Nature Lover’s Extraordinaire
Itinerary specifically designed to explore the beauty of Costa Rica in two weeks.
Want to see the best that Costa Rica’s nature has to offer? Read on.
Day 1: San José: City Parks
Spend the day leisurely exploring downtown San José by strolling between the wonderfully landscaped city parks of Costa Rica. Start in the Parque Nacional on the east side of downtown. This large, leafy park is bordered by many important public institutions, such as the Legislative Assembly on the south side, the Electoral Tribunal, which ensures free public elections, is on the west; the northwest corner houses a wonderful cultural complex that includes the Museum of Contemporary Art; the north side has the National Library; and on the northeast corner, you’ll find the commuter train station that goes to Heredia.
From there, make your way west, with stops at the España, Morazán, and Central parks, finally ending up in Parque Metropolitano La Sabana. You can check out a wide range of museums along the way: Jade (near Plaza de la Democracia), the National Museum (near Parque Nacional), Gold (underneath the Plaza de la Cultura) and the Museum of Costa Rican Art, on the east side of La Sabana. It’s a great way to get familiar with some native species of trees and flowers, and to fill up on city life before heading into the wilderness.
Day 2-5: The Osa Peninsula
When your plane skids to a stop on the airstrip in Drake Bay, you might feel like you’ve reached the last outpost before the jungle swallows up any signs of man’s presence. Your feeling would be correct. Rich in wildlife, sparsely populated and, until recently, having very difficult access, much of this highly forested area is conserved in national parks and private reserves. Towering rainforests line undeveloped beaches and untouched coves, making this region one of the most beautiful anywhere on earth.
In response to a growing eco-tourism market, many environmentally conscious lodges have opened up along the coast north of Corcovado National Park. Drake Bay has become a premier destination, catering for vacationers who want to experience nature and comfort simultaneously. Nearby Caño Island is excellent for snorkeling and diving, while the deeper waters are great for sportfishing.
You can swim with dolphins, go horseback riding and swing through the trees on a canopy adventure. Dive with sharks; follow a tapir through the forests; or simply hang out drinking fine wine at any of the luxury lodges. That is how you experience Osa at Drake Bay.
If you lust for such symbols of civilization like a bank, fried chicken or access to land-based vehicles, head over to Puerto Jiménez for a day. Be sure to visit Matapalo – the last time I was there I saw three species of monkeys, a sloth, a boa constrictor and myriad birds in the first 45 minutes of my hike, which I ended with a massage given by a cool waterfall.
On your last day, take a 1.5-hour boat ride across the Golfo Dulce to Golfito. This town is a former banana-exporting center, as you might surmise from the architecture. Tourism is the main industry in town today, and exploring local nature preserves with tourists has proven to be more lucrative in the long term than exporting fruit.
Sportfishing has long been the main tourist attraction in town, and indeed any time you can get on the water in the Golfo Dulce, you’re in for a good day. Nearby beaches Pavones and Zancudo are great for surfing, attracting an international crowd. Outside of the city, there are botanical gardens, indigenous communities, and small rural community tourism options.
A nice selection of fishing lodges and more upscale hotels have opened in recent years, bringing a more international flavor to this old banana-shipping community.
Day 6-8: Costa Ballena
Costa Ballena is the southern Pacific region between the beach towns of Dominical and Ojochal. This popular Costa Rican destination’s name comes from Ballena Marine National Park, which features a unique land formation called a tómbolo which, from the air, looks like a whale’s tail (hence the name: Ballena means “whale” in Spanish). It is also known as Uvita. In several of the park’s islands, the ocean has carved caves that, when the waves are strong, shoot streams of water skyward like blowholes.
The intense natural beauty draws visitors from around the globe. Steep coastal mountains, known as the Fila Costera, stretch all the way to the coast. It’s the only region in the country where the beach and mountains work to form such a dramatic backdrop.
Oh, and what beaches they are. You could spend each day of a week-long vacation at a unique beach and still want to come back for more next year. Check out Dominical for surfing. Swimmers will find solace at Ventanas and Arcos, closer to Ballena National Marine Park.
The area’s accommodations could be considered an attraction in and of themselves. As distinct and quirky as their respective owners, Costa Ballena’s hotels are a truly unique smorgasbord of lodging. There are no chains. Instead, it’s a series of hotels rich in personality and each boasting views better than any postcard you’ve ever seen. And each remains intimate, as no hotel has more than 20 rooms.
Although traditional Costa Rican dishes were readily available throughout the area, only during the last few years have visitors to Costa Ballena been able to enjoy local forays into international cuisine.
Ojochal, about 20 minutes south of Dominical, offers a surprisingly sophisticated range of international cuisine. Citrus and Exotica are perennial favorites. However, small, locally run restaurants are tucked around the region, both in Ojochal and along the Costanera Highway.
There is a wide range of tours that allow you to explore the different aspects of the area. Whale watching tours are popular (depending on the time of year, you can see humpback, pilot and killer whales) and many visitors try to take a trip to Corcovado National Park while in the area. More locally based activities include visiting the Nauyaca waterfalls, snorkeling and diving at Caño Island, sportfishing and more. Just north of Domincal is Hacienda Barú, which is a private nature reserve that offers a nice array of adventure activities (like canopy tours) and other tours geared towards nature lovers.
Also, Reptilandia boasts a nice collection of reptiles which are showcased in well-appointed terrariums in a garden setting. Check out Southern Expeditions, based in Dominical (southernexpeditionscr.com) for general information, or Croco Dive (www.crocodive.com) is a good choice for water-based activities.
Day 9: San Gerardo de Dota
Leave Costa Ballena and head towards San Jose via the Cerro de la Muerte. High atop the central mountain range, make a one-day stop in this small mountain community.
Hiking is the best way to experience the intricacies of San Gerardo. The main activities include birdwatching, fishing and canopy tours. All are easy-access trails, and handrails and ropes are placed along the routes. You don’t need to be in great shape to walk them; just take your time, enjoy the surrounding nature, keep alert and you just might see a colorful quetzal fluttering nearby.
The Savegre River stands out. This crystal-clear, rushing river is crossed by several safe metal footbridges. You can fish the river, enjoy the curious rock formations – especially descending to the stone overlook (mirador de la piedra), which is a natural cave that looks out at a small waterfall and natural pool. You can finish your hike at one of the area’s biggest attractions, the waterfall (catarata).
For birdwatchers, San Gerardo is the place to be. In fact, birdwatchers are just another part of the landscape. We found them on trails, the highway, in hotels, looking for multicolored hummingbirds, emerald toucanets, tanagers and of course the famous quetzal among the 250 species that inhabit the region.
Nighttime can get chilly here, and some hotel rooms come equipped with heaters. It’s a nice change of pace after a week in the torpid climes of the tropical lowlands, and spending a night watching the fog roll in as you’re snug in a blanket, in front of a fireplace, makes you wonder if you’re still in the tropics at all.
Day 10-13: Monteverde
Make the drive through San José, towards Monteverde. You’ll end up your stay in Costa Rica at this cool mountain region. Nature lovers flock from around the globe to explore Monteverde’s intense flora and fauna. The area protects around 60,000 hectares (150,000 acres) of forest and is home to more than 100 species of mammals, 120 species of reptiles and amphibians and over 2,500 species of plants. Flower lovers will find 420 different kinds of orchids. Exotic creatures roam the lush forests, including jaguars, ocelots, and the rare Resplendent Quetzal.
Spend your days exploring the backcountry that has made Monteverde so famous. You’ll find three main non-profit nature reserves in the area:
• Monteverde Reserve
Is one of the most famous cloud forest reserves in the world, and is one of the most important protected areas in Costa Rica. The reserve provides a life sanctuary of over 4,000 hectares of cloud and rain forest where visitors can find a surprising biodiversity due to the unique geographic, topographic and climatic conditions in the area.
• Santa Elena Reserve
Is one of the first reserves managed by the local community. Opened in 1992 with the help of a Canadian non-profit organization, the Costa Rican government, and the Santa Elena community, the reserve consists of an area of 310 hectares. The philosophy behind the reserve is that long-term sustainability is not only the concern of the reserve but also the community as a whole. Proceeds from entrance fees, guided tours, and the souvenir shop are either reinvested in the management of the reserve or used to help upgrade technology and fund courses in environmental education, biology, agriculture, languages and tourism at a local high school, which uses the reserve as a natural class for students and teachers.
• The Children’s Eternal Rainforest
(Bosque Eterno de los Niños)
All three reserves offer excellent hiking opportunities. If you want to spot animals, you have better chances doing this by joining a tour with an experienced guide who points out the animals for you. All reserves offer twilight and night tours with trained guides. This is a great opportunity to see the wildlife as many animals are nocturnal. For most tours, you need to make a reservation beforehand.
Monteverde is also famous as a birding area. It is possible to spot birds throughout the area, with or without guides, even though chances might be better with an experienced guide. Professional birding tours often stop at Monteverde. In fact, one of Costa Rica’s famous Christmas bird counts takes place annually in Monteverde.
You won’t run out of things to do in Monteverde, Costa Rica; indeed, you could easily spend a week and not see even half of the attractions in the area. Check with your tour desk to see what most interests you: a visit to the cheese factory, coffee tours, canopy tours, hanging bridges in the rainforest, wildlife-based exhibits like the Frog Pond, butterfly garden, Bat Cave, orchid garden and much more.