As we’re stuck indoors for the foreseeable future due to the Coronavirus pandemic, I thought now would be the ideal time to share my favourite things about my recent adventures in the beautiful little Central American country of Costa Rica. After all, we need a bit of escapism now, more than ever!
Costa Rica is the birthplace of ‘pura vida‘, a popular phrase that can be used to say hello and goodbye, thank you, you’re welcome, and much, much more. But ‘pura vida‘ is more than just a phrase – it’s a way of life for the Ticos (Costa Rican nationals). You can only truly experience la pura vida by being immersed in the Tico culture, experiencing the country’s biodiversity and exploring it’s rainforests, rivers, volcanoes, waterfalls, national parks and coasts. There’s something for everyone in Costa Rica, whether you want an adrenaline-filled adventure, a taste of local life, or a chance to relax in the sunshine and appreciate nature at its finest.
Costa Rica is a small country with five active volcanoes and many dormant and extinct ones. Once the most active volcano in Costa Rica, Arenal is infamous among locals after it’s devastating eruption in 1968. It has since become less active, last erupting in 2010, but it remains one of the most iconic volcanoes in the country, surrounded by fertile lands used for coffee and cocoa plantations, as well as being home to natural thermal springs too.
Another active volcano that’s popular with curious tourists is Poás Volcano in the Poás Volcano National Park. Poás still has one active crater – a volcanic caldera with a mile-wide crater lagoon of boiling hot, acidic, toxic water that’s milky blue with yellow sulphur deposits at the edges of the lagoon. It also has an inactive crater lake of fresh water that flows into the nearby Sarapiqui river.
If you’re curious about volcanoes and want to see one for yourself, you can visit the Poás Volcano viewpoint to marvel at the power of nature as the crater lagoon bubbles and boils furiously below. Make a day of it and also spend some time exploring the surrounding natural beauty of the national park. However, before visiting, be sure to check the national park website and book tickets on the day you want to visit. This is still an active volcano and on some days, they have to close the national park as the volcanic gases can become too dangerous. But if you get the chance to see it, Poás is a spectacular sight!
Hacienda Alsacia Starbucks Coffee Farm
The Hacienda Alsacia Starbucks Coffee Farm is located on the slopes of Poás Volcano. With 270 hectares of flourishing Arabica coffee plantations, they grow and produce coffee for Starbucks, while searching for sustainable solutions to economic and environmental pressures.
Interactive guided tours of the farm are available, where you can understand the history of coffee; learn how coffee grows and what conditions it requires; discover how it is picked, dried, shelled, roasted and ground – the whole journey from plant to mug; and sample coffee in the on-site Starbucks coffee shop, with impressive views across the luscious plantations.
I’d highly recommend the vanilla latte and a slice of local cake known as torte chilena – perfect if you’ve got a sweet tooth!
Near Arenal volcano, we took a guided tour of a cocoa plantation with a hilarious guide who called himself Chapo el Guapo. We explored the plantation and learnt about the history of cacao and how it is grown and processed to make chocolate. We were able to try cocoa at various stages throughout the process that transforms it from plant to chocolate bar.
Some samples were sweet and delicious, like the white pulp that surrounds the coffee bean when you break open a pod. However, others, like the bean within the white pulp, were dry and bitter (and to our surprise, purple!). It was fascinating to try them, and we even ground our own cacao and made our own bitter chilli and chocolate drink, before enjoying delicious 70% melted chocolate with different toppings.
To help relax your aching muscles after hiking up and down forest trails to see beautiful waterfalls and breathtaking volcanoes, there’s nothing better than spending an evening relaxing at the Baldi Hot Springs. This spa, located at the foot of the Arenal volcano, has a series of 25 different temperature thermal pools, heated naturally by the volcano. The hottest pool in the complex is 42 degrees Celsius, while the coolest is just 28. It’s the perfect place to relax and indulge, with poolside bars serving delicious piña coladas and a restaurant on site too. A couple of hours at the Baldi Hot Springs will leave you feeling refreshed and energised for your next adventure.
Waterfalls & Rivers
You’ll have no problems chasing waterfalls in Costa Rica – you can find them scattered across the landscape and hidden in the rainforests. La Fortuna Waterfall sits at the bottom of 500 steps along a pretty trail through the rainforest. It is a serene spot of natural beauty that’s well worth a visit, but walking back up 500 steps will turn your legs to jelly!
La Paz Waterfall Gardens, set in over 70 acres of tropical rainforest, is also home to a series of five beautiful waterfalls along the La Paz River, called Templo, Magia Blanca, Encantada, Escondida and La Paz, with the highest reaching 120 feet! Alongside the gardens, you can explore a sanctuary that’s home to over 100 different species of rescued animals that can no longer be returned to the wild, including hummingbirds, toucans, butterflies, monkeys, sloths, frogs, big cats and more. The keepers are full of interesting facts and knowledge, but above all, the animals are clearly well cared-for here too.
Canyoning & Waterfall Rappelling
If you’re looking for dose of adventure and adrenaline, you’ll find it in a canyoning and waterfall rappelling adventure in the heart of the rainforest with Pure Trek.
After a bumpy 4×4 ride into the forest, we abseiled and rappelled along 5 adrenaline-fueled routes, jumping off cliffs, bouncing down rock faces, getting soaked under chilly waterfalls and dropping into pools of fresh water. My heart was racing, but it was one of the best things I did in Costa Rica!
White Water Rafting
Health and safety isn’t the same in Costa Rica as it is in the UK, so if you want to go white water rafting, it is essential to do your research and find a reputable operator first.
We went white water rafting along the Sarapiqui river with Pozo Azul, who implemented great safety standards. I was nervous about going rafting after hearing horror stories from family and friends, but I’m now glad I did it, as it was one of my Costa Rica highlights.
The Sarapiqui river has a range of different rapids available for people with different levels of experience. We rafted for two hours on level II and III rapids, which felt safe, yet adventurous enough for beginners. It certainly got our adrenaline pumping!
Most of the ride was smooth, scenic and relaxing as we paddled and floated downstream, taking in the natural beauty of the rainforest around us and spotting wildlife like toucans and iguanas. However, some of the rapids were scary (in a fun way) and one was described as a washing machine which had our raft spinning downstream in a rush of excitement.
Beaches & Coasts
With two coastlines (the Pacific and the Caribbean), you’re spoiled for choice when it comes to beautiful beaches in Costa Rica.
Tamarindo – Surfing & Catamaran Cruises
Tamarindo beach on the Pacific coast has hot and dry weather with guaranteed sun. The seas are warm and the sand is fine, powdery soft and white. It’s the ideal place for surfing, with lessons provided daily on the beaches and fresh coconuts available to re-hydrate afterwards. If you’re feeling more adventurous, why not try a coco loco – a fresh coconut with a dash of rum!
For a more relaxing experience, you can embark on a sunset catamaran cruise to appreciate the coast from a different vantage point. A half-day boat trip sails out into the Pacific ocean, stopping for snorkeling and swimming in the clear blue sea. On board, they serve a delicious meal of barbecued chicken, rice, beans, and one of the tastiest pico de gallo salsas in Costa Rica. Washed down with fresh pineapple piña coladas, you’ll sail the sea and watch the sunset in style.
Manuel Antonio National Park
Manuel Antonio National Park located on the east coast of Costa Rica on the Caribbean Sea, is a unique place where the rainforest meets the ocean. In this stunning nature reserve, white sandy beaches lined with palm trees sit side by side with the rainforest and tropical mangroves.
Full of a host of flora and fauna, this national park is a great place to spot some of Costa Rica’s wildlife. Home to three of the country’s four species of monkey, we saw the cheeky White Faced Capuchin, noisy Howler Monkeys and cute Central American Squirrel Monkeys, as well as laid back sloths, toucans and more.
The white beaches are pristine, with palm trees for shade and warm waters for swimming – it’s a beautiful place to spend the afternoon. But remember, this is a nature reserve. There are no shops and restaurants to buy refreshments and you can’t take food into the park. We were warned about crocodiles lurking in the mangroves and troublesome bandits of raccoons and monkeys that have been known to steal from unsuspecting tourists as they relax on the beaches! It’s best to take the bare essentials with you (and definitely lots of sun cream!)
Jaco – ATV Adventures
Jaco is a lively beach town on the Caribbean coast, where the weather is hot and humid. Located a short drive from some of Costa Rica’s main towns and cities, it is a popular weekend retreat for the Ticos. Aside from relaxing on the beach, you can explore the surrounding countryside off-road on an ATV Adventure Tour. After a short demonstration and practice session, you’re on your way, experiencing Costa Rica off road! This four-wheeled adventure was dusty and bumpy, but great fun, taking routes through fields and rivers and up to a refreshing waterfall too.
Rainforests & Cloud Forests
If you love nature, Costa Rica is the place for you! This country has some of the most biodiverse ecosystems in the world. The Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve is a rare opportunity to spot exotic and well-loved animals like sloths, monkeys, toucans, butterflies and more. Butterfly fans can visit specialist gardens like the Monteverde Butterfly Garden, where you can enjoy engaging insect talks and see creepy crawlies up close, such as stick insects, roaches, spiders, tarantula and butterflies.
Ziplines and Hanging Bridges
What better way to experience the tropical cloud forests of Monteverde than ziplining through the canopies or strolling along the hanging brigdes in Selvatura Park?
We went on a fun-filled, adrenaline-fueled ziplining adventure that takes you along 15 ziplines varying in length, whizzing through the canopies of the lush rainforest. You can truly appreciate the scale and beauty of the rainforest when viewed from above, and if ziplining at height above the treetops isn’t enough of an adrenaline fix, you can take it one step further with a terrifying Tarzan swing or a flying superman experience on the 1km zipline at the end. It’s an experience like no other!
For a more relaxing experience in the cloud forest of Monteverde, you can visit the famous hanging bridges. This more laid-back experience immerses you in the cloud forest as you take your time exploring 3km of meandering treetop walks, spotting wildlife along the way.
Finally, there’s no better way to experience Costa Rican culture than by visiting a spot where all the Ticos go. I visited a bustling local market called Alajuela Feria, where farmers sell their fresh produce to the public. It was an incredible experience – I’ve never seen so much variety and colour under one roof.
I saw and tried lots of new tropical fruits and vegetables that I’d never encountered before, from the big, buttery, local type of golden avocado, to sour little star fruit. I sampled a starchy vegetable that was served in slices with mayonnaise on top as a snack; a sweet and juicy purple fruit that I’ve never heard of before; a delicious pasty filled with a tasty potato filling; and freshly made popcorn. It was the perfect place for a foodie like me and we bought all the ingredients to make our own Costa Rican patacones with fresh guacamole and pico de gallo.
Viva Costa Rica
Costa Rica was the trip of a lifetime for me. It is one of the most beautiful countries I’ve visited, with a great mix of culture, adventure and nature. Not only did I have a chance to catch up with an old friend I haven’t seen in years who now calls Costa Rica home, but I also went on a group tour with Contiki. We had a brilliant tour guide who made the trip fantastic and memorable – thanks Olivier – and I made some friends for life from all around the world.
So, until next time… Pura vida, Costa Rica!