Costa Rica had been working its way to the top of my travel wishlist.
I’ve always been incredibly impressed with its sustainable tourism credentials, being one of the few countries where tourism has positively benefited the natural environment. It now has far more forest than it did in the 1970’s, which is quite an achievement! The country has astutely identified it’s extraordinary nature as its key resource, around a quarter of the country is protected land left to nature and an estimated 5% of the world’s biodiversity is found here.
All the lodges and hotels adhere to strict sustainability guidelines and the Government has ambitious plans to wipe out its carbon emissions – which the people appear to buy into. With the current debate about climate change, I feel this is an important factor to consider when choosing your holiday. In my view the huge positives outweigh the carbon used to get there (which can be offset).
I knew it was the perfect destination for families looking for a real family jungle adventure, and great for couples or friends looking for an adventure pre or post children. So when the invitation arrived for me to join our excellent partners in Costa Rica on a trip around the country, I jumped at the chance.
Thanks to the direct BA flight, which departs 2 to 3 times a week it’s a simple 10 hour day time flight out and and a well timed overnight flight back allowing you to get a full 8 hours sleep on the way home.
On arrival we’d normally recommend starting with a couple of nights in the Central Valley. We stayed at Xandari, a beautifully unique hotel in the hills above San Jose. Aside from the unique and vividly colourful architecture, the hotel is a great place to unwind and gently ease yourself into the new climate and time zone. It’s set in 40 acres of tropical gardens with 4km of walking trails and three waterfalls to discover. It has a sensational spa, using organic locally produced products. We only had one night here, but we’d highly recommend at least two so you have a full day to discover the waterfalls, visit one of the nearby coffee farms or the currently very active Poas Volcano which is about 45 minutes away.
Tortuguero National Park
The first stop on our itinerary (and many peoples), is the Tortuguero National Park, on the Caribbean coastline. This wetland rainforest and mangrove forest was saved from logging and Turtle Harvesting in the 1970’s, thanks to pioneering research and eco-tourism initiatives led by Dr Archie Carr. These projects have been a huge success and sea turtle numbers have soared. Tortuguero today is one of the best places in the world to see Green, Leatherback and Hawksbill Turtles nest and then hatch; this happens between the months of July and October.
We took the stunning 20 minute flight to Tortuguero from San Jose, which is certainly advisable at least one way as it’s otherwise only accessible by a 1 to 2 hour boat journey depending on water levels. Tortuguero has a fascinating ecosystem, starting with the beach where the turtles nest, then brackish lagoon (a haven for seabirds) and finally the canals, built by loggers in the 1970’s, that take you deep into the rainforest. Exploring these canals by boat or kayak is a magical experience – you feel like a mini Amazonian explorer as you slowly cruise through the water surrounded by an ever changing array of birdlife, mammals, reptiles and amphibians.
We stayed at Tortuga Lodge, which is our preferred lodge. It’s great for couples and families – nothing over the top but very comfortable and well run with excellent guides, walks and community projects that guests can get involved in. It’s also just a short boat ride away from the fascinating (if now a little touristy) village of Tortuguero which is worth visiting.
Puerto Viejo and the Caribbean Coast
After an amazing 24 hours in Tortugeoro (we’d normally recommend 2 nights), we took the boat out and then drove south past the major port city of Limon to Puerto Viejo a surfing town at the heart of Costa Rica’s Afro-Carribean culture. A little “rough around the edges”, it might not be for everyone, however it’s great for the slightly more adventurous souls looking for Reggae vibe to go with beaches, good surfing and thriving nature. We had a full day here, so we went for a morning nature walk in the Cahuita National Park. This coastal park combines gentle walking nature trails with some beautiful beaches and reefs.
We stayed at the beautiful Hotel Aguas Claras – a stylish, newly opened boutique hotel, that has really taken standards in the area to a whole new level. Perfect for couples and honeymooners, the overall style and design is exceptional – modern, but with a nod back to the colonial. Set slightly back from the beach; a beach club and restaurant is due to be completed later this year which will add another dimension.
Visiting Pacuare Lodge was my most highly anticipated part of the trip. Pacuare Lodge is renowned worldwide as a pioneer of ecotourism (see video). The founder discovered the site in the 1970’s, when navigating the river on an inflatable tire.
Over the years the lodge developed from an overnight camping spot for rafters, to perhaps one of the best Jungle Eco-Lodges in the world. Aside from the spectacular riverfront setting enclosed by steep jungle-clad ravines, the beautifully designed suites and myriad of activities on offer – it’s the culture and hospitality that really makes the lodge stand out. From the inspirational founder Roberto, all the way down the staff are incredibly invested in the project. With only one night, we were not able to sample all the activities, some went waterfall rappelling, some did a jungle waterfall hike, we all saved the canopy ziplining for Arenal and unfortunately there was not time for the 4 hour hike through the jungle to visit the local indigenous Cabecar village.
The next day our departure from the lodge was to be one of the highlights. We had a 20km rafting trip down the Pacuare River, which is constantly ranked in the top 5 rivers in the world for white water rafting.
Until 2010 , Arenal was the most active volcano is Costa Rica – renowned for the spectacular displays of lava running down it’s perfect cone. The volcano is now dormant, but it’s still a must visit, not only for the geological intrigues such as volcanoes, hot springs and furnace vents, but there are so many fun nature and adventure activities in the area allowing for 4 or 5 action packed days. We started with a nature hike to the volcano viewing point with a volcanologist guide. Then onto the Sky Trek Ziplining adventure – taking a cable car to the top of a mountain, before zooming down a series of 7 enormous zip lines – it really was an invigorating experience and so spectacular to do it across such enormous forested ravines.
After a very busy few days travelling, my joints were beginning to ache, so our evening visit to the Tabacon Hot Springs was welcome. Tabacon is the country’s largest network of Hot Springs and the only hot springs in Arenal where the water flows directly from the volcano rather than from bore holes. This labyrinth of steaming streams and waterfalls is simply mind blowing, the temperature of a piping hot bath, lying at the base of a hot thermal waterfall induced an almost hypnotic state of relaxation. A visit here is an absolute must for everyone.
Then it was a spectacular flight down to Puerto Jiminez, the gateway to the Osa Penninsula, one of the most ecologically diverse places on the planet and home to the Corcovado National Park. This small peninsula holds 2.5% of the world’s bio-diversity. We were not staying here, but visiting two of the top lodges located in the Osa Conservation Area but a fair distance from the park itself.
The Osa Conservation area is another amazing success story, until the 90’s much of the flat ground was used for cattle farming, but over the years the ranches have been taken over by conservationists and returned to secondary rainforest – which are now absolutely thriving and difficult for the layman to tell apart from the primary forest. The stunning scenery was only surpassed by the abundant wildlife we encountered in just a few short hours. From the main deck at El Remanzo Lodge, (which is canopy level thanks to the steep incline) we saw a great troupe of Spider Monkeys larking about in a tree just a few metres away, then a small flock of Scarlet Macaws flew past and settled on a neighbouring tree. Then on a walk over their amazing canopy bridge had our best sloth viewing of the entire trip.
Playa Cativo Lodge
After a magical few hours on the Osa Penninsular, we returned to Puerto Jiminez and set of across the Gulfo Duche to Playa Cativo Lodge, which sits on the glimmering shores of the Gulfo.
Playa Cativo Lodge is an absolute gem of a lodge, accessible only by boat, it beautifully combines a boutique beach hotel style, with primary rainforest walking trails, idyllic water activities like SUP’ing, kayaking, year-round dolphins and seasonal whale watching AND a comprehensive wellness programme – enhanced by the magical setting.
Fortunately, we had a full day here to enjoy much of what is on offer and what a day it was…
We started with a morning boat trip to see the dolphins, there are resident populations of Spotted Dolphins who congregate in enormous pods and Bottlenose Dolphins who congregate in smaller groups closer to the shore. With such huge numbers, there is a 90% chance of a sighting and we were not disappointed. It was a magical half hour to sit and watch this huge pod of dolphins feed and play. We then headed to a reef for some snorkeling, which though not as dazzling as some, was abundant with tropical reef fish. Once we got back there was no time to relax – the hotel had set up a surprise picnic on a secluded beach, complete with cocktails, music, SUP’s and massages – what more could one want?
Our last stop was Santa Teresa. We were fortunate enough to take a beautiful private flight from Golfito to Tambor, but there are scheduled options via San Jose.
Santa Teresa is charmingly bohemian and rustic surfing resort, without paved roads the transport of choice is ATV or 4×4. This adds to the charm and keeps the atmosphere low key, which is complimented by some stunning luxury boutique hotels, perfect for couples and adventurous families looking for something away from the mainstream. We stayed at the newest hotel in the area Nantipa which had only been open for a few months and with it’s large pool and beachfront location offers something new and original in the area. We had a full day here to look around some of the beautiful boutique hotels, luxury guesthouses and a few uber luxury villas. My particular favourite was Flora Blanca – with simple but stunning villlas, a world class yoga programme and an out of this world spa. For the serious surfers, Batik Villas would appeal.
My time in Costa Rica was drawing to a close, all that remained was for us was to make the journey back to San Jose. There are regular airhops from Tambor, but we elected to drive, taking a scenic ferry across the Gulf of Nicoya to Punta Arenas and then the excellent highway back to San Jose.
My 12 days in Costa Rica exceeded my high expectations, I could not recommend the country highly enough.