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Costa Rica

Costa Rica: Top 10 experiences

Dive in the beautiful blue bays of the Pacific Ocean, traverse the rainforests and waterways of the interior and reach the beaches and surf of the Caribbean Coast. These bucket list-worthy experiences weave all the way across the country

Costa Rica: Top 10 experiences
Vanessa Quiros turns drying cacao beans at the Rancho Raices cacao plantation. Image: Daniel Allen

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01 Recharge in thermal springs

Home to over 200 volcanoes (five of them listed as active), Costa Rica is sitting on a lot of hot water and, in special locations, it bubbles up to form outdoor thermal baths. Nothing revives the soul quicker than smearing your body in natural clay, waiting until it’s dry and crispy, and then wallowing in a warm pool with a cool breeze rustling the trees overhead while chirruping birds provide the soundtrack. Some outfits have moulded the waters to create five-star resorts, such as Springs Resort at Arenal. Better still are those that have let nature run raw such as Rio Perdido, Tabacon Grand Spa in Guanacaste — Costa Rica’s very first spring — and Eco Termales in La Fortuna. Here you can float on your back and watch the wildlife until you’re as wrinkled as a prune.

02 Be a spelunker

Grab a hard hat and your courage to descend into the bowels of the Earth. Both novices and pros can get their rocks off at sites such as the Venado Caverns in La Fortuna. Its calcium-carbonate walls are studded with fossilised sea creatures while four species of bat hang from the roof. Meanwhile, more experienced spelunkers should visit Santa Ana cave in Barra Honda National Park, descending to 790ft below sea level without handrails.

03 Take a road trip

Thomas Power, Pura Aventura: “The trick with Costa Rica is to get off the beaten track and a car gets you to places you wouldn’t otherwise see. What makes the country such a pleasure is that the ecosystems change so quickly — in two hours you can move from a rainforest to a beach, or a cloud forest to mangroves. Plus, you can do one-way rentals, so you can avoid the long return drive at the end of your holiday.” 

White water rafting, Pacuare River. Image: Getty

White water rafting, Pacuare River. Image: Getty

04 Abseil a waterfall

From gentle cascades to thundering torrents, Costa Rica never fails to impress with the size, variety and beauty of its many waterfalls. But after admiring them from the plunge pools below, get up close and rope down the falls’ face. Waterfall abseiling is one of Costa Rica’s most exhilarating adventure activities, where thrill-seekers can get a different (slightly wetter) view of the waterfall in all its glory. Expert-led tours happen all over the country, with many including horse-riding, open swimming and zip-lining, too.

05 Sweet sensations at cacao plantations

Cacao goes back a long way in Costa Rica. Beans were originally used as a form of currency by native tribes in pre-Columbian times, and continued to be a form of money right up to the 1930s. Today, cacao production is experiencing something of a Costa Rican comeback. Small plantations have mushroomed along the Caribbean coast and Osa Peninsula, with many running tours.

Part of the Caminos de Osa, Rancho Raices is a small-scale cacao plantation that’s recently opened its doors to tourists in the town of Canaza. La Iguana, a small organic plantation in the tiny village of Mastatal, San José, where guests can stay on the farm, is also popular.

06 Caffeine fixes at coffee farms

As one of the world’s biggest coffee exporters, Costa Rica offers no shortage of places to get up close to the dark stuff. Exploring one of the country’s coffee farms — many of which are still working — will reveal the coffee cultivation, production and exportation and give a glimpse into the longstanding heritage of coffee. Many of the best tours centre around the areas of Monteverde, San José and Heredia, with some also touching on the nation’s sugar cane and chocolate production. 

Dolphin off the coast of Costa Rica. Image: Getty

Dolphin off the coast of Costa Rica. Image: Getty

07 Ride the rapids

For centuries Costa Rica’s tropical climate has shaped the myriad valleys and canyons, whose twists, turns and gradients create topography that abounds with adrenaline-pumping opportunities for rafting. Some of the country’s longest and most well-known rivers wind their way through pristine jungle and drop over awe-inspiring cascades. Reputable rafting companies include Rios Tropicales, offering trips on nine different rivers; and H2O Adventures in Manuel Antonio. Rafting options range from highly technical navigation of serious white water to more gentle glides along quiet waterways — promising plenty of opportunities to revel in nature.

08 Saddle up with a cowboy

Ride out with a real-life cowboy on the Guanacaste plains. Located in the northwest of the country, this is Costa Rica’s sunniest region — famous for its cattle ranches and mañana approach to life. Clip-clop down quiet dirt paths, passing lush paddocks dotted with Brahman cows chewing the cud, pastel-coloured weatherboard houses and brightly painted ox-drawn carts. Take the chance to see the red-collared jabiru — a supermodel bird that struts its stuff across the wetlands of the Gulf of Nicoya — as well as tiger herons and even some alligators.

09 Submarine splendour

While the country’s Caribbean coast is still developing its scuba-related infrastructure, the Pacific coast boasts numerous locations for fantastic diving. Submarine rock formations here are frequently carpeted in corals, sponges and a cornucopia of other marine life.

Guanacaste is a giant bay off the northwest coast that provides access to Catalina and Bat Islands — both major dive areas. Divers here typically encounter rays, various turtle species and whitetip reef sharks, while there are invariably large schools of tropical fish swimming overhead. Farther offshore, the waters around the remote Cocos Island are home to hammerhead sharks, whale sharks and manta rays.

10 Captivating cetaceans

The waters of Costa Rica are home to an estimated 25 species of whale and dolphin, which migrate and give birth in both the Pacific Ocean and Caribbean Sea. Pods of various dolphin species patrol the Pacific coast, while the Caribbean is chiefly the preserve of the bottlenose dolphin. The southern Pacific coastline is the preeminent area for dolphin- and whale-watching. Numerous companies in Dominical, Uvita, Carate and the Drake Bay area offer dedicated tours. The humpback whale is most easily spotted from mid-July to late October, and from mid-December through to late February.

Words: Connor McGovern, Emma Thomson and Daniel Allen

Published in the Costa Rica 2017 guide, distributed with the June 2017 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)