lodge, which follows a freshwater canal system whose fringes positively teem with birds (over 400 species), monkeys (spider monkeys, mantled howlers and white-headed capuchins), sloths and 30 different reptiles, is an adventure in itself.
Monkeying around in Tortuguero National Park.
Tortuguero takes its name from the turtle catchers who used to frequent the rugged black sand beaches. In the 1950s, almost every single female turtle that came to nest on the beach was exported for use in turtle soup. But the declaration of a national park in 1959 has been one of the world’s great conservation success stories. The beach is now the Western Hemisphere’s most important nesting site for endangered green turtles. Hawksbill and loggerhead turtles are also known to nest here.
While visiting during turtle nesting season (June to early September) puts some gloss on the Tortuguero experience, this magical place is a year-round destination. Featuring beautifully understated lodges located on the small strip of land between the ocean and the canals (these were constructed in the 20th century to make the local settlements more accessible), it’s a wonderful spot to totally disconnect from the city.
Manatus Hotel – the only Tortuguero lodging to boast a/c – is at once rustic and sophisticated. Its 12 luxurious and spacious bungalows are surrounded entirely by nature, and its expert eco-guides are from the very top drawer. The decadent swimming pool and Afro-Caribbean a la carte restaurant seals the deal.
After the steamy lowlands of Tortuguero, Arenal – at the base of a 5,358 ft volcano of the same name – offers a temperate lakeside respite and views in every direction. This unspoiled slice of paradise really does have something for every kind of nature lover. Get a parrot’s eye view of the rainforest on an unforgettable canopy tour, go horseback riding at the base of the volcano (which is currently in a ‘resting’ phase and mainly spews steam these days), or embark on an early morning hike – crossing several iconic ‘hanging bridges’ en route – to one of the many waterfalls on this uber verdant island.
Arenal, where impressive skylines are never in short supply.
Arenal is home to some wonderful hotels which all feature spacious tropical grounds and often boast their own natural hot springs. Wherever you stay in Arenal, you’re guaranteed incredible views of the volcano (it does rather dominate the skyline!) and fantastic birdwatching opportunities. Arenal boasts 369 species, including no less than 24 different hummingbirds!
No trip to Costa Rica would be complete without some beach time … And what beaches they are! Parque Nacional Manuel Antonio may be Costa Rica’s smallest national park, but what it lacks in size it more than makes up for in outlandishly gorgeous topography and unrivalled marine and terrestrial biodiversity.
No cars are allowed inside the park, so you’ll be forced to explore the delightful network of trails which wend their way through the fertile rainforest and connect the park’s four idyllic white sand beaches. The two most iconic beaches are only a few feet apart, occupying either side of the isthmus (aka sandbar) which leads to the anvil-shaped headland which is the park’s most recognizable geographic feature. All four beaches are great for swimming, and abundant coral reefs mean Manuel Antonio is also one of the best snorkeling spots in Costa Rica.
The forest, meanwhile, harbors an incredible array of creatures big and small. Your expert guide will assist in uncovering many of the rainforest’s most fascinating secrets. From iridescent frogs and walk-on-water ‘Jesus Christ lizards’, through to sloths, toucans and crocodiles, you sure won’t get bored. As if this isn’t enough, Manuel Antonio is also a great place to see humpback whales, which can be spotted every month of the year except May and June (but August and September are definitely peak season). We can’t think of many other spots where you can watch a breaching whale from a palm-fringed tropical paradise!
While you could easily spend days exploring the national park on foot (or indulging in watersports or horseback riding), Manuel Antonio is also a wonderful place to simply wind down at the end of an action-packed trip. Our preferred accommodations all feature lush grounds and spectacular swimming pools, and many have their own private beaches and spa facilities. And if all that relaxing helps you to build up an appetite for one last excursion, we’d highly recommend topping your Costa Rica experience off with a languid Pacific sunset cruise.
Wind down on picture-perfect tropical beaches.
This travel journal has only scratched the surface of Costa Rica’s incredible diversity. To truly understand the boutique magic of Costa Rica, you have to visit for yourself. As the Calverts put it in their 1917 travel guide, “our Costa Rica year was the best we have lived, and our most cherished dream is of returning to the Enchanted Land.”
Experience Tortuguero, Arenal and Manuel Antonio on our 9-day Costa Rica Highlights itinerary. Or speak to a destination expert about putting together a bespoke Costa Rican adventure which caters for your interests and travel style. Got more time to explore? Check out neighboring Panama while you’re at it…