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Costa Rican macaw

Trip report: Costa Rica

Rare wildlife & volcanic wonders

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26 August 2019 by Alison Nicolle

Join Wexas Latin America specialist Alison Nicolle as she travels to Costa Rica, finding everything from volcanoes and rainforests to jungle-fringed beaches teeming with wildlife.

I’ve been lucky enough to have travelled to quite a few places in my time as a Wexas specialist, but there are few places as friendly and as passionate about wildlife as Costa Rica. It’s a destination that offers everything from cloud-forest hikes and turtle beaches to white-sands luxury and zip-lining adventure. And, although I travelled during September in the peak of the rain season, I still had lots of hot sunshine and fantastic wildlife viewing amongst the downpours. The discounted rates are a nice touch, too. What’s more, with British Airways’ new route, it’s all just a simple, non-stop flight from London to get there. Then, once arrived, the excellent infrastructure makes getting around a doddle. So, here are my must-do recommendations.

Making the most of the new flight route, I flew direct to San Jose for a night in the Costa Rican capital. Although Chepe, as the city is fondly called, has a reputation for concrete, those who take a closer look are rewarded by a fantastic live-music scene and a beautiful collection of colonial buildings.

Grand Boulevard, San Jose


The next day, though, I was on my way out, driving to Monteverde. Heading up from the central valley, the beautiful roads became increasingly windy and hilly; we were getting into cloud forest country. I stayed in the excellent Trapp Family Hotel, which – as the name suggests – is a delight of genuine hospitality, with wood-panelled rooms that host gorgeous views out over the surrounding greenery.

As the closest hotel to the Monteverde Forest Reserve, it’s also perfect for some self-guided exploration. So, wasting no time, I walked the short distance to the park entrance, where the friendly staff provided me with a map and directions. Armed with recommendations and guided by well-signed trails, I quickly found myself watching as rainbows formed in the misty clouds as the sunshine mixed in the light showers.

I quickly discovered that there’s a huge diversity of both flora and fauna here, with mosses, palm-like epiphytes and gnarled liana vines found throughout the forest. I was even lucky enough to catch a few of its inhabitants, including a praying mantis and an agouti – a type of burrowing rodent a bit like a giant guinea pig. The highlights, however, were the hummingbirds. Watching their myriad colours from the café garden was the perfect reward for a day’s hiking. Especially when paired with a coffee and cake.

The other highpoint of Monteverde was the Hanging Bridges and Sky Walk tour. On a series of elevated walkways, you’re brought right up into the forest canopy and on to the butterfly and orchid houses. Unsurprisingly for the wet season, it rained heavily on my first visit, but they were kind enough to let me visit again the next morning. This time with some gorgeous sunshine.

The Hanging Bridge & Sky Walk, Monteverde

Tortuguero National Park

After a night’s pause at San Jose, I set off east to Tortuguero on the Atlantic coast. And, translating, quite literally, as the ‘Land of the Turtles’, I was keen to meet its famous residents. To see them, you should head out to the beach after sunset, to watch as they crawl out and lay their eggs. After keeping very quiet and still, we were lucky to spot three giant turtles dig out their holes and lay a hundred-or-so eggs. While in Tortuguero, I stayed in the lovely Evergreen Lodge, which is tucked away in the forest along a beautiful, winding river – perfect for a sense of quiet seclusion. With the main park just five minutes away by boat, I also enjoyed paddling out in a kayak, spotting everything from monkeys to sloths and toucans. Tortuguero village is also well worth a look for its craft stalls and tourist bars.

Baby turtle, Tortuguero River


My next stop – Arenal – was back in Costa Rica’s heartlands. This small town is dominated by the famous volcano of the same name, which last erupted in 1968, destroying the small settlement of Tabacon. Thankfully, it’s laid dormant ever since, which makes for a much more relaxing experience – not least for the geothermal mineral spa-hotels. My pick of the bunch is the Tabacon Grand Spa Thermal Hotel, where the steam coming off the pools at night gives the whole area a mystical Jurassic park feel. It didn’t hurt that my skin felt soft for weeks after! If you want to mix in something a bit more active, be sure to head into the rainforest itself; I certainly recommend the ziplining.

Arenal Volcano

Manuel Antonio National Park

From Arenal, I continued my journey to the Pacific Coast, where I stayed at another wonderful place – the Parador Resort & Spar. It’s a beautiful property that’s perched up high in the forest, offering stunning views out to sea while maintaining easy access to a deserted beach. It’s also just a 15-minute drive to Manuel Antonio National Park. A haven for wildlife, I’d seen red land crabs and countless sloths within just a few hours, including a mother climbing a tree with her baby clinging on her back. Another highlight was my catamaran trip out to sea, where we were joined by three huge humpback whales!

Parador Resort & Spa

Puerto Viejo

My final stop, after routing back through San Jose, was Puerto Viejo on the Caribbean Coast. Tucked away near the Panama border, it was delightfully undeveloped and the perfect end to my trip. I spent my time cycling up and down the coast, stopping for the occasional dip in the ocean or a cool drink at one of the roadside cafés and bars. Howler monkeys cry out noisily in the trees as you cycle past and I was delighted to find more sloths in the trees down by the beaches.

There are plenty more activities possible in the area, including kayaking, deep-sea fishing and horseback riding, but I enjoyed a visit to the Jaguar Rescue Centre the most. Unfortunately, I didn’t spot any big cats, but the sloths more than made up for it. Nothing quite compares to a basket of their fuzzy babies cuddling up for comfort, especially when you know that they’ll be released back into the wild where they belong.

Playa Chiquita, Puerto Viejo de Talamanca 

If you’re inspired by Alison’s write-up, take a look at her selected itineraries below:

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