Because we travel often for business, we typically prefer not to visit the same destination over and over again. But we love Costa Rica so much– we’ve already been there three times and have plans to return in the near future– for a variety of reasons.
There’s the friendly people, beautiful beaches, stunning national parks, wonderfully weird animals, and a diverse array of ecosystems that ensure every area is a little different. There’s been decades of major investment in ecotourism in Costa Rica, so there are abundant activities for nature and adventure lovers to choose from.
Here are just a few of the many reasons why we love Costa Rica:
There are around 900 species of birds found in Costa Rica, including 8 endemic species and 19 currently listed as threatened or endangered by the IUCN. From abundant hummingbirds, toucans, parrots and Clay-Colored Thrushes (the national bird) to the increasingly rare Resplendent Quetzal, Harpy Eagle and Scarlet Macaw, it’s no wonder that avid bird-watchers love Costa Rica.
With the Caribbean on one side and the Pacific on the other, Costa Rica has more beautiful beaches than any other Central American country we’ve visited. Manuel Antonio, Santa Teresa and Tamarindo Beach are three of the more popular favorites, but Playa Conchal, Playa Tambor and Playa Samara are equally beautiful, yet attract considerably smaller tourist crowds.
CAÑO NEGRO NATIONAL WILDLIFE REFUGE
If you’ve ever dreamed of a trip down the Amazon, a boat ride through this vast network of marshes and rivers is an affordable alternative. Eagle-eyed guides will point out Caiman and crocodiles in the water, lizards and monkeys along the shore, and abundant bird life including jabiru storks, herons, egrets and roseate spoonbills.
Starting back in 1779 in the Meseta Central region, coffee production has played a key role in Costa Rica’s history and has always been important to the country’s economy. The mountainous ecosystems make Costa Rica perfect for high coffee yields, which require a mixture of cool air, high rainfall, rich soil and excellent drainage. Costa Rica’s beans are widely considered among the best in the world: In 2012, Tarrazú Geisha coffee became the most expensive coffee sold by Starbucks.
CORCOVADO NATIONAL PARK
Located on the remote Osa Peninsula, Corcovado has been referred to by National Geographic as “the most biologically intense place on Earth in terms of biodiversity.” At 164 square miles, it’s Costa Rica’s largest national park. It’s also one of the most pristine places we’ve visited, with diverse ecosystems (montane forest, cloud forest, prairie and mangrove swamp) providing a home for more than 500 tree species and a dizzying array of wildlife.
Tired after a long morning of hiking through the jungle? Sooth your aching bones in these naturally-heated thermal springs, which are often surrounded by lushly landscaped gardens offering perfect views of active volcanos. Tabacón is probably the most famous of Costa Rica’s hot springs, but there are plenty of others to choose from, including Baldi, Eco Termales, Titoku and more.
If you’ve never heard the distinctive sound of a Mantled Howler Monkey reverberating through the hills as your morning wake-up call, it’s definitely a unique Costa Rican experience you never forget. But Howlers are just one of four monkey species you’re likely to see if you spend much time in the country: The others are the tiny Central American squirrel monkey, the ubiquitous White-Headed Capuchin, and the endangered Geoffroy’s Spider Monkey.
MONTEVERDE BIOLOGICAL CLOUD FOREST PRESERVE
This lush mountain-top preserve is like a taste of Eden, surrounded by lush verdant greens, brilliant tropical colors and all manner of wildlife. Their canopy tours are world-renowned, providing treetop views of beautiful birds and myriad monkeys. One of the highest places in Costa Rica and often covered by clouds, this in among the greenest places we’ve ever seen.
This Spanish phrase is said to be of Mexican origin (from a 1956 film of the same name), but it has since become the unofficial motto of Costa Rica. Translating simply to mean “pure life,” the phrase has come to embody the country’s love of the good things– good food, good friends, and embracing and enjoying the beauty of the world around you. It is used as a greeting, farewell, an answer to the question “Como estas?/How are you?” and a way of giving thanks.
Costa Rica may not be as well known as Belize or Panama for its Scuba Diving. But islands such as Cocos and Caño offer surprisingly excellent opportunities. We found ourselves surrounded on all sides by thousands of fish– yellow and silver-striped Grunts, huge Amberjacks, and dozens of other species– swimming in huge schools that seem to ebb and flow in response to our every movement. Small reef sharks, rays, sea turtles, pufferfish and dolphins are often seen in these areas as well.
Ask for a soda in Costa Rica and you won’t get a Coke or Pepsi; instead you’ll be directed to one of these tiny, family-run restaurants. This is eat-like-a-local homestyle cooking, with dishes such as rice & beans, fried empanadas, stewed chicken and Gallos (meat-and-veggie mixtures served with small corn tortillas). Try a typical casado, which costs $4-$6 and usually includes a meat (your choice of beef, chicken, pork or fish), rice, beans, salad, a vegetable side dish and fried plantains.
You don’t have to be a weeping puddle of emotion like Kristen Bell to love sloths, but most people would understand if you were. Sloths are weird and fuzzy and slow-moving and don’t really seem to do much but literally hang out. But there’s just something about them we can’t help but adore… especially when they’ve got a baby on board like the mama pictured above. You can see them in virtually every park or even alongside the road, but for a serious dose of adorableness visit the Sloth Sanctuary in Limón.
There are around 300 stone spheres in Costa Rica, over 10% of which lie on the 10-acre Finca 6 Archaeological Site. Known locally as Las Bolas, the spheres range in size up to over 6 feet in diameter, weigh up to 15 tons and are almost perfectly round. They’ve been found all over southern Costa Rica, buried with pottery dated to 200 BC-600 AD as well as with sculptures dated to around 1000-1500 AD. They still remain the country’s greatest archaeological mystery today.
Since ex-pat surfers began relocating here in the ’80s and ’90s, Costa Rica has emerged as a surfing hotspot that offers all the swells, breaks and schools you’d expect in Hawaii, Southern California and Sydney, but with fewer crowds and a lower cost of living. Boca Barranca, Playa Grande, Playa Negra and Playa Naranja are some of Costa Rica’s top surfing hotspots, but there are plenty of other great breaks to be found on both coasts.
We’ve traveled the world over and rarely have we met a culture more welcoming than the local people of Costa Rica, who are colloquially known as ticos (or the feminine form, ticas). Perhaps it’s the country’s lack of military and abundance of natural beauty that makes it one of the happiest countries in the world. Or maybe it’s the “Pura Vida” philosophy mentioned above. Regardless, the ticos’ friendly smiles and gracious hospitality ensure a good time to be had by all who visit.
TORTUGUERO NATIONAL PARK
This pristine 77,000-acre protected area in the Limón province is a nature lover’s paradise. Morning tours of the Tortuguero River’s canals provide views of caiman, river otters and myriad tropical birds. In the afternoon, hike into the jungle to see monkeys, sloths and tree frogs. But our favorite was the nighttime tours in search of sea turtles coming on the beach to nest.
Costa Rica is part of the Pacific Ring Fire Circle, with 200+ volcanic formations dating back over 65 million years. Five of them– including Arenal (the most famous), Poas (known for its two crater lakes) and Irazu (which boasts stunning views of the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans)– are classified as active volcanoes. From hiking and horseback riding to soaking in the views, these are some of the country’s hottest attractions, both literally and figuratively. –Bret Love; photos by Bret Love & Mary Gabbett unless otherwise noted
BIO: Bret Love is a journalist/editor with 21 years of print and online experience, whose clients have ranged from the Atlanta Journal Constitution to Rolling Stone. Along with his photographer wife Mary Gabbett, he is the co-founder of ecotourism website Green Global Travel and Green Travel Media.