Our hotel specialist Marta has been dreaming of visiting Costa Rica for as long as she can remember. It proved to be the adventure of a lifetime. Here are five of her favourite experiences.
1 Rafting deep into the jungle
Named by National Geographic as one of the top 10 rivers in the world, Rio Pacuare winds through the heart of Costa Rica’s most pristine jungle and is home to sloths, howler monkeys and the elusive jaguar. There’s rappelling, zip-lining, hiking and horse riding, plus a chance to visit indigenous communities. The heavier the rainfall the faster the rapids, so bring your sense of adventure and be ready for anything that mother nature offers.
Where to stay: The only way to reach the stunning Pacuare Lodge is by rafting down the rapids. Talk about a unique hotel arrival. This luxury lodge is hidden deep in the jungle, which means everything gets here by the river, from food and furniture to golf buggies. Rates include three courses (three times a day) and loads of stimulating daily activities. You’ll be hard-pressed to find a more immersive jungle experience in Costa Rica.
My highlight: The staff. This charismatic team spend a lot of time getting to know you (even how many sugars you take) but it never feels overbearing. And what passion and knowledge they have for the river!
Getting here: Pacuare lodge will pick you up in San Jose and drive you through picturesque Braulio Carrillo National Park (2hrs) before reaching the river. You and an experienced guide will then set off on an hour-long, adrenaline-fuelled ride down the rapids to the lodge.
2 Sleeping below a sacred volcano
The majestic Arenal volcano appears on every traveller’s must-see list and you can see why. Just look at it. A near-perfect conical giant that towers 5,400ft over its lush surroundings. This marvel of nature is the most active volcano in Costa Rica, although it hasn’t erupted since 2010). Yet what makes Arenal truly special is the incredible landscape it overshadows – natural springs, plunging waterfalls, emerald lagoons and forests echoing with exotic birdsong. Charming town La Fortuna is nearby.
Where to stay: For the most iconic view of Arenal, stay at Leaves and Lizards, an absolute treat for families and kids. This quirky hilltop retreat is full of character and its owners, Debbie and Steve, have stamped their personalities on the place. We recommend their renowned horse riding (Debbie owns 25!) or simply relax by the lovely infinity pool. If the clouds cover the volcano, drive down to the geothermal springs and feel the soothing effects of naturally hot water, or take a rejuvenating mud bath.
My highlight: The cabins are some of the quirkiest I have ever seen; each has its own identity and story. I stayed at the Hobbit House which was truly magical. I felt like a kid again.
Getting here: La Fortuna is a 3-hour drive from San Jose airport. Once you get here, Leaves and Lizards is 30-minutes away. The last part of the journey can be bumpy so hiring a 4×4 is essential.
3 Exploring a ‘cloud forest’ on horseback
The mythic cloud-forest of Monteverde is Costa Rica’s greatest treasure and a global superstar of sustainability. Named for its mysterious ability to perpetually pop in and out of the clouds, this mountainous rainforest has some of the richest, greenest biodiversityon earth. High in humidity, Monteverde creates a magical ecosystem for hikers to explore. But if you want real adventure do it on horseback. And bring binoculars! This is home to hummingbirds, tucans and big cats.
Where to stay: After a day’s exploring, unwind at the utterly idyllic El Sol hideaway. Just two charming rustic-chic cabins located at the foot of the cloud forest. The mantra here is ‘where heaven touches earth’. It has million-dollar views of Guanacaste province, a reflective infinity pool, quirky bohemian interiors and some of the most incredible sunsets imaginable. A genuine slice of paradise.
My highlight: Horseriding through the forest. El Sol’s neighbour, Miguel, was my riding instructor and after a mesmerising trek down mountainsides and dense vegetation, we found a refreshing waterfall to cool off and enjoyed a delicious homemade lunch. Unforgettable.
Getting here: Sat Nav says it takes 3hrs from San Jose to Monteverde, but it doesn’t take into account how bumpy the journey is. A 4 x4 is essential (take some car sickness tablets if you have a sensitive disposition). The landscape changes drastically along the way, so add an hour to your journey to enjoy the scenery.
4Living the pura vida in Papagayo
The protected ‘Golfo de Papagayo’, as it’s known in Spanish, is a volcanic peninsula on the northwest Pacific coast. Its allure is self-evident: 15 miles of virgin coastline, 31 stunning beaches tucked within hidden coves, lush tropical interiors inhabited by pumas, and dramatic cliffsides where seabirds swoop and soar. The peninsula’s ultra-blue waters are perfect for diving, snorkelling, surfing, kayaking, and you’re likely to see manta rays, bull sharks and octopus.
Where to stay: Sunsets here are spectacular ceremonies, and as Kasiiya Papagayo is perched high up on the Gulf, it’s one of the best places to watch nature’s greatest light show. Yet Kasiiya is more than just a hotel; it’s simply in a world of its own. Nestled within a private peninsula, it offers 123 acres of secluded privacy – an immersive experience that encourages guests to pause and embrace the environment. Hermit crabs scuttle down the beach, butterflies flit through the air, iguanas and coatimundis patrol the gardens. Pure magic.
My highlight: I loved sea kayaking and snorkelling with Manfred, an experienced guide well-versed in the marine world. We sighted green turtles and Cownose rays. I’d also recommend the free diving class with instructor Bruno.
Getting here: Kaiisya is just 45 minutes from Liberia airport. You will be picked up by one of the staff. For such an isolated location, this is hassle-free bliss.
5 Finding a surfer’s paradise
Sitting on the western edge of the incredible Nicoya Peninsula is Santa Teresa, a super-cool surfer’s paradise filled with people who made this particular fantasy a living reality. The inland view from the beach is extraordinarily beautiful, with coconut palm trees, golden sands and heavy spray from the big swell softening the light and making for wonderfully soulful sunsets.
Where to stay:Florblancaoccupies a sandy bay which is by far the best stretch of beach in Santa Teresa. The style here is jungle chic. Its 11 villas are nestled among sprawling vegetation and semi-open to the elements. Each has an open-air living area and a large private terrace The outdoor bathrooms are fabulous. They occupy a little courtyard yet are fully integrated with the jungle, with pebble-shaped soaking tubs and biodegradable products. (I had two baths a day.)
My highlight: The best way to explore around Santa Teresa is by renting a quad bike. The lanes can get dusty and bumpy, but they’re lots of fun. You can get off-road and go wild in the surrounding jungle. A quad bike also allows you to take your surfboard to the beach. Result.
Getting here: The journey from San Jose can take up to 5hrs. This involves a 1.5hr ferry crossing followed by a bone-shaking, bum-numbing couple of hours by car. A simpler route is to take an internal flight from San Jose to Tambor, a 40min-drive from Santa Teresa.