The classic song asks, “Do you know the way to San José?” From Hong Kong, the way – to San José, Costa Rica, that is – is a very long one. But, it’s definitely worth the distance to experience the pura vida, which literally translates to “pure life”, but actually means “take it easy”, “enjoy life” or “all good” to the people of Costa Rica, who are known as Ticos.
Still not convinced it’s worth the effort? Consider this:
- This Central American country is nestled between Nicaragua and Panama, with one coast on the Pacific Ocean and the other on the Caribbean Sea of the Atlantic Ocean. That’s two oceans in one trip!
- It has more biodiversity than the US and Europe combined, making it a dream destination for eco- and adventure-tourists. And, its small size means you can squeeze in adventures and experiences for all ages and preferences, without having to choose just one or two places to see.
- Ticos are very relaxed, hence the expression being on “Tico time”. It’s a peaceful place that doesn’t even have an army.
Capital culture and cuisine
Our trip to Costa Rica began in San José, the capital, in a B&B that had been transformed from five traditional wooden homes into a welcoming hotel set in lush gardens. Buffet breakfasts featured an array of delicious local dishes.
The city isn’t the prettiest, but has a young vibe. Sightseeing on foot reveals colonial architecture and heritage buildings, as well as hip, arty areas. Highlights include the museums of both Pre-Colombian Gold and Contemporary Art and Design, and the beautiful Teatro Nacional. Kids will enjoy the hands-on exhibits at Museo de los Niños as well as the Butterfly Garden. Wander around Barrio Amon’s historic villas and galleries, and shop for handicrafts.
San José serves up an introduction to Costa Rican cuisine, including the famous staple gallo pinto (rice cooked with black beans and spices). Food is fresh and clean-tasting, ensuring happy tums for the whole family. Dishes are flavoursome but not spicy; Ticos prefer their hot sauce, chillies or tongue-tingling pickled vegetables on the side, adding them as they like. Casados are set meals of typical Tico dishes. Thirst-quenching fresh juices and smoothies are ubiquitous. Peer at the produce at the Central Market, while enjoying a refreshing sorbetera (frozen custard).
We travelled south to the Quepos and Manuel Antonio area to a hotel with wonderful green views, perfect for clifftop sunset drinks. Manuel Antonio National Park is relatively small, but despite being popular, it’s easy to lose the crowds. Hiking was hot and steamy, but the easy trails afforded fantastic views of the forest and coastline. We spotted an amazing variety of animals – up close and personal – including troupes of tree-swinging monkeys, prehistoric-looking iguanas, pecking woodpeckers, a tree sloth and huge, vivid butterflies. There are coves and beaches for swimming and picnicking, complete with actual lounging lizards! Children will be enthralled with an idyllic introduction to the rainforest’s wonders.
Who doesn’t love a palm-fringed beach? Our trip to Montezuma included an exhilarating 90-minute speedboat ride across the Golfo de Nicoya, with the bonus of seeing a giant manta ray leaping alongside us.
Montezuma is an immediately charming little place drawing artists, yogis and Rastas seeking an alternative lifestyle. Amongst the beads, surf dudes and hippy chicks are happy holidaying families. Stroll out of town to waterfalls and natural swimming pools or hike in the famed Cabo Blanco wilderness reserve.
Find peace on a beach and marvel as flocks of pelicans swoop into the sea. We found more peace at yoga as night fell, with floral scents in the air, accompanied by wildlife noises – emerging 90 minutes later feeling pura vida in full flow! Despite Monte’s small size, there’s fine international and local fare to savour, but at high prices, comparable to the US or Europe.
Further up the Pacific Coast is family-friendly Playa Samara, a laid-back town complete with a long, curved sandy beach. Gentle waves make for relatively easy surf lessons. Our evenings there concluded with stargazing whilst swinging on hammocks, sipping dark Imperial beer.
Hot springs and hills
From Samara, we ventured north-east to La Fortuna, gateway for Parque Nacional Volcán Arenal. The spectacular drive from the coast to the hills had scampering monkeys and cute coatis, tails held proudly aloft. La Fortuna is awash with tours, spas and hot springs. Luckily we’d heard about the (free!) natural, outdoor springs favoured by Ticos. Climb down to the river and immerse in blissful warm, flowing lava-heated water. Venture further up river to deeper pools of hot, gushing water. A bubbling soak here or at a swanky spa is a must!
A highlight was a hike up (and up!) to the crater lake of a volcano, Cerro Chato. This long, muddy hike was incredibly scenic, despite the clouds obscuring mighty Volcán Arenal’s famed cone. We were fortunate in La Fortuna to party at a local family fiesta with Latino music, sipping rum sours. Over alfresco breakfasts of gallo pinto and succulent fruits, the hotel garden came alive with a kaleidoscope of coloured birds.
Cloud forests and canopies
The next destination was the impressive, if blustery, peaks of Monteverde and Santa Elena. These hilly towns are surrounded by dairy farms (settled by Quakers), making the locale noted for cheese and delicious ice cream. A tour of the Monteverde Cheese Factory might delight. Java junkies will be in heaven at a coffee plantation. Our private tour at a fair trade co-operative included a lesson on growing, grinding and roasting beans, before tasting customised barista blends. Bags of beans made good gifts, too.
This delightful area is big on adventurous ecotourism amongst its rainforests and cloud forests. Yomping through the misty, pristine Reserva Santa Elena reveals diverse trees, mysterious mosses and birds – an atmospheric experience all the better for Santa Elena seeing fewer tourists than Monteverde Reserve. For an adrenalin-filled activity, book a canopy tour. We spent a thrilling afternoon combining zip-slides, a Tarzan swing and “superman flights” through the rainforest, complete with wobbly bridges and wooded walks. Even my cautious husband adored the surreal rush of flying high above the rainforest! Options for smaller daredevils include bridge walks (giving a monkey’s eye view of the rainforest) or enchanting evening safaris.
Following these thrills were new areas to discover on the Caribbean coast, with its heady mix of Tico and Afro-Caribbean cultures. The region has vast swathes of banana plantations, and bananas are Costa Rica’s main export, along with coffee.
In attractive Cahuita town our cute B&B was nestled in colourful gardens near Playa Negra. Dine out on spiced, coconut-infused dishes whilst people watching and listening to reggae music. One evening we came across an all-singing, all-dancing gospel service. We also spied a huge, furry tree sloth lazily hanging from a telephone wire beneath a streetlight – what a photo opportunity!
When rain washed out beach plans, we hit up the farmers’ market for tropical fruits and vegetables, tasty smoked queso fresco (fresh cheese) and yummy cakes. Head along the coast to Puerto Viejo, famed for its laid-back vibe, surfy ambience, arty shops and restaurants. Worthy of a hike is Parque Nacional Cahuita for wildlife spotting: monkeys, birds, lizards, iguanas and even (deadly!) tiny yellow vipers. The park has sandy beaches for reading, playing or jumping the waves.
Alajuela is a good final destination, being close not only to the international airport, but also to Volcán Poas. The national park is situated a scenic ride away, where it’s an easy hike to the active (but safe!) crater rim and forested walking trails, with lakes and animals. Luckily, clear weather provided spectacular views of the enormous bubbling, belching cauldron. Kids will have fun here, and at a water park, fed by a gushing spring, south of Alajuela.
Whilst it’s certainly a long way to Costa Rica, this diminutive nation will exhilarate all ages with eco-focused adventures. The weather delights year round and the infrastructure is excellent. Friendly Ticos will share their pura vida for a thrilling, tropical, Technicolor trip to remember.