Costa Rica has emerged as the prime eco-tourism destination in Central America, much due to the country’s extensive system of national parks and nature reserves. In Costa Rica you can find both the most biodiverse place on the planet as well as the world’s happiest people. Pura Vida, which means something like pure life, is the country’s unofficial slogan and is used everywhere as a greeting. An early pioneer of sustainable travel, Costa Rica is home to some of the world’s top ecologically conscious hotels and resorts — all working toward preserving the gorgeous nature that keeps drawing visitors here year after year. This is a country that truly understands the meaning of the word sustainability.
When planning a visit it’s good to know that Costa Rica has two distinct seasons — the dry season runs from late December to mid-April and is the best time to visit. During the green, or rainy, season the landscape grows rich and lush but some places become inaccessible because roads are wiped out by flooding.
I visited for two weeks at the beginning of March, and decided to split my time there between the Osa Peninsula in the southwest, home to Corcovado National Park — where you will find more species per square meter than any other place on the planet; Montezuma, a former fishing village turned bohemian budget vacation destination, known for its charm and spectacular waterfall swimming holes; and the Mal Pais area on the Nicoya Peninsula, a popular destination for surfers and the International gypset.
When visiting Costa Rica, one can truly leave all stress and work-related worry behind to just relax and live in the present.
THE OSA PENINSULA
GOOD PLACE TO STAY: El Remanso
Located at the southwest Pacific side of the Osa Peninsula, El Remanso is an eco-lodge with a capacity of thirty-five people. The resort is situated on a spectacular piece of land, acquired by a Spanish Greenpeace activist couple back in the 80s, and is now run by their daughter and her husband.
Thanks to solar panels and hydropower generated from on-site waterfalls and streams the entire resort is completely off the grid. Fresh water springs on the property also provide water and many of the structures are built from wood that was cleared when the resort was built (the rest is certified fallen wood, sourced locally from the Osa Peninsula).
The cabins are all beautifully nestled into the pristine rainforest setting, on top of a hill that slopes down toward the beach, which means you have a full view of the canopy. There are no doors, just large sliding screens that you may or may not want to leave open during the night.
The sounds of the rainforest wildlife entice you to go for a hike on one of the many trails, some of which lead you to spectacular waterfalls. Seasoned guides are available on the property, and will take you to see many different species of monkeys, exotic birds like toucans and scarlet macaw, blue morpho butterflies, golden orb spiders, and maybe a sloth, puma or ocelot — this is, after all, one of the world’s most pristine and biodiverse rainforests.
Once the sun sets (a beautiful explosion of yellows and oranges, seen perfectly from our porch, through a natural clearing among the trees), the sounds all completely change and cicadas, frogs and howler monkeys will lull you to sleep. Hike along a trail down the hill and you will come to a gorgeous secluded beach, where you can walk for hours without seeing another person. The currents in the ocean are very strong here, but you can swim in tide pools or a beautiful lagoon.
All meals (which are included in the price of a room) are prepared on site, using local produce, and served in a bamboo structure with great views of the forest canyon. There was always at least one vegetarian choice, and the warm and friendly staff were more than happy to accommodate special diets. Over 80% of the resort’s total waste (not just food) is composted. Rates from $110-$345/night. >> elremanso.com
GOOD THING TO DO: Bird Watching
You may not think of bird watching as an active pursuit, but tell that to those who are up before dawn every day, hiking deep into the rainforest just to catch that one magic glimpse of a rare bird.
For many, bird watching is the main reason to visit Costa Rica, because there is such a rich diversity of different species. While you are here, why not give it a try? Most resorts and nature preserves have seasoned guides that can help you discover the beauty hiding up there in the canopy.
GOOD THING TO DO: Indulge
Most hotels and resorts in Costa Rica offer massages and spa services, as does El Remanso. Prices are pretty much the same as in the U.S. but, for the sake of relaxation and rejuvenation, it’s totally worth indulging.
GOOD PLACE TO STAY: Nature Lodge
Most people who come to Montezuma will stay in a hostel right in town, but if you want to get away from it all and indulge in some serenity, Nature Lodge is the perfect choice. Perched on a hill, a five to ten minute ride from the town, this small, charming hotel is an oasis of tranquility — a perfect place to relax.
Formerly a horse ranch, Nature Lodge is still known by the locals as Finca Los Caballos, something that is good to keep in mind when giving directions to taxi drivers. Horseback riding excursions through the nature reserve are offered every day and can be tailored to fit any needs. There is a wellness spa that offers massages, facials and other beauty treatments, but for many simply laying by the blue pool adorned with a lotus flower, buddha statue and amazing view of the treetops below may provide enough serenity and peace of mind. A healthy breakfast, featuring lots of fresh fruit, is included in the price. Lunch and dinner are available by reservation. Rates from $76-$168/night >> naturelodge.net
GOOD PLACE TO EAT: El Sano Banano
This restaurant and hotel in the heart of Montezuma is affiliated with the high-end Ylang Ylang Beach Resort located a few minutes down the beach. Prices are at U.S. levels, but you’ll find a large menu with many vegetarian and vegan options that are clearly labeled. There are traditional Costa Rican dishes as well as Mexican and Asian-inspired ones.
I opted for a plate of vegan summer rolls, which turned out to be everyone at the table’s favorite thing. There are also plenty of delicious juices, smoothies, teas and lemonades to cool you down. There is outdoor seating in the back or on the front porch. The portions are huge and suitable for sharing — after we couldn’t finish our meal, the server fed the leftovers to a homeless dog that the restaurant owners had decided to take care of.
GOOD THING TO DO: Horseback Riding
Most well-traveled destinations in Costa Rica offer horseback riding adventures. In Montezuma, El Pinto Horseback Riding Expeditions will take you on a four-hour tour through seven beautiful beaches and shady jungle trails, ending up at a waterfall where you can take a dip in the freshwater river pool below the falls.
No previous riding experience is necessary and start times of tours are dependent on the tides and season. The guide, Marvin, speaks English (which is good for beginners) and has a lifetime of experience with horses and Costa Rican nature.
GOOD THING TO DO: Shopping
One does not visit Costa Rica for the shopping, and I would not recommend wasting your time in this beautiful country by visiting a shopping mall. You can find great locally made jewelry and crafts, especially in Montezuma, where independent vendors have set up tables all along the street.
Gorgeously colored hammocks are everywhere in Costa Rica, and once you’ve found bliss rocking slowly from side to side in one of these you’ll definitely want to bring one home. Study the labels to make sure you find one that is actually made locally.
SANTA TERESA & MAL PAIS
GOOD PLACE TO STAY: Disfrutalo Ranchos y Villas
The Mal Pais area is very laid-back when it comes to accommodations — it’s all about simple bungalows. Disfrutalo is a new resort which was four bungalows and four villas — we stayed in the Villa Rana — all built from local teak wood. Even though it’s located right off the main (dirt) road in Santa Teresa, the lush vegetation makes it seem more like it would be in the middle of the rainforest.
The beach is only about 250 feet away, literally on the other side of the street. The villas and bungalows are all equipped with kitchens, so you could cook a meal — or make great tropical fruit smoothies — at home if you wanted. Outdoor showers and hammocks on the patio make it very difficult to do anything but relax here, but if you want to enjoy the nightlife all you have do to is take a ten-minute walk along the main road and you’re there. Rates from $72-$156/night. >> disfrutaloresort.com
GOOD PLACE TO STAY: Latitude 10
A bit further north in Santa Teresa is Latitude 10, a private beach retreat suitable for those who like a higher level of luxury. Small private casitas are arranged beautifully in the property so that you can enjoy a feeling of privacy with the full service of a hotel.
Built on natural gardens, the resort was created around the principles of sustainability and protection of the surrounding wildlife and nature. No trees were cut down to build Latitude 10 and hotel guides will happily walk you through the hotel’s sustainable initiatives if you are interested in hearing more. Borrow one of the complimentary bikes, and you can get to Santa Teresa in minutes. During the dry season, the roads here get very dusty so it may be a good idea to tie a scarf over your mouth to avoid breathing in that road dust. Rates from $210-$650/night. >> latitude10resort.com
GOOD PLACE TO STAY: Tranquilo Backpackers
If you are traveling on a serious budget the good news is that hostels can be found almost everywhere in Costa Rica, and they are very affordable. Tranquilo is located in the heart of Santa Teresa, one block from the beach. The rooms are situated along hammock-lined balconies and are surprisingly clean. There are your classic dorms for $11 per night but, if sleeping with strangers is just not your thing, doubles with private bathrooms are $35 per night — a great deal in the Mal Pais area.
If you are not in your late twenties to early thirties chances are you will be the oldest person on the property besides the nightly security guard, but that’s fine. There is a strict silence policy that takes effect at 11pm, so you won’t be kept away by rowdy backpackers, unless you want to be, that is.
GOOD PLACE TO EAT: Vista de Olas
If you want to experience a spectacular sunset followed by an equally spectacular meal, this is the place. Vista de Olas is a hotel and restaurant, perched on top of a peaceful hill. From the infinity pool you can enjoy sweeping views of Mal Pais, Playa Carmen, Santa Teresa, Hermosa, and beyond, all while sipping a cocktail.
Once the sun has set the restaurant opens, offering the best BBQ in the area. You choose your meat or fish — some of them locally sourced — and prepare it yourself on one of the big grills. Vegetarians need not despair, as the salad bar is fully stocked and highly satisfying.
GOOD PLACE TO EAT: Brisas del Mar
Widely known as the best restaurant in the Mal Pais area, Brisas del Mar is situated (surprise!) at the top of a hill, giving dining patrons a spectacular view of the surf breaks below. Coming here to watch the sunset is a great idea, but be sure to make a reservation or arrive early to ensure a spot.
The menu changes daily and is presented on black boards that servers move from table to table. The food is homemade and fresh, with a focus on International cuisine. Cocktails are made with fresh fruits and juices and are served in small or large pitchers, depending on what kind of mood you are in. No matter what, you will not want to leave this gorgeous setting, and you actually don’t have to since there are hotel rooms — belonging to Hotel Buenos Aires — right above the restaurant.
GOOD THING TO DO: Surfing
The second thing that really put Costa Rica on the tourist map is surfing. The water is warm and although you can find some really great breaks here it never gets crowded. If you’re really serious about learning, there are many surf camps in the Mal Pais area. You can also rent a board or take an hourly lesson.
I got my very first surf lesson from Jobbie, a Canadian surfer and bon vivant who runs Jobbie’s Longboards in Mal Pais and also has surf and yoga camps. Although it was harder than I thought, I managed to stand up on my, like, third try.
GOOD THING TO DO: Yoga
Yoga retreats are plentiful around Costa Rica, but if you are in Mal Pais and just want to take one or a few classes during your vacation, Casa Zen in Santa Teresa offers daily classes at 9am and (during high season) also at 2pm.
The Hatha-inspired, Vinyasa Flow class is held on the second floor balcony, with a refreshing ocean breeze flowing through, further opening your senses. The seasoned instructors ensure that the practice is rewarding to both beginners and more advanced students. Mats are provided, but bring a bottle of water to hydrate.
GOOD THING TO DO: Canopy Tours
Wherever there is a tree canopy in Costa Rica you can find canopy tours, which is basically a series of zip lines that enable you to glide through the rainforest jungle and observe wildlife right next to you in the canopy and far below.
Canopy del Pacifico’s zipline course is located right outside Mal Pais, right at the entrance of the Cabo Blanco Nature Reserve, the oldest protected area in Costa Rica. The canopy ride has 9 cables — the longest one a thousand feet long — and 11 platforms, between 17 to 80 feet high, set high in the gigantic trees. It’s a fun, adrenaline-filled experience you will not forget.
Costa Rica has the best bus system in Central America, and it’s by far the cheapest way to travel. Tickets should be reserved in advance, especially during the high season. The downside to traveling by bus is that it takes a long time, because of the bad condition of the roads and the frequent stops made. Interbus and Grayline are the two largest bus companies and both offset 100% of their carbon emissions.
By Domestic Air
There is so much to do in Costa Rica, and if you are short on time it’s definitely worth taking a domestic flight to save time. There are two main airlines — Sansa and Nature Air — both have daily flights to most parts of the country and offset all their carbon emissions making donations to rainforest preservation efforts.
To get to the Nicoya Peninsula, the best way is to take a daily speedboat from Herradura Beach, just north of Jaco. It departs every day at 10:45 and costs $40 per person. It can be a rough ride, so if you’re prone to seasickness, take a pill or make sure to stare at the horizon the entire way.
Renting a car is a possibility, but one thing to keep in mind is that the roads are dusty, unpaved and in pretty bad condition in most places. Four-wheel drive is needed to go many places and you may have to traverse some streams to get where you are going. Most major American car rental agencies serve Costa Rica.
Taxis in Costa Rica are red and have a triangular yellow mark on the side or the top. They can be found in most places and are a great alternative to renting a car. Just avoid the Taxi Piratas, and make sure you agree on the fare beforehand.
All photos, except when indicated, by Johanna Björk. All rights reserved.