Holding off the cowboy capitalists of the USA to the North, and the untamed South American wilds to the South, Costa Rica has blossomed as a holidaying spot ideal for rekindling your passion with earth’s natural beauty. Whether it’s a weekend fling or a strung-out affair, its expansive beaches and smouldering volcanoes are the perfect setting for a romp with Mother Nature.
Arriving into the Costa Rican capital of San Jose, you could be forgiven for querying the country’s much flaunted role in preserving natural beauty and promoting eco-tourism. The city has swelled doggedly across the Costa Rican plains, accompanied by pollution, poverty and a generous sprinkling of crime. The chain-link fences and grubby sidewalks reveal nothing of Costa Rica’s open and friendly soul, treat the city as a fortified gateway into the Garden of Eden.
If you’re in the market for a side entrance, the multinational Marriot Hotel beckons. A 5km ride from San Jose’s international airport, the hotel was built on a coffee plantation. The bulk and splendour of its architecture are a nostalgic nod to a grand colonial villa, with nightly rates starting from $189.
Nevertheless, don’t regard a stay in the city as a prison sentence. For all its intimidating chaos San Jose is not uninteresting; its furnace burns with a fiery passion, stoked by the vivaciousness of its inhabitants. To dip your toe into these untamed rapids head to Centro Commercial El Pueblo, a lively sanctuary for San Jose’s creative body and a chance to get your hips swaying to the rampant beats of Central American music.
Baptism of Fire
150km North-West from San Jose, navigating over Costa Rica’s notoriously jerky and treacherous roads, lies the charming town of La Fortuna. Like a reserved younger sibling it has passed its days in the overbearing shadow of its raucous elder brother, Arenal Volcano. The conical colossus brushes aside swathes of greenery to rise majestically into the skyline, rumbling sullenly like the deep slumber of a mythological beast. Such a spectacle, though, is not marred by inaction. Being amongst the world’s ten most active volcanoes, Arenal spews regular pillars of ash which surge upwards like heavenly columns and its eerily luminous lava flows enchant the night sky.
Nestled in a bed of tropical flora and boasting sweeping views of the volcano, the Springs Resort and Spa is a luxurious perch from which to marvel Arenal. For the ultimate spa experience visit nearby Tabacon Hot Springs, this resides amongst the world’s top spas thanks to its extensive accommodation of nature into treatments. For example its thermal springs are nourished by underwater currents of water, which are heated by magma and flow through the spa’s network of cascading waterfalls and serene pools.
If the idea of relaxation is about as appealing as a bed of nails, Arenal’s surrounding national park is a treasure trove for hikes. Some of which flirt with danger as they traverse the jagged remains of Arenal’s previous lava flows, www.arenal.net is a hub of information and allows for easy planning.
In Cloud Nine
To lay further toils upon the undoubtedly remorseful suspension system of your transportation, the short trip to Monteverde town is crowned by a viciously winding and unpaved road that lurches erratically through throngs of jungle. Suspended 3,000ft above sea level, Monteverde has retained a sense of humbleness in the wake of invading tourist armies. The most pleasant accommodation can be found in the Hotel El Establo, a three star affair with spacious and well-furnished suites. As a tip of the hat to Costa Rica’s eco-friendly contingent, the hotel employs a body of solar panels and integrates locally-grown produce into its menu.
Having established base camp, you can then venture into the mysterious grasp of the cloud forests which envelop Monteverde. Named for the lingering presence of clouds in their canopy due to high altitude, Santa Elena and Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserves are some of Costa Rica’s most diverse habitats and a nature enthusiast’s paradise. Alongside a resident population of 120 mammal species and perched amongst the aesthetic tangle of vines, mosses and branches are small gems of colour constituting the lively and diverse bird population. With any luck, you might have the pleasure of spotting the Resplendent Quetzal, which earns its name with a sizeable tail feather encased in emerald green.
Thanks to a heady abundance of moisture, paths through the forest can be treacherous and branches scrape against you like the gnarled limbs of the undead. Tour guides are a sensible option, with www.monteverdetours.com providing bilingual and experienced guides starting from $55 per person. To add some spice to your adventure, horseback tours can be organised from the hotel and, like the Ewoks from Star Wars, Monteverde Sky Trek have erected a labyrinth of walkways and zip lines in the jungle canopy to clamber and howl your way through. Undoubtedly such strenuous exertions require a caffeine boost and centrally-located Café Monteverde is at hand, serving organic coffee grown in nearby plantations.
For those yearning the path less trodden and would bring brushes to ‘paint the town red’, the North-Western peninsular of Nicoya has survived relatively unscathed from the legions of freaks, surfer-dudes and hippies who have descended upon Costa Rica’s beach scene over the last two decades. To swap a Cuba Libre for a quite beach day, you could do worse than arriving on the doorstep of cosy Nosara.
Governed by a Triumvirate of beaches Nosara is a haven for relaxation, offering serene fishing spots and a unique setting for its popular yoga culture. The area’s natural beauty has been protected devoutly by locals and the beaches’ bordering forests are a picturesque backdrop, as well as being home to a diverse animal population. For elegantly designed rooms that draw you into the ease of Nosara life, The Harmony Hotel pledges alluringly to get you “in tune with your natural rhythm”. With seven kilometres of Playa Guiones’ ivory sand languishing nearby, which also boasts waves that are folklore amongst surfers, the hotel would appear to have the tools to get tuning.
If your pursuit of luxury is an activity untainted by half-measures then you won’t find much better than the Paridisus Playa Conchal. The vast shrine to lavishness and refined indulgence is an idyllic ride up the Gold Coast from Nosara. The luxury resort has an array of beautifully designed accommodation options, an 18-hole golf course and a pool large enough to fit Tendulkar’s fan mail. Plus, at 2,400 acres, it’s easy to get Lost in Paridisus. You may want to ration your wanderings though, as some room rates clamber over the $1,000 a night mark.
A stone’s throw from the resort stretches the Mecca of Costa Rican beaches, Playa Conchal. With sands as white as a Californian’s teeth and waters with the clarity of their camera phones, Playa Conchal has become the go-to destination for snorkelling. It would be a mortal sin not to slap on the ol’ mask and snorkel for a foray into its glassy tropical waters.
A gigantic leap southwards from Nicoya peninsula, over a stretch of Pacific Ocean, another fragment of Costa Rica juts out distinctively. The Osa peninsula may not offer an album of screensaver beaches but it has some of the most striking and diverse natural habitats, personified by the Parque Nacional Corcovado. The park is an eclectic jumble of jungles, rainforests and swamps splayed across 42,000 humid hectares of natural splendour. The range of eco-systems attracts enough furry, feathered and scaly inhabitants to keep the most devoted of wildlife fanatics busy. Whether it’s providing nesting spots for the Harpy Eagle or maintaining the endangered Central American Jaguar, the park has a crucial role in preserving some of Costa Rica’s finest natural assets.
The previously neglected East coast of Costa Rica removes the peel of high-end hotelery to reveal simple lodgings and a marvellously laid back way of life. Hugging the Caribbean sea the coastland yields some breath-taking beaches, crowned by clusters of coconut trees. To surrender yourself to the chillaxed vibes of Afro-Caribbean culture head to Manzanillo, you won’t be getting Swiss chocolates on your hotel bed sheets but the living is authentic and a homage to the charms of a simple life.
One such hotel, Almonds and Corals, offers palm-roofed tents connected by wooden walkway and is a true exponent of eco-culture. Some of its tours on offer include dolphin-spotting, bicycle tours but the most unique is a trip to visit the Indian villages of the Amubri, Bribari and Cachabri tribes. A fulfilling and culturally-enlightening activity. Staying on the East Coast is a less-refined experience, but what’s an eco-holiday without the dirty fingernails?