Travelers, adventurers, and tourists alike have all heard of a UNESCO World Heritage Site. They’re usually considered gorgeous “must-visit” places, especially if you are looking to get to know a different country. But what is a UNESCO world heritage site, really? How do they earn that status, and why should they be protected?
Believe it or not, this idea has not been around for long. Declaring structures and land masses world heritage sites began in 1959 when Egypt requested assistance from The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), a specialized agency of the United Nations, to protect and rescue endangered monuments and sites. Since then, countries all over the world have added significant sites to the ongoing list of recognized world heritage sites. To date there, are 878 UNESCO World Heritage Sites across the world.
While travel to Cuba may seem complicated, Cuba is actually one of the safest, easiest, and most welcoming places to visit in Latin America – but don’t take it from us. Gina runs a blog called Gypsy Family Travel where she chronicles her trips around the world, and she wrote all about her experience traveling with three women on the Discover Corps Havana Weekend Getaway trip.
While the new regulations placed on Cuba travel require the average person to travel with a tour group, this gave Gina the chance to better immerse herself in the culture and support the local people and communities. Read about her experiences day-by-day below!
Nothing beats hearing one of our travelers share what a phenomenal time they had on a Discover Corps trip. We recently had the opportunity to highlight two of these travelers – both Cuba trip alumnae – Gina and Kathleen (the world’s coolest grandma). Now we’re off to embark on a Guatemala trip with another Discover Corps traveler!
You’ve seen the promos. You’ve visited our website (and, obviously, our blog). You already follow us on Facebook. But how do you know what one of our trips is really like? Ask Discover Corps Alumni! We’ve done the legwork for you. Say hello to Lisa, who recently experienced our Guatemala trip. Not only did Lisa have the trip of a lifetime, she had two – taking another Guatemala trip just a few months after the first!
How would you like to go on a Cuba trip for your 15th birthday? Few teens have such luck, but thanks to Kathleen G., she and her grandson celebrated by traveling! Their pick: “A Celebration of Arts & Culture,” one of our most popular Cuba trip options.
Have you considered a Belize vacation? Why? What comes to mind when you envision the country, culture, wildlife, and food of the Central American country? Does your imagination run away with you to a tropical paradise full of fascinating animals, sparkling azure beaches, and luxury accommodations?
Follow your imagination – it’s a step ahead of you! We’re very excited to announce that we’ve added a second Belize vacation to our list of trips! And since a picture is worth 1,000 words, we thought it’d be fun to share a few thousand with you.
Sit back, relax, listen for the breeze and the birds, breathe in the saltwater air, and soak up some sun – we’re going to Belize!
There are distinct advantages to spending a week at a safari camp in a private nature reserve. At Rukiya Camp (located near the town of Hoedspruit, South Africa) these benefits included waking up to incredible wildlife sightings less than 50 feet from the front of our luxury safari tents.
In addition to game drives within the Wild Rivers Nature Reserve, we got a chance to visit several private game reserves nearby, where we saw Lions, Cheetahs, Elephants, Rhinos and more. There was also a chance to help Project Rafikiwith Spotted Hyena conservation, and to learn about Leopards from INGWE.
All in all, our time at Rukiya Camp proved to be one of the most memorable aspects of our South African Wildlife Conservation Experience. Here’s a look at a few of the reasons why Rukiya ultimately proved to be my favorite safari camp I’ve ever visited…
The Setting at Rukiya Camp
Rukiya Camp offers proof that, when it comes to lodging, location is everything. It’s set right on the beautiful banks of the tranquil Blyde River, near its juncture with the Olifants River. You’re surrounded by well-shaded riverine forest, which stays lush and green even during the dry season (when we visited). The dynamic peaks of the Drakensberg Mountains loom large on the horizon, making for stunning sunset drives through Wild Rivers.
The camp is basically brand new: Co-owners Conraad Loubser and Lily Jackson had it constructed late last year and opened in April 2016. The decor when you walk in the lobby is simple yet tasteful, with comfortable couches all around the open heart fireplace and traditional African art sprinkled throughout. The dining room table and chairs (where our group of 14 would gather for all meals) are all made sustainably from wooden pallets.
Their 6 luxury tents (including two large enough for families) are surprisingly plush, with hot running water, flushable toilets, hardwood floors, and electricity and Wifi available 24 hours a day. There’s a fan for when days get too warm, and hot water bottles for when nights get too cool. Their beds proved so comfy and cozy, I slept better than I usually do at 4-star hotels.
Arguably my favorite features among Rukiya’s Camp’s amenities were the infinity pool and the gorgeous deck and railing, which were made from recycled wood and driftwood. We’d spend most of our afternoons sitting outside on the lounge chairs, soaking in the stunning scenery and the peaceful tranquility of being at one with nature.
Wildlife Around Rukiya Camp
The photo at the beginning of this story should give you a pretty clear idea of just how close the camp is to the banks of the Blyde River. Fortunately, there are large trees on the ground to clearly mark how far back from the edge you should stay while viewing the wildlife that congregates around this vital water source.
Every morning we would wake up early and head down to the river to see what we could see. Every afternoon when we returned to camp for lunch, we would do the same. Rarely did the wildlife sightings disappoint.
Baboons and Vervet Monkeys were a daily presence. Several times we woke up in the morning to the sounds of them chattering in the trees across the river from us. We often saw 1-2 Crocodiles on the opposite bank, sunning themselves in the afternoon light. There was a Duiker (small antelope) that would graze at night, and one day we returned to camp to find Warthogs hanging out on the lawn. Vultures and Woodpeckers nested on the property, while Eagles, Kingfishers and other birds flitted about.
The most impressive wildlife sighting at Rukiya Camp was a pair of Hippos who remained submerged most of the time. Only their eyes, ears and snouts would peak out above the water’s surface. But we could often hear them grunting and snorting at each other when we were in our tents. And on the last night, Conraad’s camera trap footage revealed that one of he Hippos had come up to eat grass on the camp’s lawn while we slept!
Wild Rivers Nature Reserve Game Drives
The energy in Rukiya Camp always changed right before Conraad or his young British protege, Elliott, loaded us up in the safari vehicle for a game drive through Wild Rivers Nature Reserve. Part of the Blyde Olifants Conservancy, the 6,523-acre reserve is prime Lowveld territory just outside the greater Kruger National Park area.
From our first game drive to set up our camera trap in a high-traffic clearing to our last one to view the sunset over the Drakensberg, our wildlife sightings in Wild Rivers were impressive. Giraffes, Warthogs, Zebras, Impalas, and Southern Yellow-Billed Hornbills were common sightings. On our first night, we stumbled upon a Black-Backed Jackal running down the road. On our last night, I managed to spot a rare Caracal (a medium-sized wild cat with long, tufted ears) crossing the road about 75 yards ahead of us.
One day Elliott and Conraad (who also trains guides for a local company) spotted fresh Leopard tracks on a dirt road in Wild Rivers. Conraad got out on foot to try to track it through the dense, dry brush. Elliott, who also works with INGWE, said the NGO’s research suggests the reserve has around 10 Leopards living within its boundaries. Despite the fact that we didn’t see one that day, the energy was positively electric as we waited to rendezvous with Conraad.
But my favorite Wild Rivers wildlife encounter came the second day, when we helped Project Rafiki bait two Hyenas who had somehow gotten poachers’ snares wrapped around their necks. The plan was to use a rotting Baboon carcass to draw them in, then get a local vet to dart them so the wires could be removed. That night we waited to see if they’d take the bait, and the sounds of Hyenas all around us cackling and howling was almost overwhelmingly intense.
Perhaps the greatest praise I can give Rukiya Camp and Wild Rivers is something my 14-year-old daughter said the day we arrived: “I think I could live here.” It’s a magical sort of place where time seems to shift, and our departure came all too soon for me. –by Bret Love; photos by Allie & Bret Love
BIO: Bret Love is a journalist/editor with 23 years of print and online experience, whose clients have ranged from the Atlanta Journal Constitution and American Airlines to National Geographic and Yahoo Travel. Along with his wife, photographer/videographer Mary Gabbett, he is the co-founder of ecotourism website Green Global Traveland Green Travel Media.
Cuba is a country that is on the move – just look in the news. It seems like every day brings new stories as relations between the U.S. and Cuba gradually warm and borders begin to open to American travelers. But in the streets of Havana, life continues largely as it did half a century ago. Vintage cars drive along the malecon – Havana’s famous sea wall, century-old buildings stand in narrow alleyways echoing Cuban percussion and signs adorning Che Guevara’s infamous silhouette decorate billboards alongside communist-era slogans.
Ask anyone in the streets and they will tell you the same thing – “Change is coming…”. Whether it’s the wi-fi that is sprouting up in hotels and cafes, cruise ships beginning to arrive in the city’s ports or direct air service from the U.S., Cuba is on the verge of entering into a new era, one influenced by it’s neighbor only 90 miles to the north. Whether these changes will be good or bad is to be determined, but one thing is clear – this is the time to see the island in all of its glory.
I was lucky enough to spend a week exploring the island on Discover Corps’ Cuba: Building Bridges trip. Here’s a look at my day-by-day journal…
Arriving into Havana is like taking a step back into time. Walk out of the airport and you are immediately greeted by vintage automobiles dating back as far as the 1940’s and billboards dating back to the Cold War. Oh, and the unmistakable Caribbean heat!
The group, a family of four originally from China and a father & son from Washington, hop into the bus as we take off for downtown Havana. Along the way, our group leaders introduce themselves and give us a brief history of the city as the Caribbean shows itself in the distance.
We jump right into the jet stream of life having lunch in a shaded park right in Old Havana. Tasty Cuban sandwiches and music echoing from a nearby cafe makes for the perfect arrival into the city.
We continue on with a guided tour of Old Havana. While navigating the narrow cobblestone alleys and listening to the history that can be found around each corner, it really starts to set in that I’m in Cuba. From Hemingway’s old haunts to relics of Spanish colonialism, Cuba has a depth of history unlike anywhere else.
Later in the afternoon, we check-in to our hotel in the center of Havana and enjoy dinner together at a charming restaurant overlooking the old city of Havana.
After a relaxing breakfast at the hotel, we step into the fresh Caribbean air for a day of arts & history in Havana. First stop is Project Fuster, where the work of Cuban artist Jose Rodriguez Fuster has transformed a community into a colorful art project. Brightly colored sculptures and mosaics adorn the buildings, roofs, benches and walkways of the community.
Our guide walks us through the community, pointing out various social and political messages hidden in the artwork along the way. While exploring the vibrant streets, we even managed to stumble upon a local baseball game and had a chance to watch the locals cheer along their team!
Next stop is an enlightening discussion with Dr. Hugo Pons, Special Advisor to the President of ANEC (Association of Cuban Economists) and Consultant with the United Nations, on the Cuban economy. Through an interactive presentation, Dr. Pons shows the group exactly how the Cuban economy works and what the future of U.S.-Cuban relations are. This helps to provide a foundation for our experience in Cuba going forward.
On to mojitos! After a relaxing lunch looking over the bay of Havana, we head over to the famous Hotel Nacional for a mojito tasting session (and for those younger ones – virgin mojitos!). Overlooking the Caribbean with swaying palms, this proves to be the perfect late afternoon activity.
After exploring the lavish hotel grounds, we head to dinner at a nearby paladar, or self-run private restaurant in Cuba. A three course meal greets us along with stunning views of downtown Havana.
Fresh Cuban coffee and tropical fruit – now this is how you start a day!
As we hit the streets of Havana, I can’t help but to think of the joie de vivre that exists on this island. From the colorful art that adorns the streets to the upbeat music streaming out of every cafe, Cuba is alive.
Our journey takes us to an alley, but not just any alley. Callejon de Hamel is an alley that has been transformed by the artwork of Salvador Gonzalez. More importantly, it is a celebration of Afro-Cuban culture as well as the location of a weekly rumba party hosted for the community.
Walking along taking in the beauty of the artwork, our guide points out to us the artist himself who has come for a visit! The group stops for a quick chat and even gets a chance to see some of his recent paintings that were exhibited abroad.
We hop in the van to the next project called Muraleando, an art collective that began in 2003 under Cuban artist Manuel Diaz Baldrich. The beautiful structure hosts workshops in the community of all forms of art and holds an annual international symposium on wall painting.
After a guided tour, we’re led to the top floor of the building were a band is taking the stage and a table is laid out for a private lunchtime performance! Some take the stage to practice their salsa moves while other simply take in the music. A home-made lunch of chicken, rice, beans, salad and fruit is served – a refreshing break in the afternoon heat.
Back to old Havana for some free time and a quick visit to the National Rum Museum. Later, we enjoy dinner at a charming paladar in the city. We even decide to explore the malecon where thousands of Cubans gather in the evenings to enjoy the cool Caribbean air.
On the road again. Today, we make our way across the island to the southern town of Trinidad. A UNESCO World Heritage Site, Trinidad is home to beautifully preserved colorful buildings and winding cobblestone streets.
The drive takes some time, so we stop along the way for some fresh juice and piña coladas. But that’s not our only stop – as we make our way along the southern coast, Gretell, our guide, points out the infamous Bay of Pigs. Home to the failed CIA invasion in 1961, we have the unique opportunity to see the beaches where the battle took place as well as enjoy lunch at a nearby paladar.
Back on the road, we continue onwards to Trinidad gazing in wonder as the beautiful coastline of Southern Cuba comes into view. As the van starts to rumble along the cobblestone streets and colorful buildings of colonial design come into view, we know we’re here.
Over the next two nights, we’ll have the unique opportunity to stay in casas particulares, or local bed and breakfasts that are common throughout Cuba. This is the perfect chance to learn about Cuban culture from the people themselves.
After having a chat with my host family, a husband and wife who are both retired engineers, I head to dinner with the group at a beautiful paladar in town. Greeting us upon arrival is a live band who plays for us as we wait for our delicious meal of fresh caught lobster. Later in the evening, I join some of the group for an evening listening to salsa music in the historic city center.
Waking up to fresh squeezed mango juice, Cuban coffee and an enlightening conversation about Cuban music is not a bad way to start the day! My host even has a private bonsai garden that she walks me through.
We hit the streets of Trinidad early with a walking tour of the historic city center, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Quaint alleyways lead to cobblestone streets lined with colorful houses. In the center of Trinidad sits an ornate cathedral that looks over the main square, a relic to the 16th Century Spanish sugar trade.
Towards the end of the tour, our guide waves us over to a set of stairs that leads to a secret lookout point. The group stands motionless taking in the most well preserved city in Cuba as well as the Caribbean sitting in the distance.
Speaking of the Caribbean, you can’t go to Cuba without taking a dip in its warm waters. After lunch, we take a short drive down the road to an unspoiled beach for a brief afternoon swim – a relaxing addition to a wonderful day.
After relaxing a bit back at our casas and a delicious dinner at a charming paladar in town, we decide to head over to a nearby jazz bar to see some live Cuban music and salsa dancing. I’ve come to the conclusion that learning to salsa dance is basically a right of entry to the island. From kids to adults, it seems as though everyone knows the moves.
The road is calling again. We hop into the van on our way back to Havana, but not without a stop in the Cienfuegos. Dubbed the “Pearl of the South” for its French-inspired architecture, Cienfuegos is unlike any of the places we’ve visited in Cuba. Wide boulevards, classic French-style buildings, a beautiful harbor and even a replica of the Arc de Triomphe adorn this city.
Our morning in Cienfuegos begins with a visit to a local health clinic to see firsthand how the Cuban healthcare system works. Along with a team of doctors, the director of the clinic gives our group a tour of the facilities as well as a Q & A where the group is free to ask anything. It’s amazing to hear that even though Cuban doctors only earn an average of $67 per month, they have some of the best trained doctors in the world (and they’re sent all over the globe to help)!
Next we head into the city center for a once in a lifetime experience – a private performance from the Cienfuegos Chamber Orchestra. The group is utterly speechless as the various members take the stage and treat us to an amazing hour of music. By the end of the performance, we were even up dancing with the conductor!
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Afterwards, the orchestra opens the room to a Q&A about Cuban musical history and the role the government plays in promoting Cuban culture. A fascinating experience indeed.
Lunch at the harbor as well as some free time in the city is a perfect break before hitting the road back to Havana. The scenery is absolutely stunning as we make our way along the coast and back inland through lush fields. We’re even greeted with an afternoon thunderstorm as we enter the outskirts of Havana.
Tonight, we have a relaxing evening in town enjoying dinner at a paladar in town followed by a leisurely walk along the malecon.
I can’t believe it’s our last full day together in Cuba. It’s amazing how fast time flies by!
We hit the road early to catch a performance from the Havana Compass dance group. I have to admit, after seeing several performances over the past week, I did not think this could be any better. Boy was I wrong…
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Havana Compass is not only a dance troupe that has performed for the likes of Mick Jagger, but also trains over 200 children in the community to be dancers, some of whom become professionals. Their full performance absolutely blows the group away. Using everyday items such as chairs as instruments of percussion combined with traditional and modern dances creates an atmosphere that is absolutely electric.
We couldn’t leave without a group a picture…
Our final stop of the trip takes us to the seaside village of Cojimar. Why drive all the way out to such a small town? Because it was once home of one of Cuba’s most famous residents – Ernest Hemingway.
We take a guided tour of Hemingway’s home, including the rooms where he wrote some of his most famous novels including The Old Man and the Sea. Hemingway spent a bulk of his life and Cuba and his home, dubbed Finca Vigia or Lookout Farm, is a testament to his love for the island. From his boat to leftover manuscripts scattered on his desk, it’s truly amazing to see the life of such an illustrious writer.
We make our way to lunch down by the bay where the cool sea breeze tempers the Caribbean humidity. With less than a day left on the island, Harlen, our driver, takes us to a small indoor market in Havana for some last minute souvenir shopping. From artwork to rum, our group comes back with everything!
Tonight is bittersweet. Our last meal together is at one of Havana’s best restaurants where we enjoy fresh paella and the sounds of a live piano performance. A final cheers to Cuba ends the night as we walk back to our hotel.
And we’re off. Driving through the streets of Havana to the airport is somewhat of a surreal experience. Watching vintage cars fly by as I realize I’ve been offline for nearly a week is almost unheard of in today’s world. But Cuba is different. This is a place that has retained its culture and fended off globalization unlike anywhere else. Change is coming and I’m sure it will mean many things for the island both good and bad. But for now, I’m happy to have seen a place that is anchored to its cultural foundation and to have met so many beautiful, happy people. Until next time… –text and photos by Alex DuBois
BIO: Alex DuBoismanages the operations of Discover Corps. Cuba has always been a place that has fascinated him and he could not have thought of a better time to visit the island. His one tip when going to Cuba – be flexible and enjoy the ride, it will be well worth it!
Discover Corps’ new Wildlife Conservation Experience tour was launched in June 2016. South African wildlife conservation has been a huge personal passion ever since my first visit to the country back in 2000. So I was delighted when my 14-year-old daughter and I were invited to experience the diverse itinerary for ourselves.
Having previously spent six weeks in South Africa, Tanzania and Rwanda, the biggest surprise for me was the weather. The African continent can get brutally hot in summer, when afternoon temperatures regularly reach 100º. But because South Africa is in the southern hemisphere, our summer is their winter, with daytime temps averaging 70-80º and nighttime temps dipping down to the low 40s.
But perhaps the biggest difference between Discover Corps’ South African trip and my previous one was the interactive opportunities this time around. From witnessing wildlife conservation first-hand with Project Rafiki and Care For Wild Africa to learning about traditional cultures at Nyani Cultural Village, this trip was immersive and expansive, providing a rich overview of life in South Africa.
Here’s a look at my day-by-day journal of our South African wildlife conservation experience…
Kristin McGarey and her family recently returned from the Sea Turtle Initiative in Costa Rica, where volunteers are introduced to the beautiful and endangered leatherback sea turtles. This Discover Corps trip offered the McGarey family a unique opportunity to spend time together while working to help a very special cause.
Participants in the Sea Turtle Initiative travel to the Caribbean coast (from January to July) or the Nicoya Peninsula in the Pacific Ocean (from July to December) to meet with environmentalists and learn about the turtles and the stunning habitats they call home.
Costa Rica Sea Turtles currently face many threats, including boat traffic, climate change, and trash in the ocean and on the beach. Since 1980, the leatherback turtle population in Costa Rica has dropped a shocking 90%.
Discover Corps volunteers help to offset these threats by cleaning up the beach and releasing baby turtles back into the ocean. This is a hands-on Sea Turtle conservation experience that’s perfect for anyone who is passionate about helping an endangered species.
Allow us to introduce Kristin, who shares the unforgettable memories she enjoyed with her family in Costa Rica…
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.