Sean Sheehan seeks out the good life in Costa Rica
The holidaymaker’s dilemma: adventure or relaxation. Do you want to see volcanoes and wildlife or laze around on sunny beaches and experience the joys of spa living? One tiny country has squared this circle: Costa Rica is safe, friendly, ecologically responsible, full of glorious places with flora and fauna you’ll never see at home, sandy beaches, luxurious spa resorts. Costa Ricans like to use the expression pura vida – the good life – and visitors are arriving in their millions to grab some of it. Here’s how to join in.
Arenal Volcano National Park
From the capital city of San Jose, which is of little interest in itself, the Arenal Volcano National Park is three-hours driving away. The gem in the heart of the park is the Tabacon Resort in La Fortuna, set in beautifully tended gardens where you can stand outside your bungalow in the early morning and watch chestnut mandibled toucans and great kiskadees flitting around the plant life in flashes of intoxicating colours. The resort is blessed with five natural springs, four of them heated by the volcano, which flow through the grounds and settle throughout the gardens in secluded pools where you shed their fluffy bathrobes and steam gently in the mineral rich waters. The resort’s gardens are filled with beautiful plants, from stunning pink-and-red torch ginger to palms, bromeliads, orchids and heliconias. Peeping though this paradisal bounty are the occasional lumbering iguana or fleet-footed basilisk lizards that speed across ponds as if walking on water. Comical red-eyed tree frogs hide under fronds of plants and the gigantic blue morpho butterfly glides by on its way to somewhere else.
Rincon de Vieja National Park
Another three hours driving, first on a dual carriageway and then along dirt tracks, brings you to the splendidly isolated Borinquen Mountain Resort and Spa, close to Rincon de Vieja National Park in the Guanacaste province. The resort is looking on the elderly side but is set in painstakingly landscaped gardens nestling in the foothills of the eponymous volcano. The grounds alone are worth the trip: flowering guanacaste trees with elephant-ear seed pods and a prolific bird life which fills the trees in the mornings. Naturally heated tubs, open air mud baths and a sulphurous steam room set over a fumarole rejuvenate the body and convinced me that years had been added to my life span. The range and quality of food in the restaurant is disappointing but that’s not untypical for Costa Rica; mass tourism and the impact of the North American market has encouraged bland, predictable menus
In Rincon de Vieja National Park you can wander through dry forest dominated by Peruvian almond trees and spiny cedars, see capuchin monkeys and agoutis and, beyond the shade of the trees, fumaroles coughing up spouts of molten earth in sulphuric gasps. Some of the trails in the national park lead uphill towards the crater and take a day’s trekking but shorter walks lead to waterfalls and are largely through woodland filled with wildlife.
San Jose and around
Close to the capital and on the coast, Los Suenos Marriott Ocean & Golf Resort boasts all the creature comforts you would expect and its La Vista restaurant is a cut above the average. A half-hour journey away is Carara National Park, one of the last refuges of scarlet macaws. A longer drive from Los Suenos but worth the trip is Hacienda Baru Lodge with some 800 acres acres of forest, mangrove and beaches. Three-toed sloths hang around in trees near the entrance, considering moving but rarely doing so.
Another pleasurable trip to make from Los Suenos is a river trip on the Tarcoles river. Sitting back in one of the boats spotting wildlife from your seat is a great improvement on walking and the trip (junglecrocodilesafari.com) offers a profusion of photogenic birdlife along the banks of the river and in the river delta.
While San Jose has little to offer when compared to the cornucopia of delights outside the capital, your first or last night should be spent at the glorious old Hotel Grano de Oro, a delightful 40-room hotel created out of a mansion once owned by a biscuit magnate. Much of the style of the original building is intact and the hotel’s restaurant is built around an open courtyard. After some of the extremes of your journey around the national parks this place offers relaxation and fine dining.
Where to go on your Costa Rica trip is a dilemma – the more remote the destination the more strenuous your trip and the fewer really comfortable accommodation choices. Close to the city national parks such as Manuel Antonio offer great accommodation, easy walks, lots of tame macaques grabbing at your packed lunch but Oxford Street-like crowds on the pathways. When to visit is another factor – the best weather is from December to April but that brings the larger numbers of visitors (and higher room rates!) while late April/ early May offers mild weather and fewer visitors. Later in the year the rains set in, visitor numbers fall and while there are still warm sunny days rain gear is essential.
Depending on your interests, at least one guide book is essential. The Lonely Planet Costa Rica is a good all-round guide while for the birdlife Birds of Costa Rica by Garrigues and Dean and a pair of field glasses have to find a place in your luggage. A good road map such as Freytag & Berndt’s Costa Rica includes useful tourist information and will keep you centred as your search for the good life takes you around Costa Rica.