By Nigel Tisdall | August 2017 | 7 minute read
Cemented as the most popular Central American country for Brits, it’s easy to see the appeal of eco-haven Costa Rica. This tiny nation is devoted to ‘Pura Vida’ (best translated as ‘full of life’), English is widely spoken, U.S. dollars are commonly accepted and the country feels safe and welcoming – in 1948 Costa Rica disbanded its army and put the money into education and healthcare.
“Don’t discount visiting Costa Rica during the rainy season from May to November – it can be quieter and cheaper, the countryside is green, the rivers full and whales pass by the coast in October”
AMANDA MARKS, DIRECTOR, COSTA RICA SPECIALISTS
Fired up: Costa Rica has 129 volcanoes including Volcán Arenal, which erupted unexpectedly in 1968 creating a spectacular 5,480ft peak that is now one of the country’s most visited attractions
Hot spot: Thermal springs are a happy spin-off of this volcanic action. After an exhilarating day of adrenaline activities there’s nothing like relaxing in a 43°C pool with a tico sour (the country’s answer to the caipirinha)
Capital idea: Flight times can require an overnight in San José, which has its charms despite appalling traffic and a dishevelled appearance. The Mercado Central and 1897 Teatro Nacional are worth a visit and Hotel Grano de Oro is a high-class heritage property
Loved up: Costa Rica is ideal for the adventurous honeymooners. At the adults-only Nayara Springs resort in Arenal all the suites come with a four-poster bed, wraparound balcony and private plunge pool framed in lush foliage. On the Pacific Coast, Arenas del Mar is a relaxing clifftop oasis overlooking the mile-long Playa Espadilla Norte
Hanging on: Ziplining is big business with over 300 places to do it. At the Ecoglide Park in Arenal you can whizz along 13 aerial cables then face your fears on a scream-inducing Tarzan Swing
Be happy: Costa Rica is the happiest country in the world according to the 2016 Happy Planet Index which looks at wellbeing, life expectancy and ecological footprint. (The UK came 34th!)
Golden bean: Coffee is the best souvenir to bring home and there are plenty of opportunities to visit farms and learn about the considerable effort that goes into making our daily fix
Eat well:Yes, there’s lots of gallo pinto (rice and beans), but also ample supplies of fresh fish and luscious tropical fruits. Pineapples, bananas, mangoes, papayas, avocados – welcome to juicing heaven
Wet and wild: The Osa peninsula in the south-west is the best place for a wilderness adventure – the Parque Nacional Corcovado is the country’s largest park and has luxury lodge, such as Casa Corcovado Jungle Lodge, offering high-class comforts
Really wild show
Over 70,000 Brits visited Costa Rica in 2016, a boom encouraged by the introduction of direct flights from Gatwick. In November 2015 Thomson launched a weekly service from London to Liberia, in the north-west province of Guanacaste, then in April last year British Airways followed with twice-weekly (three in winter) flights to the capital, San José.
It may not have the Mayan ruins, Spanish colonial architecture or rich ethnic culture that awaits in Mexico or Guatemala, but its flora and fauna are world-beating. There are more species of birds in Costa Rica than in the whole of Europe, and its 26 national parks guarantee memorable encounters with wildlife ranging from howler monkeys and sloths to crimson-fronted parakeets and over 50 species of hummingbird.
Crucially, travellers can see and do a lot quickly and easily. Similar in size to Denmark, Costa Rica’s location on an isthmus where two continents meet has created a carnival of bio-diversity. You can drive between the Pacific and Caribbean coasts in three hours, and in a week go from exploring the rainforest to admiring volcanoes to surfing off golden beaches. Hotels and eco-lodges are high-quality, guides are well-trained.
Over a quarter of the land is protected and green thinking is a reality: recycling bins are everywhere and hotels are genuinely committed to sustainability. There’s also a ban on swimming with dolphins and whales. Wherever you look, this is a destination where nature comes first.
A river adventure
What’s the most dangerous thing about whitewater rafting?” asks our gung-ho guide, Max. Surprisingly, it’s not the raging waters or those nasty-looking rocks. “Most injuries result from being whacked with a paddle by your neighbour,” he explains, prompting us to look warily at one other.
As we set off on our 17-mile rollercoaster ride down the Pacuare, Costa Rica’s most scenic river, it seems inevitable there will be thrills and spills.
My 14-foot-long, six-passenger inflatable raft feels woefully small for this three-day adventure paddling in and out of Pacuare Lodge, a remote eco-hotel buried in the rainforest near Bajo del Tigre. Pinball, Rodeo, Cemetery – the names of the Class I-IV rapids – say it all, but I’m far too busy to be scared as the waves smash into us and we learn how to crouch down like a rugby scrum when the big drops come.
Spliced between these adrenaline moments are interludes of astonishing serenity as we glide through 300ft-tall forests. Blue morpho butterflies flutter by in the thick heat.
Yellow-throated toucans flap past, weighed down by their magnificent beaks. A machaca fish jumps, grabbing a quick and easy lunch of purple orchid blooms floating on the tea-coloured water.
I feel like an explorer dreamily floating through an enchanted canyon of emerald trees and silvery waterfalls – until Max suddenly cries “Paddle now!” and we’re off again, bouncing around like a sock in a washing machine as the Pacuare roars and pours its way down to the Caribbean Sea.
What the experts say
“We've seen a huge interest in Costa Rica from both the UK travel trade and consumers. We think this is being fuelled by the thirst in the marketplace for off-the-beaten track, adventure options, as well as the unrivalled wildlife that Costa Rica offers.”
“In the first quarter of 2017, 3,384 Brits travelled to Costa Rica, a 12.7% increase in UK visitor numbers on the same period for 2016. “We ran a booking incentive for sales staff to win a place on a fam trip to Costa Rica and have these taking place in June, July and September and we're planning a sales mission, with around 20 partners from Costa Rica signed up to visit the UK in the week after World Travel Market in November."
ROB WILSON, HEAD OF SALES & MARKETING, TRAVEL & TOURISM AT FOUR COMMUNICATIONS
Airlines: Airlines: KLM Royal Dutch Airlines launch a twice weekly flight from Amsterdam to San José in October.
Accommodation: In Arenal, the luxurious and much-lauded Nayara Springs has added 19 villas plus a new pool, yoga pavilion and rainforest trail.
Casa Chameleon Las Catalinas is a new 21-villa resort in the car-free beach town of Las Catalinas, Guanacaste.
Tours: Airlines: Packages combining Costa Rica with its southern neighbour Panama are popular. KE Adventures has a new 15 day ‘Natural Wonders of Costa Rica and Panama’ group tour that visits both Caribbean and Pacific coasts with an emphasis on spotting wildlife from turtles and sloths to crocodiles and the resplendent quetzal bird.
Great Rail Journeys is offering £150 discount on its 15 day ‘Enchanting Costa Rica and Panama’ tour, which includes a ride on the Panama Canal Railway, valid for 2018 bookings made by 15 August 2017.
Where to book it
Costa Rica Specialists offer a 13-day tailor-made ‘Active Costa Rica’ package costs from £2,660pp including canyoning at Rio Perdido and rafting at Pacuare Lodge. International flights are extra.
A nine-day guided group tour, ‘Natural Highlights of Costa Rica’, from Exodus Travel costs from £1,939pp including international flights, breakfast and some meals. Stand-out experiences are a boat trip through the Tortugero National Park, a dip in the hot springs at Arenal and a hike in the Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve.