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Costa Rica: The Ultimate Guide

With 4 percent of the earth's wildlife species, vast tropical rain forests, and live volcanoes, it's no wonder this former backpacker's haven in Central America has been discovered by the world.

By Heidi Sherman Mitchell
Travel + Leisure

June 2004

A dozen years ago, I spent a summer backpacking through South and Central America. Having lost my glasses somewhere along a four-day hike to Machu Picchu, I arrived in Costa Rica to find a wilderness where green landscapes blurred into turquoise horizons, red volcanic flames bled into the black night, and rainbow-tinted birds streaked across the sky. At that time, basic $20-a-night lodges were the only places to stay, and I moved around by public bus over bumpy roads in search of tiny surfing villages and cloud forests 6,000 feet up.

Nearly everyone I met was an American on a budget, there to catch the waves, study the turtles, and scope out the country's 10,000 species of plants and more than 230 kinds of mammals before the rest of the world discovered this Eden for themselves.

Even with my fuzzy perspective, I shared their urge to guard the fragile ecosystem of this "rich coast"--as Christopher Columbus named the country in 1502--from the onslaught of mass tourism. Once home, I complained about how developed it was (a lie) and how human intervention was destroying natural habitats (not an untruth: the golden toad, now believed to be extinct, was last seen in 1989). When I returned to Costa Rica a couple of years later--contact lenses, this time--the hues still blended like watercolors and the light breaking through the clouds above the Nicoya Peninsula was just as milky. What had changed was the country's newfound respect for its precious resources.

In the mid nineties, the government instituted the most progressive reforestation program in the Americas and began an international campaign to market the nation, wedged between Nicaragua and Panama, as an "ecologically friendly" destination. As a result, environmentally conscious backpackers like me were no longer the only ones heading to Costa Rica. Educated visitors with cash to burn flocked to see one of the most biologically varied places on the planet--the Switzerland-sized country is home to 4 percent of the earth's species of wildlife--and an ecotourism movement was born. Hotels built according to self-imposed conservationist standards couldn't be put up fast enough. Meanwhile, acres of clear-cut land began to grow back into secondary forests. Much of the guilt associated with being a tourist--contributing to erosion and over construction--was alleviated. Gradually, this secret natural world opened up.

This year, Costa Rica is expected to lure 1.2 million visitors, up 20 percent over last year. Following the opening of a Four Seasons resort in January, three major airlines increased direct service from Houston, Miami, and Atlanta into the country's second-largest airport, Liberia International (40 minutes from the hotel). Farther down the Pacific coast, dozens of equally luxurious boutique hotels have been built, and in the vast tropical reserves that cover 28 percent of the country, a handful of $500-a-night ecolodges have sprung up.

Though an affluent crowd has invaded this painted land, much of Costa Rica--its roads, its glacial pace--continues to try one's patience. A surfer I met on my first visit gave me some sage advice: Slow down, share the love. His voice has echoed in my head on return trips, and I've learned to adopt the mentality of the ticos (as locals are fondly called). I still want to protect the riches, but I no longer feel compelled to distort the facts about overdevelopment (there really isn't much) or to moan about the disappearing rain forests, which over the past 10 years have begun to reappear. I've even learned to laugh about the treacherous roads, which I now navigate with bilingual naturalist drivers in private vans rather than by public bus. There's just one aspect I take issue with: there's simply too much to do.

Lay of the Land

Choose your adventure wisely. Costa Rica isn't one of those places that you master on your first visit, or one that allows you to slip into a well-trodden circuit. The most developed country in Central America, Costa Rica has roads that are so poorly maintained, they would have been better left unpaved; pristine forests that are accessible only by lightplane, followed by taxi, then boat and, sometimes, foot; and a rainy season that can make moving from one place to the next unimaginable. Split down the middle by two mountain ranges, its 20,000 square miles include more than 750 miles of coastline along the Caribbean and the Pacific, with 12 tropical life zones in between. From west to east, Costa Rica is only 100 miles at its widest--but by car, that can mean a death-defying 12-hour journey. To make your trip easier, think of the country as five essential regions and pick two to visit (optimum time frames are provided below). Unless you've got a month, don't even attempt to hit all five.

Five Ways to Do Costa Rica

San Jose and the Central Valley

Time: One to two days. Home to almost one-third of the population, San José is surrounded by two volcanic mountain ranges. If the main airport weren't here, though, it would be tempting to skip the city and its suburbs altogether. Little more than a commercial hub, the area lacks the centuries-old cathedrals found in other Latin American cities. But it is an efficient place from which to begin an adventure.

From San José, you can visit a steaming volcano, Poás, or a fire-spewing one, Arenal; hike in a cloud forest; and tackle Class IV rapids--all in one day. Ticos argue over whether the Reventazón or the Pacuare is better for rafting, but the rivers have rapids ranging from Class II to Class IV and are the winter training grounds for a few Olympic kayaking teams. Costa Rica Sun Tours arranges expeditions down both of them.

Anyone wanting to stay in the heart of downtown books into Hotel Grano de Oro, a 100-year-old mansion whose 35 rooms are filled with antiques and contemporary furniture. The patio restaurant is always buzzing with local expense-account lunchers--the sea bass with macadamia nuts and orange glacé is deliciously sweet and salty. Hotel Alta, overlooking the central valley from Escazú, the expat neighborhood southwest of the city center, is close to San José's action (what there is of it, anyway). The 23-room hacienda-style inn has terra-cotta balconies and an Italian-tiled pool. Its tiered lobby doubles as a gallery, where, once every month, area artists host wine-and-cheese receptions.

Near the country's main airport, in Heredia, is the Gaudíesque Finca Rosa Blanca, surrounded by coffee plantations. The seven rooms and two villas of Teri and Glenn Jampol's bed-and-breakfast have arched windows, undulating wood-beamed ceilings, and access to a sunken lounge area that becomes a communal dining room at mealtimes. When I stayed there, Teri handed my infant son to the kitchen staff and joined my table for dinner. She'll also arrange any day trip you can cook up.

Traditionally, Costa Rica hasn't been a place known for fine cuisine. With the April opening of the Inn at Coyote Mountain, a 90-minute drive west of San José in San Ramón, the country's reputation as a food purgatory was transformed. On a remote hilltop, Charles Leary and Vaughn Perret, the chef-owners of Trout Point Lodge in Nova Scotia, have created an intimate retreat where aspiring chefs can join one- to three-day classes on "Caribbean-Creole" cooking (think tropical jambalaya). Built in the Mudejar style of architecture from Spain, the five-room inn has circular windows and glass-tile tubs, custom-made wrought-iron sconces and four-poster beds, and a spectacular Observatory Suite with its own spiral staircase.

Alajuela and Northern Guanacaste

Time: Four to five days. Inland from the white sands of the Pacific is one of the last intact dry tropical forests of Central America. These pristine stretches, alternating with clear-cut areas marked by lone umbrella-shaped conacaste trees shading humpbacked Brahman cows, rise up a volcanic mountain range to the Monteverde Cloud Forest Biological Reserve in Puntarenas, an essential stop on any nature-lover's itinerary. Getting there requires a four-hour drive from San José or Liberia.

When I first came to Monteverde in the early nineties, I took a standing-room-only bus and stayed in a cabin with a shared bath. Not much has changed: most of the drive is up a precipitous, unpaved track (the area is too jagged for planes, too windy for helicopters), and properties marketed as luxury lodges are often quite disappointing. But it's worth the bother to see mist-shrouded trees draped in epiphytes, 450 species of birds, and views all the way west to the Nicoya Peninsula.

Settled by Alabama Quakers looking for a utopian escape from the Korean War draft, the Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve and its closest town, Santa Elena, retain the tranquil, anti-establishment aura conferred on them by these immigrants. Hippie kids run the butterfly farm in nearby Cerro Plano, and you can get great thin-crust pepperoni slices at nearby pizzeria Johnny. The reserve allows only 160 visitors at a time on its brick paths. A handful of decent hotels line the road to the park; two stand out from the pack. Monteverde Lodge & Gardens has 27 rooms in an Arts and Crafts-style building, with a 12-person Jacuzzi that is in an acrylic-domed room apparently inspired by I. M. Pei's Louvre entrance. Fonda Vela, owned by two brothers, is half the price and just as nice, and its eight bungalows are within walking distance of the cloud forest's entrance.

Once you've completed the tough stuff--long hikes in the cloud forest, hours spent searching for a quetzal's nest--schedule some R&R at the beachfront Four Seasons Resort Costa Rica at Peninsula Papagayo. Before the resort opened its 153 rooms and suites in January, getting to the Pacific coast of northern Guanacaste required chartering a plane or navigating bone-rattling potholed roads. Now major airlines fly direct to the nearby airport from the United States. Local architect Ronald Zürcher drew inspiration from butterfly wings and the backs of armadillos in his design for the resort's buildings, which are set on a steep hillside between two beaches. Arnold Palmer created the sprawling golf course. At the restaurant, chef James Cassidy (poached from Hawaii's Four Seasons Hualalai) makes Latin fusion dishes, such as the teetering tower of crab-and-avocado salad with red pepper sauce. Six other resorts are planned for the once-remote Papagayo Peninsula. What a difference a Four Seasons makes.

Nicoya Peninsula and Quepos

Time: Three to six days. Populated by American pensioners, international surfers, and tico farmers, this coastal corridor claims some of the country's finest hotels, all of them built with a conservationist's eye. You'd be mad to spend all your time lazing by the Costa Rican shore, but the region's dozens of beaches do come in handy for convalescing after a week spent trekking, tracking birds, and, let's be honest, driving. A ferry that crosses the Gulf of Nicoya connects the peninsula to the mainland at Puntarenas, near Manuel Antonio National Park, home to the country's most popular beach, which attracts swarms of backpackers and locals on holiday.

The nicest places to stay on the Nicoya Peninsula are the beachfront hotels that run south from Guanacaste all the way to the tip of the peninsula, at Montezuma. Hotel Punta Islita, owned by Harold Zürcher and designed by his brother, Ronald (creator of the Four Seasons at Papagayo), has occupied its own crescent-shaped black-sand beach and hillside for 10 years. Today its 43 thatched-roof rooms, suites, and casitas make up one of the most sophisticated addresses in the country. Guest quarters come with hand-hewn teak beds and hammocks angled to view the sun as it drops into the Pacific. Chef Pablo de la Torre prepares fresh ceviche and native fish dishes at Borrancho Beach Club (or on the sand with a bonfire, at no extra cost). An art gallery showcases local artisans' handicrafts. And a European-style spa opened in December.

Punta Islita is an extravagant refuge, but getting out of the resort is a nightmare: there are tide tables posted in both of the hotel's restaurants so that guests can escape before water floods the driveway. On my first visit, tempting fate, I left with only 15 minutes to spare and barely managed to cross the two rivers filling up with seawater that separated me from the main road. Harold Zürcher had not been so lucky: he'd lost his ATV the day before. Braving the tides--and the potholes--is par for the course on the Nicoya, which is why most guests fly into one of the charter airstrips scattered across the peninsula.

Florblanca, the newest addition to the luxury accommodations in Costa Rica, is just down the road from Punta Islita--but don't let that fool you. The quickest way to this resort, with its outdoor bathrooms, stucco porches, and gorgeous canopy beds, is to drive along the beach, which is subject to flooding at high tide. Regardless, Florblanca's 10 villas and its open-air restaurant (built from clear-cut wood that American owners Susan Money and Greg Mullins bought from farmers and saved for some 15 years) are always crowded--with surfers, honeymooners, and the occasional society-page regular.

When both Punta Islita and Florblanca are full, the nearby Hotel Milarepa offers consolation: its four bungalows stand beside the beach and a French chef prepares classic dishes with Caribbean ingredients.

For millionaires, there's Hacienda Cabo Velas, a 1,700-acre working ranch that goes for $65,000 a week and sleeps up to 12 people--who generally bypass the roads of Guanacaste and instead arrive by private plane on the property's own airstrip. From there, it's a short walk to a Spanish-colonial hacienda surrounded by four smaller thatched-roof ranchos, or to any of the five beaches on-site. Guests get it all: an Italian cook, a naturalist guide, a boat captain for tours of the mangroves, even a cowboy to lead horseback rides in the jungle.

Across the Gulf of Nicoya on the mainland, near Manuel Antonio National Park, adventurers can kick in their endorphins in countless ways: Equus Stables takes riders galloping and cantering along the sprawling white sands; Iguana Tours leads kayakers through mangrove swamps and estuaries to some of the park's emerald islets; the experienced guides of Blue Fin Sport Fishing let anglers pose for snapshots with their prize marlin, tuna, or sailfish before detaching the hook and setting their catch free.

Dozens of hotels around Manuel Antonio cater to every type of traveler (European, gay, vegetarian) on every type of budget, but the top spots are those with secluded suites on the ridge above the beach. The adults-only Makanda by the Sea, a collection of 11 freestanding villas, is encircled by a rain forest. Apart from the private cove and Japanese-inspired accommodations--notice the rock garden?--Makanda has that other luxury rarely found in Costa Rica: good food (fresh-fish tacos, blackened shrimp). Breakfast is presented on your private veranda; during lunch at the Sunspot Restaurant, you can spy toucans, two- and three-toed sloths, and spider monkeys.

Nearby, the spare wood-and-stucco cabanas at Tulemar, also on the ridge, are furnished with teak armoires, fully equipped kitchens, and jungle or ocean views from all sides of the octagonal structures. The seven just-opened deluxe bungalows emphasize space--1,400 square feet inside, 400 outside--and each has two bedrooms, a rainfall shower, a private garden or balcony, and panoramic vistas.

Osa Peninsula

Time: Five days. In southern Costa Rica, the remote Osa Peninsula is one of the most biologically dense tropical regions on earth. Scarlet macaws do flybys past the lodges, howler monkeys swing from the forest canopy, and whales migrate along the coast. Basically, if it lives and breathes in Costa Rica--caiman, iguana, sloth, jaguar--it probably resides in the nature preserves, public and private, that blanket this peninsula. Some of the world's first ecolodges were built in the undeveloped jungles of Drake Bay, Golfito, and Corcovado National Park; they are still models of sustainable tourism today.

When they opened Lapa Rios in 1993, Americans Karen and John Lewis pioneered the practice of ecotourism in Costa Rica. The 16-room hardwood-and-thatch resort on 1,000 protected acres of jungle and Pacific oceanfront continues to win conservation awards. Visitors often plan their Costa Rican vacations around availability at Lapa Rios, whose friendly service and surprisingly creative meals--not to mention alfresco showers, private decks, and abundant wildlife right outside your screen door--make up for the rickety prop plane (and the airsickness) that gets you there. Just be sure to take a low-numbered room: the higher they get, the farther the trek up and down the steep incline on which the villas are built.

The nearby Bosque del Cabo gets less attention but deserves equally high praise. Set at the end of a mile-long drive in another 500-acre preserve, its 13 bungalows have rustic cane beds, garden showers, and private sunbathing decks with hammocks. The expert forest guides on staff can take groups hiking, horseback riding, or flying over the trees on the hotel's zip lines.

The newest biosensitive resort on the peninsula is the Playa Nicuesa Rainforest Lodge in 100,000-acre Corcovado National Park, across the Golfo Dulce from Golfito. Everything here is recycled: the four cabins and a four-bedroom house are made from farmed trees; covering the roofs are tiles made from bags that once used to protect banana stalks; and solar energy provides the electricity. Accessible only by boat, the hotel keeps guests busy with kayaking, fishing, snorkeling, windsurfing, and, of course, naturalist-guided hikes.

The only other place to stay inside the park is Corcovado Lodge Tent Camp. Guests fly into Drake Bay by prop plane, drive two hours to the shore, and then walk along the beach for 45 minutes to reach 20 steel-framed tents that guarantee utter privacy (from humans, anyway). A little pleading with the guides (and a lot of Valium for yourself) gets you and your partner harnessed into a bed built into a platform 100 feet above the jungle floor, where the two of you can spend a night under the stars.


Time: Three to four days. If no one told you otherwise, you could easily mistake Tortuguero National Park, on Costa Rica's east coast, for the Amazon. This dense forest was carved out by a series of rivers and canals dug to ease the transport of timber before the area became protected in 1970. Easier to reach (and cheaper to stay in) than that other basin in South America, Tortuguero has turbulent Caribbean beaches that give safe haven to four turtle species, including the Atlantic green, during the summer nesting season. It's also the stamping ground of tapirs, caimans, anteaters, coatis, and the electric-blue morpho butterfly.

The hotels along Tortuguero's lagoon specialize in guided cruises down the area's waterways by canoe or small motorboat. You can get a free nature tour if you approach the hotels by water: your craft will be greeted with the squawks and screeches of countless species of birds and monkeys. Pachira Lodge, a rustic resort with almond-wood cabins and a pool shaped like a turtle, attracts a mostly European clientele, which gives it a relaxed, rather festive vibe. Tortuga Lodge, whose 24 rooms are distributed among five bungalows, has a lovely river-rock pool and excellent service: the general manager calls guests by name, and the chef can prepare basic dishes that aren't on the simple set menu. Both Pachira and Tortuga have plenty of kayaks and motorboats for canal cruising and are absolutely silent at night, save for the rhythmic rush of the Caribbean across the peninsula on the other side of the lagoon.

Copyright 2004

Note: The above information is not to be used for any other purpose other than private study, research, criticism or review. Thank you.

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