If you’re feeling deeply troubled about environmental devastation, Costa Rica will help heal your soul. This small, lush nation, which pioneered the concept of eco-tourism, is one of the most biodiverse places in the world and a living testament to the power of conservation. Fully 28 percent of Costa Rica’s land is protected as a national park or reserve.1
For a nation no bigger than West Virginia, Costa Rica's geography is incredibly diverse. The Caribbean side is known for its humid, jungled coastline; the Pacific side boasts sunny beaches and tropical dry forest; and in the northwest, you’ll find the famous cloud forest and rainforest preserves.
1. Soak in volcanic hot springs. Costa Rica’s Arenal volcano, once known for its dramatic nighttime displays, has been sleeping since 2010. There’s still a lot of geothermal activity, however, which means the area’s rich in hot springs. Some are more natural, while others have waterslides, swim-up bars and restaurants.2
2. Discover pura vida in remote beach towns. Skip the heavily developed spots like Tamarindo and instead head to some of the smaller, and even more beautiful, beaches. Favorites include Playa Sámara on the Nicoya Peninsula, Playa Ventana (named for the two sea caves you can explore), and Playa Cocalito.3
3. Hike Corcovado National Park. It’s not easy to get to Corcovado, on the remote Osa Peninsula. There’s no vehicle access, so you must fly, boat or hike into the park, and you have to have a guide as well. Your reward is seeing old-growth forests inhabited by a stunning array of animals: tapir, scarlet macaws, capuchin monkeys, crocodiles and even jaguars.4
4. Watch sea turtles nesting. Four species of protected sea turtle — olive ridley, leatherback, hawksbill and green — nest on Costa Rican beaches at different times of the year. These massive turtles come ashore at the new moon, laboriously dig pits in the sand, lay their eggs and then return to the sea. The World Wildlife Fund provides a guide to when, where and how to responsibly observe this ancient ritual.
5. Catch a wave. Costa Rica is blessed with dozens of superb surfing spots, many uncrowded and remote. Advanced surfers like the breaks at Playa Grande and Playa Avellanas; beginners can learn to surf at gentler spots like Playa Tamarindo.5
One of the best known Costa Rica eco-lodges is Lapa Rios on the Osa Peninsula, where you can stay in one of 17 rainforest bungalows in a 1,000-acre private reserve. While you’re there, you can enjoy one of the three on-site beaches, hike to nearby waterfalls or kayak through the mangroves.
The art-filled Dantica Cloud Forest Lodge, high in the Talamanca mountain range, offers bright, spacious bungalows with views of the forested valley. Birdwatchers may get a chance to see the elusive and beautiful quetzal.
If the water is calling you, stay at Si Como No, an eco-friendly resort near the Pacific beach town of Manuel Antonio. Don’t be surprised if you encounter a few visitors during your stay, such as sloths, squirrel monkeys and toucans. For people who truly want to immerse themselves in nature, Rara Avis offers the chance to get as far away from civilization as possible. There are only two ways to travel to this rainforest retreat: by tractor, or on foot and horseback. Your reward is the chance to see rare animals and frolic in a double waterfall.
Costa Rican cuisine is generally simple and satisfying. At almost any restaurant, the thing to order is the casado, a set plate that’s usually heaped with black beans and rice, fried plantains, cabbage salad and grilled meat, chicken or fish.6 In San Jose, the Restaurante Grano de Oro has become famous for a European approach to Costa Rican specialties such as heart-of-palm salad and sea bass. In Manuel Antonio, climb up to Mar Luna for sunset views and fresh fish cooked over volcanic ash. Well off the beaten path is Cocina Clandestina, where you’ll find lovingly made tacos and craft beer.