Costa Rica Is the Ultimate Beach-Meets-Jungle Adventure
Coast to coast in six hours, maybe with a few dinosaurs along the way.
There’s something about Costa Rica that feels like stepping into a live action Jurassic Park. Hiking the slopes of a volcano in the rainy darkness, the light from my headlamp bobs over giant, wet jungle leaves as I scan for poisonous creatures. Badass local guides point out the wonders the rainforest holds, while monkeys howl in the trees above, toucans with multicolored beaks swoop by, and neon blue- and orange-hued frogs peer up at me with their red beady eyes. Maybe I won’t find any velociraptors this time, but the lush, wild landscape makes it easy to see why the classic dinosaur franchise took place right here in Costa Rica.
Over 1,500 types of orchids bloom in this country, some as big as the size of a fist and others as tiny as a pinhead, all pollinated by teeny tiny bees. Trees literally grow on top of other trees, and what appear to be vines hanging down from above are actually thick roots reaching for the ground. The biodiversity is so in-your-face that the call to protect the forests is as loud as the cicadas' siren song, and pretty damn hard to ignore.
“We traded in the rifle for the telescope—point and shoot,” says Andrés Valverde, co-founder and director of curated forest immersion company SAVIA Monteverde. Costa Rica got rid of its military in 1948, since shifting into a peaceful country focused on sustaining natural abundance. And there’s a whole lot of beauty worth fighting for. In lockstep with all the other guides, Valverde slings his tripod on his shoulder and sets up his lens at different points along the route, capturing sloths climbing so very slowly upside down, lizards skipping over water, and birds with iridescent feathers shining metallic in the sunlight.
In Costa Rica, you can watch the sunrise over the turquoise Caribbean Sea, then see it set over the deep blue Pacific Ocean—all in one day, since the drive from the east to the west coast only takes six hours. The journey in between is packed with rolling green mountains and volcanoes, cloud forests, caves fit for spelunking, and verdant valleys ideal for zip-lining.
You can lounge on the numerous black sand, pink sand, and micro-seashell beaches stretching down both sides of the narrow country, or you can head to the more overgrown inland area to see what the good life—known colloquially as “pura vida”—is all about. Bring your refillable water bottle to load up on the pristinely drinkable tap water and buckle your seatbelt for the bumpy ride across the wild roads of Costa Rica—here are all the jungles, beaches, and possible dinosaur sightings that await along the Rich Coast.
Climb high into the trees of a cloud forest in Monteverde
A guide in Monteverde helps me climb up the inside of an enormous tree that’s hollowed out in the middle, as it once swallowed another tree. The trunk it suffocated has since crumbled away, leaving a tall, empty cavity behind. Turns out, nature is pretty metal. This happens quite often in Monteverde, and exploring these natural curiosities is what the mountainous cloud forest is all about.
Elsewhere, SAVIA guides strap visitors into harnesses and tote them up into the canopy, like so many monkeys perched above it all. Guests can even have a picnic up there, spread across platforms that sway gently with the breeze more than 100 feet off the ground, complete with a view of Pacific islands in the distance. There are torch-lit night tours, interactive sensory gardens that let you feel, hear, and taste the surroundings, hammocks strung hundreds of feet off the ground, and multiple options to repel back to earth. As co-founder Valverde explains, “We use awe as a tool for change.”
But don’t get it twisted—this is no gimmicky adventure park. “If everyone who comes through here has a connection, we maximize the impact,” says Valverde. He leads people on “adventures with a purpose.” Each structure is painted with natural colors of the forest so as to not distract the animals, and leaf-like building materials allow light to pass through to the forest floor. Every aspect is centered around preservation and understanding, an ethos that sticks with visitors long after they’ve descended down from the towering treescape.
You can base yourself in the cute hippie town of Santa Elena, but to really immerse yourself (and save time commuting to morning hikes and night tours) nearby Belmar Hotel makes a strong case for the best hotel in all of Costa Rica. While many hotels talk about sustainable attempts, Belmar lives and breathes environmental protection without losing an ounce of luxury. The gorgeously rustic interior employs 100% reforested wood, the soaps are biodegradable, and solar panels heat the shower water. The cocktails, on-site brewery, and chef’s tasting menu only use produce from their own gardens or from local farmers, and the hotel landscapes exclusively with native plants that benefit the ecosystem. Plus, the views from each room’s private wooden balcony look out onto glowing sunsets that light up the swirling, fast-moving clouds, like a mini aurora borealis whipping across the sky.
Hike around Arenal volcano then dip in soothing hot springs
Checking out the Arenal Volcano is basically mandatory when visiting Costa Rica. You're truly missing out if you just stick to beaches and don't venture inland.
Arenal itself is exactly what you’d imagine for a volcano—filled with lava, a plume of vapor escaping out the top. Don't worry too much about eruptions, though, as it's been quiet since 2011. The jungle has reclaimed much of its flank, but you can still see the deep rivulets the lava once carved into the sides. You can trek in the national park at the base of the volcano from the visitor’s center, gaze into the water-filled crater of Cerro Chato beside it, hike to the postcard-perfect La Fortuna waterfall, or kayak in the turquoise waters of Lake Arenal, rimmed in red-sand shores.
A huge draw here are the hot springs. Many choose to pay the entry fee at the numerous businesses that funnel the bubbling hot water into swimming pool-like structures, such as at Ecotermales. The amount of guests is limited, and the facilities are outfitted with bathrooms and sometimes restaurants. But if you want a decidedly local experience, head to the no-cost hot river. You can access the river next to the Tabacon Spa, just walk down the dirt path until you get to the rushing hot water, where natural pools are bordered by candles and steam drifts up into the hanging branches above.
Numerous spas line the road around these parts, and though all these lodgings make for a pampered stay, none are better positioned than the Arenal Observatory Lodge. As the only hotel located inside the national park, it sits at the base of the mighty volcano overlooking Lake Arenal. You’ll feel like you've entered the unlocked cage of a T. rex as soon as you drive over the dirt road past the gates. Most hikes also start out from the Lodge, so you'll be right in the middle of all the action.
Hang out in trendy restaurants, bars, and museums of San Jose
Flying into San Jose is standard operation procedure, since the centrally located capital makes it easy to set out for Monteverde and Arenal or jet over to the Pacific or Caribbean side. But don’t make the mistake of not setting aside a day or two to explore the city.
Travelers are often anxious to get past the sprawl that spans the outskirts of San Jose—since, of course, the call of the jungles and beaches is strong. But central San Jose is full of some of the best restaurants and bars in the country, not to mention beautiful old buildings influenced by neoclassical, baroque, and tropical Victorian styles from the 1800s. After checking out the National Theater, Gold Museum, or Jade Museum downtown, grab food and drinks in San Pedro and Escalante, both excellent neighborhoods to discover by foot.
You’re going to find a lot of plantains, beans, and rice in Costa Rica, but Sikwa, a restaurant inspired by indigenous cuisine, has your back when it comes to a true taste of the country. Yes, there’s still plantain, but it’s ground into flour and transformed into an empanada with pickled vegetables. You’ll also find purple corn, smoked palm, cacao nibs, and a peachy palm fruit called pejibaye. For a more modernized version of Costan Rican cuisine, make your way through Restaurante Silvestre’s many creative recipes. The Octopus Ceviche is a tingly treat for the tongue, and the Banana-wrapped Fish elevates tradition. Save room for the Osa Sphere come dessert, a devilishly delicious greenish ball of guava, caramelized corn, cashew butter, and chocolate.
For drinks, La Yerbatera is a new, happening speakeasy—and a real one at that, as you have to call a WhatsApp number for reservations, directions, and a password to enter. Once you manage to find it, you’re treated to a dimly lit apothecary-like interior, which makes sense since the cocktails here make good use of herbal infusions. Stick to the theme by hopping a couple blocks over to Apotecario, a brick-and-wood bar plastered with plants and dry flowers, plus the occasional miniature skeleton or voodoo doll hanging from the ceiling. They brew their own beer and kombuchas, and concoct mixed drinks spiked with smoked whiskey and healthy doses of zesty ginger.
Slow things down to Caribbean island time in Cahuita and Puerto Viejo
This is a two-for-one, as Cahuita and Puerto Viejo sit right next to each other. The towns are on the Caribbean side of Costa Rica, a more laid-back expanse with reggae bars and a slower-paced, island life mantra.
Puerto Viejo is artsy, hippie, and rowdy, all at the same time. You'll find hostels with hand-painted signs and bar after bar lining the sand under the palm trees. Keep going south along the coast for Caribeans Chocolate and Coffee, where you can sip mighty fine espresso while looking out at the beach across the road, fully understanding why Costa Rica was a wealthy coffee republic for centuries. Since the cacao plant is another big economic force here, don’t be surprised to find a lot of chocolate on menus, such as the one at Bread and Chocolate. The Caribbean Pancakes stand out with toasted coconut and, of course, a sweet brown chocolate sauce drizzled on top.
You’ll find bungalows and backpacker hotels dotting the roads, but the real move is to book a stay in a treehouse. Tree House Lodge is a fun and colorful option, while many other locally owned operations are available via Airbnb.
Cahuita, on the other hand, is less populated, with just a smattering of restaurants and quieter beaches. It’s also where you’ll find the entrance to Cahuita National Park, a gorgeous preserve boasting an incredible protected coral reef. On the way there, make sure to stop off at Playa Negra, a long beach with dazzingle stretches of black sand that are definitely worth a stroll.
Feel luxurious with upscale leisure and beachy views in Guanacaste
Guanacaste is a fairly touristy and developed area. This Pacific-side oasis is where you're most likely to find all-inclusive resorts, golf courses, and celebrity sightings. But there's a reason for that: the million dollar views. Beaches here are hugged by lush hilly coves, with a smattering of tall rock islands jutting out of the ocean.
But its appeal extends far beyond touristy draws—the entire peninsula is an official blue zone, meaning it's one of the densest areas in the world where locals live to be over 100 years old. There's either something in the water or residents are genuinely happy enough to stick it out for the long haul.
Largely thanks to rip tides on much of the Pacific coastline that make swimming a cautious activity, there's not all that much to do here other than laze around on the beach. If you're looking for action, you could learn to surf, check out the mud baths and geysers in Rincon de la Vieja National Park, hike to a practically glowing-turquoise waterfall at Rio Celeste, or try out one of the zipline tours advertised all over the country. You can basically zipline anywhere in Costa Rica, with formations ranging from two-person tandem rides to the solo superhero head-first style.
Beaches abound in Guanacaste. Set your sights on the pinkish sands of Playa Flamingo, the white micro-seashell Conchal Beach, the busy shop- and restaurant-filled Tamarindo, or Samara, with its calm, waist-high waters extending 600 feet out. For a luxe dining experience, snag a table at Latitude 10 Norte at the W Costa Rica - Reserva Conchal in Guanacaste and get your fill of ceviche, tartare, paella, tacos, and expert cocktail pairings. Or to eat with the locals, check out Patagonia del Mar for an extensive menu and beach views, plus a shallow wading pool where you can sip drinks in splashy style.
Hang with sloths and wander a national park in Manuel Antonio
Whether you’re talking about the town or its eponymous national park, Manuel Antonio is a lovely destination. Who was Manuel Antonio? Honestly, no one knows. Might've been a pirate. No matter the case, the man had good taste.
The town of Manuel Antonio sits up in the hills overlooking the ocean. You'll find Indian, Thai, vegan, and falafel restaurants alongside choice cocktails here, in addition to typical Costa Rican food. A favorite is Emilio's Cafe, which has a fun Pop Art-meets-Victorian aesthetic, a scenic open-air balcony, and an excellent Caribbean-style fish dish smothered in a coconut-tomato sauce. Closer to the park, Restaurante Puerto Escondido hawks some of the most inventive recipes around (don't sleep on the Almond and Mandarin Orange Salad). Igloo Beach Lodge sports an excellent mix of modern dishes (many of which are vegan) and a stellar breakfast spread. It’s also conveniently located next to both the beaches and entrance to the national park, and spending the night in one of the igloo guest rooms is always a fun time.
Manuel Antonio National Park is a patch of forested cliffs jutting into the sea that’s pinched in the middle, forming a strip of long, secluded beaches. The main trail leading to the beach is short, flat, and often full of sloths and trickster monkeys (don’t carry food and keep an eye on your belongings). There are a few offshoot trails that lead up wooden stairs to lookout points, which you’ll want to do first so you get a sense of the layout—and so you can earn your lounge time by sweating it out over each monstrous staircase.
Guides aren’t really necessary in Manuel Antonio, but you’ll need to make a reservation in advance online. It takes about three or four hours to traverse all the trails combined—a very small park with a big sandy, aqua-blue payoff. Still, the little park captures tons of attention, with the adorable sloth population stealing the spotlight from noted admirer Barack Obama.