The essential itinerary for Costa Rica was defined long ago: Manuel Antonio for the beach, Monteverde for cloud forest, Tortuguero for turtles, and Arenal volcano for outdoor adventure. Add in the area of sandy beachfront in Guanacaste that has also been set aside for large hotels and you have all the elements of most package tours to the country.
But the true beauty of Costa Rica lies in its smaller, emptier spaces. And though there is plenty of adventure on offer (when they say you can zipline from one end of the country to the other, they’re only half joking), it’s the V-formation of pelicans flying over your hammock, lightning over a silver sea, pink orchids against turquoise houses, a passing cowboy with silver stirrups, the white sand and deep blue sea that stay in the memory – along with the state of the roads.
Costa Rica has a mountainous spine, so crossing from Pacific to Caribbean coast takes forever. Resign yourself to loops in all directions out of the capital San José, which sits in the Central Valley, and remember that internal flights will save time and stress. What looks like a quick journey on a map will not be: the 65-mile drive from Arenal to Monteverde, say, can take six hours.
All prices are for the current high season (December-April) and include tax of 13%. In the low season, from May-November (less crowds, rainy mornings), there are substantial discounts if occupancy is low
You’d be forgiven for thinking that the old capital has been left to rot while a replacement, made of condos and strip malls, is built around it. The gridlocked downtown blocks aren’t pretty, with their cracked pavements, stinking drains, seedy bars, pickpockets, rusting tin roofs and ocarina sellers. But old San José has its sights, from Museo de Jade (Plaza de la Democracía) and Museo del Oro (beneath Plaza de la Cultura), both with unrivalled but unsung pre-Colombian treasures, to the warren of the Mercado Central, and the pay-to-view grandeur of the Teatro Nacional.
Start at the city’s western edge with a visit to Museo de Arte Costarricense in the old air traffic control building of what used to be the airport, then head down Paseo Colon.
Where to stay
For San José’s airports and exits for Pacific highways, hotels in the western suburbs are best. For a quick stopover, white, clean, super-value Hotel Luisiana in Santa Ana (doubles from $62 room-only) is a good option, but for a treat try Xandari (doubles from $299), just 20 minutes from the international airport. This colourful gem, with thatched spa and pools in tranquil tropical gardens on the northern flanks of the Central Valley, offers spectacular views of the city. In San José itself, the boutique Hotel Grano de Oro (doubles from $186) is a luxurious, charming oasis filled with art and plants just off Paseo Colon.
Wealthy coffee barons built their homes in Barrio Amón, five blocks north of the Teatro Nacional. Hipster entrepreneurs have turned several of them into bars and restaurants. Try hole-in-the-wall Café Miel (Avenida 9, Calle 11 & 13) for great cake and coffee; atmospheric and arty Alma de Amón (Calle 5, Avenida 9 & 11) for cocktails, empanadas and ceviche; and coolly scruffy Stiefel Pub (near the INS building on Avenida 7) for lively crowds and craft beer. Near the top of Paseo Colon, stylish Aquí Es (Avenida 2 & Calle 38) has live jazz and big steaks.
Tiquicia (+506 2289 5839), above San Antonio de Escazú, offers city views and folk dancing. It’s cheesy and sentimental, but this is where Ticos go for a night of chicharrones (pork rinds), a casado of rice, steak and plantain, and loads of Nicaraguan Flor de Caña rum with Coke, limes and a bucket of ice.
A quarter of Costa Rica is protected parks and reserve, but the crown jewel is Corcovado national park, 164 square miles of rainforest in the Osa peninsula, fringed by empty Pacific beach. Remote and largely impenetrable, it’s home to five species of cat (jaguar, puma, ocelot, margay and jaguarundi) plus tapir, sloth, monkeys, boas (there are lots of snakes: wear boots) and almost 400 bird species. Here’s your best chance of spotting Costa Rican wildlife – and the waters are rich with dolphins and, seasonally, pods of whales.
Access is with guides only, and reservations need to be made well in advance. Hikes range from easy day trips, mainly around San Pedrillo, to multi-day treks with overnights at Sirena, a magical, ultra-basic ranger station. (It’s also accessible by boat and small plane.) Most lodges on the peninsula include Corcovado hikes as part of a package; for something more full-on, contact Osa Aventura (+506 2735 5670). It has a one-day hike for $85pp, including park fees, guide, lunch and transport, and a three-day adventure tour for $395pp including two nights at Sirena. For a list of approved guides email the park office in Puerto Jiménez.
Up in the mountains, you find children in sou’westers herding friesians, then cloud forests where everything’s dripping, and doused in golden light. Reminiscent of Somerset in October it may be, but squelching down misty trails to the plink of tree frogs and the warbles of bellbirds is an unearthly experience. Also lurking among the foliage are 420 species of orchid, and scarlet poison dart frogs in purple stockings. Wherever you visit, expect rainbows, the strong aroma of a cedar cabin, and a damp, chilly night.
Where to stay
On the Osa peninsula’s southern tip, along a rutted track south of Puerto Jiménez, pricey Bosque del Cabo (doubles from $390 full-board), makes a luxurious base for exploring the national park and its own 700-acre private reserve. White-nosed coatis scamper across the lawns, toucans call, private trails lead to rock pools, and convivial dinners are served at long candlelit tables in the thatched rancho. Accommodation is in cabinas with doors that fold back to let in ocean breezes and dawn chorus.
Budget options for independent travellers abound in Puerto Jiménez, round the Osa’s southern tip, a short flight or nine-hour road trip from San José. It’s a scruffy backwater but full of characters and a springboard to adventure on the shores of the Golfo Dulce. Cabinas Jiménez (doubles from $55 room-only) is a good-value favourite. There are free bikes and kayaks to borrow, and the well-connected owner runs dolphin tours. Il Giardino Italiano (+506 2735 5129) is the standout option for dinner.
Monteverde is the classic cloud forest choice, and the most child-friendly, with sky tram, sky walk and, for over-eights, canopy zip lines. If you are travelling south, San Gerardo de Dota, 46 miles from the capital and 2,200 metres above sea level, makes a top stopover. The (heated) wooden cabins at Trogon Lodge (doubles from $133 B&B) lie inside the country’s newest national park, Los Quetzales, a vast birdwatchers’ paradise, home to flame-throated warblers, emerald toucanets, green violetear hummingbirds and motmots, turquoise cotingas as well as trogons and quetzals.
Worth noting that Central America’s foremost ornithologist, the late Alexander Skutch, chose to live just down the road.
Nearby (at KM80 on the Panamerican Highway), Miriam’s Quetzals (doubles from $60 B&B) provides old-school Costa Rican hospitality: simple, pretty mountain-top cabins in gardens thick with birds and moss, and comida tipica (plenty of fabulous rice and beans, eggs, plantain, juices) in the no-frills restaurant-with-views. It’s worth noting that Central America’s foremost ornithologist, the late Alexander Skutch, chose to live just down the road.
Costa Ballena beaches
Costa Rica has two coasts and more than 300 beaches, some the domain of turtles. But there are two areas that have everything, from surfer bars to top-end retreats, party beaches to silent jungle. The first is the jungly Costa Ballena on the Central Pacific, extending 18 miles down Highway 34 from the grey-sand surfer town of Dominical to mini gastroville Ojochal.
Hotels offering yoga and salads and infinity pools with sunset vistas peek out from the dense foliage of the mountain slopes. Many have an indoor-outdoor Bali thing going on, and top-whack prices to go with it. No worries: La Cusinga (doubles from $172 B&B), a more affordable, child-friendly option by the famous whale-tail shaped beach of Uvita offers the same jungle setting, and a great deal of eco-action from riding to whale tours (all extra), plus yoga studio.
There’s budget accommodation around Dominical. You don’t have to be a gap-year surfer to love Cool Vibes (dorm beds from $12), an open-plan beachfront space with bunks and hammocks, wooden floors, ocean view and boards to rent – but if you’re not, you may come across as weird.
Offering both affordability and peace, the six Coconut Grove Oceanfront Cottages (sleep two, $85 room-only, extra person $10) are fully equipped, set in lovely gardens (with dipping pool) a mile down the beach from Dominical.
Dominical’s the place for lively bars, and cheap, healthy food in sandy flipflops settings. Try smoothies for breakfast on the beach at Surf Shak, spicy shrimp tacos at El Pescado Loco, healthy fish and vegetarian dishes (plus dancing on Wednesdays and live music on Saturdays) at Maracatu, and hotel Roca Verde for the Saturday party. Miraculously, in what feels like the middle of nowhere, Ojochal has chic jungle dining options. Both Citrus (+506 2786 5175) and the thatch-roofed Exotica (+506 2786-5050) do good things with fish, ginger, coconut and exotic fruits.
Southern Caribbean beaches
The second beach area is the more laid-back eight-mile stretch of Caribbean coast between lively Puerto Viejo and sleepy Manzanillo. All the palm-fringed white-sand beaches, turquoise sea, parrots, jungle cabins, nightlife, surf camps, gingerbread beach cottages, and pancake breakfast joints a person could possibly need are here. This coast, settled by West Indian fishermen in the 19th century, is English-speaking, and that vibe still dominates, despite a steady influx of more excitable jungle lovers. The obvious thing to do is read in a hammock, perhaps rent a cheap bike and visit a beach cafe. But boat trips, snorkelling, and mountain hikes can be arranged through the Asociación Talamanquena de Ecoturismo y Conservación office. Surf camps run courses for beginners (the mighty Salsa Brava break tosses even experts off their boards), and a visit to either the Jaguar Rescue Centre at Punta Cocles though jaguars aren’t always on view, or the Sloth Sanctuary, a short drive north in Cahuita, is almost obligatory.
There are plenty of small hotels, cafes, bars and pulperías (groceries) along the sandy road to Manzanillo, but it’s Puerto Viejo that is the hub for late-night drinking and dancing. To be at the heart of it, bag a hammock at Rocking J’s (hammock $7, tents $8, dorms $11, cabinas from $26,), the colourful surfing backpacker hot spot on the beach.
Providing easy access yet also peace, transplanted New Yorker Eddie Ryan’s popular wooden garden bungalows and restaurant at Costa de Papito (doubles from $59 B&B) are an easy stroll away at Playa Cocles. Points further south, easily reached on a bike during the day, feel more removed at night. Beach cottage rentals allow for a degree of self-sufficiency, and are the way to go. Most are rustic or eccentrically luxurious – the four at The Tree House (from $200 to $390 for the fabulous Beach Suite), the wondrous creations of Edsart Besier at Playa Chiquita, are both.
Where to eat
For open air, sea view, jungle sounds and fresh fish, you’re spoilt for choice. In Puerto Viejo, Koki Beach is a rancho-style lounge bar with furniture coolly fashioned from reclaimed wood, in a top location by the sea, and prettily lit. Alternate with Stashu’s con Fusion, serving beach fare in piquant sauces just a coconut’s throw away. Or for rice and beans, snapper and lobster, cycle to Maxi’s in Manzanillo, a wooden building where reggae plays downstairs, and good food is served above.
Arenal, the essential volcano
Volcán Poás is easier to visit (it’s virtually a drive-in) and Volcán Rincón de la Vieja is wilder, but Arenal is unmissable. Only one thing beats the thrill of seeing Arenal erupt, and that’s seeing it erupt while you’re sitting in a hot spring. The hot spring industry sprang up as a way of entertaining frustrated visitors who arrived to find the perfect cone shrouded in cloud.
Rivers, heated by geothermic activity, were dammed and tidied, and now hot springs circle the base of the volcano beyond the lava field (at least, that’s the theory). They range from big, cheap and fun, like Baldi (day pass $34), to Rousseau lushness with lava flow views and accommodation, such as Tabacón Hot Springs (night pass with dinner $70). In general, the further from La Fortuna (see below), the higher the price and the better the view. Visit at night.
Adventure tours in the surrounding conservation area range from riding to zip-lines and canyoning. A good option is the three-day whitewater rafting classic on the Pacuare river (class III-IV) with Rios Tropicales ($370pp), which includes a stay at its excellent eco-lodge at the mouth of the gorge. Rios picks up from Arenal, Puerto Viejo and San José.
Where to stay
La Fortuna is a boom town, almost entirely dedicated to feeding, accommodating and entertaining budget tourists. If you’re OK with whoops from the pool every time the volcano at the end of the road erupts, hostels are a good bet, offering tour information and services, bars and fairy lights, hammock lounging space, and a sliding scale of options from low-cost, zero-privacy dorms to private rooms. Try Arenal Hostel Resort (dorms $16pp, doubles from $58). The lava, however, flows down the other side of the volcano, and the very best views are from the Smithsonian rooms at the Arenal Observatory Lodge (doubles from $175 B&B, cheaper rooms from $100). It may lack cutting-edge style, but who cares? You’ve got front-row seats – or, actually, beds – for one of the best natural firework shows on Earth.
• Sorrel Downer blogs at sorreldowner.co.uk; Twitter @somewheresville
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