This lush Central American country, once known mainly for its tropical exports—sugarcane, coffee, bananas, pineapples—has in recent years become famous as an eco-destination. The astonishingly diverse landscapes range from sun-soaked beaches to rain-soaked jungles, from mountainside cloud forests to bird-filled lagoons. To keep Costa Rica wild, some 26 percent of the terrain—including 25 national parks and 58 wildlife refuges—is protected by law. The geographic diversity fosters equally varied life forms: some 850 species of birds, 200 different mammals, 250 reptiles, 180 amphibians and more than 12,000 species of plants. Unlike its neighbors, Costa Rica has long been remarkably stable. Warless since 1948, it has no standing army or navy. The biggest battles here are fought between animals and humans—and even they have found a harmonious way to co-exist.
An ideal region in which to explore Costa Rica’s biodiversity is Guanacaste, the northernmost province on the Pacific coast, which shares a border with Nicaragua. You’ll fly into Liberia, Guanacaste’s appealing urban capital, with its whitewashed adobe houses with orange-tiled roofs. Beyond the city await the famously varied and unspoiled natural treasures of the country’s most visited region.
Although Guanacaste’s dry forests, grasslands and cattle ranches once gave it a Wild West reputation, vacationers have since discovered its warm ocean waters and Caribbean-like climate—little rain and consistent heat from November through April. Plus the beaches are gorgeous: Because of the iron found in the area’s numerous volcanoes, the sand (and there is miles of it) ranges from black to gray to brown. But the coastline offers more than sunning and swimming—it’s also a launching point for eco-adventure: hiking into rain forests where endangered animals find shelter, feeling the spray of massive waterfalls and rafting through verdant parks.
Rincón de la Vieja National Park, on the border between the Alajuela and Guanacaste provinces, is home to one of Costa Rica’s nine active volcanos. (The country has more than 250.) Although this volcano’s nine craters are mostly dormant, you can still see steam, shooting geysers and pools of boiling thermal waters. Even better, the park is filled with monkeys, wild pigs, anteaters and some 300 species of birds.
On the border of the park, about an hour from the Liberia airport, is Buena Vista Lodge, a rustic hacienda dedicated to ecotourism. If you’re staying in one of the 80 cabins here, you can arrange a horseback ride over rock-covered hills, down tree-lined trails and through not-so-shallow brooks. You can also zipline through the semi-humid tropical forest.
Or enjoy a traditional Costa Rican ritual at Buena Vista’s hot springs. It starts with a communal soak, followed by a visit to the steam room. The third step is to slather on volcanic mud, which cleans and exfoliates the skin. Let the sun dry the mud to clay, then rinse off and soak in yet another thermal pool. The routine is sure to invigorate the body and rejuvenate the soul—which can also be achieved in the hot springs at the Wellness Garden next door.
To get a feel for spectacular Palo Verde National Park—about a three-hour drive south of Rincón de la Vieja—book a two-hour boat ride up the Tempisque River, which runs beside the park. The boat, equipped with a canopy for shade, motors through 45 miles of brackish water (here the Pacific Ocean mixes with the river’s fresh water). You might spot crocodiles encrusted with clay sunning on the banks; whitefaced monkeys trying to blend in with the leaves of the spreading guanacastes (Costa Rica’s national tree); and the only permanent colony of scarlet macaws in the dry tropics. Many tour companies guide these trips, including Costa Rica Fun Adventures and Tempisque Eco-Adventures, whose outings start at the famous Puente de la Amistad de Costa Rica-Taiwan, the largest bridge in the country.
Monteverde Biological Cloud Forest is also a must-see: The 19-square-mile park is considered one of the world’s finest wildlife sanctuaries. It’s managed by the well-respected Tropical Science Center of Costa Rica; you can hire a knowledgeable guide ($30, including the entrance fee) who’ll explain how low clouds shape the forest’s ecology. If you’re lucky, he might also help you spot that elusive bird, the quetzal.
The southern part of Guanacaste ventures into the Nicoya Peninsula, whose miles of sandy beaches made it one of the country’s first regions to attract vacation travelers. Visitors often take day trips to the century-old village of Guaitil, where some 200 descendants of the indigenous Chorotega tribe make and sell distinctive red, black and ocher ceramics. The village square is small and intimate, with a warm, rural feel. You’ll occasionally hear the thud of a falling mango as it hits an aluminum roof on one of the houses.
Most visitors stop to sit on tree stumps and marvel at Willy Villafuerte Ramírez, who has been making pottery at his home for the last 28 years. Using only a quartz stone and small piece of rubber, Willy shapes his pieces from volcanic and mountain clay, and decorates them with etchings of traditional designs—such as the national flower (the Guaria Morada, a delicate orchid) or a local animal, like a rabbit or iguana. He then fires his creations in an open-hearth kiln. Prices range from $12 for a turtle-shaped whistle to $300 for a two-foot-tall vase.
SMOKE AND MIST
Head east into the Central Highlands/Valley, in the province of Alajuela, for Poás Volcano National Park, home to one of Costa Rica’s largest volcanos. The mammoth crater is about a mile wide and more than 1,000 feet deep. While major eruptions are thankfully infrequent, you can peer down into the bubbling crater and watch for a geyser-like eruption of minty-blue sulfuric steam. On the park’s Laguna Botos Trail, a dormant volcano is now a cold-water lake surrounded by mountain peaks wreathed with clouds.
A few miles east is La Paz Waterfall Gardens, a wildlife refuge where everything seems to be a rich gradation of green. Two miles of paved trails wind through the park, passing five massive waterfalls. Inside a roomy aviary, bright yellow, red and blue parakeets try to befriend entitled toucans, as pavas soar overhead and grosbeaks squawk proudly. In the butterfly observatory, hundreds of caterpillars morph from their cocoons into vibrant-colored butterflies, just inches from your face. Other exhibits showcase hummingbirds, snakes, monkeys, frogs and, soon, jungle cats. Try to book a room in the luxurious Peace Lodge, right next door. You can fish for your supper in the lodge’s trout lake and eat your catch (suitably prepared) in the Colibríes restaurant. Or release it, if you want to stay eco-friendly!
Well-guided boat rides, which start after a
tropical fruit breakfast. 011-506-2687-1212;
COSTA RICA FUN ADVENTURES
A great company to lead you through Poás,
Palo Verde and up the Tempisque River.
MONTEVERDE CLOUD FOREST
One of the world’s finest wildlife sanctuaries.
POAS VOLCANO NATIONAL PARK
The 16,000-acre park has an active volcano.
LA PAZ WATERFALL GARDENS
Five waterfalls plus miles of trails, a butterfly
observatory, hummingbird garden, serpentarium,
frog exhibit, trout lake and bird-watching areas.
011-506-2482-2720; waterfallgardens.com; $32
RCI-AFFILIATED RESORTS IN COSTA RICA INCLUDE:
CONDOVAC LA COSTA, Playa Hermosa
GEO GROUP at PUEBLO REAL, Quepos
HOTEL DEL SUR, San Isidro del General
For more information, visit RCI.com or call
HILTON PAPAGAYO RESORT
An all-inclusive on a secluded, private bay.
Playa Arenilla, Golfo de Papagayo, Guanacaste;
doubles from $222
FOUR SEASONS COSTA RICA
Simple luxury with two unspoiled beaches.
Peninsula Papagayo, Guanacaste;
doubles from $375
BUENA VISTA LODGE & ADVENTURE CENTER
Sustainable tourism—with ziplines and thermal
mud baths. Pacifico Norte, Rincón de la Vieja;
doubles from $59
A romantic resort on the grounds of La Paz
Waterfall Gardens. Vara Blanca;
doubles from $205
XANDARI RESORT & SPA
Twenty-two villas on a 40-acre plantation
overlooking the Central Valley. Alajuela;
866-363-3212 or 011-506-2443-2020;
xandari.com; doubles from $192