The small Central American country is the perfect translation of tropical: it has forests, beaches, volcanoes, rivers, and incredible adventure sports
As soon as the plane doors crack open, a gust of hot, humid air invades the cabin. One sign we’re surrounded by some of the densest forests in the world in San José, the capital of Costa Rica. Legend has it that when Christopher Columbus docked his caravels on the Caribbean coast, he spied indians wearing gold jewelry and thus named the locale Costa Rica. And Columbus was right: this place is rich. Over 25% of its territory is formed by forest reservations and national parks that are home to around 6% of the Earth’s biodiversity. The country produces extremely high-quality coffee. It has lush beaches, bathed by the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans. And it’s possible to experience everything from the history of pre-Columbian peoples to extreme-sport adventures. And Costa Rica is also home to a people that dissolved their army in 1948 and is dedicated to Pura Vida, the national expression which means that everything’s just fine, thank you very much.
The capital of relaxation
Contradicting the pompous title of federal capital, San José maintains a small-town atmosphere. Maybe because of the lack of tall buildings, the feeling there is that someone forgot to inform it of its importance. But a stop in the city is becoming increasingly necessary in order to visit such sites as the Pre-Columbian Gold Museum, which explains the development of gold items all the way back to 1500 BC. But a different kind of gold is responsible for the recent boom in San José: coffee. What kind, from what region and what extraction method would you prefer? There are many possible combinations for enjoying a simple cup of coffee. It wasn’t like this until two years ago. The best beans were exported and “Ticos,” as the locals are known, were left with low-quality blends. But the emergence of coffee houses that venerate the beverage changed the scene.
It’s one feature of a cultural revival that includes the rediscovery of the capital’s city center and neighborhoods like Amón and Escalante, home to Cafeoteca. It’s part of the restaurant Kalú, installed in a modern house and boasting a brunch-style menu. There, you can try some of the best blends from the eight producing regions. To wrap up the tour, admire work by local artists displayed in an old house at the Teor Ética Gallery and enjoy a view of the city while savoring elaborate drinks and Costa Rican-Mediterranean fusion cuisine at the new bar inside the Hotel Presidente, Azotea. The capital is now reclaiming its place in travel guides.
On foot to the dust
Heading to the north of the country, on the way to the Arenal Volcano, a 45-minute drive from San José, is the century-old farm Doka Estate. There, you can see what makes Costa Rica’s coffee beans so special, from their planting to grinding. One clue is right nearby: the Poás Volcano guarantees that the soil is rich in nutrients at an altitude of 4,260 feet [1,300 m]. With the first-rate raw material that nature provides, they’re able to extract the best from the arabica beans, the only coffee species legally permitted to be cultivated in the country. If you happen to be there during the harvest, from October to January, you can see it all in person. And, of course, wrap things up with a taste test to verify the country’s talent for serving some of the best coffee on Earth.
Forces of nature
Any mortal will feel powerless in the face of a volcano. This force of nature can decide to spit hot lava all over the place at whim. In Costa Rica, there are over 100 active volcanoes and many ways to visit them. The communities of La Fortuna, surrounding the Arenal Volcano, in the north of the country, were subjected to its fury while it was active, from 1968 to 2010, until returning to Pura-Vida tranquility. You can hike a nearly 3-mile [5 km] trail in the vicinity of the behemoth and see the dry, black lava which is beginning to be covered by vegetation. Immense rocks recall the initial blast that opened up room for the hot magma.
The forest in the Místico private reserve, near Arenal Volcano National Park, places visitors in the middle of the jungle. During a light, 1.8-mile [3 km] walk on a cement trail, you’ll hear the shrill croaks of minuscule strawberry poison frogs (also known as “blue jeans” because of their blue legs). Suddenly, one of 10 suspended bridges appears, stretching to the other side of the forest. There’s nothing extreme about crossing, except the view. Unless you’re afraid of heights. And if you are, don’t even think about the Sky Tram, a series of seven zip-lines also located in the region. The longest one stretches some 2,500 feet [765 m] and lasts 40 seconds. It’s so long that one primal scream isn’t enough; you’ll have to re-up on breath and cry out at least two more times. The wild jungle and a lake serve as rewards for the trip up to the next platform, where the fun starts all over again.
Those who’d prefer to keep their feet firmly planted on the ground will opt for the beauty of the La Fortuna Waterfall. From the overlook at the entrance, you’ll spot a sheet of water appearing in the middle of the green forest that plummets 197 feet [60 m] into a valley. On the way down the staircases that lead to the base, the giant trees look like something out of the world of the dinosaurs. Then a light-blue lake emerges like a mirage, formed by the waterfall, where you can bathe. In this region, an upscale hotel is worth the investment. Coming back from the day’s activities to a place where they spoil you with comfort, massages and good food, which is the case at the Nayara Springs hotel, improves the experience.
An outdoor zoo
Before the entrance to Manuel Antonio National Park, on the Pacific coast, an iguana about 6.5 feet [2 m] long relaxes on a branch. The combination of forest, sea and mangroves makes the place very attractive to animals. The seven trails are traveled slowly: every two steps, the guide aims his binoculars at new animals, like sleepy sloths. The place was transformed into a park in 1972, as part of the wave of nature preservation that reclaimed the country’s character as an ecological paradise. Wildlife that hadn’t been there in years, like macaws, started to reappear. The sound of monkeys breaks the silence, and they pass by, jumping across the canopy. It’s smart to have a good guide who knows how to spot the more discreet creatures.
The trails in this park lead to beautiful beaches. Farther away, Playa Gemela has rocks at both ends and forest that hurdles over the green sea. Manuel Antonio and Espadilla Sur, which face away from one another, are located on the peninsula Punta Catedral. There are other beautiful beaches outside the park, like Biesanz, a near-empty bay where you can rent equipment for kayaking, snorkeling and stand-up paddling. As its name states, the coast is rich: the northwest of the country has some of the best waves in the world for surfing, and the Caribbean side boasts crystalline waters – and they deserve a visit.
Currents and calm
Oars raised above the boat celebrating the feat performed by our group of eight: we successfully completed a white water rafting excursion on the Pacuare River in eastern Costa Rica. Considered one of the best places in the world for the sport, the river challenges visitors with rapids that range in intensity from one to four on a scale of a maximum five points. It goes from some easy bumps to immense whirlpools. That’s why it’s important to look for a company that provides training sessions, safety equipment and support during the trip.
In addition to the excitement of the sport, it’s an excursion of unmatched beauty sailing 18.6 miles [30 km] downriver in around two hours. It passes through cascades that splash onto the raft, verdant valleys, indigenous communities, railroad bridges and even a rock canyon, summing up the plurality that Costa Rica displayed throughout our entire visit: a mere sample of what we have yet to explore.