Costa Rica has been ranked as one of the happiest countries in the world, based on its high quality of life, good life expectancy rate and small ecological footprint. The country abolished its army in 1949, and it’s been one of the most peaceful countries in Latin America for the past five decades (as a traveller it’s unlikely you’ll ever feel unsafe). The main saying in Costa Rica is pura vida – which means “the good life” – something that people say all the time, with big smiles on their faces. Often when you ask people how they are, they respond with pura vida. It’s inspiring, infectious and incredibly heart warming to spend time in a country that has so much invested in being joyful.
Costa Rica is one of the top eco-tourism destinations in the world, and it’s easy to see why: over a quarter of Costa Rica is protected land, the government is very active in conservation efforts and the country plans to become the first carbon neutral nation by 2021. Costa Rica’s eco commitment seems to be embraced by just about everyone: the local people and guides you meet are genuinely enthusiastic about conservation. Most hotels have water coolers to encourage guests not to buy plastic water bottles, and there are recycling bins everywhere you go. Travelling to Costa Rica means you not only get to experience its well-preserved natural wonders, but you also contribute to the country’s conservation efforts.
One of the world’s most biodiverse nations, Costa Rica is home to half a million species of plants and animals. That’s a whopping 4% of the world’s total species, which is quite something for a tiny country that makes up less than 0.1% of the world’s landmass. All over Costa Rica there are opportunities to encounter the country’s wildlife, whether it’s going on a canal cruise in Tortuguero National Park under tunnels of trees or a catamaran trip with dolphins in Manuel Antonio National Park, or walking through the misty Monteverde Cloud Forest. The best thing is that Costa Rica’s amazing animals are everywhere: monkeys hang out in the trees outside your hotel room, sloths sleep in trees on the side of the highway, frogs jump across your path, and snakes slither along tree branches when you go hiking. If you’re very lucky, you may spot one of the elusive cats of Costa Rica: jaguars, ocelots and pumas.
From coast to coast, much of Costa Rica is forested with humid, tropical rainforests, misty, cool cloud forests and dry forests. These are utterly magical places, where it feels like time stands still: picture towering trees with monkeys swinging along their canopies, magnificent birds perched on branches dripping with vines, butterflies fluttering from one tropical plant to another and a soundtrack of humming insects. Monteverde Cloud Forest, an unmissable stop on any Costa Rica trip, has been named by National Geographic as the best cloud forest reserve in the world: moody, atmospheric and impossibly photogenic, the forest has thick swathes of mist rolling over fern-covered trees stretching like a sea of green in all directions. You can explore the forest on the ground, or walk along swinging suspension bridges or, if you can handle heights – get a bird’s eye view on a zip line.
Costa Rica has a whopping 900 species of birds (more than all of the USA and Canada combined), including the gorgeous green-and-red resplendent quetzal, which is only found in Central America, glorious scarlet macaws and 54 species of jewel-coloured hummingbirds which you can get so close to that their fast-beating wings fan your face. Bird watchers from around the world travel to Costa Rica to catch glimpses of its feathered fauna with their binoculars and supersized camera lenses, but even if you’re not a birder you’ll be enthralled by these beautiful creatures – many of which you’ve probably never even heard of before.
Costa Rica has two coasts – the Pacific and the Caribbean – which are lined with over 1500 kilometres of beautiful beaches, with sand ranging from cappuccino to icing sugar, flanked by palm trees and rainforests. One of the best beaches is in Manuel Antonio National Park on the Pacific coast. Not only is it the kind of beach that’s so beautiful it looks like the cover of dream tropical destination brochures, with a long stretch of white sand and palm trees for shade, but it also offers a forest reserve home to sloths, birds, lizards and monkeys – which you can spot as you stroll down to the sand.
Not content to laze on a beach all holiday? Good news for you: Costa Rica is an adventure lover’s dream destination. Just about everywhere you go in the country there are adrenaline-inducing adventures on offer, from white water rafting and zip lining through forests to canyoneering (which involves climbing, hiking and abseiling into mountain streams) through forested gorges, mountain biking, hiking and horse riding.
Costa Rica’s turtles deserve a mention all on their own. Tortuguero National Park, on Costa Rica’s Caribbean coast, is the Western hemisphere’s main nesting site for green turtles: during the nesting season (April to October) there are as many as 700 turtles laying their eggs on a 30-kilometre stretch of protected beach. You can hire a certified guide to take you to the beach at night to watch turtles nesting – a truly memorable wildlife experience which feels like watching a dinosaur in action.
Costa Rica sits on the Pacific Ring of Fire – an area of high volcanic activity. The country has 122 volcanoes, of which four are active. The most famous of Costa Rica’s volcanoes is Arenal, which was active up until 2010: it hasn’t spewed lava since then, but it does smoke constantly (which makes for great photos). Around Arenal and some of Costa Rica’s other volcanoes you can go hiking and mountain biking on lush hilly slopes and (my personal favourite) soak in hot springs. There are hot springs all over the area around Arenal, and many hotels have their own hot springs, or you can go to a hot spring resort and spend an evening swimming around in pools as warm as bath water, sipping on a deliciously cold fruit juice.
Surfers love Costa Rica: the swells and breaks are great, water is warm year-round and the surf is good on both the Caribbean and Pacific sides. There are plenty of surfing schools and retreats lining the coasts, especially on the Pacific, where you can find the best waves during the rainy season from May to November.
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