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Guide to Costa Rica

Written by Thomas Power | 10th January 2014 |


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For a small country Costa Rica packs quite a punch, with lush tropical jungles, active volcanoes and golden sand beaches.

Over 6% of the world's biodiversity can be found here, in an area just over twice the size of Wales.

The people are friendly and welcoming and the standard of living is good. Add to this a highly capable tourist infrastructure and relatively short driving distances, and you have the recipe for a holiday which is active, relaxing, varied and comfortable.

Wildlife and rainforest

Perhaps the biggest draw in Costa Rica is the wildlife, and the two best places to see it are the Tortuguero National Park on the Caribbean coast and the Corcovado National Park on the southernmost tip of the Pacific coast.

Tortuguero is a flooded forest, so boats replace cars as the main form of transport.

Most tours to see the wildlife are conducted by boat through the narrow river channels of the National Park, and the guides here are adept at helping you spot the creatures in the trees at the water's edge.

You may see several of the five species of monkey that live here, plus river turtles, Jesus Christ lizards (so named because they can walk on water), caiman and if you are lucky, a family of river otters cavorting by the banks.

Corcovado National Park covers the western flank of the Osa Peninsula and is the place to head for remote, relatively undisturbed tropical jungle.

According to National Geographic, Corcovado is 'the most biologically intense place on earth'. It contains the largest remaining stretch of tropical lowland rainforest in the country and is home to 13 major ecosystems, not to mention 140 mammal species, including six of large cat.

Add to this more than 100 species of butterfly and over 400 bird species, including the largest population of Scarlet Macaw in Central America, and you have the recipe for a wildlife enthusiast's dream. As the forest here is terra firma, you can choose to explore by foot or on horseback, or perhaps paddle along the coastline by sea kayak.


Costa Rica is home to several swathes of cloudforest that run along the spines of the central cordilleras to the north and south of San José. The habitat in these regions is quite unique, and so named because the forest is at altitude, and usually covered in a fine mist.

It can feel a little damp and chilly when the sun isn't shining - just how you would imagine it to feel in a cloud really. When the sun does break through, however, the many hues of green in the trees and plants spring to life and the forest can feel quite magical, with branches laden with bromeliads, lichens and orchids.

The most well-known cloudforest region is Monteverde, which includes the Monteverde and the Santa Elena Reserves.

The village here has been steadily growing and now receives a high number of visitors throughout the year. There is plenty to do here, so the area is a great option for families and for those who want to combine a bit of high-octane adrenaline with their cloudforest experience.

There are canopy walks, mountain biking and horse riding on offer, plus the 'Sky Trek' a serious of zip-wires and suspended bridges through the treetops.

There are two other pockets of cloudforest that have remained less disturbed: to the south of San Jose at San Gerardo de Dota, and to the north at Bosque de Paz.

Both are actually closer to the capital than Monteverde, but unlike their more famous counterpart, they have managed to retain an atmosphere of quiet and calm, with clear mountain streams tumbling beside secluded woodland clearings.

There aren't many larger animals to be seen here, but the rich vegetation attracts an incredible number of butterflies, amphibians, insects and birds.

San Gerardo cloudforest in particular is the most reliable place in Costa Rica to see the Resplendent Quetzal, often thought to be one of the most beautiful birds in the world, and considered sacred in Mayan and Aztec culture.

At Bosque de Paz, hummingbirds flit between the nectar feeders suspended on the balcony of the family-run lodge.


In the northwest corner of the Central Valley lies the tropical forests and rolling hillsides of the La Fortuna region. At its heart stands the towering form of Arenal Volcano, its almost perfect conical form rising over 1,600m above the shores of Lake Arenal.

Whilst Costa Rica boasts numerous active volcanoes, Arenal is the only one that emits a continuous stream of lava and ash. This sight is particularly spectacular on a clear night, when rivers of bright orange molten rock flowing down the mountainside. Nearby, the choice of natural thermal hot springs make the perfect place to relax.

Beyond Arenal is the Guanacaste province, home to another hot spot of volcanic activity. Here you can find the Rincon de la Vieja National Park, home to the active volcano of the same name.

This is the hottest and driest area in the country and also one of the least developed. There is some great rafting to be found on the Curubande River, or make like a local and explore the bubbling mud pots and fumaroles of the national park on horseback.


Although many flock to the coasts to enjoy the renowned surfing culture, Costa Rica's many - and varied - beaches are also a wonderful place to relax.

Head to Manuel Antonio National Park, on the central Pacific coast, for jungle-fringed white sand beaches and stunning scenery.

Further north, the larger resort-style hotels have taken up residence on the Nicoya Peninsula, although there are still some charming, relatively peaceful beaches to be found here, namely the beautiful stretches of golden sand at Samara and Nosara.

Some of the best beaches in the country can be found here, along with the Ostional Wildlife Reserve, a major nesting site for marine turtles.

The laidback, informal style of the southern Caribbean offers its own enticements. Here you can mix your beach time with jungle zip-wiring, cycling and numerous water sports, or simply soak up the rich Afro-Caribbean culture.

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