Certainly, with more than two million visitors a year, Costa Rica has taken its place as the most sought-after vacation and adventure travel destination in Central America. Statistics from the Costa Rica Tourist Board show that the cloud forests of Monteverde Biological Reserve, the high-adrenalin activities around Arenal Volcano National Park, and the beaches and rainforests of Manuel Antonio National Park sit atop the long list of most-popular destinations for incoming visitors. That leaves, of course, a country full of other places that equally deliver the kinds of experiences clients expect of a Costa Rica vacation: nature-oriented, romantic, adventurous, relaxing and involving.
“Without doubt, understanding clients’ expectations is the number one guideline in planning client travel to Costa Rica, or any destination for that matter,” says Aaron Daker, marketing director for Costa Rica Experts. “But specifically in Costa Rica, as important to what clients see and do is where they stay. Many attractions that visitors take as day trips are really places well-suited to an overnight or two, and, in Costa Rica, the client with a special interest—birding, river rafting, wellness or romance—will almost always find a memorable and often luxurious place off-the-beaten-track.”
Leigh Ann Cloutier, president of Rico Tours, agrees. “Part of the reason that Costa Rica is such a successful repeat travel destination is that superb new lodgings in lesser-visited corners of the country lure visitors back.” She gives as an example the Monte Azul Boutique Hotel that adds luxury at the gateway to Chirripo National Park in the south, as well as the recently opened Copa de Arbol Beach & Rainforest Resort on Drake Bay. “Copa offers important features for our clients in the southern Pacific’s Osa Peninsula: air-conditioned accommodations, gourmet meals, easy access to a good beach, and well positioned for excursions to Cano Island and Corcovado National Park.”
We’ve zeroed in on just three of the many detours one should take in Costa Rica.
Guanacaste province, which came into its own with the opening of the international airport at Liberia, is cowboy territory, dominated by giant cattle ranches. Today, a Guanacaste vacation combines easily the white beaches fringing the crescent-shaped bays that distinguish the northern Pacific coast with the more rural, wildlands and action-packed attractions here in the far north. The major destination for adventure-seeking visitors is the Rincon de la Vieja National Park, a 35,000-acre reserve whose centerpiece is a broad massif formed by Rincon de la Vieja and Santa Maria volcanoes, with nine craters that melded about a million years ago. Head west and north toward the Pacific, and you’re in Santa Rosa National Park, sheltering a dry tropical forest, its own inventory of wildlife and birds, and some hard-to-reach but beautiful beaches—Playa Naranjo, for one—whose perfect waves draw world-class surfers.
The playground in this corner of Costa Rica as we mentioned above is Rincon de la Vieja National Park, where, from the Las Pallas entrance, visitors enter a part of the park that forms a 124-acre wonderland of pits of boiling water, geysers and fumaroles. Here is the place to take a 5-mile hike to the summit of the Rincon de la Vieja volcanic cone; take a dip in the Blue Lagoon; frolic beneath the 75-ft. Catarata La Cangreja waterfall; relax and steam in volcanic hot springs and mud pools; and hike to the volcano craters. In this corner of Costa Rica guests also go horseback riding, tubing in the rapids of the Rio Negro, canyoning and canopy tour ziplining.
WHERE TO STAY
Occupying a 12,000-acre ranch and the classiest lodging in the area is the Borinquen Mountain Resort & Spa. The 33-unit resort offers private duplex-style villas, free-standing bungalows and a new jr. suite, all with ample wooden decks for valley and forest views. Special is the Anahuac Spa for massages as well as volcanic mud baths, natural sauna, thermal springs and hot pools. Guest facilities include two restaurants and a large pool, while the onsite activities roster features hiking, horseback riding, ATV trips, a canopy tour and a farm tour. It’s a perfect pick for active stays and a wellness retreat. A bungalow for two starts at $180; the luxury suite for two starts at $281, and all rates include breakfast.
Sitting right at the edge of the park is the Hacienda Guachipelin. The lodging was built around a 19th century, still-operating cattle and horse ranch. Surrounded by lush gardens, its 59 units are a mix of smaller and older rooms and newer and (recommended) larger superior rooms (with air conditioning, TV and better views), plus two suites with large terraces and views of the Rincon Volcano. Guests dine on Costa Rica specialties and international fare, and for relaxation, guests head to the Simbiosis Spa for the sauna, hot volcanic mud wraps and massages. The hacienda serves as a virtual adventure center for the sporting life in the area. It’s a perfect pick for family travel and active adventure vacations. Rates start at $129 for a superior room with breakfast.
Drive farther north and toward the Pacific to reach Recreo, a private villa community located beyond Santa Rosa National Park, almost at the Nicaragua border and steps away from two spectacular white-sand beaches: Playa Rajada and Playa Jobo. Eight villas—from 1- to 5-bedrooms—are available, each with grand views from a private balcony and private plunge pool, as well as air-conditioned bedrooms, living and dining rooms, spa baths, and a fully equipped kitchen. Amenities range from an iPod docking station, TV, and DVD, to linens, robes, beach chairs and WiFi at the welcome center. Activities include fitness and steam room, tennis courts, mountain bikes, kayaks, and beach-fishing equipment. It’s a perfect pick for honeymoons, active adventure vacations and family travel. Based on a minimum 3-night stay, villa rates per day from April 28 to Dec. 17 range from $189 to $429.
Getting there: Rincon de la Vieja National Park is 14 miles north of Liberia International Airport; Recreo is farther north, 15 minutes from the town of La Cruz and a 1.5-hour drive from Liberia airport.
Turrialba occupies a key location at the crossroads of routes to the Caribbean, Sarapiqui, Arenal and South Pacific coast. While best-known by river-rafting day-trippers from San Jose, the region of Turrialba has an off-the-beaten-tourism-track life of its own. Part of a rich agricultural heartland, valley people are focused on their sugar plantations and coffee fincas that spread beneath the highlands of cloud forests of Turrialba Volcano National Park. The highlands are the source for the two rivers that make Turrialba the country’s rafting and kayaking capital—class II and III rapids on the Rio Reventazon and the best white-water ride of all on the Rio Pacuare.
White-water and still-water rafting, kayaking, canoeing, canyoning, hiking, biking, horseback riding, canopy touring, and birding—there is hardly any adventure or naturalist sport that cannot be done in Turrialba. And there are excellent adventure tour companies to deliver the action. Activities include excursions to Turrialba Volcano National Park, where visitors can descend into the dormant volcano’s crater, while on the volcano’s slopes lies Costa Rica’s premiere pre-Columbian site, Guayabo National Monument, preserving a settlement dating roughly between 1000 BC to AD 1400 and flourishing around AD 800. Flower lovers will want to visit the landscaped gardens, and birders will want to walk the trails of CAITE, one of the world’s foremost facilities for research into tropical agriculture.
WHERE TO STAY
A long palm-lined driveway leads to Casa Turire, an elegant mansion that recalls the gracious charm of a plantation home, overlooking Lake Angostura and surrounded by gardens and orchards. This deluxe property offers 12 rooms, three suites and one master, all well-appointed with beautiful wooden floors, lofty ceilings with cooling fans, and private balconies with views of Turrialba Volcano and Lake Angostura. Suites add expansive living areas, mini-bars, air conditioning, and bathrooms with hydro-massagers. The dining scene takes place in a charming restaurant or alfresco on the terrace, with a cozy bar for other refreshments. Guest amenities include a spa, a pool, kayaks (and a kayak school), river rafting, horseback riding, mountain biking, motorcycle touring, hot air ballooning, and a plantation (macadamia nuts, sugar, coffee) tour. It’s a perfect pick for active adventure vacations and some R&R. Rates with breakfast run between $165 and $452 dbl.
Clients who want more than a white-water rafting day trip, should head for the jungly hills above the Turrialba Valley for an overnight (or better yet, at least two) at the plush Pacuare Jungle Lodge. There’s a cozy lounge-bar and gourmet restaurant with outdoor dining terrace, but most amazing of all in this isolated spot are the gorgeous, exquisitely appointed, palm-thatched bungalows. They come with teak floors, handcrafted rattan wicker chairs, king-size canopy bed, indoor/outdoor showers, and vast river canyon views dotted with birds and butterflies. There are also hilltop suites with a private infinity pool fed by natural waterfalls that are out of this world. While most guests are white-water rafters—expert or otherwise—and most arrivals raft into the lodge, other active options include ziplining, horseback riding, canyoning and hikes to an Indian village. Note: Perfect pick for active adventurers, birders and couples. Packages start at $358 pp sharing, including transfer from San Jose, river rafting, bilingual guides, meals and lodging.
Getting there: Turrialba Valley is about a 2-hour drive (35 miles) from San Jose on the road to Limon and the Caribbean coast.
drake bay (southern pacific)
Drake Bay is named after Sir Francis Drake, who is purported to have anchored here in 1579. Connected to civilization by an air strip and rough road to the coastal highway, Drake Bay on the northern edge of the Osa Peninsula remains a rather isolated place, but a delightful one catering to naturalists, anglers, scuba divers and vacationers who love the solitude of pristine beaches, forests, the wildlife in the Corcovado National Park, about the best seats in the house for whale watching, and some of the best birding—350 species, and counting—in Costa Rica. Here, many of the mostly high-end lodges are accessible only by boat.
The primetime outing for the Drake Bay visitor is a trip to Cano Island, an uninhabited biological reserve located 12 miles offshore. A trip will include a visit to an ancient cemetery of a little-documented pre-Columbian culture that left mysterious, carved stone spheres. An excursion here offers a good chance for spotting dolphins and humpback whales (during migration times: December-April and late July-November). Indeed, Cano’s main attraction is its surrounding marine life that lives among the corals just offshore, offering some of the best scuba diving in Costa Rica—from brightly colored tropical fish to whale sharks, barracuda, manta rays and more. Snorkeling, accessed directly from the beach, is good, too. Other activities include a 2- or 4-hour Drake Bay Canopy Adventure (nine platforms, six traverse cables, three Tarzan swings, one rappel, one hanging bridge) and expeditions into the wilds of Corcovado National Park, the largest single expanse of tropical rainforest in Central America.
WHERE TO STAY
A true rainforest and marine adventure lodge, Aguila de Osa Inn overlooks a panorama of Drake Bay from the mouth of the Aguijitas River. Guests are accommodated in two suites and 11 large, attractively decorated rooms with hardwood floors, cathedral ceilings, ceiling fans, big bathrooms and great views. Gourmet meals, prepared with catch-of-the-day seafood and fish from its own boats and its own organically grown vegetables, are served in an open-air restaurant that overlooks the rainforest and bay. In addition to a private fleet of sportfishing and dive boats, the inn has its own naturalist guides, diving instructors and boat captains, and big game fishing is big here (the Inn itself holds four world-fishing records). It’s a perfect pick for active adventure vacations (scuba and fishing). Rates for a 2-night stay, including transfers, lodging, all meals, guided tour of Corcovado and Cano Island, and taxes is priced from $525 pp dbl, low season.
Perched above Drake Bay, La Paloma Lodge is tucked into a steep hill, backed by a tropical rainforest and overlooks the Pacific Ocean. Privacy is guaranteed in 11 thatched ranchos or villas, spread throughout 12 beautifully landscaped acres. They feature varnished hardwood floors, ceiling fans, screened windows, balconies with hammocks and ocean views; the top picks are the 2-story sunset ranchos, set on two points of the property for the grandest sweeping vistas. Guests sip smoothies by the pool, walk to a small village to meet the locals and enjoy such activities as horseback riding, kayaking, world-class birding and sportfishing, as well as relaxing on-your-balcony massages. The beach lies below—a 7-minute hike down a winding jungle path—and excursions are offered daily in the company of La Paloma expert guides. It’s a perfect pick for nature lovers, active adventures, and for a romantic escape. Rates for a 3-night stay including air from San Jose, boat transfers, lodging, all meals, guided tour of Corcovado, and a full-day tour of Cano Island is priced from $1,275 pp dbl
until April 30.
Copa de Arbol Beach & Rainforest Resort is the new eco-luxury kid on the block in Drake Bay. Its 70 acres of pristine rainforest reserve are accessible by boat only. Within 100 yards of the beach, guests have a choice of 10 cabins, accommodating either two or four persons and fitted with ocean and rainforest views, balconies with seating areas, pillow-top orthopedic mattresses, air conditioning, ceiling fans and tiled bathrooms with walk-in showers. There is a full bar and open-air, beachfront restaurant serving—just for starters—the freshest produce, catch-of-the-day fish, fresh-baked breads, tropical desserts, and specialty coffees. Activities include yoga classes and massage, as well as scuba diving and snorkeling, dolphin and whale watching, sportfishing, sunset catamaran sailing, and nighttime rainforest touring. It’s a perfect pick for a honeymoon, active adventure vacation, and nature exploration. Rates for a 3-night stay, starting May 1, are priced at $870 pp dbl, with transfers, lodging, all meals and tours.
Getting there: Most visitors fly directly from San Jose into the little airstrip at Drake Bay aboard Nature Air or Sansa; flights take 40 to 50 minutes. From San Jose, Nature Air also flies to Palmar Sur, and hotel-bound passengers then take a bus or taxi to Sierpe, to board small boats that make the roughly 25-mile run through canals to the sea and then into Drake Bay; hotels make these arrangements for their guests to/from the airports to their lodges. Coming here by car is for a 4WD only.
costa rica specialist program
The online Costa Rica Specialist Program that focuseson the country’s sustainable initiatives has been updated. There’s a long list of new Certificate for Sustainable Tourism-rated hotels throughout the country in all levels of green leaf ratings. With this program, you will gain a thorough understanding of the Certificate for Sustainable Tourism program, in which hotels and suppliers are certified by the Costa Rica Tourism Board. Visit edu.recommend.com.
Archived related articles (available on recommend.com):
Belize + Costa Rica = Family-Friendly (September 2012)
Aguila de Osa Inn: (866) 924-8452; aguiladeosainn.com
Borinquen Mountain Resort & Spa: borinquenresort.com
Casa Turire: hotelcasaturire.com
Copa de Arbol Beach & Rainforest Resort: (813) 246-4625; copadearbol.com
Hacienda Guachipelin: (888) 730-3840; guachipelin.com
La Paloma Lodge: lapalomalodge.com
Pacuare Jungle Lodge: (800) 963-1195; pacuarelodg.com
Recreo: (877) 268-2911; recreocostarica.com