Costa Rica's vibrant, exotic sights, sounds and flavors create a wonderland for travelers.
Hear howler monkeys call out through a misty rainforest, savor the tangy sweetness of a just-picked pineapple, meet the friendly brown eyes of a sloth hanging from a tree: a day in Costa Rica is a tropical dream come alive. Pura vida is the mantra here. In English, it means “pure life,” but to Costa Ricans it means far more. It’s both a greeting and an affirmation; it conveys an attitude, an emotion and a way of life.
The tiny, peaceful country fits into its borders dense rainforests, volcanic peaks and hundreds of miles of beaches. More than 500,000 plant and animal species — about 5 percent of the world’s biodiversity — live here: brightly colored, surreal-looking creatures of every shape and color. This imagination-expanding land will remind you what travel makes possible: broadening horizons and forging connections to the wonders of the world.
All these elements make Costa Rica an ideal match with Earth Journeys from Tauck and BBC Earth; no surprise it’s one of their most popular trips. On this immersive experience, exploring rivers and rainforests, meeting artisans and farmers and learning from local experts, you won’t have to look for pura vida — it will find you.
WALK IN THE CLOUDS
Shrouded in thick mist, cloud forests (found at higher altitudes than rainforests) create habitats seen nowhere else on the planet. Clouds catch on the tall treetops, and the steady supply of moisture nourishes the variety of vines, mosses and orchids that cover nearly everything. The Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve is one of the world’s most famous examples, set more than 4,500 feet above sea level along Costa Rica’s continental divide. In rare clear weather, the country’s Caribbean and Pacific coasts are both visible.
Thanks to hanging bridges suspended in the treetops, you can walk into this world eye level with the birds and many of the animals. Earth Journeys travelers do so accompanied by two of Costa Rica's foremost naturalists who can point out some of the 100 species of mammals, 400 species of birds and more than 2,500 varieties of plants, over 400 of which are orchids (the largest number of orchid species anywhere). Maybe you’ll spot the elusive resplendent quetzal, with its electric green and red plumage, widely considered one of the world’s most beautiful birds.
Even the butterflies here are extraordinary. The stunning blue morpho is one of the world’s largest butterflies, with a wingspan of up to eight inches, and is just one of Costa Rica’s 1,000 butterfly species. Blue morphos are among the many species in residence at the Monteverde Butterfly Gardens, where naturalists continue to pass along their expert insights to Earth Journey travelers about these delicate creatures as well as the garden’s other inhabitants — elephant beetles, walking sticks and leafcutter ants inside a huge ant farm, where you can look into their world and watch them march single file, carrying their leaves.
WATER AND FIRE
Monteverde Cloud Forest’s pure waters feed into the Penas Blancas River, which winds through the mountains below. Dense, lush rainforest lines its banks, with volcanic hot springs and waterfalls mixed in. Settle into a rubber river raft to float down the river and spot giant iguanas, sloths, monkeys, toucans, river turtles, crocodiles and caimans. Deep in the jungle, the Earth Journeys guide steers the raft to shore and provides an introduction to a local farming family who have lived on the river for generations. With the help of the guide’s translation, travelers connect with family members as they share their traditions and details of life on the river.
Water in some form seems omnipresent here, but Costa Rica was formed by fire, specifically, volcanoes. The country encompasses half a dozen active volcanoes and more than 60 that are dormant or extinct. Eruptions over millions of years have contributed to the mineral-rich, fertile soils, which are partly responsible for the unparalleled biodiversity. The volcanoes create fascinating environments of their own: in the Poas volcano, with one of the world’s largest active craters, a boiling acid lake fills the crater. Arenal, active as recently as 2010, is a picture-perfect volcano. It looms dramatically over the surrounding rainforest and green pastures, a perfectly symmetrical cone jutting nearly 5,500 feet into the sky.
The park surrounding Arenal is a prime destination for hiking, rafting, rappelling and zip lining through the rainforest canopy, which provides the perfect perspective for seeing the sloths, white-faced capuchins and innumerable birds: over half of Costa Rica’s birds are represented here. The volcano’s geothermal activity heats many underground water flumes, which surface as hot springs — perfect places to relax after a zip lining adrenaline rush.
Coffee and chocolate are favorite flavors for many. They are also two of Costa Rica’s most popular exports and have long histories here. Coffee production dates back to the late 1700s, when the Arabica plant was first brought to the country. The perfect climate and fertile soil contributed to its enormous success, creating economic growth that transformed the very face of the country. And Costa Ricans love their coffee: coffee consumption is the highest of any coffee-producing country in the world.
Coffee fields still spread across the hillsides, the short shrubs creating tidy lines of green and brown. It is said that for every Costa Rican, there are more than 100 coffee trees. A local guide leads Earth Journeys travelers on a private tour of a coffee plantation and weaves the story of its history — including the pivotal role played by the country’s unique, brightly painted oxcarts — and the labor-intensive production practices behind your daily cup.
Before coffee, there was chocolate, and it was once as valuable as gold. Indigenous tribes used the beans as currency. The practice continued until the 1930s. Today, chocolatiers use locally grown cacao beans and make gourmet truffles and chocolate bars by hand. Sibú Chocolate is among them. At their small workshop and cafe, Earth Journeys travelers discover how cacao beans become bars and take part in the process. When it’s time to taste the results, a cup of local coffee is the perfect accompaniment.
TOUCANS AND TURTLES
Costa Ricans do not take their natural wonders for granted. Some 25 percent of the country’s territory is protected, and it boasts nearly 30 national parks. Tortuguero National Park, the heart of the coastal rainforest along the Caribbean coast, tops the list among wildlife lovers. The park teems with life, including a large population of turtles (the park’s name means “turtle catcher”). Giant leatherback, hawksbill and loggerhead turtles, as well as green sea turtles that were once hunted to near extinction, live part time in these waters and nest on the shores — one of nature’s most amazing sights, for which Earth Journeys travelers can take a front-row seat during nesting season.
This watery park of swamps, mangrove forests, lagoons and beaches, laced with rivers, is accessible only by plane or boat. Float down its calm brown waters on an early morning canal cruise, accompanied by local guides. Stop in at the charming village of Tortuguero to connect with village residents talking about their “tree of life” — the coconut tree — and discover the coconut’s medicinal benefits.
Back on the boat, you’ll see and hear the jungle greet the brightening day. Birds are everywhere: parrots, parakeets, toucans and the endangered great green macaw, with its turquoise-tipped wings and red face, along with some 300 other species of birds, filling the humid air with their songs. Pura vida indeed.
(May/June 2017 issue of Traveler)