10 Ways to Rediscover What's Essential in Costa Rica
Costa Rica has a well-deserved rep as a hot spot for adrenaline-fueled adventures, from zip-lining through jungle canopies to white-water rafting on raging rivers. But there's also some serious local yin to balance out all that yang, serving as a much-needed antidote to the year that's been. Think of a vacation here as a chance to reset, recharge and rappel down a waterfall (if you're so inclined).
To start, the trip's logistics make Costa Rica super easy to visit. Nonstop flights are currently scheduled from 22 cities across North America, English is widely spoken, dollars are widely accepted and the time zones are never too far off from your own (Costa Rica lines up with CST). The COVID-19 entry requirements are also very straightforward: no test is needed, fill out your online form 48 hours before arriving and make sure you have travel insurance in place.
These ten essential tips will come in handy if you're considering making Costa Rica your first venture from home in the new year.
1. Check in, then check out.
Though humans have long intuited that nature relaxes us, recent advances in neuroscience, among other fields, are backing that belief with all kinds of evidence. Turns out that even brief exposure to nature can, for example, lower stress hormones, heart rate, blood pressure and anxiety. So in addition to having the benefit of social distancing, staying out in nature is like mega-dosing on tranquility.
And that's where Costa Rica's loftiest lodgings come in: Set up in the treetops, these perches place you face-to-beak with some of the country's most colorful characters (yup, toucans included). From simple but comfortable treehouse hotels to more elaborately constructed rental units, options abound.
Of course, if you'd rather stay among the trees than atop them, you have even more options that include rain forest reserves with open-air bungalows.
And, if you find yourself not wanting to check out at the end of your retreat, you could consider the life of a digital nomad and try a full work-from-vacation lifestyle. It seems to us that if your new everyday "in-the-office" beats your co-workers' best "out-of-office" option, you're pretty much already winning 2021.
2. Put things in perspective.
Nothing like a towering Costa Rican volcano to provide some big-picture perspective. One of the country’s iconic sights is the Arenal volcano and the area around it has become a veritable playground. Not only can you boat, kayak and stand-up paddleboard on Lake Arenal, but you can also horseback ride, hike and zip line on the surrounding terra firma. Get up early no matter when you go to try to sneak a peek at the peak -- the volcano summit often hides behind the afternoon clouds.
Arenal is one of several volcanoes in Costa Rica scattered along the country's mountainous interior. Poás and Irazú are a comfortable day trip from the capital city of San José (bring a jacket, it can get cold up top). On a clear day, you can see both coasts from the summit of Irazú.
Closer to the Liberia airport in Guanacaste, Rincon de La Vieja National Park's focal point is a volcano that is over a million years old and still active. Adventures here include canyoneering or waterfall rappelling (yes, you literally rappel down a waterfall).
3. Soak it all in.
All that geothermic activity makes for some amazing soaking ops. Occasionally manmade but always derived from natural springs, these steamy, mineral-rich, volcano-adjacent pools make for sublime day trips -- or focal points of your stay.
Soak away the stress with a thermal dip in the hot springs near the Miravalles volcano, or check out the geothermal waterfalls around Arenal.
In both places -- as in so many other prime Costa Rican soaking spots -- spa facilities are obligingly close at hand. So if maximum bliss is the desired result, proceed directly from a steamy pool to a treatment table. You'll likely find yourself in an open-air cabana, with only jungle noises for a soundtrack -- and locally sourced muds, oils and botanicals for treatment ingredients.
4. Chase waterfalls.
It's hard to beat the rush of that first time you see (and hear) a waterfall bursting from the jungle backdrop, and you'll be spoilt for choice -- especially during the green season, when the rains feed Costa Rica's rivers. In particular, these falls are definitely worth a detour.
La Fortuna waterfall (near Arenal) is about a 20-minute hike on a well-marked path with a big reveal at the end. You can swim in the cold waters at the waterfall's base or take the rope swing to jump in. Another favorite is in Tenorio Volcano National Park in the Northern Plains, where the Rio Celeste plunges out of the jungle into a pool of brilliant blue water.
Tucked in a cloud forest near Bajos del Toro in the Alajuela province, Catarata del Toro is a dramatic 300-foot waterfall into an extinct volcanic crater. (Located on a private reserve, there is an admission fee, but that means the facilities are in better shape for visitors — and it's less crowded.) You can take the steep hike to the bottom for an up close view — or take in the big picture from above.
5. Walk on the wild side.
Despite being smaller than the state of West Virginia, Costa Rica is home to about 6% of the world’s biodiversity. More than 25% of the country is protected land or national parks. Bird-watchers should put Los Quetzales National Park (south of San Jose) on their itinerary to see the resplendent quetzal (really, that's the bird's name), toucans and many other birds that call the cooler climes of the cloud forest home.
As for the monkeys, these guys are everywhere, and you might actually hear them before you see them. Howler monkeys are Costa Rica's version of white noise -- a soundtrack to remind you that you aren't in the States. Capuchin monkeys will pop their white heads out of the trees to see what's going on and may photobomb your next selfie.
Corcovado National Park on the country's southern Pacific coast is the country's largest national park, and home to 3% of the world's biodiversity all by itself. The waters off the surrounding Osa Peninsula are a great spot for dolphin sightings and whale-watching -- humpback whales come to the waters off of Caño Island from as far away as Alaska.
6. Go with the (ebb and) flow.
If your plans for a 2021 reset involve hypnotic wave action and watching the sun rise or set over the sea, you'd do well to visit a country whose very name means Rich Coast. (Or Delicious Coast, if you prefer -- and we kind of do.)
Between the Pacific and the Caribbean, there are 912 miles of national shoreline. Of those, one of the quietest and prettiest stretches on the Caribbean side is Punta Uva (you'll have to take a twisting jungle road and some unmarked dirt roads to get there, but you'll be glad you did once you're swimming among the corals and communing with the local monkeys and macaws).
On the Pacific side, don't miss the stunning beaches of Manuel Antonio in the national park of the same name. You'll find sweeping vistas, calm waters and a wild array of companions, from sloths to squirrel monkeys.
7. Rise above.
If you spend any time in Costa Rica and don't go on a zip line, you've kind of missed the point of a trip here. Take the opportunity to again feel the thrill of unrestrained fun and let out a primal scream as you take flight.
Zip lines aren't hard to find -- whether it's in the misty cloud forest of Monteverde, in the looming shadow of the Arenal volcano, or through the colorful jungle canopy at various spots throughout the country.
8. Find your om away from home.
If yoga's your de-stressor of choice, set your out-of-office message to "namaste in the jungle" and find your perfect rain forest retreat. You can choose from group yoga retreats, private ones and add-ons that include everything from aerial silk to fire dancing.
A good geographic starting point is the longstanding coastal yogi haven of Nosara, where you'll find no fewer than five yoga centers (as well as sweet surfing, if you want to try the wave riding pose on the Pacific breakers).
9. Remember to stop and smell the flowers ... every two seconds.
For its size, Costa Rica has a disproportionate allotment of flowering plants -- at least 9000 species by most counts, of which more than 1000 are orchids (the pinky-purple variant known as the guaria morada is the national flower). You'll likely spot plenty of orchids in the wild, but you can see 400+ species in one go at the Monteverde Orchid Garden, thanks largely to the humidity and elevation of the surrounding cloud forest.
Of course, not all orchids are scented. But what they lack in aroma they more than make up for in gorgeousness, from crimson polka-dotted yellow bucket orchids to fuchsia-striped Easter orchids. And research has shown that through color, scent or a combination of the two, flowers can be stress-relieving and mood-boosting.
10. Stay connected with what's important.
It is entirely possible (and encouraged) to disconnect and go off-the-grid in Costa Rica for a digital detox. Away from the news and the noise, you may find new ways of connecting -- whether it's with your traveling partner at a romantic hideaway or with your kids as they hang out with a sloth for the first time or with Mother Nature in a place that more or less invented eco-tourism.