Green, serene, wild and wondrous, Costa Rica is many people’s first choice for an initial foray into Central America. Adored by intrepid travellers and those who like to combine some comfort with their hikes and horseback rides, it’s a safe and relatively small country that packs in a lot of experiences.
While all kinds of turmoil have shaped the lands to the north, Costa Rica has enjoyed peaceful elections since 1953 and has no standing army. It routinely makes headlines for green power initiatives and recently announced plans to become the world’s first zero-carbon country by 2050. Formerly a banana republic famous for fine coffee, it’s now a regional hub for technology and communications.
But if Costa Rica is a superpower in anything, it is in adventure tourism. The country pioneered the use of zip-lines and walkways to open up its jungles in the mid-Eighties to offer visitors a window on to the teeming wildlife that inhabits the canopy.
The country’s Pacific seaboard harbours rare coastal rainforest and mangrove, complex networks of rivers and canals, and, at Tortuguero, some of the best turtle-watching sites anywhere in the world. The Caribbean coast contains swathes of unpopulated wilderness as well as tiny pockets of chic living and surfing as found on the beaches of the Nicoya peninsula.
The spine of soaring mountains and volcanoes that zigzags through the country has endowed it with a dramatic topography. Drive, trek or ride a horse through landscapes riven by deep valleys and canyons flowing with white-water rivers and Costa Rica no longer seems the diminutive country it does on a map.
In all these environments, flora and fauna abound. The statistics impress: Costa Rica has more than 850 bird species, it has more butterflies than Europe, a quarter of its territory is protected (including 28 national parks and reserves), it has five per cent of the planet’s diversity. But that’s nothing to the wonder visitors feel on seeing a sloth, or hearing a troop of howler monkeys at dusk.
The suggested itinerary is based broadly around a fly-drive, making use of Costa Rica’s good highway network as well as visitor-friendly back roads. I have also tried to ensure you have plenty of time on foot, on boats, in the saddle and in the surf.
The accent is on active fun, and the route heads east out of capital San José to see the marine wildlife of Tortuguero and then north west to take in some of the most accessible national parks, volcanoes, cloud forests and beaches. Over 13 days, you’ll get the chance to hike, bike, go rafting and zip-lining, and to visit both coastlines.
You’ll also have the chance to sample some of the country’s culture and cuisine, soak in thermal pools, and to sip some of the world’s finest coffees. English is widely spoken, and listen out for the best-known of all local sayings: “Pura vida!” It means that life is very good indeed, and helps explain why Costa Rica country tops the Happy Planet Index, a ranking of nations that does away with soulless metrics like GDP in favour of “sustainable wellbeing for all”. Britain languishes in 34th.
Fly non-stop to San José with British Airways.
Check in to Grano de Oro, a boutique hotel named after the “golden bean” – coffee.
San José is a small, leafy, low-slung capital, and is friendly to walkers and cyclists. You can go it alone or go with a guide; if you opt for the latter, book with Local company ChepeCletas.
I’d recommend walking off your flight with a stroll around historic Barrio Amón, ogling the mansions of the big coffee-growing families. Continue eastwards into Barrio Escalante, which has lots of cool bars and cafés including the Beer Factory. Afterwards, have dinner at Alma de Amon, which serves Latin Soul food.
The wild coast
Take the 30-minute SANSA Airlines flight to Tortuguero on the Caribbean coast. It’s a short boat ride to Tortuga Lodge, a 27-room jungle retreat.
Tortuguero is very special. The whole area has national park status. Between July and October green sea turtles nest here, hatching from August through to November. Towards dusk, take the hotel’s guided nesting trip to avoid queues and to see unspoilt beaches; you also get to have an alfresco dinner on the riverbank.
After breakfast, take off on a guided river excursion, arranged by the hotel. Look out for monkeys and three-toed sloths; caiman, iguanas and turtles are routinely seen swimming from shore to shore.
After lunch at the lodge’s riverside restaurant, why not head out on a half-day sea fishing trip? Acclaimed angler Eddie Brown (captaineddiebrown.com) has great boats and crew and can provide all the tackle and advice you need.
For dinner, stay put at the lodge or take a boat to the local village where there are half a dozen options.
A further night excursion, available between July and September, is to see leatherback turtles nesting – Tortuguero Tours can arrange a trip.
Get up with the birds and head out for a dawn stroll around the gardens, spotting birds, including keel-billed toucans, ringed kingfishers and tiger herons.
Depart on an early flight to San José, hire a car, and then make a journey of about an hour and a quarter to the Poás Volcano National Park to see the impressive crater.
Afterwards, drive on (under two hours) to El Silencio, a luxury lodge and spa in a remote, densely forested reserve. Dine at El Silencio’s Las Ventanas upscale modern Costa Rican cuisine restaurant. You can even request to dine on a table set up in the forest.
Getting active under the volcano
After breakfast, your drive north skirts the Juan Castro Blanco National Park, site of three more volcanoes, before heading west towards the Arenal volcano and the national park of the same name. The journey takes at most two hours.
For the next two nights I recommend a stay at the Arenal Nayara Spa and Gardens, a romantic hotel surrounded by lush rainforest.
Once you’ve checked in, set off to join a 3½-hour guided hike with local firm Pura Vida (00506 2479 9046; puravidatrips.com).
The hotel has a tapas bar as well as four restaurants.
Steep mountains, narrow canyons and a tropical climate – most rain falls between May to October – means inland Costa Rica is ideal for white-water rafting.
Desafio Costa Rica (desafiocostarica.com) offers rafting trips on the Río Balsa and Río Sarapiquí.
In the evening, take a 10-minute taxi ride to the town of La Fortuna. If you want to take back some original crafts, drop into Hecho a Mano. For dinner, there are excellent steaks at Don Rufino (donrufino.com).
Land of the Costa Rican cowboy
It’s about three hours by road, using the Panamerican Highway for part of the journey, to the Rincón de la Vieja National Park and its namesake volcano.
Check in at the Hacienda Guachipelin (guachipelin.com). It has been here since 1880 and rears cattle, horses, pigs, chickens and turkeys.
After lunch at the lodge’s own “farm-to-table” restaurant, set off on one of the estate’s three mountain bike trails – the only such trails in Costa Rica to be found on an active volcano.
Set off after breakfast with one of the lodge’s expert naturalists, escorted by sabaneros – Costa Rican equivalents of the Argentine gaucho – on a six-hour horseback riding and hiking excursion that takes you inside the national park. See the bubbling clay and steaming fumaroles of the volcano, visit the Oropendola waterfall and swim in the Río Blanco.
Return for lunch, with the afternoon free to explore. In the evening enjoy a barbecue at the lodge.
Canopy in the clouds
Drive south for three hours to the tiny corridor of civilisation that sits between the villages of Monteverde and Santa Elena.
Stay in one of the 28 forest-view rooms at the Monteverde Lodge (monteverdelodge.com), which can organise activities, including a canopy tour in the Monteverde Cloud Forest.
Around dusk, set off on a wildlife walk, looking out for olingos, kinkajous, two-toed sloths and possums.
This morning, set off on an easy hike with one of the lodge’s guides around the Santa Elena Cloud Forest. Return to the lodge for lunch and, after a rest, set off in the afternoon on the Café de Monteverde Coffee Tour (cafedemonteverde.com), organised by a cooperative of local families.
The Nicoya Peninsula
After breakfast, drive to the stylish surfer hub of Santa Teresa on the Nicoya Peninsula, which is about a five-hour trip whether you use the road-only route or go via the ferry at Puntarenas. I’d suggest taking along someone to talk you through the regional wildlife, as well as the natural history of the peninsula. For a well-travelled expert guide, contact Costa Rica Expeditions (costaricaexpeditions.com).
On arrival, check in to the stylish Latitude 10 resort for your last couple of nights. South of the hotel lies a string of beach resorts, including smart Santa Teresa, picturesque Carmen and grungy Malpais. It’s fun to drive down, stop in at bars, restaurants or hotels for a cocktail or snack, and compare the vibe. There’s everything from pizza shacks for surfer dudes to ultra-smart sushi restaurants – as well as surf schools, bikini boutiques and little grocers’ stores.
You might want to keep today as a total day off, perhaps combining dozing and book-reading with a mahi mahi ceviche lunch at Chilean-run Alma (almadecostarica.com) in Santa Teresa. Alternatively, now’s a good time to book a surfing class, either through the hotel or at one of the many local operators. Blue Surf Adventures (bluesurfadventures.com) does lessons for all ages and levels – and also has yoga sessions if your partner wants to opt out.
Fly from Tambor, the local airport, to San José and back to the UK.
When to travel
The dry season (roughly mid-November to April) is the best time to visit. Choose November (just after the rains) and early December and April) to avoid the boom months when Americans arrive in large numbers.
How to book
It is possible to book this itinerary independently, but you may find it easier to employ the help of a specialist tour operator. Telegraph Travel recommends Journey Latin America, Audley and Exodus.