|Photo by Freeimages.com/Sara Cowherd|
by Chris Moss, The Daily Telegraph, April 1, 2016
With British Airways launching its new direct flight from London Gatwick to San José on April 27, one of Central America’s safest, greenest and most developed nations is suddenly a lot closer to the UK. Already a favourite with American travellers, this diminutive country’s appeal is multi-faceted. The most obvious draw is its breathtaking natural beauty. Costa Rica’s coastline looks out on to two oceans, and between these are 32 national parks (a quarter of the land mass), 60-plus volcanoes, 15 wildlife refuges and hundreds of protected reserves. All this makes for animal and birdwatching that is the envy of far bigger countries – and even continents (Costa Rica has more butterflies than Europe).
To make matters even better, a couple of decades ago, Costa Rica’s government decided to bet on controlled eco-tourism over the gated, mass-market offering found in places like Cuba, Dominican Republic and Aruba. The accent was, and remains, on adventure and active holidays and mixing with locals. This doesn’t mean food and drink and luxurious accommodation aren’t available; it just means that the focus of your trip will be spotting monkeys, tracking down the rare resplendent quetzal, walking through the canopy, mountain biking or white-water rafting.
December to April is high season, because it’s also dry season, with rain increasing from May – meaning quieter beaches but some tricky backroads, which quickly turn to mud.
Walk and watch
For a small country – it comes after Bosnia and Herzegovina on the size ranking– Costa Rica crams in extraordinary biodiversity. On the Go’s nine-day tour is ideal for first-time visitors who want to sample the country’s highlights without any fuss, taking in the Manuel Antonio National Park, which boasts gorgeous beaches as well as protected forests – home to sloths, pelicans, white-faced monkeys and anteaters – the dreamily beautiful Monteverde Cloud Forest, and the Arenal volcano, one of Costa Rica’s most picturesque. There are several easyish hikes en route and a boat ride, and extra excursions can be added, including white water rafting, canoeing and horse-riding. The tour starts from £779pp b&b; excluding flights. On the Go (020 7371 1113, onthegotours.com ).
Costa Rica’s roads are safer, more scenic and quieter than those of its neighbours and having four wheels opens up un-touristy towns and villages. Journey Latin America’s 14-day self-drive journey starts off with a trip east to Caño Blanco to catch a boat to Tortuguero National Park (to which there is no road access) to see caiman, iguanas, river turtles and more than 320 species of birds including toucans and parrots. Next come cacao-growing areas and a stunning drive up to the Monteverde cloud forest, to see more flora and fauna and perhaps take a ride on a zip line. A journey north on the Pan-American Highway concludes at the Rincón de La Vieja National Park, set around an active volcano, and surrounded by lush cattle-raising cowboy country. From £1,883pp including some meals, two accompanied road journeys and self-drive using a 4WD Mitsubishi Montero GI or similar. Price excludes flights. Journey Latin America (0203 432 9175; journeylatinamerica.co.uk ).
It’s not only sloths who get to chill in Costa Rica. While many beaches are framed by jungles and wild-looking landscapes, they can still be used for the usual beach stuff: sunbathing, swimming, sport fishing, surfing, snorkelling and scuba diving. The Nicoya Peninsula is physically separate from most of the country and its balmy blue waters are a fixture on the American surf itinerary. Dirt roads are motorbike-friendly and it’s easy to move between hip Malpais and Santa Teresa and arty Manzanillo. Hotels run the gamut from ultra-exclusive boutique pads and full-service resorts to surf shacks and house lets. The food in Nicoya is probably the best in the country, with some swanky poolside restaurants around Santa Teresa. Cox & Kings offers a tailor-made day-night itinerary to the Nicoya Peninsula, Costa Rica from £1,845pp b&b, which includes flights, one night in San Jose and four nights in Punta Islita. Cox & Kings (020 3642 0861; coxandkings.co.uk ).
Most travellers tick off a few dozen birds and butterflies, perhaps a mammal or two. But Naturetrek’s 15-day Costa Rica birding itinerary is aimed at those who are serious about their binocular-usage and committed to full pro “twitcher” khaki get-up and to pre-dawn getting up, too. Taking in the tropical forests of the Carara National Park on the Pacific coast, the wetlands of the La Ensenada Wildlife Reserve and Monteverde, the guided group will expect to spot wonders such as the emerald toucanet, the long-tailed silky flycatcher and a vast array of hummingbirds, trogons, woodcreepers, manakins, tanagers and other species. The high point for many is a sighting of the resplendent quetzal, probably one of the most beautiful birds in the world. The tour ends with a visit to the La Selva Biological station, one of the most ecologically diverse areas of Costa Rica. Departs April 2, but this is a regular fixture on the company’s calendar. From £3,995 including flights. Naturetrek (01962 733051; naturetrek.co.uk ).
As Central America’s most adventure-focused destination, Costa Rica has become a favourite with the new generation of avid road cyclists. Exodus’s popular 14-night Coast-to-Coast Ride takes in a long stretch of the beautiful Pacific seaboard, including the Manuel Antonio National Park and the less explored Osa peninsula, visiting indigenous spherical rock sculptures and working palm plantations. After stopping at the species-rich Wilson Botanical Gardens, famous for its orchids, the group enjoys a breezy downhill ride, while the crossing of the 11,000-foot Cerro de la Muerte Pass is by bus. The group visits a coffee ranch to see harvesting and processing, and cycles past the Turrialba and Irazú volcanoes. When not in the saddle, there are river launch transfers and kayaking is available as an additional excursion. From £2649 pp including flights and some meals. Exodus (0208 772 3936, exodus.co.uk ).
Conserve and contribute
Seeing the “real” Costa Rica is an appealing idea, and one of the best ways to do this is probably to combine a tour with voluntary work. Real Gap Experience’s four-week Costa Rica experience includes whitewater rafting on class 2-3 rapids, surfing, ziplining, kayaking and snorkelling, horseriding and hiking. The extra edge comes from helping out at a Sea Turtle conservation project and helping build new homes for disadvantaged local community in the town of San Ramón. The trip winds up with a visit to Panama’s beautiful Bocas del Toro archipelago. Departs most months, from £1,665, covering some meals and several excursions. Flights extra and there is no single supplement. Real Gap Experience (01273 647 220; realgap.co.uk )
Botany and boat trips
Costa Rica’s teeming biodiversity can leave even seasoned fans of flora feeling a bit dizzy. Brightwater Holidays’ 13-day garden-focused tour is led by expert guide Julia Corden (garden manager of the Explorer’s Garden in Pitlochry, Scotland), and takes in a wide range of gardens, including the Else Kientzler Botanical Gardens, known for its world-class collection of more than 2,000 plants from all over the world as well as rare species of woody trees; and the La Paz Waterfall Gardens – site of the world’s largest butterfly garden. It also takes in several private gardens. The small group is joined for two days by American botanist Willow Zuchowski, who has lived in Costa Rica for 30 years and authored several books on indigenous flora. There are also boat trips to see a wildlife refuge for monkeys, iguanas, sloths, alligators and turtles, and excursions to hot springs, Lake Arenal, the Monteverde Cloud Reserve, the Poás Volcano, medicinal gardens, cacao, spice and pineapple plantations. Departs February 7 2017, from £2995pp b&b, including flights and most meals. Brightwater Holidays (01334 657155; brightwaterholidays.com ).
If you’re young – or youngish – and looking for a first foray into Costa Rica, G Adventures’ eight-day Costa Rica on a Shoestring tour, aimed at 18-39 year olds, might be just the right kind of approach – and budget – for you. Groups of up to 19 travellers join up for a pared down itinerary, focused on seeing two key features – the volcano at Arenal and the hip beaches at Montezuma on the Nicoya Peninsula – and allowing plenty of free time. There are optional (charged) extras for those who want more action and adrenaline, including surfing sessions, waterfall rappelling and whitewater rafting. The group also gets to sample the nightlife around Montezuma and San José. Hotels are simple, with some rooms shared between several travellers. Departs monthly except October, from £519 pp, covering local transportation; flights extra. G Adventures (0800 365 1000; gadventures.co.uk ).
Families and other fauna
Costa Rica is great for the best kind of family holiday – that is, one that incorporates lots of outdoor fun, a bit of eco-minded education and some memorable encounters with wildlife. Families Worldwide’s 13-day “Waves, Whales and Waterfalls” tour keeps family groups busy with humpback whale-watching off Playa Ballena (seasonal), a river trip aboard a raft on the Rio Tenorio, mountain biking at the foot of the Arenal volcano, a canopy tour and ziplining through the rainforest and some beach time at the Manuel Antonio National Park. There’s a good chance of seeing monkeys, sloths and iguanas, as well as lots of birds, at several sites and a ranch stay at Guanacaste, too. Departures between July 2016 and April 2017, from £2,399 for adults and from £2,099 for children aged 11 and under, covering the cost of flights and some meals. Families Worldwide (01962 737560; familiesworldwide.co.uk ). Note: Southern Hemisphere humpback whales travel from Antarctica to Costa Rica from late July through early November.
Summitting and snorkelling
Just about all visitors to Costa Rica will get adventurous for some of the time, but for those who want full-on hyperaction, Highlives Travel’s new 18-day “Hiking and Adventure” tour pulls together a range of exciting, occasionally extreme, challenges from hiking to rafting to kayaking – and a bit of birdwatching. Two whole days are dedicated to climbing to the summit of the country’s highest peak, Mount Chirripo, and another two to hiking through the jungles of the Osa Peninsula, with an overnight camp in the rainforest. The active Poas Volcano is also on the itinerary, which winds up with snorkelling and kayaking in the Cano Island Biological Reserve, a remote island off the western coast. From £3,200pp including some meals; excluding flights. High Lives (020 8835 7034; highlives.co.uk ).
This article was written by Chris Moss from The Daily Telegraph and was legally licensed through the NewsCred publisher network.