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Ultimate Travel Guide: Costa Rica

Beach on Costa Rica's Pacific Coast

Costa Rica has been named one of the happiest countries in the world, and when visiting the country, it’s not hard to see why.

Verdant jungle, pristine beaches and a laid back culture – there are a thousand reasons to visit Costa Rica. As part of our Ultimate Travel Guide series, here are our tips on where to go, what to do and the best places to eat when you get there.

Placed at one of the most slender parts of Central America, it takes just under four hours to drive from the Caribbean Sea to the Pacific coast. But, in that short time, you’ll travel through the luscious jungle, past domineering volcanoes, roaring waterfalls and crystallised beaches. And that’s not to mention the thriving wildlife: sloths, monkeys, macaws and ocelots which can all be found soaking in the views alongside you.

Despite this spectacular natural environment, Costa Ricans live a life of simple luxuries.

As a country, its culture prioritises well-being and simplicity. Since abolishing its military in 1948, Costa Rica has funnelled that extra funding into the well-being of the people (referred to locally as Ticos) with free public health care, free and compulsory education. Thanks to its dedicated environmentally-conscious government, Costa Rica is the only country in Central America where 100 per cent of its population has access to electricity. As well as that, by 2017, 98 per cent of the country’s electrical energy was produced by renewable sources.

Pura Vida sign in Costa Rica.

Pura Vida sign in Costa Rica. Image via Shutterstock.

And it’s easy to see why they’d dedicate themselves to caring for their people and environment, Costa Ricans are caretakers of one of the most incredible and diverse natural settings in the world (it’s home to a whopping six per cent of the world’s biodiversity).

Costa Ricans have a phrase to describe life in the country: Pura Vida, simply translated as “the simple life”. It’s a phrase you’ll find on the lips of every Tico here, it can be used as a greeting, to say goodbye, or even in agreement. It means more than simply “no worries” but encompasses a sense of calm, a spirit of adventure and a bond of optimism and community that you’ll have to experience to believe.

Where should I go in Costa Rica? 

There are only two main airports in Costa Rica, so you’re likely to fly into SJO, just outside the country’s capital, San Jose (although Liberia in the North of the country is also a fine option). Both airports are situated towards the centre of the country, so we recommend beginning your trip in the mountainous Central Valley region, before making your way down to relax at one (or more) of the three luxurious coastlines to unwind: The Nicoya Peninsula, the Central Pacific Coast or the Caribbean Coast.

The Central Valley region

This beautiful region running down the spine of Costa Rica not only boasts luscious jungle and majestic mountains, but it’s also home to a wealth of both dormant and active volcanoes which provide stunning views, indulgent thermal springs and one-of-a-kind ecosystems. 

Arenal Volcano

Arenal Volcano. Image via Shutterstock.

Where To Stay: Tabacón Spa and Resort

This rainforest escape oozes luxury. Set just a stone’s throw from the majestic Arenal Volcano, the hotel is hemmed with luscious greenery and boasts its very own thermal springs fit with cascading waterfalls and warm pools. On top of that, Tabacón offer just over 100 eco-friendly rooms, an adults-only ‘secret garden’ and a handful of restaurants and bars. Not sold yet? Tabacón is a leader in sustainable tourism and is a carbon-neutral resort.

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Where To Eat: El Tigre Vestido

Based in the stunning Santa Barbara mountains, El Tigre Vestido offers Latin fusion cuisine using only the freshest tropical ingredients of Costa Rica. Headed up by the inimitable chef Erick Camacho, their unique menu focuses on two priorities: “Rescuing Mesoamerican and Costa Rican culinary traditions, many of which have been nearly lost, while simultaneously innovating the relationship between coffee and cuisine.” For the ultimate Costa Rican treat, indulge in the decadent Coffee Connoisseurs Tasting Menu.

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What To Do in The Central Valley Region

Monteverde Cloud Fores

Monteverde Cloud Forest, Image supplied by Senda Hotels.

1. Discover Monteverde Cloud Forest 

Cloud Forests are a rare natural phenomenon covering around one per cent of the world’s forestry.  These are forests where specific atmospheric conditions result in low-hanging clouds and mist, enveloping the upper canopies. Due to the increased moisture, cloud forests welcome an unusually high biodiversity both in plants and in the wildlife they attract. Monteverde is Costa Rica’s most famous Cloud Forest, and the national park offers a canopy tour including aerial bridges and a range of different trails. Keep your eyes peeled – it’s one of the few habitats which is home to all six species of the cat family, including jaguars and pumas. 

2. Be Mesmerised by a Volcano tour 

There are six active volcanoes in Costa Rica and they’re all safe to visit. The largest of these is Arenal which has been dormant since 2010. Whether you want to head up to the crater or prefer to gaze at the monument from afar, there’s plenty of tours to view these natural wonders. We recommend taking it slow, with this hiking tour which rounds up with a visit to the thermal springs and spa, but adventure seekers can also opt for white-water rafting and zip-lining options.

Coffee beans

Coffee Tour. Image supplied by Ardi Evans via Unsplash.

3. Indulge Your Taste Buds on a Coffee Tour 

Costa Rica’s central region is world-famous for its coffee products, and undoubtedly you’ll be sampling the local beans at some point on your trip. If you fancy getting hands-on with the industry, several plantations offer tours and tastings to enjoy. We recommend this one at Don Juan plantation near Monteverde, they combine a tour of their coffee and chocolate farms, and there’s no better flavour combination.

The Nicoya Peninsula

The Nicoya Peninsula is the trendy millennial town of Costa Rica. A plethora of stunning beaches flank this part of the country as it juts out into the Pacific. It boasts some world-renowned waves and a frill of yoga retreats, surf schools, beach bars and wellness retreats to give you a sample of the good life. It can feel right off the beaten track so don’t expect to find tarmacked roads here! But don’t be deceived either, it’s no stranger to luxury.

Costa Rica Beach

Costa Rican Beach. Image by Esteban Venegas via Unsplash.

Where To Stay: Latitude 10

Located in the rustic-surf town of Santa Teresa, Latitude 10 is a five-acre beachfront resort which provides unfussy luxury for surfers, couples and wildlife lovers. It dedicates itself to a sustainable approach: no trees were cut down for its construction, it uses specially designed ventilation to minimise air conditioning use and puts profits towards supporting local education initiatives. Relax by the pool, sample delights at the open kitchen and bar, or adventure out on complimentary bicycles and boogie boards. They even offer private yoga lessons right on the beach. 

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Where To Stay: Nalu Nosara

Set in the small town of Nosara, this fitness-focused eco-lodge was designed by world-renowned architect, Benjamin Garcia Saxe. It’s a walking distance to surf and shops, and each villa comes with a private saltwater pool and access to the fitness classes including yoga and kick-boxing.

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What To Eat: Koji's

If you’re full from all of the plantain and beans, Koji’s in Santa Teresa offers a refreshing option with its menu of sophisticated Japanese cuisine made from the freshest local seafood and produce. Take a seat at one of the tables, set in the open air and surrounded by light-strung trees, the laid back atmosphere flows right in from the sea and offers the perfect romantic end to the day. Try the signature Koji roll topped with shrimp, avocado, spicy tuna and Koji’s secret sauce. 

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What To Do on The Nicoya Peninsula 

Girls head to surf

Girls surfing. Image by Elizeu Dias, via Unsplash.

1. Catch Some Waves

Year-round waves and a 27C ocean means that Costa Rica is quickly becoming one of the hottest surf spots in the world. Don’t worry if you’re not a pro, the Nicoya Peninsula offers everything from world-class breaks to beginner-friendly bumps within adjacent beaches. Nicoya Surf School provides board rental, lessons and more for the southern tip of the peninsula, but most towns will have a local option or two.

2. Perfect Your Downward Dog

Looking to stretch out your limbs and reconnect to nature? Nicoya has become a yoga hotspot, with specialist retreats taking advantage of the serene waves and peaceful jungle to set up base. If you’re looking for something a little less intense than a full retreat, most hotels have classes on offer, or local studios are available to book. 

Yoga at Nalu Nosara.

Yoga at Nalu Nosara. Image supplied.

3. Unwind On The Beautiful Beaches

If you don’t quite have the energy to hop on a board, then heading to some of the beautiful beaches like Playa Carmen and Manzanillo beach are the perfect place to stretch out beneath a palm tree. In fact, you won’t be able to avoid the beach; in small towns like Santa Teresa, shops and bars close their doors from 5 to 6 pm, as everyone grabs a cold one and heads to the shore to watch the sunset without fail. Now that’s pura vida!

The Central Pacific Coast

Aerial View of Kura Design Villas

Aerial View of Kura Design Villas. Image supplied

An oasis of calm on Costa Rica’s western shores, the Central Pacific Coast offers secluded beaches, verdant hiking trails and inviting surf. This is the perfect spot for anyone who wants to make like a sloth and maximise on slow-paced Costa Rican nature. 

Where To Stay: Kura Design Villas

An intimate and eco-friendly boutique hotel located in the lush Uvita hills, Kura Villas are situated just a touch away from the beautiful national parks of Whale’s Tail & Manuel Antonio. It’s an adults-only retreat where you can enjoy the tranquillity from the saltwater infinity pool, admire the local toucans and humming-birds from the private canopy-level terraces, and unwind with their on-site spa. 

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Where To Eat: Ronny's Place

Set slightly off the beaten track in Quepos, Ronny’s Place is located in the centre of a 90 acre farm, on the ranch’s highest peak. Isolated, to say the least, it is the only building around, allowing 365-day-a-year views of the sunset. The menu combines traditional Costa Rican fare with more world-wide cuisine such as pasta and steak offerings.

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What To Do on The Central Pacific Coast

1. Explore Manuel Antonio National Park

This small national park nestled against the Pacific Ocean might be diminutive in size, but it’s abundant in everything else. It’s home to not one but two secret beaches, a whole host of wildlife including squirrel monkeys, sloths, toucans, macaws, iguanas, and even a coral reef. Hike through the forest, unwind on the beaches and head out to snorkel and admire the sealife. 

Monkey's at Manuel Antonio

Monkeys at Manuel Antonio. Image by Milo Ezger via Unsplash 

2. Wonder at The Whale Tail at Marino Ballena National Park 

This incredible spot is not simply another one of Costa Rica’s pristine beaches but the Whale Tail is a unique natural structure created by two converging currents. Admire it from above on a seaplane ride from Drake Bay and you’ll confirm that it does look remarkably like a whale’s tail. The amazing coincidence is that this beach sits exactly where hundreds of humpback whales congregate each year. There are two marine parks here so if you visit at the right time of year, you can sail out to gaze at these giants of the sea. Nature really does work in mysterious ways. 

The Caribbean Coast

Sometimes dismissed as Costa Rica’s weaker side, the Caribbean coast of Costa Rica joins the rest of the country in boasting flawless beaches and bountiful nature. You’ll find a Caribbean cultural centre in the beating heart of Puerto Viejo – the perfect place to try out some local cuisine. Plus, this coastline provides some incredible moments to encounter wildlife. Where some of the Pacific coast has already been gentrified by luxury resorts, this eastern flank still provides a home for some of Costa Rica’s world-class wildlife refuges and sanctuaries. 

Where To Stay: Aguas Claras Hotel

Aguas Claras is a boutique hotel set on Playa Chiquita near Puerto Viejo. Each room or bungalow comes complete with an outdoor shower and private patios. Wider amenities include a laid back restaurant, wellness centre and pool. Plus, Agua Claras will help you organise a range of tours from chocolate tasting, to visiting wildlife refuges, snorkelling and kayaking. 

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<strong>Where To Eat:</strong> Soda Guetto Girl

Where To Eat: Soda Guetto Girl

Puerto Viejo is the perfect spot to try some authentic Costa Rican food. These are served out of small road-side restaurants called sodas. One of the most famous of these is Guetto Girl which serves no-frills fresh-as-anything Caribbean fare with a side of rice and beans. Arrive hungry though: there are no menus here, but they’ll serve you giant portions of the fresh food of the day.

What To Do on the Caribbean Coast

1. Encounter Wildlife at the Jaguar Rescue Centre 

The Jaguar Rescue Centre sits a couple of hours south of Limón and provides world-class veterinary and rehabilitation care for sloths, monkeys, reptiles, birds and other mammals. Housing up to 160 animals at a time, visitors can support the sanctuary by either joining public or private tours to get up close and personal to the animals or heading out on a night-time hike through the jungle with one of their professional guides. 

Sloth in Costa Rica

Sloth in Costa Rica. Image by Javier Mazzeo via Unsplash.