A well organised and tranquil country within a relatively small area, Costa Rica may be compact but it packs a terrific amount of variety. San Jose is the capital city of Costa Rica and sits in its geographical heart. Inland there are misty mountains of Monteverde and Santa Elena with cloud forests that beg to be discovered, plus soaring volcanoes and hot volcanic springs. Then there are two very different coasts; the Pacific and Atlantic, each with their own attractions. Manuel Antonio reserve on the Pacific Coast has a peninsula setting with nearby marine parks that are a beautiful playgrounds for dolphins, whales and turtles, whilst Corcovado and the Osa Peninsula further south offer a much more remote adventure. On the east coast, the mangroves and beaches of Tortuguero are a turtle breeding haven, hence its literal translation as ‘land of the turtles’.
When the skies are clear and lava is in full flow, the magnificent Arenal Volcano provides one of Central America’s most exhilarating natural sights and wonders – a combination of blinding light and logic-defying rumbling that erupts in a spectacular show for onlookers. Since 2010, Arenal, the world’s most active volcano for the last 43 years, has been in a resting period; however it still remains a stunning sight. Beyond Arenal’s lava fields, the surrounding rainforest national park is a lush, prime spot for walking and hiking. Set within the 29,960-acre Arenal Volcano National Park, the volcano itself is 1633 metres above sea level and was formed some 7,000 years ago by the adjacent and now extinct Chato Volcano. The town of La Fortuna is the gateway to the national park and is situated just 4 kilometres from the volcano itself. Soak and relax in volcanic hot springs, listen out for gas eruptions and, as darkness descends, watch Arenal come to life from the comfort of your lodge.
Described by National Geographic Magazine as ‘one of the most biologically intense places on earth’ due to its unique and remote areas in the more inaccessible southwest of the country. The Osa Peninsula contains the Corcovado National Park and has massive appeal for those looking for an off-the-beaten-track experience away from some of the more popular tourist areas of Costa Rica. The region enjoys vast biodiversity and is a natural wonderland, with much of its parkland protected since 1975 as national park, and it is even possible, however elusive they may be, to sight puma and jaguar. Puerto Jiminez and Drake Bay are the two main towns from which you can access the peninsula, both of which offer good connections to San Jose. The landscapes of the Osa Peninsula are a varied and untamed blend of beaches, mangroves, winding rivers and thick rainforest, all ideal for exploration.
Lying in the northeast of Costa Rica along the Caribbean coastline, the Tortuguero National Park is a stunningly located park that protects a 22-mile stretch of beach, providing one of the largest and most important nesting grounds for the endangered green turtle. During the nesting season, between July and October, entrants to the park will have the privilege of coinciding their visit with these gentle creatures who make their way up the beach at night to lay their eggs, and with our guided nocturnal trips it is possible to see them at incredibly close range, making it in many wildlife enthusiasts eyes a must as part of their Costa Rica itinerary. This is one of the best places to see turtle hatchlings, and you can also see wildlife such as sloths, monkeys and toucans.
Forming part of the central highlands, an expanse of undulating countryside that spreads as far east as Volcan Arenal to the lowlands of Guanacaste in the west, the luscious and fertile hill country of this region makes it one of Costa Rica’s most enticing for walking, hiking and exploring its natural world highlights. The corridor of settlements that comprises Monteverde and Santa Elena is surrounded by a swathe of famous cloud forests, which generally sit at an altitude of around 1500 metres above sea level and protect a variety of flora and fauna within the spectacular two reserves of the region.
The towns of Santa Elena and Monteverde form two of the most populated areas of the highlands and are the starting points for visits into the two main reserves, the original Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve which was established in 1954 by Quakers and the more recently formed Santa Elena Rainforest Reserve in 1992. Both are models for environmental sustainability and eco-tourism, and heading en route to Monteverde via steep and snaking dirt roads from the international highway, one almost feels as though tourism has not reached these lofty parts, but both Santa Elena and Monteverde are excellent centres with spectacular settings and wide-ranging facilities.
Manuel Antonio National Park is a small biological reserve set on a peninsula atop an enchanting expanse of tropical rainforest, with spectacular views out to far-reaching white-sand beaches of the Central Pacific Coast. Just a three hour journey from the capital, San Jose, and one of only two spots in the country where you can see all four monkey species, it is also a great place for sloth-spotting. The smallest of Costa Rica’s nature reserves but by no means the least rewarding, Manuel Antonio offers the visitor a tantalising and unusual mix of incredible beaches lapped by crystal-clear waters, varied wildlife and one of the best spots for relaxation in natural splendor.
Once a small fishing town, Manuel Antonio soon became the centre of this region and the area is now the country’s second most visited conservation zone, spread over 1,700 acres of land and 135,000 acres of marine reserve. The centre of the town is well-established for tourism and is not an undiscovered destination. The beaches along this coastline are rugged and vast, making it a popular spot for surfers, and they become less busy the further you head away from Manuel Antonio town.