Tropical rain forests. Hideaway beaches. Misty cloud forests. Colorful toucans. Sly sloths. Ambrosial forests. Playful monkeys. Sweet and spicy cuisine. Unhurried enjoyment. Costa Rica is a visual, sensual, gastronomical experience. Prepare to be changed. Or at least impressed.
Pre-departure, I had a mental map of the journey ahead. Three provinces awaited: San Jose, Alajuela, Puntarenas. Transportation options: 30-45 minute flights or a 3 to 4 hour road trips along winding, hilly terrain with abruptly changing surfaces. My advice? Fly. We opted for one ground transfer, San Jose – La Fortuna (Alajuela), 3 hours overall, to get up to Alajuela. Lovely ride, glad when done. Fortunately, the staff and ambience at Tabacon Resort made that a quick memory, as we refreshed ourselves with luscious welcome drinks then immersed in plush, comfortable suites with volcano views.
After two days of mineral soaks, rappelling adventures, spoil-me-forever spa treatments, gourmet food and royal rest, we left Tabacon behind. Under rainy skies, we boarded our first flight, lifting us from Alajuela to Puntarenas province, landing in Quepos. Our engaging pilot swooped down from the clouds, circling us over a seemingly endless broccoli shaped forest merging into a peaceful azure sea. Such a spectacular introduction to the treasure of Manuel Antonio National Park.
Up next: Los Altos Resort, cocooned in a tropical forest overlooking Manuel Antonio with private beaches, an ideal home base for outdoor fun such as ziplining, hiking, kayaking, deep sea fishing, birding exploration. Upon arrival, a local naturalist escorted us for a hike into its own forest preserve, host to a plethora of species unique to this locale. As soon as we spied them, capuchin monkeys emerged, leaping tree to tree, right over our heads, alerting us that we were in their domain. Higher up, brilliant toucans with pinocchio styled bills poked out of branches. Enter the three toed sloth, a fuzzy tree hugger, sliding down a trunk at a snail’s pace, obligingly slow to be sure we got our pics framed just right. Our hike was a tropical treat with an insightful guide educating us to every indigenous plant and critter. Ending at the restful, rocky beach, we found an enticing spot to wind down, enjoying nearby forest sounds.
Gigantic, apartment sized suites at Los Altos have jaw dropping views, with spacious balconies overlooking treetops, Manuel Antonio jungles, across the infinity pool to distant Pacific seascapes. Such a singularly idyllic spot, surrounded by green masses, framed by ocean vistas. It gets better: meal time. Karolas, the onsite al fresco dining venue, served up exquisite cuisine, featuring native seafood, vegetarian, Kosher. Thai and sushi options are a short hop away. Day two was spent kayaking among in a mangrove preserve, squeezing in a little local shopping and pool time, topped off with a culinary feast and zombie sleep.
For our touring finale, we hopped a quick flight to Tambor, fortuitously arriving at Nantipa Hotel in Santa Teresa, a favorite for wave chasers. Hello, sunset paradise! Set on the Nicoya Peninsula, this beachy gem has 15 cushy suites, several with plunge pools, all wellness inspired havens. Meandering paths of leafy palms lace the property, past the relaxing pool to the beachfront restaurant and sandy expanse. Hammocks swing lazily, awaiting weary bodies. Their mantra: Live like a tico (local). The style here is flip flop luxury, anything more than shorts and airy sun clothing, you’re overdressed. Yoga mats beckon guests to put themselves in time out. Catch that yawn and stretch class tomorrow. Tonight, get serene with your favorite beverage, sprawl out and watch the waves crash to a candy colored splendiferous sunset over the rock splattered beach. Tabula rasa. Slumber was a snap.
Rest was essential for our next escapade: horseback riding. Forget your plain vanilla, conventional ride. Setting out from a working ranch, we ambled through refreshing woods, around fields, up a mountaintop, across a river, through the surf. Gentle horses, expert guides, divine vistas, scenic trails, a dream experience. Best. Ride. Ever!
Ride, zip, fish, surf, chill. Adventures are best shared socializing which ignites further learning experiences. Happy hours included special cocktails featuring cacique, sugar cane homegrown hootch. Intrigued by pretty speckled rimmed glasses, I was offered one. A spiced what? Chili Guaro shot? Sworn to live like a tico, I knocked it back. Whew! Bacteria killing brew. Uno mas, por favor!
Food and drink throughout the week was a gastronomic delight. While expecting to be fed well, I was blown away by every kitchen creation. I awoke daily eager to savor the abundant, delectable food from breakfast through dinner, with multiple offerings in between. Tucanes at Tabacon Resort featured specialties from various provinces, such as enyucado, a potatoes, cheese and beef delight with a vegetarian version. From seafood entrees to dessert, every bite succulent. At Karola’s, Los Altos, the chefs put their own imprint on locally sourced produce and fish, with yummy gallo pinto (beans and rice), tasty tuna burgers, sumptuous dinner feasts of beef and seafood, served up with superb ocean views. Ultimately, there was no better way to cap off our week than toes in the sand dining at Manzu, Nantipa Hotel in Santa Teresa. I was never a big raw or cold fish fan – until I landed here. I sampled the myriad of ceviche options – passion fruit, fish, and my new favorite – octopus! Cucumber gazpacho, sea bass, exceptional guacamole, and the flan! Served with waves rolling in steps away, the culinary feast alone is worth a trip back.
In designating over 25% of their green space as national parks, sanctuaries and wildlife refuges, Costa Ricans safeguard their natural gifts, ever mindful of our fragile planet. Unsurprisingly, the Nicoya Peninsula is home to one of only five global Blue Zones, where healthy lifestyles enable longer, healthier lives. Health and wellness habits are woven into daily routines. The ticos make ecofriendly choices easy, with glass water bottles and cups in every room, providing reusable bottles, and in Santa Teresa, encouraging beach clean up. Nantipa Hotel provides metal buckets which are used to pick up microplastics washed ashore. Brightly colored pieces smaller than fingernails could be spotted amid seagrass and twigs, along with a motor oil bottle and fragments of red solo cups. Seeing this small part of the notorious Pacific garbage dump we’ve all created made me furious and sad. We’re running out of time to rethink the way we buy, use, and dispose of our life goods.
Packing up, I reflected on the spontaneous kindness of numerous locals I’d met…the energetic guy at San Jose airport who called my hotel, then handed me his phone as he ran off to search for my ride. The server at Los Altos who walked us from the lobby to the restaurant with umbrellas under drippy clouds. The Pure Trek adventure guide who took us shopping in La Fortuna. Staff at every location, in fact, encouraged us to just settle in, they would meet any request. Chatting with Oren, Los Altos owner, I learned it was an aid trip that first brought him to Costa Rica years ago. When I asked about donating two pairs of shoes, he knew exactly where they were needed. Imagine if, on every trip, we all packed a pair to share? Small deeds, big impact.
So many takeaways from this momentous journey. Planet before profit. Green life lessons. Having traipsed across other continents, in fairness, similar ecosmart practices exist elsewhere. That said, Costa Rica has an extraordinary dedication to natural preservation with an incomparable unity of purpose. Beyond being completely smitten with its people and falling in love with its mesmerizing beauty, I took home a keener sense of urgency in valuing and protecting my own local resources. Simple tweaks, being more mindful of less waste: refraining from single use plastics, grocery bags and drink bottles, boosting my composting, taking shorter showers. Along with my travel souvenirs, I unpacked a boatload of gratitude for this inspirational experience.
Who should go? Anyone who enjoys natural beauty and breathing fresh air. Costa Rica is a garden spot unlike any other. If you’ve been, you know. If not, come find out.
Gracias, ticos. Pure Vida!
Logistics / getting there: Costa Rica has 2 major airports, San Jose and Liberia (Guanacaste Province), with numerous flights from US cities on major airlines.
Getting around: Fly. Our Sansa flights were timely and cost effective, quickly covering the terrain of hours-long ground transfers. Driving here is not for the faint of heart.
Where to stay: First, plan a minimum 7- 10 days for a mere introduction to best appreciate the bounty this glorious country offers. Favorites mentioned: Chayote Lodge, Tabacon Thermal Resort And Spa, Los Altos Resort, Nantipa Hotel. I have contacts at all properties to enable premium perks, along with local outfitters for exceptional local adventures and exploration. Join me on my next trip!