SAN JOSÉ, CENTRAL HIGHLANDS & VALLEYS
While it's tempting to skip Costa Rica’s buzzing capital and head straight to a rainforest or a gorgeous beach, take a day or two and get to know San José. The colonial city is worth exploring: discover areas like Barrio Amón, where historic buildings have been converted into contemporary art galleries; Barrio Escalante has some of the best restaurants; and don’t miss the dazzling Pre-Columbian Gold Museum.
Drive out of the capital into the surrounding highlands and fertile valleys, where you can visit coffee plantations, go white-water rafting, and visit national parks and nature reserves. The enormous crater of Poás volcano is a must-see and one of Costa Rica’s most famous sights. From the viewing platform perched on top of the volcano, you’ll look down into the crater with its turquoise lake and occasional bursts of smouldering steam – an incredible and somewhat surreal sight.
Where To Stay
Luxe in San José: A converted colonial mansion on a quiet tree-lined street in the historic residential neighbourhood of Barrio Don Bosco, Hotel Grano de Oro oozes charm and elegance. All the rooms and suites are unique, individually decorated with wrought-iron beds, works of art and locally handcrafted furnishings. There is a rooftop deck area with a secluded garden, hot tubs and loungers. The restaurant is one of the best in San José, serving European food with a leaning towards Costa Rican specialities – opt for a table in the tropical courtyard.
Luxe in the Central Highlands: The eco El Silencio Lodge sits within its own reserve at Bajos del Toro in the Póas Volcano National Park. Scattered across hillsides and surrounded by foliage, cabins are spacious, with private terraces and small outdoor jacuzzis from which you can admire the cloud forest. Staff can organise jungle trails to explore nearby waterfalls, flora and fauna. Activities for the more adventurous include river rafting, horse riding, kayaking, mountain biking and forest canopy zip-lining. Or treat yourself to a massage in the spa beside the river. The Las Ventanas restaurant serves seasonal food, much of it from the hotel’s organic farm and greenhouse.
ARENAL & THE NORTH
The thick forests and rugged landscape of this conservation area contain half the known species of birds, mammals and reptiles in the country. Overlooked by the Arenal volcano, it offers activities such as waterfall abseiling, cycling, hiking, horse riding. The less active can soak in Arenal’s hot springs or swim below waterfalls.
Where To Stay
Affordable Luxe: Within easy reach of Arenal volcano, Finca Luna Nueva is a simple, yet comfortable, eco lodge on a working biodynamic farm. You’ll see first hand how they grow organic food, and how humans and forests can support one another. There are miles of hiking trails through the forest, farm and fields. You can also go on a safari up jungle rivers, white-water raft, bird watch, hike up a volcano and swim in crater lakes. Or just stay put, join a yoga session, then laze in the lovely pool and drift off in a hammock.
Uber Luxe: Nayara Springs is a Relais & Châteaux adult-only boutique property in the heart of the lush foliage of Arenal Volcano National Park. Its 35 villas are spacious and beautifully appointed with polished teak flooring and furnishings in earthy colours. Each has a private garden and plunge pool shaded by palms and flowering shrubs. You can join a yoga class every morning, hike the trails through a sloth preserve, take a nocturnal hike or unwind after a day out with the Signature Nayara spa treatment, a traditional massage with volcanic mineral-rich mud. There are four restaurants and bars, ranging from fine dining with live music to a more casual Latin bistro.
MONTEVERDE & THE CLOUD FOREST
In northwest Costa Rica, this protected reserve is often swathed in mist, which creates a lush environment of humid vegetation rich in wildlife. Among the mosses and ferns, you are almost guaranteed to spot the many indigenous mammals and birds, including the iconic quetzal with its bright emerald green plumage. The area also has a huge variety of orchids.
Where To Stay
Affordable Luxe: Jungle lodge El Sol, with its stunning panoramic views, offers delightfully rustic accommodation in a secluded cabin for two, in a larger family-sized cabin, or in the main villa. After a day out searching for quetzals in the cloud forest reserve, or horse riding to the waterfalls, you can dine on Costa Rican food in the privacy of your cabin. You can also spend lazy days swinging in the hammocks or taking a dip in the infinity pool. Either way, you’ll find it hard to leave.
Luxe: The family run Hotel Belmar, perched on a hillside within the cloud forest, was one of the first hotels to open in Monteverde. The two buildings are built in the style of a Swiss chalet and have an alpine feel, though views of the surrounding woodland, the Nicoya peninsula and nearby valleys from private balconies or panoramic windows are pure Costa Rican. The spacious guest rooms are decorated with locally handcrafted wooden furniture and some also have a hot tub. Staff can arrange tours of the forest by day or night, led by local guides along trails which start from the hotel's doorstep. The restaurant overlooks the Pacific Ocean and serves creative interpretations of traditional Costa Rican dishes, using ingredients grown on the hotel's own organic farm.
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Eastwards from San José and the coffee-growing highlands, you’ll come to the banana plantations that line the Caribbean coast and its volcanic beaches. This region has a different feel to the rest of the country. Mostly English-speaking and with an Afro-Caribbean culture, it is more informal and relaxed. The beaches are arguably the most beautiful in the country, with warm turquoise water and pale golden sand – the very best are at Cahuita and Puerto Viejo. Head to Tortuguero National Park, which is accessible only by boat, to see the giant leatherback turtles. Its lagoons and swamps are also alive with monkeys, iguanas, otters, sloths and hundreds of species of birds.
Where To Stay
Affordable Luxe: The beachfront Hotel Banana Azul, which you’ll find a mile north of the sleepy town of Puerto Viejo on Playa Negra, is a small, simple and charming boutique hotel. It makes a great base from which to explore the local wildlife, beaches and coral reefs. Most of the 25 guest rooms are on the second floor of the main building and open out onto a large veranda with views of the ocean. A meandering pond inhabited by fish and turtles flows through the tropical gardens, where you can relax in brightly coloured hammocks while listening to the sound of waves crashing against the shoreline. The beach is lovely and ideal for a sundowner. The restaurant serves Caribbean food – think fajitas and jerk chicken – as well as sushi and steaks.
Uber Luxe: Hotel Aguas Claras is an elegant colonial-style, adult-only boutique hotel just moments from the coral reefs and soft sands of Chiquita Beach in Puerto Viejo. Built using reclaimed timber and natural materials in the style of a Caribbean banana plantation house from the Victoria era, the accommodation consists of six suites and six bungalows, filled with carefully curated works of art by local Costa Rican artists and the owner herself. The Papaya restaurant’s menu spans local and international dishes, all made using seasonal ingredients. If you can tear yourself away from the oasis-style pool within lush jungle foliage, there are plenty of activities here, including surf lessons. You can also hike in the Cahuita National Park to see the local town and wildlife. If you really want to unwind, Casa Gandhi is a dedicated yoga and meditation area tucked away in the jungle gardens.
Unlike the sheltered volcanic beaches of the Caribbean, the wide golden beaches of the Pacific coast are pounded by rolling waves. Halfway down the coast is Manuel Antonio National Park, a tropical fairyland of palms, creepers and swamps. You can kayak or paddle through the flora and fauna rich mangroves and estuaries, and soar between platforms high up in the jungle canopy on zip lines. The focus here is on adventure, but there's also a good chance of spotting plenty of wildlife – white-faced and squirrel monkeys, marmosets, sloths, toucans, raccoons and armadillos. And, of course, the waves make this coast a surfer’s paradise.
Where To Stay
Uber Luxe: Along with its stunning views and easy access to the beach, the eco-chic Arenas del Mar is within walking distance of the Manuel Antonio National Park. Set in an 11-acre private rainforest reserve, it’s the perfect place to stay if you want to get close to nature in luxe accommodation. The hotel's 38 rooms and suites are housed in seven three-storey buildings, all camouflaged on a hillside that slopes down to a golden beach. Rooms are tropical chic, with cool yellow tile floors, rattan furniture and paintings by local artists. Most have large verandas with a hot tub and views of the ocean. After a day out in the jungle or on the beach, you can eat in El Mirador, which serves Costa Rican fusion food in an open-air palapa overlooking the Pacific, or you can choose a lighter menu in Playitas, a casual café next to the beach.
At the far south-westerly tip of Costa Rica, the remote Osa Peninsula is swathed in rainforest. The remote Corcovado National Park is a wilderness of lagoons, mangrove swamps, rivers and forest along the coastline. It’s a mecca for wildlife enthusiasts and home to tapirs, jaguars, ocelots, sloths, peccaries, otters, anteaters and all four Costa Rican monkey species. The rivers and lagoons are home to caiman, crocodiles and bull sharks, and you’ll often spot an iconic poison dart frog in the trees. The Caño Island Biological Reserve is the best place to go snorkelling on the Osa peninsula – you’ll see eels, manta rays, turtles and a vast array of tropical fish. Dolphins and humpback whales can be seen off the coast at certain times of the year.
Where To Stay
La Leona Eco Lodge is a family owned beachfront hotel five minutes from the entrance to Corcovado National Park. This is simple accommodation, but in a truly idyllic setting – a fabulous option if you want to embrace nature. The 20 raised tent cabins have a wooden structure: several are on the beach, some just behind, while others are high up in the forest. Don’t expect all your creature comforts here – each cabin is simply furnished and has a private decked veranda, its own garden bathroom and outdoor shower. Staying here is a unique experience where the emphasis is on eco-tourism and sustainability, with solar-powered lights and candles in the evenings.
On Exodus Travels’ ten-day ‘Natural Highlights of Costa Rica’, you’ll visit multiple habitats – rainforest, mangroves, lava fields and cloud forests – and see abundant wildlife. You’ll also discover the tranquil waterways of Tortuguero and enjoy a boat safari in the Caño Negro Wildlife Refuge. From £2,599pp including flights from London, transfers, 7 nights in comfortable hotels and lodges, some meals, a tour leader and travel by air-conditioned bus and boat. Click here for full details.
Black Tomato’s 12-night ‘Ultimate Costa Rica: A Jungle To Beach Adventure’ includes a night in the Hotel Grano de Oro in San José followed by turtle spotting in Tortuguero. Then there are stays in Hotel Manatus in the heart of the Caribbean rainforest, Pacuare Lodge in the Talamanca Mountains, Arenal Nayara Hotel in the Arenal volcano area, and finally the Florblanca resort on the pristine beaches of the Nicoya peninsula. From £3,500pp excluding flights from the UK. Click here for further details, but every Black Tomato trip is tailored to exactly what you want to do.
Audley’s 14-day ‘Luxury Costa Rica’ trip will give you the chance to see some of the country’s best wildlife and experience adventure activities around the Arenal Volcano. Hike through jungle trails in search of monkeys, sloth and toucans in the remote Osa Peninsula. Relax by your infinity pool or go whale and dolphin watching in Uvita. And escape the crowds in a boutique hideaway in the cloud forest. From £6,400pp including flights from the UK, domestic flights, transfers, activities and excursions and all accommodation. Click here for full details.
WHEN IS THE BEST TIME TO VISIT?
Despite its small size, Costa Rica has a variety of microclimates. The best time to travel is usually considered to be from December to April on the Pacific coast when the weather is at its driest and brightest, and between March and September on the Caribbean side. September and October are the wettest months, but there is no really bad time to travel, and you should be prepared for some rain no matter when you visit. Temperatures average between 28 and 32 degrees Celsius all year round.
*DISCLAIMER: Travel restrictions are changing daily, so please check the latest government advice before you book. Visit Gov.uk for more information.