A Natural Playground

written by | Posted on February 5th, 2014

Puente Vigas Canon.

Puente Vigas Canon.


The Adventure Travel Trade Association (ATTA) defines adventure travel as “exciting, participatory travel that takes place in unusual outdoor settings.” Welcome to Costa Rica, where ‘twas adventure travelers who first put Costa Rica on the tourism map, and the nation’s popularity, with the get-out-and-do set, continues with both first-time visitors and repeat travelers. Here are some of the reasons why we call Costa Rica a natural playground of land-loving action and by-the-sea activities.

Land-Loving Action

HIKING & TREKKING

Beyond the short guided walks in nature reserves, there are many very good hiking opportunities such as up Cerro Chirripo, the country’s highest peak, or trekking through the tropical forest of Corcovado National Park—both hard work, but rewarding. Less common walks head from the cloud forests of Monteverde overland to Arenal, while farther north, good trails lead through the national parks of Rincon de la Vieja and Tenorio Volcano National Park. The ultimate—and arduous—trek has to be crossing the continental divide, following ancient indigenous trails from Puerto Viejo de Talamanca west to the Pacific.

MOUNTAIN BIKING

Pedal power has taken over in parts of Costa Rica, where mountain biking reigns supreme in many parts of the country. Perhaps nowadays biking aficionados would point to Lake Arenal and the Arenal Volcano National Park area as their favorite, with lots of good equipment available and challenging rides. On the other hand, tour operator Coast to Coast Adventures (coasttocoastadventures.com) offers the sport on monthly departures of a 12-day adventure that indeed goes from the Caribbean Sea to the Pacific Ocean.

TEEING OFF

With a total of 12 golf courses, including courses designed by renowned golf architects Ted Robinson Jr. and Robert Trent Jones, Jr., Costa Rica has become not only the best golfing destination in Central America, but has won the coveted 2014 Golf Destination of the Year Award for Latin America and the Caribbean, as bestowed by the International Association of Golf Tour Operators (IAGTO). And indeed, Costa Rica offers a solid core of championship courses set in tropical foliage with spectacular mountain or ocean vistas. Close to Puntarenas at Los Sueños Marriott Ocean & Golf Resort (marriott.com), designer Ted Robinson Jr. laid out the beautiful 6,698-yard, par 72 La Iguana Course.

In Guanacaste, a parade of famous architects designed several excellent oceanfront courses in the 1990s. The Westin Golf Resort & Spa, Playa Conchal (starwoodhotels.com) hosts the 7,030-yard, par 72 course designed by Robert Trent Jones, Jr.; Hacienda Pinilla Golf & Country Club (haciendapinilla.com), with a 7,274-yard, par 72 course, is a Mike Young design; and Four Seasons Resort Costa Rica at Peninsula Papagayo (fourseasons.com/costarica) has a signature Arnold Palmer course (6,788-yard, par 72) with Pacific views and a chance for golfers to catch a glimpse of Costa Rica’s wildlife and mesmerizing landscape.

CANOPY TOURING

Most of the rainforest’s life dwells in the canopy high above ground, hence there are a large number of “canopy tours” offered. The canopy craze began in the Monteverde Reserve with the Original Canopy Tour (canopytour.com), which is still there and has expanded to other locations, including near Limon on the Caribbean coast, Drake Bay on the Pacific, and Mahogany Park near Orotina. Also at Monteverde, Costa Rica Sky Adventures (skyadventures.travel) operates a sky tram that can be taken in conjunction with a sky trek zipline tour, with the longest and highest cables in the country. The company offers a similar sky trek zipline canopy operation in Arenal National Park.

Other places to enjoy Costa Rica at treetop heights are on the 80-minute ride aboard the open-air gondolas at Rainforest Adventures Costa Rica Atlantic (rainforestadventures.com), located 50 minutes from San Jose in a 1,200-acre private reserve bordering Braulio Carrillo National Park. (Actually, there is also a zipline canopy tour here with seven ziplines and six platforms). Another option is Rainforest Adventures’ Costa Rica Pacific Park with 18 gondolas (all with guides) just outside the beach town of Jaco, and guided canopy touring is an integral part of the attractions at the 4,000-acre Veragua Rainforest Research & Adventure Park, located 40 minutes from Limon.

RIVER RAFTING

The Reventazon River, with rapids for river-runners of some ability, are rated from Class II rapids (moderate) to Class V (very difficult) offering the most challenging rafting in the country. The Corobici River provides an easier and more leisurely river experience of Class I and II rapids. The Pacuare River is for the adventurous, rated Class III or IV and including sections that drop off precipitously as the river rushes through pristine wilderness. The Chirripo River (Class IV at high water) is considered one of the finest whitewater rivers in the world and contains more than 100 Class III and IV rapids in the first 40 miles. Generally, the best rafting takes place in the wet season, May to mid-November, but the Reventazon and Pacuare in particular are year-round rivers. Rivers most accessible when booking whitewater rafting for day trips from San Jose are the Reventazon, Sarapiqui and Corobici rivers.

RIDING AROUND

Check in to the happening town of La Fortuna to check out a vehicle for ATV touring—joining a group or on one’s own. Arenal is also the go-to center for canyoning; sign on with Pure Trek (puretrekcostarica.com) to scale the walls of the ancient Venado Caves with their stalactites and stalagmites. Costa Rica loves her horses, and, of course, horseback riding offers sightseeing at a slower pace. Tell clients to head to cowboy country in Guanacaste to ride a range or Santa Elena to ride out into the Monteverde cloud forest and along the beaches of Nicoya Peninsula.

TOUR TALK

Lost World Adventures (lostworldadventures.com) invites Costa Rica-bound travelers on an 8-day Active Costa Rica vacation, starting with cycling around the Cartago area and staying at Casa Turire (hotelcasaturire.com) in the Turrialba region; rafting the Pacuare River (Class III & IV), covering 18 miles of waterway the first day, overnighting in a private camp, with a 4-hour rapid run the next day; and spend the final two nights at Hotel Costa Verde (costaverde.com), with wildlife hikes and surfing at Manuel Antonio National Park.

seascapekayaktours.com

Deep Sea Fishing.

By-the-Sea Active

SCUBA DIVING

Dive professionals rate Costa Rica’s Isla del Cano and Cocos Island among the world’s finest dive locations. Cano Island lies just off the Osa Peninsula, within an easy boat ride from mainland hotels, and its reef hosts groupers, snappers, wahoo, jacks and tuna. But the real draw here is diving with manta rays, whale sharks and schools of hammerhead sharks. Cocos Island, 370 miles southwest off the mainland and a favorite of dedicated dive boat expeditions, is the crown jewel in Costa Rica’s dive scene. The entire island is a national park and surrounding waters host hammerhead sharks (up to 8 ft. long) as well as giant manta rays, bottlenose dolphins, and whale and white-tip sharks. Pacific coast diving also delivers an astounding variety of fish—from angels, sharks and eagle rays to great bull sharks—soft corals and invertebrates. The best year-round diving on the Pacific coast is in the Gulf of Papagayo, and resorts and dive shops offer PADI dive certification courses. On the Caribbean coast, divers looking for coral reefs and wrecks head for Uvita Island offshore from Puerto Limon and Cahuita. The season for diving and snorkeling is February to April.

SMALL BOAT STUFF

Costa Ricans are kayak crazy, or at least seem to be, for visitors can practically go kayaking anywhere there’s water: sea kayaking off the beaches of Manuel Antonio or Osa Peninsula; kayaking on the Rio Sarapiqui; kayaking among the mangroves of Drake Bay or Tortuguero National Park; and kayaking beneath the volcano on Lake Arenal. Book a longer kayak adventure with Seascape Kayak Tours (seascapekayaktours.com) in the Curu Wildlife Reserve on the southern tip of Nicoya Peninsula. The newest water craze, of course, is kitesurfing and paddleboarding. Beginners and experts alike are heading out to sea from the beaches of Tamarindo and Playa Grande off the Central Pacific coast, learning to do stand-up paddleboarding at the surfing center of Pavones.

SPORTFISHING

World-class sportfishing is the norm in Costa Rica’s coastal waters. A growing number of qualified operators offer competitive world-class sportfishing charters on both coasts. In the Pacific, billfish abound. Tuna, dorado and snapper are found here, but it’s the marlin and the sailfish that break records and lure the enthusiastic angler. Main centers on the southernmost Pacific coast are Golfito, Puerto Jimenez and Drake Bay where marlin action runs from August to December, and sailfish at the peak from late-November to March. In Quepos on the central coast, December to May is the best billfish season. Off the northernmost Pacific coast, the marlin season is at its peak in August and September. In the turquoise waters of the Caribbean, grouper, snapper and mackerel are open-water catches, while at the mouth of Barra del Colorado River, snook and tarpon averaging 80 lbs. are your clients for the catching—and releasing—in September through April.

SURFING

Costa Rica’s coastline is dotted with point and beach breaks that work year-round. In the Central Pacific, head for Playas Hermosa, Jaco and Dominical—left and right breaks—and Playas Tamarindo and Guiones in Guanacaste. The northern Pacific coast of Guanacaste works best from December to April; the central and southern Pacific coasts work best from April to November. The Caribbean coast’s big wave season is December to March. Beginners should stick to the mellower sections of Playas Jaco and Tamarindo. Costa Rica’s signature waves are found at Playa Pavones, reputed to have one of the world’s longest left waves and offering the longest ride in Costa Rica. The cognoscenti, however, also swear by Playas Grande, Negra and Malpais on the Nicoya Peninsula; Matapalo on the Osa Peninsula; Witches Rock off Playa Naranjo and Santa Rosa National Park; and farther north along coastal Guanacaste, Bahia Salinas almost at the Nicaraguan border.