Home to the greatest density of species in the world and remarkably diverse landscapes, Costa Rica is a natural paradise concentrated in a small package.
The national saying of Costa Rica is pura vida, the meaning of which spans a range of cheerful epithets from “life is good” to “everything’s going great”. As a visitor to the tiny Central American country, you’re likely to hear these two words several times a day on every day of your stay. But pura vida is more than just a phrase. It’s a whole way of living – a positive life philosophy that becomes increasingly infectious the longer you stay in Costa Rica.
Costa Ricans have a lot to be joyous about. Their country is ranked by the Happy Planet Index as the most sustainably happy country in the world on the basis of life expectancy, well-being, ecological foot print and equality. And then, there are the country’s natural treasures – impossibly beautiful rainforests, mangrove swamps, mountain chains, volcanoes, and cloud forests – which make it rich beyond measure.
Localized between Panama and Nicaragua, Costa Rica is one of the most biodiverse countries in the world. With less than 0.1% of the world’s landmass, it is home to half a million plant and animal species – 4% of the world’s total.
The country’s amazing wildlife has been a main draw for tourists for decades, and nature nuts are spoiled for choice when it comes to reserves and parks –a quarter of Costa Rica’s wild places are protected. On the Caribbean Coast, Tortuguero National Park conserves 47.000 acres of tropical forest, lagoons, marshes, swamps and beaches, where you can see a remarkable array of animals, such as caimans, sloths and poison dart frogs, while cruising through the park’s network of canals.
In the south, the beautiful mountainous Chirripo National Park is a good place to see wildlife such as tapirs and peccaries on foot on one of the many hiking trails, while the wildest place in the country is Corcovado Park on the Osa Peninsula, where squirrel monkeys, pumas, ocelots, margay cats and jaguars roam in the cloud forests, rain forests, and mangrove swamps.
Life under the water in the country is equally biodiverse, with the oceans on either side of Costa Rica supporting an astonishing wealth of animals including 250 species of fish, dolphins, giant manta rays, and several species of sharks.
Costa Rica’s birds alone are reason enough to plan a trip. The country has 918 bird species, more than the USA and Canada combined, and spotting them is no more difficult than looking outside of your hotel window. But for concentrated birding, there are hot spots spread all over the country, such as the incredibly atmospheric Monteverde Cloud Forest, which you can explore by walking on suspension bridges or by whizzing through the canopy on zip lines, and where you’ll be able to see up to 30 species of exquisite hummingbirds, the magnificent jewel-coloured resplendent quetzal if you’re lucky.
In the country’s north eastern lowlands, you can visit La Selva Biological Station, which is home to a whopping 467 species of birds – the largest number of bird species in a single site in Central America – including the spectacular snowy cotinga, red-capped manakin and the great green macaw.
Also, you can explore the Curi-Cancha Reserve, where you can spot trogons, toucans and motmots on the walking trails.
Adventure is never far away in Costa Rica, and while you’ll find activities to get your heart pumping all over the country, the area around Arenal volcano is adventure central. Take your pick from hiking and mountain biking trails on the volcano’s slopes, horse back riding through valleys, white water rafting, canoeing on Lake Arenal and waterfall rappelling through canyons. And after all that, a long soak in one of the area’s natural hot springs will soothe tired muscles.
However, the country’s best-known adventure activity is surfing. With two coastlines on the Caribbean and the Pacific, Costa Rica has a staggering number of choices when it comes to fantastic swells and breaks and offers plenty of great spots for beginners, with many retreats to stay at to hone your skills. The Nicoya Peninsula on the Pacific Coast is legendary, with surf spots like Mal Pais, Nosara, and Playa Avellana drawing riders from around the world.
And then of course, with two coastlines, there are beaches – all 1500 kilometers of them – which are as diverse as Manuel Antonio National Park on the Pacific Coast (icing sugar sand, palm trees and a forest reserve home to sloths, birds, lizards and monkeys) and the golden sand beaches edged by tropical forest in Tortuguero National Park on the Caribbean, where you can see turtles laying their eggs by night. After all the adventuring, bird watching, wildlife encounters and hiking up volcanoes, be sure to plan a few days of downtime on at least one beautiful beach to soak all those experiences in. ¡Pura vida!.
Costa Rica’s best eco lodges
- On the Pacific Coast in the laidback village of Nosara, Harmony Hotel is a stylish low-key resort with a health focus, offering an open-air yoga studio and a juice bar.
- Near Arenal Volcano National Park, Rancho Margot is the real deal: a carbon-neutral, self-sustainable organic farm on rehabilitated land, which provides food made from the organic garden, daily yoga lessons and natural hot pools.
- If you’re up for adventure, book a stay at Pacuare Lodge, set in a rainforest in the Talamanca Mountain Range. You arrive at the electricity-free lodge by white water rafting, and that’s just the start of the adrenaline fun. During your stay, you can choose from hiking or horseback riding through the jungle, canopy tours and canyoneering.