From cloud forests to hot springs—where to go in Costa Rica
Whether you want to kick it by the beach or zipline above the jungle, we’ve got the perfect spot for you.
Pura vida (literally, “pure life”) annotation is alive and well in Costa Rica. Across the country, it’s easy to pack your days ziplining through the forest, whitewater rafting, hiking volcanoes—and maybe even cliff jumping. No matter how you choose to spend your hours, make sure to schedule in some “good life” downtime just like a native Tico annotation. For me, that included hammock-napping, coffee-sipping, chocolate-noshing, and hot-springs-soaking. Read on for more ideas on how to get out there in Costa Rica.
San José International Airport is where you’ll likely start and end your trip. Lots of people will tell you to get out of the city as fast as you can, but I disagree. Plan to do some wandering here before jaunting off to other parts of the country. During a two-week summertime trip, I found Costa Rica’s capital to be packed with interesting history, sweet graffiti photo opps, and fantastic restaurants.
Travel through time
Options abound when it comes to museums—the Jade Museum, the Calderon Guardia Museum, the National Gallery of Contemporary Art and Design—but the National Museum of Costa Rica tops my list. The National resides in the Bellavista Fortress, built in 1917, and is filled with bullet holes from the 1948 Civil War. History, culture, and art are all on display, along with stunning views of the city and prehistoric human-made stone spheres.
The GAM Cultural guide is your go-to publication for all things artsy in San Jose’s greater metropolitan area. Printed monthly, it includes listings for music, literature, dance, and film events as well as a handy map. Pick one up at Barrio Escalante’s sleek Restaurante Kalú when you drop by for coffee and brunch (and some on-site shopping for locally made purses, jewelry, and clothing), then head to the cultural happening of your choice. Afterwards, discuss the experience over a lively Italian dinner at Olio.
Visit bakeries, a volcano, and a haunted hospital
Cartago, Costa Rica’s original capital, is 16 miles east of San José. Its markets overflow with guanabana, annotation rambutan, annotation and other fruit you’ve never heard of, and its bakery windows are filled with cream cakes and empanadas. Grab a few tasty snacks and then visit the ornate Basílica de Nuestra Señora de los Ángeles and the 16th century ruins of the Spanish settlement’s first basilica in the city’s central park. (Lit up at night, they’re particularly stunning to see and photograph.) Jump back in the car for a visit to the Irazú Volcano (about 45 minutes away). Make sure to stop half way at Duran Sanatorium, the mostly abandoned (possibly haunted) hospital that was shut down in 1973 due to damage from an Irazú eruption. It’s seriously one of the creepiest yet beautiful places I’ve ever visited.
Seventy-five miles from San Jose, the town of La Fortuna sits on the east side of Arenal Volcano. The peak is often shrouded in clouds on this side. If they refuse to part, drive west, where you’re more likely to see smoke rise from the active vent during the day and red lava spitting out at night. Plan for a dinner at Benedictus Steak House. You’ll need four-wheel drive to get up the dirt road, but the bumpy ride is worth it for the restaurant’s hillside view, local organic dishes, and super friendly owners.
Hike through former lava fields
Within Arenal Volcano National Park, four easy hiking trails take you through a rainforest and former lava fields—and to the closest legal view of Arenal. The volcano is unpredictable, but don’t worry, park rangers are on top of things—if they feel an area could be unsafe due to volcanic activity, they’ll close it off.
Soak up nature
Bathe in waters heated by the volcano at the area’s four large hot spring attractions. Each spot is a little different, and has different fees. I loved Tabacon best for its waterfalls, gardens, and the hot spring river that flows through the property. It’s a bit underlit, making walking challenging at times, but that’s also what marks it as particularly stunning (and, I’ll admit, romantic) at night. Of course there are free, unsupervised natural springs in the area. Ask a local for directions to “mini Tabacon” and bring a towel, water shoes, and a swimsuit.
Have a "dam" good time windsurfing
From mid-November through April, some of the most-consistent high wind sessions in the world can be found at Lake Arenal, a dam that produces nearly 12 percent of Costa Rica’s electric energy. When you’re wiped from freestyling, drop by Casa Delagua, a bookstore/café/coffee shop on Route 142. Order the Mixto Tropical, a refreshing blend of fresh fruit, milk, and coffee. While you’re sipping, check out the art on the walls by local painter Juan Carlos Ruiz.
Monteverde and the Monteverde Cloud Forest
As cliché as it might sound, “verdant” is a particularly apt description of 4,600-feet-high Monteverde. A steady stream of clouds and fog flows through the high-altitude area, leaving behind dense greenery in its wake. Thrill-seekers will be happy here, but so will creature-lovers: the area is home to the Monteverde Frog Pond, Monteverde Bat Jungle, and the Monteverde Butterfly Garden. (And the not-to-be-overlooked, Monteverde Cheese Factory. Tours and tastes available.)
Fly through the forest
Those running ziplines say you don’t have to have any particular athletic ability to ride them. Guides get you set up in the right equipment, teach you proper technique for starting and stopping, and make sure you’re safe. You do, however, have to remember all of that, and to breathe, while you’re speeding along what seems to be a very thin cable. Oh, and to smile. Because if you’re like I was, you’ll probably have someone taking videos of you the whole time.
Become a sky walker
While ziplines may give you a thrill; suspension bridge tours let you see everything you missed when you were busy screaming your lungs out. (Or maybe that was just me.) These hanging bridges, up to 500 feet in length and 200 feet tall, often place you in the thick of the forest canopy, where many animals, including the three-toed sloth annotation and the adorable kinkajou annotation (also known as the “honey bear”), spend most of their lives.
Join the night rangers
During the day at the Monteverde Cloud Forest Biological Reserve you can hike an eight-mile trail network and experience a biodiversity unlike any other—more than 500 species of birds, 3,000 types of plants and orchids, 120 species of reptiles and amphibians, and 130 mammals live here, including the oh-so-elusive quetzal, annotation a bright-colored bird with a scarlet belly and iridescent green plumage. At night, a completely different world awakens. Local guides will lead you through the landscape and point out nocturnal inhabitants, including bats and tree frogs.
Rushing, floating, falling—water rules in Sarapiqui. Visit La Paz Waterfall Gardens for the latter and get up close and personal with hummingbirds, butterflies, and a very friendly toucan that might just sit on your arm. (At least, that's what he did when I offered him treats. I had no idea how heavy they are!) Or, get into the flow of things in the following ways.
The Sarapiqui River offers relaxing Class I-II floats for beginners (or those wanting a scenic experience), and Class III-IV natural whitewater rapids adventures for more advanced river rafters. No need to worry about what season it is—expeditions run year-round due to the high levels of rainfall that accumulate in the Central Mountain Ranges.
Break out of the main stream
Guided kayaking trips are available, as are kayak clinics for everyone from novice to advanced. Paddle an inflatable duckie down the lower part of the river through gentle rapids, or challenge yourself at higher points where big waves and technical rapids rank an IV+ rating.
Fall for a waterfall
Whether you call the sport waterfall rappelling or canyoneering, it still involves a descent down a rock face (many more than 100 feet tall) via secured ropes and harnesses, often into a canyon. Not surprisingly, it also involves getting very wet, so wear fast-drying clothes. No experience needed for most tours, so leave your fears at the base and just enjoy the ride.
Sunning yourself on pristine white-sand beaches. Floating in the aquamarine blue Pacific Coast water. Lounging beneath towering palm trees and sipping tropical beverages. The ultimate in pura vida has a home at the boho Samara Beach, 150 miles west of San José. So, really, what more do you need to know? OK, yeah, there’s a whole lot of adventure available there too.
Know what's SUP
Stand up paddle surfing is said to be like walking on water. It was an early form of transportation in ancient Polynesia, and now it’s a worldwide craze. On top of a wide, buoyant surfboard, you’ll use a long paddle to push your way through the water and over easy-rolling waves—from the shores of Samara Beach to a nearby island.
Swim with the fishes
The living coral reef at Samara Beach, part of a three-mile coastline, is home to tropical fish galore. Cangrejal at the north end of the Bay, where the reef connects to the shoreline, is said to offer some of the best snorkeling in dry season (November through May). On a good day, you’ll view manta ray, starfish, and other colorful creatures.
Feel totally swell
World-class surfing spots line the Nicoya Peninsula. The small breaks off of Samara’s shores are great for beginners. More experienced riders might want to head south of Samara to Playa Carrillo, where a reef pitches seven- to eight-foot waves during good swells. After, put your feet up and settle back with chilled milk poured from a street vendor’s just-cracked-open coconut. Yum.
Easy to translate, harder to communicate, pura vida is a way of life reflecting health, well-being, happiness, and satisfaction.
colloquial word for native Costa Ricans; the more formal term is Costarricenses