COSTA RICA – “Still more monkeys than people”

With an average annual temperature of 26 degrees Celsius, two oceans, more than 1000 kilometers of beaches, 26 national parks and less than 5 million inhabitants, Costa Rica is more like an adventure in a crystal ball: the nature is intense and overwhelming, but without the danger of an Amazonian jungle or the endless Australian deserts.

Getting there

Most of the airlines companies have flights to Costa Rica – we are talking about a destination for which USA has more than 200 weekly flights from major hubs located at 3-4 hours distance: Atlanta, Dallas and Orlando. From Europe, Air France and KLM are ranked first, but if you have the patience to study the connections, you’ll see that the best cities you can fly directly to San José are Madrid and Berlin.

…and you landed in San Jose

If you have any friends there, it’s a nice city for 24 hours. If you don’t, all you have to know about the city is that this is where you arrive and from here you leave. Don’t get me wrong, there is an old city, a sensational pre-Columbian art museum and few residential neighborhoods that are lovely… but it’s pointless to give them attention, unless you stay three months in Costa Rica. Otherwise, rent a car, preferably a 4×4 (it is useful in the most unexpected moments, you’ll see) and drive. You are in a country with so many and various natural parks that basically, the whole country IS a natural park that promises (and will surely keep its word) that by 2021 the carbon footprint will be zero, with a breathtaking biodiversity and so many outdoor activities that you simply forget about urban settlements. But you have to remember something, if you got a plane to catch: traffic jams are extremely common in the city and around it, and very serious, you can be trapped even for 2 hours in the rush hour.


Where to?

Theoretically, I’d say you don’t need any plans – the distances are small and the accomodation options are many, diverse and good overall. Apparently, the pool is a basic facility, starting from the simplest B&B. Hot water is seldom/rarely very hot, but you don’t feel the need to often – the temperature is usually hot, and near the Caribbean Sea is also very humid, so when you make a shower you generally want to chill.

Basically, it’s good to look on a map before you start, because the only impediment is that there aren’t so many roads, and it’s preferable to avoid time consuming zigzags. Also it’s important to know that some roads can’t be approached without a jeep, even when on the map they look better than in reality. An interesting and somehow complete route can be San Jose – Arenal – Guanacaste – Tamarindo – Samara – Manuel Antonio – Corcovado – Puerto Viejo. It’s important to see both coasts, Pacific and Atlantic – Caribbean Sea, because they are two different worlds: on the beaches of Caribbean the spoken language is patois, people have darker skin and the food is sweet and mysterious.

The vulcanoes

There are 7 very large vulcanoes and about 70 small ones. Many of them are active, smoking and others fire out lava. Irazú is the closest to San Jose and the highest one, Poás has the most spectacular crater with turqoise water and Arenal remains the largest and the most active one, placed near Arenal Lake, which is itself a tourist attraction (especially for the superb road surrounding it). If you are lucky, in a clear night, it can give you an incredible view: hot incandescent lava and the hum of the inimitable earth. Certainly, the thermal waters of Arenal have to be tested, either by getting into the hot water river that comes from under the vulcano, along the national road with the locals, or by choosing a more elegant way (but still perfectly affordable) from the spa-resorts Baldi or Tabacon. Also, near the Arenal vulcano, exactly where the lake begins, you can try a route through Rain Forest on suspended bridges – it’s more spectacular that it sounds and the two hours are undoubtedly worth 24$ (which, by the way, are almost the national currency, any ATM can give you american dolars, besides “colones”).

The Pacific beaches

There are so many of them that every traveler, tourist or local has a beach, which they swear it’s the best in the world. So did I, and you will do it, too. It’s hard to choose. The beaches alternate, white sand and black, volcanic sand: Playa Hermosa, Pan de Azucar, Langosta, Flamingo, Avellana – are as beautiful as their names. Playa Conchal is said to be very dangerous, but there I saw the most beautiful shade of turquoise in the perpendicular, high and dangerous waves. Playa Brasilito has the most beautiful sunset and an island that becomes a peninsula at the reflux – and by the time we got there, the water was returning ashore, fascinating and more visibile than anywhere else.

As you can see, the assessments are subjective and therefore relative. A certain unanimity refers to Tamarindo, somewhere in the south, the only resort with activities and aspects of a… resort. I say this because this isn’t something usual, there are no places that resemble Mamaia, Saint Tropez or Miami. The nature is still greater, and more present and powerful than humans. At least for now.

Manuel Antonio Park

It is the best selling tourism product of Costa Rica, the most commercial one. And yet, no man has conquered nature here – the place is great, a beautiful miniature jungle, Capuchin monkeys, two beaches (where, by the way, unlike so many others, you can swim, because of the sheltered bays), friendly raccoons, and shy iguanas. And many other animals, birds, and insects, that you can hear, more than you can see – for example, the howler monkey, that disturbs your sleep from 5 kilometers away.

Outside the park I discovered the beach with the clearest water, accessible only by a narrow path through the trees inhabited by monkeys: Biesanz Beach. The discoveries are still possible, because not everything has been mapped, flagged or conquered yet, and that’s a huge, unmatched pleasure.

The Sunsets

On the Pacific coast, the sun sets in the water. A catamaran ride is what americans would call “good value for money” – the dolphins swim near your boat, the sunset (in the water, of is delicious and the feeling, even if it has a commercial flavour, is very good.

In the Quepos-Manuel Antonio area, El Avion and El Lagarto restaurants are the perfect places to see the sun set and my advice is to order after the sun has completely disappeared, because the food is delicious and deserves all the attention.

Caribbean Planet

Totally different from the rest of the country, Puerto Viejo – Manzanillo is a mix of: bohemian artists village, somehow like Vama Vache 15-20 years ago combined with jamaican atmosphere and exactly the beaches that Google finds when you type “deserted beaches”. All in all a very beautiful Costarican natural park – Cahuita, the best place for snorkeling in the country.

The information about the Caribbean are contradictory: some say that there’s more poverty (true) and uncertainty, but the result is one of visual and sensory richness I have never met. The ocean, white tree trunks on the beach, the jungle, palms and Ceiba trees around the beach, bars painted in all the colors of the universe, rasta surfers and european cyclists, yoga centers at every step, surfing or kick boxing lessons on the beach, coffee plantations and shops with the best chocolate in the world, raggae and soft calypso, african turbans, seed beads on the palm trees, a lot of color, a lot of flavour, a lot of happiness. For me, this was the paradise in paradise.

Flip-flops and boots

In Costa Rica, every 20-30 kilometers you can perform at least one of the following activities: hiking, canopy, bungee-jumping, rafting, snorkeling, caiac-canoe, hanging bridges, waterfall rapel, Tarzan Swing, biking. So, you see, the both items in the subtitle are necessary and sufficient for the entire holiday. Oh, and another thing: SPF with high protection. That cream that you would never ussualy buy, because you think the protection is too high Well, no. Here, at the equator, the sun feels so close as the distance you hold the magazine now. Or computer screen. Trust me, factor 50.

As a conclusion: PURA VIDA!

This sigtagm fascinated me by perfection and eloquence. In the same time a question and an answer, greeting and thanksgiving, “Pura Vida!”, is heard at every step and it means exactly what it seems to mean: “good life”, “simply living”, “as good as life is”. And it’s exactly the way of being of the Costaricans and this happy little country: every day is beautiful when you understand that you live in a paradise, with amazing things at every turn, and nothing is as important as the joy of living. Can you argue with such a simple philosophy? And even if you can, why would you? Pura vida!


1. In an overwhelming proportion, there are no residential adresses there. Or, at least, not like we are accustomed here in Europe. Better said, the buildings are not identified by numbers, but by the street and the reference points (benchmarks) to another large, well known building: “Calleblancos, 150 meters north from the University, yellow house with blue fence”. I know you are not going to believe me until you get there. But at least the shock will be diminished. There are so few people that this story works – people know each other, you can’t confuse supermarkets, because in the city there might be only two of them that are considered “super”markets, and if you want to get your bills, you can rent a PO-BOX. It’s that simple.

2. Surf beaches mean that, in 99.9% of cases, the waves are too powerful for you to swim there. The ocean doesn’t play – if it promises surf, it doesn’t allow you to get in the water without the surf board. After the first wave, that will simply lift your heels from the sand and throw you 2 meters away, you’ll know exactly what I meant.

3. Everything is negotiable. At least for now. And your chances increase if the discussion is in Spanish –perks of authenticity.

4. The normal day begins and ends at 6 o’clock. The time at which the sun rises and sets, for 365 days a year. This is an information harder to assimilate than it seems, but basically, after the sun sets, the darkness is pitch black and 8pm feels like the middle of the night: the streets are empty and the restaurants are closing. So, you adapt – When in Rome…

5. The whole country smells wonderful. Like cinnamon, coffee, flowers, lime, oranges, vanilla, chocolate, coconut and pineapple, like thousands of other unknown spices and fruits. Anywhere, anytime, intensely and impossible to be ignored.

Foto: Liviu Souca