Love the great outdoors? Here's why you can't miss this slice of Central America.
WORDS NATASHA DRAGUN
American naturalist Henry David Thoreau got it right when he said: “We need the tonic of wildness.” Travelers today seek destinations offering crowd-free solitude to remind them how wild, wide and wonderful the world really is – enter Costa Rica. An eco-tourism pacemaker, this slice of Central America has been setting global sustainability standards since the 1970s, with the advent of its extensive national park system.
In the decades since, it has established country-wide programs protecting everything from three-toed sloths to endangered green turtles, with goals to be carbon neutral by the end of this year. Here are the best ways to experience the full force of nature on your next Costa Rica adventure.
Manuel Antonio National Park
Small but mighty
Costa Rica is tiny, just 0.03 percent of the Earth’s surface (the size of Switzerland or West Virginia), but it’s home to five percent of the world’s wildlife species, accounting for a staggering half-a-million species of plants and animals. A jagged spine of mountains yields sublime diversity from the east coast to the west and cradles 12 life zones, from wetlands to montane forest and coral-rich reefs.
A tortoise takes pause
Turtles by moonlight
In addition to biosphere reserves, wildlife refuges and protected zones, 30 national parks adorn Costa Rica – covering 25 percent of the country. At popular northern Tortuguero, you can kayak jungle-lined rivers one minute – on the lookout for caiman and toucans – and pad along soft-sand beaches the next, perhaps to swim with manatees or glimpse endangered green sea turtles enjoying the western hemisphere’s most important nesting ground. At nightfall, visitors can experience their habitat on exclusive nocturnal tours. Naturalists guide small groups across the beach, sans artificial light. “We’re not permitted to visit the turtles until they are laying eggs,” says Victor Leiton, a tour director with leading travel experts, Trafalgar. “At the right time, we walk like children, holding hands across the sand to see turtles under the moonlight. Guides use a special red light to reveal the creatures. If we’re lucky, we walk in a human chain with turtles as they waddle to the ocean after laying their eggs. “Even if flash photos were allowed, they wouldn’t happen. People are so overcome with emotions they forget everything else.”
The Arenal Hanging Bridges are a series of suspension bridges offering guests great viewing opportunities of the forest and its wildlife
For the love of sloths
Wildlife rangers are accustomed to tears around the country’s other poster child: the sloth. Perhaps because they’re cute, seemingly vulnerable and naturally smiley; or because they represent a less frenetic life (their slow movement conserves energy and allows them to blend in with the forest), but whatever it is, the sloth appeal is undeniable and for some inexplicably tear-jerking. Thousands of these adorable creatures inhabit the country, plus ocelots, tapir, howler monkeys and red-eyed tree frogs, of which Victor says, “People love frogs when you show them these. They are so beautiful – blue, red and yellow ribs, and popping orange feet. They’re everywhere at night.” During the day, watch for the basilisk, known as the Jesus lizard for its water-walking ability.
A sloth poses for the camera at Manuel Antonio National Park
A poison dart frog in the Monteverde Cloud Forest
Green lizards rise to the occasion in the Tortuguero Canals
You won’t need binoculars to spot vivid rainbow-hued toucans, scarlet macaws or eye-popping quetzal, so turquoise you’ll think their plumage is painted on.
Ornithologists, rejoice! Costa Rica has 922 species of birds, some of which draw enthusiasts the world over. You won’t need binoculars to spot vivid rainbow-hued toucans (there are six species), native scarlet macaws or eye-popping resplendent quetzal, so turquoise you’ll think their plumage is painted on. You may, however, need to zoom in to see hummingbirds; four of the 50 species found here are endemic, making Costa Rica the world’s unofficial capital for these tiny birds. “If you wake up early and pick the right area, you could easily see 120 different birds in a day,” says Victor, noting that the Osa Peninsula’s remote Corcovado National Park, and the central Los Santos Zone, are bird meccas.
One of hundreds of colorful bird species to be found in Costa Rica
Ring of fire
There are more than 200 volcanos in this small nation, although only five have erupted in the past 400 years. One of those, Arenal, entered a long-predicted resting phase and paved the way for eco-sensitive hotels and resorts to open among the surrounding jungle, many with hot spring pools and baths. Within the foothills of Arenal’s near-symmetrical peak lies rainforest, waterfalls and the country’s largest lake, all easily accessible on hikes through Arenal Volcano National Park. “Arenal offers Costa Rica’s best suspension bridges,” says Victor. “When you climb over these you’re guaranteed to see birds (watch for toucans) and monkeys everywhere.”
Arenal Volcano National Park
Guests walking across the hanging bridges in Arenal Volcano National Park
There is no shortage of waterfalls here, but perhaps the prettiest is Tenorio Volcano National Park’s Rio Celeste. “An easy trail leads to the river,” says Victor. “Suddenly, you see a turquoise waterfall right in front of you. Crystal-clear water transforms into light blue, like nature’s magic trick.” Science offers a complicated explanation for the water’s eye-popping color – a phenomenon known as ‘mie scattering’ occurring when two very different rivers meet. Regardless, it looks like it belongs on a postcard.
This stunning waterfall, called Rio Celeste, is one of the main reasons travelers come to Tenorio Volcano National Park
“Suddenly, you see a turquoise waterfall right in front of you. Crystal-clear water transforms to light blue, like nature’s magic trick.”
Straddling the Continental Divide and covering 10,520 hectares of tropical rainforest, Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve has six ecological zones, 2,500 floral species, 100 types of mammals, 400 bird species, 120 reptilian and amphibian variants – hence it was the natural choice for Costa Rica’s first private conservation center in 1972. Evenings here are particularly memorable: fireflies flicker in the gathering darkness, and clouds roll in to the haunting chant of howler monkeys. Thoreau need seek no wilder tonic.
A hummingbird in the Monteverde Cloud Forest
A cheeky monkey appears from the trees at Manuel Antonio National Park