A Tico perspective on Costa Rica
As Central America’s premier tour operator, Viaventure prides itself in our knowledgeable guides. Our Costa Rica expert draws on his lifelong, Tico-born experiences to pinpoint his top spots for wildlife, adventure, and lodging in his country for this “Insider Guide to Costa Rica.”
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Viaventure’s Costa Rica Travel Expert Shares His Favourite Spots
Travel professionals often struggle with the happy problem of how to narrow down the mind-boggling experiences that Costa Rica offers, whether guests seek out extreme sports, idyllic beaches, wildlife encounters, solitary discovery — or a little of everything.
Viaventure’s destination manager for Costa Rica, Allan Morales, knows the secrets of nearly every destination his country has to offer. Born in northern Costa Rica near the Arenal Volcano region, Allan spent his youth camping in national parks, searching for rainforest wildlife, sliding down muddy slopes, and hitting the beaches on family outings.
With his native-born perspective and nearly 15 years in the travel industry, Allan combines his Tico intuition and professional training to deliver “wow” moments for our guests. Here in his “Insider Guide to Costa Rica” he shares his “shortlist” of must-see destinations that remain off the well-worn tourism circuit, ensuring visitor an authentic slice of Costa Rica’s signature “Pura Vida.”
Santa Elena Peninsula for its dry forest and beaches
A playground for nature lovers, the Santa Elena Peninsula on the north Pacific Coast features 24 kilometres (15 miles) of coastline, 31 distinct beaches, and an amazing UNESCO World Heritage Site.
“The dry forest and all of its wonders are really what sets Guanacaste Conservation area apart, as does the sheer uniqueness of the peninsula,” Allan says. “The variety and beauty of the beaches are amazing too. The whole peninsula is a wonder-filled area!”
Experiences include surfing or snorkelling, epic mountain biking, gliding through mangrove forests by canoe or kayak, and wildlife trekking, including night hikes to check out creatures that lurk after sunset.
One of the peninsula’s most outstanding natural treasures is the vast Área de Conservación Guanacaste (ACG), a UNESCO World Heritage site that occupies more than 142,000 hectares (350,000+ acres), including the most significant dry forest habitats from Central America to northern Mexico. Spanning four ecosystems, the ACG encompasses land and sea, from the Pacific shore to the lowland rainforests in the Caribbean basin.
An extraordinary range of flora and fauna, some rare and endangered, thrives in the ACG, including 900 vertebrate species, 500 bird species, 7,000 plant species, and 8,000 species of butterflies and moths. The entire wildlife protection area is connected in a single, uninterrupted biogeographic block.
As for lodging, Allan fancies the Kasiiya Papagayo Retreat in the Papagayo and Culebra bay area. Nestled amongst 50 hectares (123 acres) of lush greenery, the private wilderness resort offers five luxurious tented suites that open to a spacious deck with views of the turquoise ocean or forest growth. The eco-luxe suites have a king-size bed, a large open-air living room with daybeds, indoor and open-air private bathrooms, and an outdoor area with a porch, dining area, and couches. Kasiiya’s two restaurants serve creative, locally sourced dishes with fresh, organic ingredients. Allan also recommends the Papagayo Peninsula development with properties such as the famous Four Seasons Papagayo and Andaz Resort. For those seeking an ultra-luxurious and private experience, Allan recommends the Villa Manzu and Papagayo Luxury homes
Osa Peninsula for wildlife and active adventures
At the southern end of Costa Rica’s Pacific coast, the Osa Peninsula reigns as the Eco-Destination winner in this Insider Guide to Costa Rica. The Osa Peninsula is the eco-epicentre of a country known for abundant natural wonders. National Geographic once described the Osa Peninsula as “the most biologically intense place on Earth.”
“For me, the amount of wildlife makes the difference,” Allan says. “Taking a rugged hike through the Corcovado National Park you’ll see spider and howler monkeys, deer, and Baird’s tapir (Central America’s largest land mammal), to name a few. And you’ll have a good chance to see big cats, like pumas and ocelots. Birders enjoy watching scarlet macaws, toucans, crested guans and many other species in their native habitat.”
For adventure-seekers, Allan recommends a canyoning adventure down a series of waterfalls just outside the Corcovado reserve. “It’s the thrill of a lifetime!”
Featuring long, pristine coastlines, the Osa Peninsula (1,813 square kilometres / 700 square miles) also provides amazing choices for waterfront and offshore explorations. Allan recommends a boat or kayaking cruise through a 330-square-kilometre (127-square-mile) mangrove swamp in Drake Bay, on the northern end of the peninsula. Guests also enjoy a boat ride to Cano Island for scuba and snorkelling.
Surfers can paddle out to an inviting wave (beginner to expert levels) at Cabo Matapalo, a remote village on the outermost point of the peninsula. Along the Golfo Dulce coast (the inner side of the Osa Peninsula), travellers enjoy relaxing and swimming on any one of several secluded beaches and taking inland hikes to see the birds and wildlife that flourish in the rainforest.
Allan’s favourite hotel in the area is Playa Cativo, a palm-shrouded eco-lodge on the calm waters of the Golfo Dulce. The lodge’s 18 well-furnished guest rooms feature open-air layouts and spectacular wilderness views leading to the shore. With an inviting pool, gourmet restaurant, and breezy sunset bar, Playa Cativo surrounds guests in native beauty, seclusion, and natural treasures.
San Gerardo de Dota for cloud forest wonders
Change to higher altitudes to savour the visual feasts in the cloud forest surrounding the Zona de Los Santos, a secluded collection of villages located along mountain slopes teeming with wildlife.
A bird watcher’s paradise, the region unfolds about 2-3 hours south of San José and provides habitat to many of the area’s 150 neo-tropical species, including the elusive Resplendent Quetzal, which can be spotted throughout the year, with activity peaking during the mating season (late March through May).
Of the various towns in the Zona, Allan’s favourite is San Gerardo de Dota (population approx. 220) because of the many trails leading into the cloud forest and along the pristine Río Savegre.
“The Río Savegre waterfall is an inspiring, dramatic formation, and it’s easy to reach,” Allan explains. “From town, we hike along a scenic 1-kilometre (0.6-mile) trail that follows the crystal-clear river. We cross several rustic bridges to reach the falls, which are tucked away on a forested slope.”
A more challenging trail (9km / 5.6mi) leads to the entrance of Quetzales National Park, which, as its name suggests, provides habitat to the quetzal, as well as spot-crowned woodcreeper, sooty robin, acorn woodpecker, and a delightful assortment of hummingbirds.
Located in the Talamanca Mountains, the park reaches elevations of 2,000-3,000 metres (6,500-9,800 feet). In all, the park (5,000 hectares / 12,000 acres) offers eight trails, ensuring one path that fits everyone’s ability level.
For adventure seekers, Allan recommends a demanding but rewarding climb up imposing Cerro de la Muerte (2,650 metres / 8,700 feet), where — depending on cloud cover — guests may see a captivating vista of both the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. Another robust adventure takes hikers on a four-day trek, starting in San Gerardo and finishing at the Pacific Coast, with overnight homestays in quaint villages along the way.
For accommodations, Allan suggests two wonderful properties, both located approximately 2,200 metres (7,000 feet) above sea level:
- The Trogon Lodge, an intimate, rustic lodge featuring 24 standard rooms and one superior room. The lodge sits amidst lush foliage surrounded by unspoiled forest growth, with the Río Savegre flowing nearby. The rooms are located throughout the property (12 units of two rooms each), some high in the forest and others closer to the restaurant and facilities. The lodge’s restaurant features trout grown in the lodge’s own ponds.
- Savegre Hotel and Natural Reserve, which offers 21 rooms and 29 cabin-style suites located amongst beautiful gardens and a private reserve with bird-watching trails. The suites come with wood furnishings and a fireplace, ideal for the cold nights high in the mountains. Located in colourful gardens, the spacious standard rooms have high ceilings, relaxing sitting areas, and electric heaters. The main lodge features a firepit, bar, and restaurant serving fresh-caught trout.
Rincon de la Vieja for action-adventures, waterfalls, & hot springs
Allan’s best all-around destination for this Insider Guide to Costa Rica combines volcanic scenery and a towering river canyon where guests experience adrenaline-pumping adventures deep in the wilderness.
“The areas around the Rincón de la Vieja Volcano call out to active-adventure seekers,” Allan says. “There’s canyoning, rock-climbing, zip-lining, Tarzan-style swinging, volcano trekking — all in one place and with amazing scenery.”
Located 25 kilometres (16 miles) from Liberia in northwestern Costa Rica, the Rincón de la Vieja Volcano National Park forms the region’s centrepiece, protecting 14,087 hectares (5,700 acres) with elevations ranging from 980-1,987 metres (3,215-6,519 feet). Natural mud pools and hot springs, fueled by the active volcano’s geothermal activity, dot the landscape.
The best zip-line experience, which is operated by Hacienda Guachipelin Hotel, takes off near the foot of the volcano, where up to seven lines (the longest at 244 metres / 800 feet) whisk adventure-seekers over treetops en route to a rock canyon high above the rushing Río Blanco. Guests challenge their endurance pushing off canyon walls on Tarzan-style swings before taking a controlled, 20-metre (65-foot) rappel to the canyon floor. Adventurers work their way back to the top along a natural rock-climbing wall.
“It’s an amazing experience that takes you across three hanging bridges and 20 platforms, very challenging and exhilarating,” Allan says.
His top pick for lodging is the Borinquen Mountain Resort & Spa, a charming hamlet in the foothills of the mountain. The resort offers beautiful private villas, bungalows, and junior suites with a rustic flair yet modern amenities. All rooms have private decks or balconies with great mountain views and breathtaking sunsets. Dining options include an elegant, hacienda-style restaurant and a tiki-style snack bar located by the hot-springs pools. There’s also a bar by the swimming pool. Guests can choose from canopy zip-lining adventures, waterfall hikes, rafting adventures, horse-riding up mountain slopes, forest expeditions, and exciting off-roading in a rugged, military-style vehicle.
Beach escapes on the Caribbean Coast
When it comes to his country’s splendid beaches and a top beach recommendation for this Insider Guide to Costa Rica, Allan bids a fond “hasta la vista” to the Pacific Coast and enjoys an under-the-radar stretch of Costa Rica’s southern Caribbean shoreline where the coconut palms vastly outnumber the people.
“For snorkelling and scuba diving, Cahuita, Playa Chiquita & Punta Uva, and the Manzanillo area never fail to impress our guests,” Allan says. “The turquoise water is crystal clear, relatively calm, and loaded with coral gardens, colourful tropical fish, crustaceans, sea turtles, rays, and more.”
All three gems are located in the Limón province, approximately 216 kilometres (136 miles) from San José:
- Cahuita and its golden-sand beaches appeal to travellers looking for easy-going diversions in a quaint, seaside setting. The gateway to Cahuita National Park, which protects marine and coastal habitats, Cahuita offers every manner of outdoor activity. Visitors enjoy diving, snorkelling, and canoeing amongst the water pursuits, and they can follow sandy hiking trails from town into a coastal rainforest buzzing with birds and wildlife, such as monkeys and sloths.
- Playa Chiquita and Punta Uva offer scenic beaches and wonderful snorkelling. For a change of pace, a hike to the Gandoca-Manzanillo Wildlife Refuge reveals a range of plant and animal life. Easy-to-spot species include pelicans, eagles, toucans, crocodiles, and the nocturnal pacas. Several species of endangered sea turtles nest in the refuge; visit from March to May to watch the females lurch to shore and build their nests.
- Manzanillo is a secluded fishing village with a vibe, culture, and cuisine largely influenced by Afro-Caribbean traditions. Seafood lovers will delight in the rustic restaurants and markets offering fresh-caught crab, shrimp, fish, and lobster. Just offshore from the sparkling beach is the amazing coral reef thriving with marine life, ideal for scuba and snorkelling. Visitors hike inland to Punta Mona (Monkey Point) to see — you guessed it! — several species of monkeys frolicking in their natural habitat.
For lodging, Allan recommends the sun-splashed Hotel Aguas Claras, (Part of the renowned Cayuga Collection) a delightful island-style resort nestled amongst tropical flowers, coconut palms, and lush gardens. Located just outside Playa Chiquita, Aguas Claras features with six bungalows and six themed suites, all designed to deliver the Caribbean experience in true, barefoot-luxury style. Room décor uses recycled materials, recreated furniture, found objects, and outstanding original artworks provided by friends of the resort. Guests can enjoy a lagoon-style pool, explore the onsite botanical garden, or disconnect in the yoga/meditation pavilion.
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If you are looking for an example itinerary for a Family Trip to Costa Rica do check out our “Family Explorer Itinerary to Costa Rica”
If you are interested in Surfing in Costa Rica check out this article about “Surfing in Costa Rica“