I, like many other travellers, chose to visit the country because of its volcanic regions, diversity of flora and fauna, and famously friendly people.
The capital, San Jose, is a convenient gateway for those flying in from Europe and North America. I began my trip with Monteverde, situated in the Puntarenas province. The small community is a four-hour drive from the airport, and its primary attraction is the Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve. Spread over 25,000 acres of virgin forest, with a dreamlike cloud cover hanging across its canopy, the reserve boasts of a rich diversity of birds, mammals, insects, reptiles and plant species, with several nature trails mapped out for tourists. It was truly a celebration of life, as the poetic sight of the dead and decaying trunks of trees provided the platform for new life to begin. I found that the trails were clearly signposted for tourists (a welcome measure, given the hazy atmosphere), and a few suspension bridges provided stunning views of deep gorges and the thick rainforest vegetation. The top of the trail has strong winds, though, and sudden thundershowers are common, so one must be aware of their surroundings at all times.
Among the many exotic plant species I observed was the Chamaedorea tepejilote, also known as the pacaya palm. Its inflorescences (clusters of flowers along a stem) resembled ears of corn, and I learned that tepejilote meant ‘mountain maize’ in Nahuatl, or the Aztec language. It was also not unusual for coatis, diurnal mammals who are part of the raccoon family, to make sudden appearances while foraging.
One of the best, most affordable places for dinner is the Tree House Restaurante & Café in Santa Elena. Visually amazing with a large ficus tree cutting through the restaurant, the live music and soft lighting created a wonderful ambience. There are also many family-run places offering local food, where the portions are enormous and the grub freshly prepared. It goes without saying that the hospitality is unmatched in this friendly country.
Once you’ve suitably tucked in, the community-run Santa Elena Cloud Forest Reserve here is worth a visit. Part of your entry proceeds go towards improving the quality of school education in Monteverde, as well as preserving and enhancing the region’s natural beauty. The pristine forest habitats are the town’s main breadwinner, and this is a method of directly contributing to Monteverde’s efforts to keep it that way.
The journey from here to the Arenal stratovolcano was a combination of bus and boat rides, all covered by a single ticket. The coordination amongst the service crew was admirable—they handled all baggage, gave a helping hand to navigate the trail up to the boat, and designated passengers based on their hotels; we reached the Arenal Eco Lodge and Wildlife Refuge without any hassle.
The Refuge is a wonderful example of converting a plantation in disuse into a tourism experience. Cottages here use local materials and traditional building styles without compromising on functional bathrooms and air-conditioning. Set in a private estate, the facilities blend with nature via well-defined trails. The highlight here is the outdoor restaurant. Breakfast is spectacularly colourful, with cut fruits laid out on logs and tree branches to attract birds and squirrels. The lodge also offers a frog tour at night, but your enthusiasm may be somewhat dampened by continuous showers. Regardless, the frogs will croak away merrily in the rain.
It’s advisable to arrange for a knowledgeable driver-guide for the Arenal Volcano National Park; expert ones can easily spot elusive animals that are hiding among the foliage. Most guides have a tripod with Swarovski Optik binoculars to help you spot wildlife, and some offer a telescopic attachment for tourists with smartphone cameras.
On the drive up, I saw pineapple patches and props set up for a film shoot in the area. The Arenal Volcano had a violent eruption in the late 1960s, but has been dormant since 2010. On our trek up, the molten lava seemed to have solidified into Impressionist strokes, and our guide helped spot exotic birds nearby. The peak of the volcano, with swirling clouds, was a sight to behold.
Next stop was the Mistico Arenal Hanging Bridges Park, which derives its name from 15 bridges along a three-kilometre trail. Six are hanging bridges. The perspective from this elevation, combined with a walk to the base of a waterfall was well worth the climb. Streetside cafés greeted us on the way back—I noticed that those with open kitchens and clean toilets were likely to be busier. Much like the Tree House restaurant, many cafés here were encouraged by the government to draw exotic birds near them.
After a brief rest, you might like a dip in one of the many thermal springs in the area. They’re popular with families, and with Costa Rica’s relatively low crime rate, you feel safe enough to leave your belongings and jump in.
Sarapiquí, named after a major waterway in the region, was next on my list for its chocolate-making areas. The Selva Verde Resort, located right on the river bank, had a picturesque location spread across a large estate with walking trails. The manager, I discovered, was a live wire. He enthusiastically informed me about the emergence of Costa Rica as a BPO hub, an educational centre as well as a retirement paradise.
Rodalfo, a farmer who runs a chocolate tour with his wife Solangie, walked me through his farm and explained the sustainable practices they followed—engaging local communities to sell their produce, educational tours to school children, and the like. Solangie then demonstrated the process of making chocolate. Based on the tasting that followed, it would be difficult to resist ordering some of your own. The final product is swiftly delivered to your respective hotel.
Katie was one of the guides who took me on the Sarapiquí river wildlife tour. With a hotel pickup, she and her colleague went to great lengths to spot their avian friends; I was also pointed towards a set of bats, and an alligator lying languorously on the river bank, slyly camouflaged by dark rocks.
If the national parks take up too much of your time, you can visit a farm near the resort that has parakeets and macaws with vibrant plumage, as well as white-headed capuchins. Instead of trails, the alternative here would be a lovely walk to the botanical garden opposite the resort. The walking trail within the resort had quite a few toucans. There were also conveniently-placed hammocks to help guests recoup.
Your local knowledge will inevitably improve, even during a brief stay here. Hitchhiking with locals to the airport is a great way to end your tour, as the money saved comes in handy for buying beautiful souvenirs. San Jose’s Juan Santamaria International Airport had what must be one of the best airport shops.
Costa Ricans are happy people. They are justifiably proud of their quality of life compared to their Central American neighbours, who often have a bad reputation when it comes to crime against tourists. The citizens and government are both in sync about what is at stake for their environment. The country plans to go carbon-neutral and be free of single-use plastics in the coming years, and the citizens’ simplicity, coupled with the openness to preserve nature, may well make this a reality. Given how unbelievably lush and breathtaking Costa Rica is, the motivation is well-warranted.
Direct, one-stop flights to Costa Rica from major cities like New Delhi, Mumbai, Chennai and Bengaluru are available. Other cities like Kolkata and Ahmedabad have two-stop and connecting flight options.
Monteverde lies two-and-a-half hours away from both San Jose and Liberia airports. The Arenal Volcano is a further three-hour drive away, while the Sarapiquí river is a one-hour drive from Arenal.
Where To Stay
Arenal Oasis Eco Lodge and Wildlife Refuge (from $60) has all amenities and is close to the volcano and hot springs. You can also opt for the Sarapiquís Rainforest Lodge (from $76). It has pre-Columbian-style palenque rooms with thatched roofs, and a peaceful atmosphere. When in Monteverde, pick the luxurious Hotel Belmar (from $139) for its picturesque views of green mountains and the valley below.
What To Eat
>When cacao pods ripen, scoop out the sweet, tangy flesh encasing the beans.
> Casado brings together rice, beans, salad, tortillas, and meat on a single plate.
> Snack on patacones (fried plantains) or chifrijo (fried porkrinds and beans).
What To Do
> Wildlife photography and nature trails in Monteverde.
> Zip-lining, rock climbing and waterfall rappelling inside Arenal Volcano National Park.
> River rafting or visits to chocolate farms in Sarapiquí.