Costa Rica is one of the most eco-friendly tropical countries in the world. It is home to more than half a million species of flora and fauna and represents more than five percent of the biodiversity assets of the world. As a nature lover, it was for that reason I was particularly keen to spend some time in the country when visiting Central America about 10 years ago.
I had long wanted to visit the country after reading about the innovative measures that the Costa Rican government had taken in the 1990s to halt deforestation and establish national parks to protect the environment. These were measures that every tropical country around the world should have been taking, but few have done. Those that have tried have not achieved the successes that Costa Rica can now boast about.
What I saw on that visit blew me away. The lush tropical landscapes with their volcanoes, rainforests and waterfalls were as beautiful as all the photographs in the glossy travel brochures. The extent to which real eco-tourism projects were succeeding in the country was impressive (as were the efforts of the tourism industry to embrace sustainable tourism) and I loved seeing hummingbirds and monkeys everywhere!
I spent only one week in Costa Rica on that trip (with my late wife) but ever since I have yearned to go back. Tourism now earns more foreign revenue for the country than its three main export commodities (coffee, bananas and pineapples) combined, but nowhere in the country do you feel that it is suffering from over-tourism. More than 25 percent of the land area of the country is under some sort of environmental protection, which is the highest proportion of any country in the world.
For our one-week visit to Costa Rica we drove up from Panama in a rental car to the city of David about 30 km from the Costa Rican border, and then took a commuter flight the rest of the way to San José, the capital of Costa Rica. While in the country we visited three other areas aside from the capital – the Arenal Volcano National Park and the Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve to the northwest, and the beaches around Punta Arena on the Pacific coast. Whilst these areas gave us a good overview of what Costa Rica has to offer, they represent only a fraction of the places worth seeing in Costa Rica.
We had booked a room for the first couple of nights through Airbnb in Alajuela, a pleasant suburb not far from the airport on the northwest side of San José. On the morning of the second day our Airbnb host dropped us into the city (to save us the cost of a taxi) and then picked us up later in the afternoon at La Sabana Park. He dropped us off at the University of Costa Rica because I wanted to visit the José Maria Orozco Botanical Garden there before it got too hot.
After visiting the gardens, we walked to Barrio Escalante about 500 meters away because our host told me there were some excellent coffee shops there (having a good cup of coffee mid-morning is a must for me wherever I travel) and that didn’t disappoint. If you are not into botanical gardens, then starting or finishing a walking tour of the city at Barrio Escalante is a good option because there are some excellent eating places there as well.
Barrio Escalante is about three kilometers from La Sabana Park and our host told us that by walking between the two, we would get a good feel of San José and see several of the city’s major landmarks along the way. It was a good recommendation because it was an enjoyable and relaxing walk, and we felt it gave us a good taste of what San José had to offer. It’s a busy city but doesn’t feel as over-crowded as many of the Asian cities that I’m familiar with.
After leaving Barrio Escalante we headed for the National Museum of Costa Rica. The streets around here are home to an interesting mix of architectural styles with some well-preserved colonial mansions in their signature pastel colours and white window frames. There are also many side streets displaying street art on the walls of properties that haven’t been so well maintained.
Our Airbnb host had recommended that we visit the Jade Museum here, but we gave that a miss because old jewelry was not a lot of interest to us. I’d read good reviews of the National Museum and thought that would be a good way to get a quick overview of the history of Costa Rica. I was impressed with the museum and we spent the rest of the morning checking out the various galleries learning about the colonization of Costa Rica and its subsequent political development which has been remarkably peaceful (aside from a brief civil war in 1948) compared to many other central American countries.
By the time we’d finished at the museum we were ready for lunch. We headed west down Avenida Central and found a ‘soda’ for a cheap and tasty panini. A ‘soda’ in Costa Rica is not a fizzy drink – it’s a local café, usually family-run, and the best place to eat if you are traveling on a budget. Around this part of downtown there are plenty of sodas as well as American fast food joints, and a few more upmarket options.
Further on, we switched one block south onto Avenue 2 which passes by the National Theatre of Costa Rica and the Metropolitan Cathedral of San José – both impressive buildings and worth a look inside – and then back to Avenida Central which eventually transitions into Paseo Colon, which runs right up to La Sabana Park.
Early on the morning of the third day we picked up a rental car from the airport and said goodbye to our Airbnb host and drove to the Lankester Botanical Garden on the other side of Cartago, about 15 km to the southeast of San José. I went there to photograph some orchids, but they didn’t have anything in flower that was different to what I had seen in other gardens in Central America.
I had planned to spend the morning at the botanical garden, but was finished there after 40 minutes, so we decided to spend a couple of hours driving through the nearby Orosi Valley, which is promoted as the ‘Green Heart’ of Costa Rica. We did a full circuit on Route 224 from Paraiso to Orosi and past Lake Cachi. That was very pleasant and there were some nice viewpoints along the way, but nothing as spectacular as we would see later in the day.
After the Orosi Valley we headed back to San José and once out of the city traffic had an enjoyable drive to the Arenal Volcano National Park taking the northern route between the Braulio Carrillo National Park and the Volcan Poas National Park. We stopped at the La Paz Waterfall Garden Nature Park for lunch on the way. They had a buffet lunch of traditional Costa Rican food on offer. It wasn’t cheap but good for buffet food. We spent a couple of hours there after lunch checking out the flower gardens and photographing hummingbirds. The rainforest settings were very relaxing. After that we headed to the accommodation I had booked near La Fortuna, about two hours’ drive further on.
Arenal Volcano National Park
La Fortuna is where people usually stay when visiting the Arenal Volcano National Park, and we arrived there just as it was getting dark. We’d seen a few volcanoes on the very scenic drive up from San José, but I particularly wanted to take a closer look at the Arenal volcano because it’s the most active in Costa Rica. I’d booked a 4-star hot springs resort about halfway between La Fortuna and Lake Arenal to relax for a couple of days. It was good value at around $150 a night and excellent food. Around that area there are both cheaper and more expensive resorts. Some of the luxury 5-star hot springs resorts go up to $800 a night.
The next day we went on a pre-booked walking tour to the lava flows, but there wasn’t much activity when we was there, and they weren’t as spectacular as what we had seen in Hawaii. We spent the afternoon at the hot springs soaking in the warm water and photographing hummingbirds again. Whilst we went there for relaxation, there’s plenty of active things to do as well such as river rafting and hanging bridge walks through the rainforest.
The next day we drove around the northern shores of Lake Arenal, stopping for lunch at a German bakery in the small town of Nuevo Arenal. For those into horse riding, this is a place worth a half day stopover because there is a horse riding centre here called Tokpela that offers guided rides into the hills and wilderness areas. For us, we needed to be on our way after lunch because we wanted to reach the Monteverde Cloud Forest before dark.
Monteverde Cloud Forest
The lush and green, fog-shrouded Monteverde Cloud Forest is a biological reserve in the Cordillera de Tilaran mountains. There is also another reserve called the Santa Elena Cloud Forest and a conservation area called the Children’s Eternal Rainforest in these mountains, but we were heading to the town of Monteverde for two nights for two reasons – firstly it was home to a garden that was reputed to have one of the best collections of miniature orchids in the world, and secondly I wanted to try ziplining through the cloud forest. This type of ziplining was ‘born’ in Costa Rica and the safety standards here are known to be very high.
I achieved my two goals and came away with lots of good photographs of miniature orchids and the memories of an extraordinarily good afternoon ziplining through the rain forest canopy, and over a cloud-filled valley where halfway across, in heavy fog, I could not see my starting point or finishing point. It was an out of this world experience.
There are six big zipline operators in the Montverde Cloud Forest, all offering 10-15 ziplines with several over a kilometer long. At least one of them has lines with automatic braking (most of them are the traditional hand braking) so it would be easy to spend a week here trying them all out. But there are many other things to do around Monteverde including hanging bridge canopy walks, bungee jumping, bird watching and visits to butterfly and hummingbird gardens.
Of course, there are plenty of rainforest hikes available around Monteverde as well which you can do on your own or with a guide. However, if you want to see wildlife, then it’s best to go with a guide because they know where to look. The Monteverde Cloud Forest is home to hundreds of species of reptiles, birds and mammals including jaguars, pumas and ocelots.
Monteverde is one of the favourite destinations in Costa Rica for nature lovers and we were sad to leave it after only two nights there. It’s one of the many reasons I yearn to go back. There was so much to see and do that we never had time for. But we had booked our last night at a resort on the Pacific Coast, so that’s where we headed the next day,
Costa Rica is renowned for its beautiful beaches, but it was the nature spots that we had primarily come to visit. However, we didn’t want to miss the opportunity to see at least some of the country’s famed beaches, so we spent our last afternoon and the following morning exploring part of the Pacific Coast before driving back to San José to catch a late afternoon flight to Havana.
I booked our final night’s accommodation at Tamarindo, on the west coast of the Nicoya Peninsula, as I’d read that was a popular beach town with Costa Ricans. This part of the Pacific Coast is one of three regions that supposedly host the country’s best beaches. The others are that part of the west coast that is south of the Gulf of Nicoya between Jaco and Uvita, and the Atlantic beaches on the east coast, south of Limon.
I wasn’t impressed with Tamarindo. It’s too busy and too commercialized for my taste but I did enjoy our visits to some of the beaches to the north and south of Tamarindo, especially those around Nosara and Santa Teresa to the south and Playa Conchal and Playa Flamingo to the north. We didn’t have time to go any further north than Playa Flamingo, but I was told there were some nice beaches around Playa Hermosa as well.
The beaches we visited were all good but coming from a part of the world where we also have some of the best beaches in the world (tropical Australia and tropical Asia) we didn’t see anything that was better than back home. But I could see why the Costa Rican beaches would appeal to people living in the temperate regions of North America.
Itinerary for next visit
Now with more familiarity as to what Costa Rica has to offer, I have a better idea how to plan my itinerary for my next visit. I will definitely go back to Arenal and Monteverde because there is so much more to do there, and probably do another more leisurely circumnavigation of the Nicoya Peninsula visiting some of the places to the far south and far north that we didn’t get to visit on the first trip.
But I need to leave time to also do a circumnavigation of the region to the south of San Jose on Route 34 down the Pacific coast to the Corcovado National Park and then back up to the capital on Route 2 through the Los Quetzales National Park.
From what I’ve read online, that’s another part of Costa Rica that shouldn’t be missed, and it sounds like either Manuel Antonio or Dominical halfway down the coast would be ideal places to stay for a few days (many say that Manuel Antonio is the best beach in Costa Rica). So roll on a post-Covid world so I can get back to Costa Rica for my second visit!