Background

One of the world’s natural paradises, Costa Rica is at the forefront of eco-tourism. It’s the most peaceful and developed country in Central America, famed for lush rainforests, active volcanoes, beautiful beaches and remote national parks all crammed into a space that is roughly two thirds the size of Scotland but holds five per cent of the world’s plant and animal species. For such a small place there’s a lot to do, from hiking up volcanoes to surfing world-class waves, from yoga on the beach to white-water rafting, from watching endangered turtles lay their eggs to simply lying back and relaxing. Parts of the country are a little over-developed, with cheap hotels, loud tourists and bad bars, but thankfully there are still many untouched pocket paradises to be discovered. Avoid the touristy resorts and stick to the wonderful peninsulas, incredible national parks and hidden beaches where you’ll be bowled over by the close-to-nature living. Don’t come to Costa Rica looking for sophisticated restaurants and state-of-the-art luxury; come instead to explore and go wild in the wilderness.

Geography

Costa Rica is the safest Central American country with the best standard of living, highest literacy rate and no army. It’s split in half by two mountain ranges that run from the south-east to the north-west of the country. The northern mountains have volcanoes and cloud forests while the lush Central Highlands are the centre of the country’s coffee industry and home to the capital San José. It is one of the least attractive Latin American cities, however, and there’s no point in spending time there when there are more than 750 miles of coastline to discover. The west coast has renowned surf, beautiful beaches and two famous peninsulas (Nicoya and Osa); while the undeveloped east coast is far less touristy with white beaches and, towards the south, something of a reggae culture. There’s no luxury accommodation on the Caribbean coast, which is primarily the preserve of backpackers and adventurous travellers. Guanacaste, north of the Nicoya peninsula, is the country’s cowboy region although it too is now being developed into tourist territory. Despite the country’s small size, there’s too much to see in one trip so plan well and don’t travel too far (the roads are terrible).

Best National Parks

Costa Rica has 161 National Parks, reserves and protected zones (www.costarica-nationalparks.com) including the spectacular Corcovado, a 127,000-acre rainforest park on the Osa peninsula. This is the most unspoilt part of the country and one of the most beautiful places in the world, home to jaguars, tapirs, macaws and four species of monkey. Because of its remote location it’s less busy than many of the other parks, making it all the more special. Also on the south-western coast is the Ballena Marine National Park, which covers about six miles of beach, a coral reef and a mangrove estuary; humpback whales can be seen here between December and April.

In the Arenal Volcano National Park you can hike through rainforest up the west side of the volcano, see lava formations and in the evening even see glowing lava flowing down the north-western side of the volcano. The Tortuguero National Park on the country’s east coast is a haven for turtles. A dense forest is crisscrossed by rivers and canals and fronted by white beaches; you can take tours down the waterways by canoe. It’s an incredibly beautiful place with the main activity being boat rides along the canals of the National Park. It’s one of the most magical places in the world and not to be missed.The Manuel Antonio National Park is the country’s smallest park but one of the most popular. Situated on the Pacific Coast, it encompasses three white beaches and a tropical rainforest that’s home to 100 mammal species and 180 bird species. It’s worth a trip, but if you’ve been to Corcovado, you’ll probably be disappointed.

Where to stay

Costa Rica is a low-key, relatively undeveloped destination, so with a couple of exceptions there’s not much in the way of five-star luxury. Instead, expect a big emphasis on eco-friendly accommodation. Also be prepared that the country is not known for its cuisine, and if you don’t like rice and beans you may be unhappy. But ceviche – fresh raw fish marinated with salt and lime and served with lemon juice, peppers and onions – is delicious and served practically everywhere in the country. Eat in the restaurants at our recommended hotels or try some of our beachside suggestions.

PACIFIC COAST

Best Luxury Hotels

Without doubt the Four Seasons, Costa Rica on the blissful Nicoya peninsula is the most luxurious hotel in the country. While it has everything on paper – great service, good facilities (including a kids’ club), 176 comfortable rooms – it lacks personality and really could be anywhere in the world. The setting is magnificent but you are in a gated community and therefore feel very cut off from Costa Rican life. It is also incredibly expensive with lunch and dinner at the same price as the best restaurants in London. Good for a relaxed, luxury holiday, not so good for discovering the real character of the country. If the Four Seasons isn’t your scene, perhaps the Gaia Hotel and Reserve will be. This sophisticated hotel on a hill close to Manuel Antonio National Park has a superb holistic spa and a wonderful rooftop restaurant. The rooms are modern with stone and hardwood floors, rattan furniture and huge bathrooms. The studio rooms are a little small but the suites are a good size and the largest, the Gaia Suite, has its own pool. Ideal for couples, friends and honeymooners. Only children over the age of 16 are welcome.

Best Beach Retreats

Florblanca at Latitude 10 on the Nicoya peninsula offers the ultimate in Costa Rican beach chic with 10 one- or two-bed villas nestled into the jungle next to the beach. Catering for a style-savvy, largely American market, there are all the trappings a well-heeled bohemian might want, from a new spa to a yoga studio offering two free classes a day, a new fitness centre, boutique and restaurant with an emphasis on sushi and seafood. It’s close to surfing hotspot Santa Teresa but offers plenty of other activities: horse-riding, fishing, hiking, biking. Yoga and surf weeks are organised during the low season.

Sister property Florblanca Reserva is perhaps even lovelier. With only five villas, it has an exclusive, yet homely feel with private chef dining, a chemical-free swimming-pool, in-room spa services and full access to all Florblanca’s facilities. While no children under 13 are allowed at Florblanca, they are allowed at Florblanca Reserva if you rent the whole property. On a bluff above the sea, the 50-room Punta Islita in Guanacaste is a firm favourite with Americans who love its relaxed style (red floor tiles, adobe coloured walls). The suites have plunge pools or Jacuzzis and the villas have their own swimming-pools and kitchens. The resort supports several community projects including an innovative art programme that nurtures local artists.

Cheap chic

Near Santa Teresa on the Nicoya peninsula, Milarepa offers a great and affordable alternative to Florblanca. There are only four bungalows furnished with antique four-posters from Indonesia and big overhead fans. The staff are lovely and the food excellent, but the mosquitoes are terrible and as the villas have three open sides they do become very hot when all the windows are closed. In Guanacaste, Harmony Hotel is a 24-room beachfront hotel with a pool, juice bar and yoga studio. It is close to Playa Guiones, a glorious 6km beach with great waves, so it attracts a style-savvy surf set.

OSA PENINSULA

Best Wilderness Lodges

Lapa Rios eco lodge, in a 1,000-acre private nature reserve on the Osa peninsula, is about as far away as you can get from urban life. The staff have all been recruited from the local community and environmentally friendly principles govern the lodge’s operations. This of course means that the resort won’t suit everyone – there are fans in the rooms, for instance, but no air-con or hairdryers. If you can’t live without five-star luxury, it’s probably not for you, but if you consider pristine wilderness, peace and quiet to be your kind of luxury, you will love it. There are 16 cabins, all with big outside terraces where you’ll see everything from toucans to howler monkeys. Activities include yoga, horse-riding, ocean kayaking or hikes through the rainforest. Also try Casa Corcovado Jungle Lodge, a 170-acre reserve with a hilltop lodge on the edge of Corcovado National Park: the setting is wonderful as are the guides and views, but is accessible only by motor launch. It truly is a magical location. However, be warned, the accommodation is fairly basic, the food is awful and all the tours are done in groups. Insist on a private trip into the jungle and to nearby Cano Island and do take your own binoculars.

SAN JOSE AND INTERIORS

Best City Hotels

While San José has little to offer, flight times may mean you have to spend a night there and if so, Xandari is a good stopover. It’s only 20 minutes from the airport, and has 22 brightly decorated villas, an excellent spa and two 60ft pools set in peaceful gardens. Or try Finca Rosa Blanca, a privately owned inn only 15 minutes from the airport. With 12 bedrooms, a swimming pool and a beautiful hilltop setting, it’s a lovely first-night base for tired travellers. If you have to stay in San José we recommend the Hotel Grano de Oro, a converted 40-room Victorian mansion with great service and an elegant atmosphere.

Best for foodies

While Costa Rican cuisine generally leaves a lot to be desired, the Inn at Coyote Mountain is an exception. It’s a four-bed boutique hotel with a cookery school and a wonderful restaurant to which visitors flock from miles around for the Latino-Creole cuisine. While we wouldn’t go out of our way to visit, if you’re in the region (around one and a half hours from San José), it’s well worth spending the night. During the dry season normal vehicles can reach the Inn, otherwise high clearance vehicles are recommended.

Best Jungle Retreat

Eco-hotels are big news in Costa Rica and El Silencio is one of the best. Set on a 500-acre site an hour and a half north of San Jose, it’s built from eco-friendly materials with 16 one-bedroom cottages all with sliding glass doors overlooking the cloud forest. The small spa offering daily yoga lessons, the restaurant is fantastic and the location on the side of a forested mountain unsurpassed. With no computers, TVs or mobile reception, this is a place for getting away from it all. If the idea of splendid isolation appeals, visit the remote and romantic Pacuare Lodge which is reached by raft (although children and the less physically able can be transported across the river by basket). It’s a little spot of luxury surrounded by rainforest in the Central Highlands, with 13 thatched cabins with huge bathrooms, mosquito-netted beds and verandas. The huge Honeymoon Suite with its own private pool and observation platform is incredibly romantic. Candle-lit at night, there’s no phone or electricity; activities include visits to the local Cabecar indigenous community.

Best Volcanic Retreat

If you’ve come to Costa Rica to see the active Arenal volcano, book a casita at Arenal Nayara, a new boutique property close to the volcano but far enough away from La Fortuna, the area’s touristy town. The hotel’s 24 casitas are in beautiful gardens with Jacuzzis on their private balconies, plasma screens and iPod docking stations. There’s a pool, awesome views of Arenal, a small spa and an in-house tour company, Jacamar, who will book excursions and activities.

CARIBBEAN COAST

If you are planning a trip to the Tortuguero National Park on the East Coast, the Manatushotel on the park’s main water channel is a good base. You can spend your days exploring the waterways by kayak or waterbike, seeing endangered turtles and visiting the beach. This is a real gem with charming staff, delicious food and an unbelievable setting. On the undeveloped northeast coast is Tortuga Lodge, which has 26 rooms spread between five bungalows, a river rock pool and friendly staff. It’s very remote (you can’t get there by road), and the reason to come here is to explore the Tortuguero national park and see endangered green sea turtles; the lodge has guides who will take you to see the turtles and to explore the park. For something a little different, head to Punta Uva on the Caribbean coast. Tree House Lodge has one tree house and three beach houses available to rent. Quirky, yet comfortable, you’re 150 metres from a practically deserted white-sand beach.

Best Rentals

Hacienda Cabo Velas, set on a 1,700-acre working ranch, is the perfect property for families or groups looking for an active holiday in pristine surroundings. It is just north of Tamarindo on the Nicoya peninsula, and sleeps up to 16 in four thatched-roof ranchos on the beach. The estate has five beaches in total and is surrounded by rainforest. Everything is on tap from an Italian chef to riding with cowboys, from a tour with a naturalist to white-water rafting, surfing and trekking. Hacienda Las Delicias is a lovely but less exclusive property. It’s a working cattle ranch in the Puntarenas province, fully staffed, and sleeps 10-12 in six bedrooms. There’s riding for all ages and abilities, children can help the ranch’s cowboys with their chores, and there’s a swimming pool and tennis court with sandy beaches a 15-minute drive away. Both properties are available through Carpe Diem Travel.

Where to eat

Best Lunch Spots

Nicoya peninsula

Owned by a Dutch-American couple, Lola’s (+658-8097)on Playa Avellana is a beach café with low tables fashioned from driftwood, big cushions and wooden chairs. The delicious menu includes smoothies, seared tuna salads and pizzas, and you can arrange private candle-lit beach dinners on request. Imagine a surf shack/beach bar and Las Brisas (+654-4047) in Playa Potrero will be it. The Mexican-influenced menu is extremely popular with visiting surfers who flock here for the food and the Monday night reggae.

Best Dinner Spots

Nicoya peninsula

Run by an ex-Napa Valley resident, Dragonfly (100 m east of Hotel Pasatiempo, Tamarindo;+ 653-1506; www.dragonflybarandgrill.com) offers Latin-Asian fusion cuisine in a funky, modern setting. Salads are huge and delicious, while entrees include mushroom, goat’s cheese and prosciutto risotto and corn-crusted mahi-mahi over edamame and corn spring salad. In the bohemian beach town of Montezuma, Playa de los Artistas (275 m south of town, near Los Mangos Hotel, Cóbano, Montezuma; +642-092) is an open-air restaurant specialising in mouth-watering seafood; the tables are made from driftwood and lanterns provide the light.

Manuel Antonio

Mar Luna (North of Manuel Antonio Elementary School, Manuel Antonio; +777-5107) may not look like much, being a small shack on the side of a hill, but the views are wonderful and the seafood inexpensive and delicious. Fresh mahi-mahi and lobster are grilled over volcanic ash and seasoned with local sauces. Also try Agua Azul (Above the Villas del Parque office, Manuel Antonio; + 777-528) for seafood and salads.

Best Activities

Lake Arenal and Monteverde

The active Volcan Arenal (+506 2461 8499; www.costarica-nationalparks.com/arenalnationalpark) is one of the country’s most-visited sites – hiking is restricted to the base of the volcano because of its frequent bursts. While you’re in the region visit Arenal Hanging Bridges (+506 2290 0469; www.hangingbridges.com), a 600-acre private reserve with 14 bridges suspended at different heights through the trees. The Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve (+506 2645 7070; www.monteverdeinfo.com) is another of the country’s eco-attractions. Containing six ecological zones, it is home to over 100 species of mammal (including five types of cat) and 400 different birds. Clouds lie in the forest, giving it a magical, mysterious feel. If you love views, take the Sky Tram (+506 2479 9944; www.skywalk.co.cr) cable-car over the trees. It stops at a platform 1,300 metres up, from which you can take guided walks through the rainforest or take a canopy zip line tour known as Sky Trek through the trees. Zip lines are popular throughout the country and are basically a series of thick cables running above and through the jungle. Attached in a harness to the cables, you ‘fly’ over the treetops at speeds up to 40 miles an hour.

Central Valley

Go white-water rafting in the area around Turrialba, a small town in the lush Central Valley. The rivers Pacuare and Reventazón run close to the town and are world-famous rafting spots. Rios Tropicales (+506 2669 6262; www.riostropicales.com) can organise trips for all different levels. While you’re in the region, you can visit the Turrialba Volcano National Park where you can hike up the volcano which, though officially active, hasn’t erupted since 1866.

Tortuguero

The north-eastern coast of Costa Rica is very undeveloped, with miles of rain forest and only a few villages. The Tortuguero National Park (www.costarica-nationalparks.com/tortugueronationalpark) is often referred to as a mini Amazon and is the habitat of endangered sea turtles (who return to the beaches during June-October to lay their eggs) and leatherback turtles (February-July). If you want to be actively involved, you can help scientists tag the leatherbacks for the Caribbean Conservation Corporation (www.cccturtle.org) while staying in the research facility’s basic accommodation.

Best Surfing

Warm water and great waves have made Costa Rica one of the world’s great surfing destinations. The northern Pacific coast is surf central, with countless surf breaks and surf schools dotted all the way up the coast. Tamarindo is a big surf town, which is fine if you’re into the sport; otherwise it should be avoided. Malpaís is a hip little surf town which is gaining attention from fashionable visitors. Still unspoilt, there’s good surf and miles of beautiful beach. Puerto Viejo de Talamanca on the Caribbean coast is also a surf town, although only for experts.

Best Beaches

North of Tamarindo, close to Playa Brasilito, Playa Conchal in Guanacaste province is one of the country’s most beautiful stretches of white sand lapped by blue water. Also try Playa Carrillo just south of Sámara, a long beach fronted by reef, backed by palms and cliffs and good for swimming and snorkelling. Montezuma on the southern tip of the Nicoya peninsula is a hippie beach town with a fantastic, long beach. Playa Avellana is another undeveloped beauty popular with the surf crowd. The beaches on the Osa peninsula are long, white and nearly always deserted.

Best of the Rest

Best Tour Operators

New Yorker Michael Kaye has run Costa Rica Expeditions (+506 2257 0766; www.costaricaexpeditions.com) for the last 35 years. He is the country’s top eco-tourism pioneer and can arrange everything from white-water rafting to hiking, biking and nature watching. His crack team includes artists, political scientists, naturalists, river guides and horticulturists who all have a deep knowledge of the country. He also owns Tortuga Lodge. On the Osa peninsula, Osa Aventura (+506 2735 5670/5758; www.osaaventura.com) offers bespoke treks guided by a group of naturalists. American travel company Family Adventures (+1 617 923 2004; www.familyadventures.com) specialises in adventurous trips all over the world. Their Costa Rica offerings include special itineraries for families with teenagers and for younger children.

Best Read

Costa Rica: A Journey Through Nature by Adrian Hepworth is a beautiful book of the photography of Costa Rica’s lush fauna and flora.

Best Escape

Nicaragua is tipped as the next Costa Rica, but in reality that’s way off the mark. It has amazing scenery and colonial towns but it lacks a good tourist infrastructure, and with one notable exception accommodation is limited to cheap hotels and backpacker hostels. The exception is Morgan’s Rock (San Juan del Sur; +505 670 7676; www.morgansrock.com; info@morgansrock.com) a luxury eco-resort in San Juan del Sur, an hour and a half’s drive from the Costa Rican border.

Best Avoided

San José – the traffic and pollution make it the least attractive place in the country. Also steer clear of Tamarindo and Jaco, small surf towns that have been overdeveloped and ruined. Some of the roads are unspeakably bad, especially the further you travel off the beaten track. Hire a driver and avoid driving yourself.

Best Action Plans

If you don’t want to travel too much, stick to the interior and the east or west coast. While you can see both coasts, you will need to catch internal flights rather than drive and may have to miss some of the highlights of the interior. However, travellers should note that whilst a multi-centre holiday may seem to be a lot of travelling, internal flights are hugely efficient and only take 30-50 mins.The following itineraries are designed for first-time visitors looking to see some of the country’s highlights.

For families

Day One: Check into Finca Rosa Blanca, near San José.
Day Two: Catch an internal flight to the Osa peninsula for three nights at Lapa Rios.
Day Five: Fly back to San José and head to Arenal for three nights at Arenal Nayara.
Day Eight: Back to San José to catch a flight to Liberia for three nights at the Four Seasons Papagayo or Hacienda Cabo Velas
Day Eleven: Fly back to San José.

For couples (wildlife, beaches, relaxation)

Day One: Check into Xandari or make the 90-minute drive to El Silencio to spend three nights.
Day Four: Return to San Jose and fly to the Osa peninsula for three nights at Lapa Rios or Casa Corcovado.
Day Seven: Return to San José and fly to the coast for four nights at Florblanca Reserva.
Day Eleven: Fly back to San José.

For adventurers (white-water rafting, surfing, wildlife)

Day One: Make the 90-minute drive for three nights at El Silencio.
Day Four: Drive to Pacuare Lodge for three nights white-water rafting and trekking.
Day Seven: Fly to Tortuguero for three nights at Tortuga Lodge.
Day Ten: Head down the coast to Punta Uva for three nights at Tree House Lodge and go surfing on reef breaks (only for experienced surfers).
Day Thirteen: Return to San José.

For beach lovers

Day One: Spend one night at Xandari
Day Two: Fly to the Osa peninsula for three nights at Lapa Rios.
Day Five: Fly back to San José and catch a flight to Liberia for three nights at Florblanca at Latitude 10 or Milarepa.
Day Eight: Head down the coast to Manuel Antonio National Park for three nights at the Gaia Hotel and Reserve.
Day Eleven: Return to San José.

Agree? Disagree? Feel free to send us your comments.