This summer, we visited the ultimate destination for nature lovers, Costa Rica. Rainforests, mighty rivers, cloud forests, waterfalls, volcanoes, isolated villages and, everywhere, stunning wildlife. Combined with some great adventure: a four level rafting trip and ziplining high above mighty cloud forest. And to relax: tropical beaches with white sands and palmtrees. What else do you need more on holiday? From the Caribbean coast up to the Pacific, 5 fantastic things to do.
#1 Sleep in the rainforest
Costa Rica equals rainforest. Wherever you travel, the rainforest is always around you in one or another way. Costa Rica is proud on its rainforest and a fierce protector of it. Throughout the country, various protection programmes are in place, whether for the protection of forest, the endangered turtles, … and children are educated as of a very early age of the significance of it. Costa Rica promotes ecotourism and you notice that in all parks where guides stress the importance of nature and biodoversity.
So, where to go for a closer encounter with this rainforest and its splendid wildlife? It all depends a bit of what you like.
In for a hike in the rainforest combined with a swim? Then head for the Manuel Antonio National Park or the oh so beautiful Marino Ballena National Park at the Pacific Coast. The latter is a small park in Uvita with a splendid beach and known for whales, dolphins and snorkeling. An alternative at the Caribbean coast is Cahuita National Park , combining the green lush with sand, sea and a lot of ‘visible’ animals.
Into rainforest at a more elevated level? Then explore Monteverde with its Cloud Forest Biological Reserve, offering a misty, somewhat fairy tale experience on ‘the mountain where you can touch the clouds. Always a bit foggy and wet. With tall, impressive trees but less wildlife.
So rainforest and national parks in abundance. Just always check opening days and hours upfront as well as the entry restrictions. The Manuel Antonio National Park for example closes on Mondays. In Corcovado, the number of visitors is limited, as well as in the Monteverde Cloud forest. If you want to make sure you can get in, you can buy online tickets, which is, such as in Manuel Antonio National Park, sometimes the only way to get them.
I can only suggest: make at least one hike of a couple of hours in these national parks. I would always try to combine an ‘inland’ park with one at the seaside.
But the best experience you get is when you stay overnight in the forest. The ultimate experience is a night at Sirena Station in Corcovado National Park. We just visited for a day trip but heard it’s worth it!
We went for a more comfortable alternative. We stayed in a luxury ecolodge in the midst of the rainforest in Cahuita, La Shamana Ecolodge. Ideal to enjoy the real sounds of the jungle in the morning and at night. There’s the constant buzz of the insects, the various bird sounds but on top of the bill, a family of howler monkeys good for a wake up call at 5 o’clock in the morning. And when it rains in the forest, it really rains. Cats and dogs, for hours. A sound we even recorded …
#2 Visit at least one isolated national park: Tortuguero or Drake Bay (Corcovado)
Costa Rica is dotted with national parks but the best memories I have are of our visits to the national parks in two of the most remote areas of the country: Tortuguero and Corcovado.
Tortuguero is a must-see in every visit. It’s a small cosy town full of life in the northeast of the country. It’s location is unique. Not only its hosting one of the most spectacular rainforests in the country with plenty of wildlife, the trip to the village is a real treat: as from the start, you encounter the intricate network of canals, of which Tortuguero is famous for.
On top, the location is internationally recognized for protecting the green turtles on their beaches, one of the most important nestling locations in the Western Hemisphere. So when you head to Tortuguero, splendid canals, great wildlife, Tortuguero river, the Caribbean beach and Tortuguero National Park are your fingertips.
And then there’s Corcovado National Park, the crown of Costa Rica’s national parks and one of the most biologically diverse areas in Central America. Getting there is a real adventure too. A first stop is Drake Bay, reachable by speedboat for about an hour through mangroves. From Drake Bay, it’s another hour by yet again a small motor boat to reach Corcovado. From the boat, you get a glimpse of the vastness and magnitude of the park, with its great beaches and endless rainforest. It’s wet, remote and rugged.
In Corcovado too, the wildlife is magnificent. We took a break at the Sirena Station, one of the ranger stations in the park breathing the remote atmosphere. It feels like staying at the end of the world.
#3 Admire the exquisite wildlife on a night tour
Diverse wildlife …
Costa Rica’s wildlife is diverse. Whatever national park you visit of place you stay, you will meet some spectacular animals. Don’t expect the big 5 as in South-Africa. In Costa Rica, you meet several smaller animals, in different colors and shapes and, if you have time to visit the south of the Pacific Coast, whales and dolphins.
Because of their sizes, it’s not always easy to find the small and colorful animals. Park guides can help you with spotting them. Nearly in each park, at the entrance, you meet some guides offering a tour through the park. The quality varies. We had excellent experiences in Tortuguero and Corcovado. But you can find animals yourself as well. Just take some good binoculars and a camera with a zoom. That sometimes big groups of visitors are gathering near a tree or some plants can also help of course.
We saw a variety of exotic wildlife: birds, caiman, crocodiles, hummingbirds, whales, nose beers, all sorts of monkeys, spiders, iguanas, … nearly at all places, we heard howler monkeys. Even from your balcony or chair at your accommodation, you can see an abundance of insects, butterflies, …
My wildlife highlights? Sloths, sea turtles, whales and hummingbirds
First, the slots. Not always easy to spot high up in trees and the dense forest. We saw them best at the Manuel Antonio National Park at the South Pacific Coast, a park where wildlife is to be seen in abundance from a short distance, but also found them in Cahuita National Park at the Caribbean coast. They are unique creatures and it’s a real pleasure to see them hanging in the trees.
For green turtles, head to Tortuguero. Your best chance to see them is during the nestling season, from July through October. They can be more then a meter in size and lay on average 100 eggs per nest. They are huge. Costa Rica’s colony is constituting the largest nesting colony of the Atlantic coast.The species is endangered and there are strict rules in place to visit. Don’t go out on your own. Always take a tour with a decent guide and disturb the turtles as less as possible. Over the years, Tortuguero has put in place several protection programs with excellent results.
As for whales, they keep on impressing me, even when we encountered them already in South Africa and Iceland. I have never seen so many and so close by as in Costa Rica. Heading towards Corcovado National Park, we saw several of them, and even the so-called killer whales.
But the best place to see whales is definitely in Uvita and the surrounding Marino Ballena National Park, a Marine Whale National Park, which spectacular beaches even take the form of a whales tale. The humpback whales pass along this coast twice a year, from mid-December to the end of April, and mid-July to mid-November. We were lucky to see several of them during a boat tour in the protected waters. The whales arrive here to mate and return to give birth twelve months later. The warm waters allow the calves to grow more quickly.
And finally there are hummingbirds. Magnificent creatures, hovering in the air. We came across them at several places. In Corcovado, we saw hummingbirds on their nests. But we also encountered them in gardens of houses where we stayed. One of the best to see them up close and so the best chance to be able to take some good pictures, was at the Cafe Colibri, near the entrance of the Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve. This coffee shop has a large hummingbird garden outside it with feeders that attract Monteverde hummingbirds by the droves. We were in for a treat: we saw over 20 different hummingbirds while enjoying a cup of thee at the terrace.
On a night tour …
An excellent way to see animals in their natural habitat is at night. In or around each national park night yours are offered. Prices and quality vary considerably, mainly depending on the guide and the location of the visit. Sometimes tours are offered in small private domains where, in particular in the peak season, loads of tour busses stop in a short period of time. That’s not our piece of cake. So best check upfront what you expected.
We went for a night tour in Tortuguero, which was excellent. We not only visited the turtles, but on the way back and forth also got some explanation on various night animals. Their bright colors light up in the dark. We had a great guide, who not only gave a good explanation but also spotted quite some animals. They yearly receive terecht one of the best in town
#4 Experience at least one extreme adventure: ziplining or rafting
You can’t leave Costa Rica without having experienced at least one ‘extreme’ adventure. So off you go ziplining or rafting.
Costa Rica is famous for its wildwater rafting. We took a III-IV class rafting trip on the Sarapiqui river, one of the best rivers to experience a rafting trip in Costa Rica. –
We choose The Sarapiqui Outdoor Center for this adventure, a small whitewater company and the pioneer in Sarapiqui with certified instructors. We chose for a category III-IV rafting trip, an exciting and intense adventure through the jungle of Costa Rica through thrilling rapids like ‘Morning Coffee’, ‘The Terminator’ and ‘Dos Locos’. A great afternoon with experienced guides. We were also charmed by the small size and professionalism of this family-owned company, showing a deep respect for the river and nature.
Another must do is go ziplining. We went for a trip in Monteverde, in the Selvatura Park. We choose a Gold Pack, allowing us to a ziplining canopy tour combined with a hike tour over suspension bridges. Selvatura is the only park in which you fly over primary and secondary forest.
Although really touristic – there were busloads of tourists and it was queuing for getting your gear – the ziplining is handled very professionally with a young team ensuring your safety at all times. There are about 10 ziplines, ranging in lenght. One of them is more then 1 kilometer long. And it needs to be said: it is a fantastic experience flying high above a sea of green rainforest. Zipping from one to the next platform, with sometimes a short hike between the platforms, takes about 2 hours.
In the afternoon, we hiked the 8 suspension bridges, an experience in itself as well. The bridges vary in hight and size, up to 170 meter long and 60 meter high. No Indiana Jones bridges however. The bridges are steady and easy to walk on, just as the whole trail which takes about 3 miles. But we took our time, since there is so much to see: colorfilm and special flowers, small animals, enormous trees, … Sometimes you can only say one thing: impressive.
#5 Relax at the beach
No trip to Costa Rica without enjoying a day at the beach. And there are plenty of spectacular beaches. Our favorites?
For sure, the wonderful beach at Marino Ballena National Park in Uvita at the South Pacific coast. This beach in the shape of an enormous whale tale which is visible at low tight. You can then walk on the tale. At high tide, the tale is flooded with water. Just inform you then on the hours of low and high tide.
This area is also very good for snorkeling. We didn’t experience this however. In the rainy season, the water is trouble and so there is not a lot to see. But in the summer season, this is one of the best spots in Costa Rica.
You can only reach the beach by entering the national park. As such, you need to pay a small entrance fee (about 5 dollar per person) but it’s well worth the money.
Other great beaches on the Pacific coast are located in the area of then Manuel Antonio National Park. There is a beach in the park itself (watch out for the signs indicating the strong currents) – one of the most famous beaches in the country – and along the way between Quepos and the national park. The beach in the park is pretty busy, as is the one in the neighborhood. The road between Quepos and the national packed with restaurants and hotels. This was probably the most touristic place we visited in Costa Rica. I liked the quiet Uvita much better.
If you head north, you can also find great beached on the Nicoya peninsula, such as Samara and Santa Teresa beach. We didn’t include this peninsula in our route.
We however explored the beaches at the Caribbean coast in Cahuita. This coast breathes a complete different atmosphere then the pacific one: Jamaican vibes in a colorful and vibrant atmosphere. You can go swimming (and snorkeling depending on the season) in the Cahuita National Park at Playa Blanca (White beach) or enjoy a refreshing dive on the Playa Negra, the black beach outside the park, named after the black color of the sand.
Just be aware that national parks close early in Costa Rica, mostly around 3 pm, so if you head for a hike and a swim, make sure to leave early so you have time for both.