If the prospect of spending another moment in a shopping mall, a lift line, or chipping snow off your windshield has you longing for a blast of sultry heat, take heart. There’s still plenty of time to make an escape to the land of cloud forests, volcanoes, crocs, coffee and swingers galore. Mustn’t forget those swingers. There are monkeys upon monkeys—howler, spider, squirrel and capuchin monkeys—in this Central American adventure-tourism capital.
Go to Costa Rica this winter and you’ll be able to say, with conviction, that you went a little wild.
Everything about Costa Rica is best appreciated through physical activity. While the ready-made views from the roadside (sloths dangling from telephone wires) are sublime, they can’t compete with the hidden wonders that come while bouncing down a waterfall as colourful birds wheel overhead.
In the spirit of cramming eight adventures into your winter holiday, divide your time between two base camps—inland La Fortuna and Tamarindo or Nosara on the Pacific Ocean—and you’ll leave a disciple of the national motto, Pura Vida (pure life).
When you’re on a river tour with Desafio Adventure Company, never underestimate what appears to be an unremarkable clump of vines. Hauling back the sleepy waters of the Río Peñas Blancas with his paddle, our guide would stop frequently and hand over his binoculars. And there, abracadabra, would be a basilisk, or Jesus Christ lizard, dripping off a tree limb, a three-toed sloth curled up in the canopy or a family of howler monkeys doing their thing. Snowy egrets, toucans, kingfishers, Baltimore orioles, boat-billed herons—we saw them all on this two-hour float, along with my favourite sighting: a ripple of leafcutter ants marching, single file, down a tree, across a beach and off into the jungle.
Gutsy Factor: 1
Need to be comfortable in a stable raft; guide does most of the paddling; easy access from La Fortuna.
Canyoneering involves rapelling, scrambling, wading and swimming your way down a canyon. In the case of our group at Lost Canyon, it also involved a lot of whoops and yells.
Not far from La Fortuna, this adult jungle gym-like area gave us pools to cannonball into and a man-made tsunami shower that blasted us before we ended with a 70-m-long, Spider-Man-like rappel down a set of falls.
Gutsy Factor: 9
Must be comfortable climbing, swimming and scrambling along uneven, exposed areas; easy access from La Fortuna.
The jungles, elevation and views of the Arenal Volcano make the region around the town of La Fortuna a ziplining mecca. If you’re gonzo, choose the 13 ziplines that Ecoglide Arenal Park has engineered. Famous for its Tarzan Swing (at the end of zip No. 9), this is a white-knuckle, freefall lurch that reaches an angle of 38 metres and leaves everyone hyperventilating and, later, shrieking. Many of the other 25- to 430-m-long zips offer spectacular views of the volcano, Arenal Lake and, if you’re lucky, an eyeball-to-eyeball encounter with a monkey.
Gutsy Factor: 8
Must be comfortable with heights and love unexpected shots of adrenaline.
The consolation prize for having no lava currently creeping down the flanks of the Arenal volcano are the hot springs left behind. Lots and lots of hot springs. Beneath La Fortuna, the lava is still curdling and heating countless pockets of bubbling pools. If you want a highly commercialized soak, check into The Springs Resort & Spa or the Tabacon Grand Spa Thermal Resort (home to 20-odd pools). We wanted the closest thing to something wild, and found exactly that at the highly regulated Ecotermales Fortuna hot springs, which allows entry to only 100 people every hour. With five pools (none very large), carved into the jungle floor at different elevations, you can spend a couple of hours rotating through pools of varying temperatures, all set in a lush jungle that surrounds the entire complex. Go at night when the pools shimmer with recessed lights while the birds and monkeys hoot and howl in nearby trees.
Gutsy Factor: 2
Should feel comfortable in hot water; easy access from La Fortuna.
Under a hazy moon, we sat in the dunes, waiting. The beach was deeply tracked, as though carved by an otherworldly bulldozer, but our guide insisted we not follow the green sea turtle’s path until she had finished digging her nest (a good metre deep). Turtle etiquette was whispered (no flashlights, cameras or loud sounds) as we finally tiptoed to the nest, and away from the 500-lb. turtle’s vision.
Bunched up in a tight half-circle, we barely breathed as the guide used a red-lensed flashlight to shine on the turtle’s supple back feet that were slowly scooping out a deep, narrow hole. One foot would stretch down, pause, then pull out a cup or two of sand. Then the other foot would do the same. Nothing is speedy about turtles—but we knew that.
Plop came the first egg, followed by 40 or 50 more that resembled rubbery, oversized golf balls. Then, as methodically as was her nest-building ritual, she used her front flippers to flap sand over the eggs, filling in her nest until it was just a mound of churned up sand.
We tiptoed backwards, in awe of the drama we’d just witnessed. The moon beamed a path for us back to the van, as it likely did for the turtle as she returned to the ocean. With more than a 100- million-year history, sea turtles have endured various climate changes, but never have their chances of survival been so grim. While it’s impressive that four of the planet’s seven species of sea turtles can be seen in Costa Rica today, their chance of reaching maturity is only one for every 1,000 turtles born. We left quietly, rooting for these little guys.
Gutsy Factor: 0
Should be patient and at ease with a bumpy van ride. (Our hotel booked this turtle tour)
Most of Costa Rica’s 1,400-odd-kilometre coastline is pocked with little inlets that are ideal for surfers—but the richest area is along the Pacific coast. You could spend a winter hopscotching through spots like Tamarindo and Paraíso, all the way south to Santa Teresa—but I’ll bet you’d stay longest in Nosara. Dubbed “sophisticated jungle living,” this laid-back mecca is a magnet for surfers (those wanting lessons should visit Surf Simply) and yoginis (check out the Nosara Yoga Institute for classes, retreats and teacher-training courses) who want nothing more than a smattering of monkeys and turtles set against a discreet backdrop of cafés, restaurants, hotels, villas and rentals.
Gutsy Factor: 7
Good balance and comfort in saltwater waves are key.
Last year, Travel + Leisure named the Nayara Hotel, Spa & Gardens the No. 1 resort in Central and South America, for obvious reasons. Its location, near La Fortuna’s Arenal Volcano, makes it ideal for adventure-seekers, but the tropical rainforest that surrounds the 1,136 -sq.-ft. suites (replete with four-post canopy beds, indoor and outdoor showers, teak decks, private Jacuzzis and hammocks) and views of the volcano are jaw-droppers. As is the spa. The private treatment rooms are open to the elements, meaning a hummingbird might flit through while you’re having a coffee scrub, a volcanic mud mask or one of 14 massages. If you want to be pampered, this is the place.
Gutsy Factor: 0
When the first words out of a guide are, “Coffee is a dark business,” you know you’re in for an entertaining tour.
And Ulises Zúñiga Valdez, who runs the two-and-a-half-hour coffee tours at Finca Rosa Blanca Coffee Plantation and Inn, doesn’t disappoint. Enjoy an amble through the lush plantation, where you’ll see green, waxy coffee beans dangling from small trees, pay a visit to the roasting house, then go to the on-site restaurant for a tasting session. You will leave much wiser in the ways of the little bean that transformed this impoverished country into one of the wealthiest in Central America. With some 70,000 coffee growers in Costa Rica, there are plenty of places offering tours in the country’s eight coffee regions, but Finca Rose Blanca’s guides speak English particularly well. Besides, what American owners Glenn and Teri Jampol have done to boost eco-practices throughout the area is nothing short of astounding. The 20-acre organic farm not only follows sustainable practices, but so does its 13-room inn. The Jampols’ inn has nabbed the highest rating for sustainable tourism in the country—five green leaves—and has managed to combine bits of luxury with funky and rigorous eco-practices. But you don’t have to be a guest in order to take a coffee tour and tasting, or to enjoy a meal on the broad deck overlooking the Central Valley; anyone can.
Gutsy Factor: 1
Should have decent shoes and be comfortable in the heat.
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