From elusive birds to tropical cloud forests to spectacular surfing beaches, Costa Rica is a nature lover’s paradise. Since the Central American country is a popular place for ecotourism, some spots, like Monteverde and Arenal, can get quite crowded. Look for ways to get off the beaten path rather than sticking with the crowded pack. Here are 10 ways to experience a whole new side of Costa Rica:
Spanish for “green mountain,” Monteverde is renowned for the biodiversity of its cloud forests. A cloud forest is a rainforest at an elevation above 5,000 feet. Tropical air from below condenses into fog and mist, creating constant moisture. However, the temperature is usually on the cool side.
Casual and professional ornithologists love searching for the 450 species of birds that reside the Monteverde Cloud Forest Biological Reserve. Other visitors delight in trudging through the dense forest or taking a canopy zip line tour. But when you get tired of traipsing through rain forests searching for the elusive Resplendent Quetzal or jaguar, you’ll want to discover all else the area has to offer.
The small village of Santa Elena was founded by Quakers in the 1950s. Today, you’ll find restaurants, hotels, a health clinic, and souvenir stands. Grab a bite at the Tree House Restaurant that’s situated inside a giant ficus tree. There are also horseback riding excursions, butterfly and hummingbird gardens, a serpentarium, and art galleries featuring local artwork. And don’t forget the cheese. The Quakers who originally settled the area made cheese, which is known throughout the region for its quality and flavor. The road to Santa Elena is rough, but it’s worth the trip.
Coffee and Sugar Tours
Climb in the back of a ox-drawn cart and head out to try your hand at picking coffee beans. Several outfits offer seasonal tours where you can learn about harvesting sugar cane and the unique coffee that grow in the highlands. During the experience, be sure to sample some freshly squeezed sugar cane juice.
San Luis Waterfall
Make the three-hour hike along winding rivers and lush rainforests to the 330-foot San Luis Waterfall. If you’d prefer, you can opt instead for a horseback ride to the falls. When you arrive, feel free to wash away the sweat and mud in the water, but be warned: the water is usually chilly! If you’re hungry, hike another 45 minutes to the San Luis Research Station. It’s operated by the University of Georgia and serves a hearty lunch to visitors.
Village of San Luis
Hike from Monteverde down to the village of San Luis. Midway through your journey, you’ll get a fantastic view of the cloud forest and beyond. You can see all the way into the Gulf of Nicoya. At the end of the trek, grab a bite to eat at the local tilapia farm and restaurant.
Visitors to Monteverde should spend a couple of hours at the Bat Jungle, which houses eight species of bats. You’ll also get a chance to listen to the bats’ echolocation via special ultrasonic microphones.
Arenal Volcano is located in the northern part of the country and has been a very popular tourist destination for years. The active volcano has a conical dome and towers 5,300 feet over the tropical rainforest below. Until 2010, hot lava would spill down the side of the volcano. Now, though, there’s only occasional smoke. Hikers like to explore the old lava flows and microclimates found at the volcano’s various elevations, but you can’t climb to the top.
Soak in a Hot Spring
After spending a long day hiking in the jungle around a volcano, what’s better than relaxing in a hot natural spring? There are many in the Arenal area, and all are fed by water that’s heated underground by the geothermal activity.
Safari Float Trip
Float down the Penas Blancas River or take a boat tour to the Cano Negro Wildlife Refuge where you can see birds, crocodiles, iguanas, sloths, and a host of other creatures. Some trips are short and leisurely; others require more commitment, starting early in the morning and not concluding until late at night. Since you get up close and personal with so many unique animals, the payoff is certainly worth it.
La Fortuna Waterfall
A long, steep climb through the jungle lands you at the La Fortuna Waterfall, one of the most sought-after sights in Costa Rica. The 230-foot high falls splash into a pool where visitors can relax and swim.
There are myriad caves in the Arenal area ready to be explored as long as you’re not afraid to don a headlamp and squeeze into a small space. Millions of years old, the cave systems beneath Arenal include underground rivers, waterfalls, fossils and subterranean animals. There are several caves in the vicinity from which to choose.
Arenal’s little brother, Cerro Chato, is a dormant volcano that sits west of the town of La Fortuna. It has been inactive for 3,500 years, so it’s a great place to explore on foot. The hike to the top is quite strenuous, though. Plan for about two hours up and two hours back down. Once you reach the top of the volcano at 3,700 feet, you’ll be able to see the emerald green lagoon in the crater below. You can hike down to it, but the terrain is steep and difficult to traverse. if you do, reward yourself by spending an afternoon at the small beach area and take a dip in the lake.
The sheer natural wonders available at Monteverde and Arenal draw visitors by the thousands. But there are plenty of ways to stay off the beaten path in Costa Rica, especially around these two areas. Whether you’re looking for a challenging hike, a relaxing soak or unique food experience, you’ll find in it Costa Rica.
Start planning your Costa Rican vacation today!