With Jed Hauck
Costa Rica lives up to its nickname — the “Rich Coast.” Its tropical beaches stretch along the Caribbean Sea in the east and the Pacific Ocean in the west, and they deliver every imaginable sand and sea experience, from white to dark volcanic sand; from calm, tepid waters to relentlessly crashing surf. Choose a palm-fringed beach for lazy days of sunbathing, a secluded bay for a romantic interlude, or a wide and expansive stretch of sand for game playing. Bond with nature on a beach that doubles as a turtle nesting ground, slip into the sea for some of the world’s best scuba diving, and mingle with locals on a beach that comes alive after sunset.
But the beaches are only one small part of Costa Rica’s story. Between the coasts, Costa Rica boasts plateaus with lush green meadows, mystical cloud forests, active volcanoes, waterfalls and streams that cut through the terrain, and rainforests that chatter with life.
It’s a paradise for ecotourists, with an impossibly wide range of biodiversity and a full 26 percent of its natural territory protected through the creation of national parks, biological reserves, wildlife refuges, wetlands, and natural reserves.
Take a morning canopy walk through the perpetually misty Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve, bask along the inviting white-gray beaches and thick green foliage of Manuel Antonio National Park, or join a night tour to see fiery lava erupt from the Arenal Volcano, the country’s most active volcano.
Meanwhile, Costa Rica’s capital city of San Jose is becoming a booming metropolis and a bustling cosmopolitan center where you can dine on excellent cuisine and share in the warm and welcoming culture.
Your Guide to Costa Rica!
The only thing Flight Centre Expert Michelle Ellis loves more than Costa Rica is sharing her stories and knowledge of this fascinating and emerging travel destination. Michelle took some time to answer questions that will help you get ready for the ultimate trip to eco-paradise!
Q: Costa Rica is quickly gaining popularity as a must-see destination. What’s behind that interest?
A: One of the things that makes it so appealing and so wonderful to me is the people of Costa Rica. They truly embody the “pura vida” spirit. Pura vida [literally translated: “pure life”] is like saying good morning, good evening, thank you — everything is pura vida.
So when you go to Costa Rica, everyone is just so welcoming, so nice, and so friendly. They’re so happy that you could have chosen anywhere to go and you chose their country, and they’re going to really show you that pura vida experience. When I go there, I really feel so comfortable and so at home. It’s a very safe destination. Costa Rica has had no standing army for many, many years now.
Related: Don’t Coast in Costa Rica
After that, it’s just the fact there’s so many things to do there. It’s not a destination where you’re going to flop and just stay in a hotel for six nights. You’re going to go on a canopy tour, you’re going to do a nature walk, you’re going to visit the rainforest, and you have the beach. There are so many different options for the adventurous vacationer and also that vacationer who does just want to have that beach experience. It offers a lot of diversity. Costa Rica has 5% of the world’s biodiversity and species, so that’s huge for a small country.
Q: Costa Rica is known for its natural beauty. What’s your favorite spot for experiencing Costa Rica’s natural beauty?
A: Monteverde, to me, is a special place. You’re 5,000 feet above sea level. You’re in the rainforest, but the clouds are right above your head. It’s definitely a cool experience if you’re looking for that type of tourism.
Q: How can visitors to Costa Rica experience its natural beauty? Do they have to book tours to see the sights?
A: A lot of the areas – Monteverde, Arenal — you don’t have to go on a bus or a group tour. You can just go to the parks. There are local parks where you can pay an entrance fee, and there are park guides all around as you’re walking through who will answer questions for you. You can take that initiative and do it yourself.
Costa Rica 101
Q: What do first-time visitors need to know about traveling to Costa Rica?
A: A problem that I see a lot — and I met someone when I was flying to San Jose recently who was in this scenario — Costa Rica has two international airports. And it’s very important to realize if you’re going to the Guanacaste province/Liberia area and you book your flight to San Jose, that’s about a six- or seven-hour transfer.
If you’re going to the Guanacaste area, fly into Liberia. If you’re doing Monte Verde and Arenal and you’re not going to Guanacaste, then definitely fly into San Jose.
So I met someone on the flight who was going to a hotel in Liberia, but he had his flight and arrangements through San Jose. That’s a whole two days out of your vacation when you think about it. I asked who booked his trip, and he did it himself. That’s why having a travel agent is so important.
Q: What is the main difference between the two areas?
A: The majority of hotels in the Guanacaste/Liberia area are all-inclusive hotels — they’re your bigger resort-type of hotels with beach access.
When you’re going out to the Monte Verde area [closer to San Jose], that’s more of that biodiversity, that ecotourism, that cultural type of trip that you’re going to be taking. You’re going to San Jose, staying maybe one night in the city, and then moving on from there, maybe doing Manuel Antonio, probably Monte Verde, or even Arenal to get that hot spring experience. That’s something Costa Rica is famous for in the Arenal area — the volcano heats the water underground and creates hot springs.
Q: What’s your recommendation for travelers who have been to a resort destination like Cancun and who might be looking at Costa Rica as a next step in their international travels?
A: Definitely Guanacaste. When you’re thinking about that Cancun kind of feel, Guanacaste is very similar to Riviera Maya, where the hotels are a little further apart — you’re going to need a transfer or car to get around, but that’s the perfect transition.
And from there you can actually do day tours to Arenal Volcano or take a canopy and adventure tour — whitewater rafting and things of that nature. So Guanacaste would be perfect to start and definitely do one or two day tours with your six-night stay.
Q: Any Guanacaste-area resorts really stand out for you?
A: I have had the chance to visit a few. The Westin stands out. Great cuisine — they have a wonderful French restaurant. It’s the only all-inclusive Starwood brand they have in their list of hotels. The beach is one of the best beaches in the Playa Conchal area. It’s very calm. Westin has a wonderful spa, too.
Also Dreams Las Mareas is a new resort — it’s about a 1 1/2 hour transfer from the Liberia airport, whereas most of the other resorts are 45 minutes. But it’s a gorgeous property and something that is bringing development and jobs to that area.
Q: What should these first-time travelers to Costa Rica expect upon landing at the Liberia airport?
A: Similar to transfers when you go to Mexico or the Caribbean, they’ll be waiting with a sign for you. There are rental car options, too, and Costa Rica is safe and the infrastructure is very good. It wasn’t that great about three years ago, but they’ve developed a lot of the roads since then.
I don’t see a lot of taxis, and I wouldn’t recommend a taxi if you’re going to go 45 minutes or so. It’s just easier to go with a transfer company.
Advanced Costa Rica — For the Travel Pros
Q: For more seasoned travelers looking to immerse themselves a bit more in their destination, is San Jose the place to be?
A: San Jose is definitely where you’d fly into. That’s going to be your hub for getting to other areas where a lot of the adventure is in Costa Rica. If you’re looking to have that adventurous type of trip, you can start there and branch out to so many different areas that are about two to three hours from San Jose. So you could spend a night in the city and move on.
Costa Rica is a small country, so it’s definitely easy to get around. You jump in a car, drive two hours, and you’re in Manuel Antonio. You drive another three hours or so, and you’re in Monte Verde — so you can hop in a rental car with your friends and just go.
Q: What’s something that well-traveled people might not know about Costa Rica, even if they’ve been there before?
A: Costa Rica does not get recognized for having great food, but in fact it does! I think people need to be a little more adventurous, and the food there is very cheap. If you’re staying in that San Jose area and branching out, you need to understand the majority of hotels are not all inclusive, so you’re going to have the opportunity to go out and dine, and the cuisine there is really wonderful.
I’ve been to a lot of restaurants there. Arenal Springs is a hotel that’s in Arenal, and it’s gorgeous. You have a view of the volcano, part of the hotel is inside the rainforest, and they have a phenomenal restaurant — wonderful beef and pork dishes.