on Apr 24, 2012

by Ignacio Maza

Over the past 60 years or so, Costa Rica has become the Switzerland of Central America. It is safe, small (about the size of West Virginia), politically stable, and has much to offer travelers. There is more biodiversity per square mile in Costa Rica than any place else on the planet. The country has mountains (some over 10,000 ft high), over 100 volcanoes (6 still active), Pacific and Caribbean beaches, dozens of national parks, beautiful landscapes, and a welcoming, warm people. Costa Rica is grand central for travelers who enjoy active and adventuresome holidays. It seems like everywhere you visit offers trekking, biking, white water rafting, zip lines, hiking, kayaking, and many other options.

I traveled with Memorable Costa Rica to the Arenal Volcano area (a 3.5 hour drive), where I stayed in the Tabacon Hot Springs Hotel. The Arenal area is one of the top attractions in Costa Rica, and offers a wide range of eco-adventures in a relatively small area around the town of La Fortuna.

Tabacon stands out for several reasons. First, it was the first upscale hotel in the area, going back over 15 years. The property is superbly run...offers great service, fine dining, comfortable rooms and is a leading hotel. In addition, the resort is across the road from the best, largest and most beautiful hot springs in the area, fed by hot water coming from the volcano. The hot springs are a destination unto themselves—a vast complex featuring a spa (with treatment rooms housed in private wooden bungalows where you hear the river running next to you), swimming pool, bar, restaurant, and of course—the hot springs, framed by acres and acres of flowers and stunning tropical gardens. The river cascades through a series of narrows, waterfalls and rocks (all made of black lava), and is a sight to behold. The water is about 104°F and has therapeutic benefits, according to regular visitors. Bring water shoes, as the pools have sandy and/or rocky bottoms. (Note: guests at Tabacon have exclusive use of the springs early in the morning, which is fantastic. The site gets most crowded from 1pm to sundown. Tip: the springs are open until 10pm, and it's great fun to enjoy the hot springs under the stars.)

Although Costa Rica offers endless options to adventure travelers, the area of the Arenal Volcano stands out for several reasons. First, the number of options available—choose from canoeing, bungee jumping, canyoning, hiking, horseback riding, national parks, canopy tours, windsurfing on Lake Arenal, whitewater rafting, kayaking, and more. Secondly, the area offers a number of high-quality outfitters, who would not be out of place in the Alps. Thirdly, the area is very accessible—by air from San Jose and Manuel Antonio on Nature Air, and finally, the roads into La Fortuna (the small town in the foothills of the volcano) is easily reached by paved roads from multiple directions. The Arenal's main competitor is the Monteverde cloud forest, a beautiful national park, but—much harder to reach as the only way in/out is on a narrow unpaved road  into Santa Elena, that takes 1 hour and 15/20 minutes to negotiate, longer in the rainy season.

If you want to get a taste of the rainforest from various perspectives, then my recommendation is to visit Sky Adventures, the gold standard of the region. This company has the best infrastructure, the best guides, the best safety record, and excellent equipment built in Europe. Sky offers hikes through a private rainforest reserve, complete with canopy bridges, suspended over 100 ft from the forest floor. You literally walk over the trees and the vegetation, and are eye-level with birds and monkeys. The entire hike takes 3-4 hours and is challenging, especially due to the heat and humidity. But, like every challenge, the rewards are fantastic. The bridges are amazing (some over 450 ft long, suspended over the forest), you see beautiful waterfalls, and get a sense of the rainforest few get to experience. If you do not want to do the entire loop, then go up to the first bridge, and turn back. I highly recommend a guide to go with you. The trails are clearly marked, but a naturalist will explain to you the trees, flowers, birds, vegetation, and will take your visit to the next level. If you are feeling brave, Sky offers a course of 8 zip lines, which are thrilling. You soar over the forest at 50-55mph, with clear views of the volcano in the distance, a sight to behold. If you are not ready to zip line, you can still go up the mountain in a tram to the lookout point, which offers breathtaking views, and take the tram back down.

Manuel Antonio National Park, on Costa Rica's Pacific coast, was almost bulldozed 40 years ago to make room for development. Thankfully, smart minds prevailed and the land now occupied by the park was left intact. Because Manuel Antonio is easily accessible (only 2.5 hours from San Jose by car on the new highway, or 25 minutes by air from San Jose), it is one of Costa Rica's most heavily visited parks. Manuel Antonio is unusual because it is set on the Pacific and has some of the most beautiful beaches in Costa Rica within the park itself. Manuel Antonio is famous for its troops of monkeys and birds. To avoid the crunch of visitors and have a better chance of seeing wildlife, get up early and visit the park at 7am when it opens (daily except Monday). Once inside the park, paths are clearly marked. Do not miss the hike to Cerro Catedral, a forested peninsula with amazing views of the coastline behind you. Tip: the park has a rest stop with bathrooms and showers. Bring a towel and a picnic, and enjoy a swim in the park's beautiful beaches.

Outside the park are a series of public beaches you can enjoy at your leisure. There are a number of stands offering beach chairs, drinks, and umbrellas. I recommend Mary's, about halfway down the main beach.

Where to stay? One of the top choices in this area is undoubtedly the Gaia resort, on a hill, overlooking the forest and the Pacific. La Luna restaurant has breathtaking views of the forest and the ocean, and this is where sophisticated travelers and locals in the know come to see the sunset and enjoy a leisurely meal.

My last stop in Costa Rica was El Silencio Lodge, about 2 hours North of San Jose. The lodge has acres and acres of virgin forest and trails, so you can enjoy hikes to spectacular waterfalls and rivers. One of my favorite hikes is the one to El Toro waterfall, about 15 minutes’ away. You arrive at an enormous gorge, at the top of the waterfall, and walk down to the water's edge. If you are feeling brave, you can rappel down the rocky cliffs next to the waterfall. For hard-core hikers wanting a challenge, the hotel offers a hike to the summit of the Poas volcano, over 9,000 ft high, which takes about 6-7 hours, depending on how fit you are.

Other places to visit: Corcovado National Park, on the Osa Peninsula in Southern Costa Rica to experience a primary rainforest; the Caribbean region near Puerto Viejo de Talamanca and Cahuita Park; Monteverde Cloud Forest (the national park that put Costa Rica as en eco-destination on the map).


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