Hot tropic

Hot tropic

Hopping between volcanic hikes and yogic retreats, Sarah Duff discovers
Costa Rica’s many charms

Lay of the land

Sandwiched between the countries of Panama and Nicaragua, right in the heart of Central America, Costa Rica is a nature lover’s paradise, with a staggering array of so many different landscapes – lakes, volcanoes, mountains, valleys and forests  – all packed into a country that’s 24 times smaller than South Africa.

From coast to coast, much of Costa Rica is covered by trees: tropical rainforests, misty cloud forests and dry forests. These are utterly magical places where it feels like time stands still: picture towering trees with monkeys swinging through their canopies, butterflies fluttering all around you and a subtle soundtrack of humming insects. The exquisite Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve, an unmissable stop on any Costa Rica trip, has been heralded as ‘the jewel in the crown of cloud forest reserves’ by National Geographic: moody, atmospheric and impossibly photogenic, the forest has thick swathes of mist rolling over the fern-covered trees stretching like a sea of green in all directions. You can explore the forest on the ground or walk along the swinging suspension bridges or, if you can handle heights, get a bird’s-eye view on a zip line.


With a location on the Pacific Ocean’s Ring of Fire – an area of high volcanic activity – Costa Rica has 122 volcanoes, the most famous of which is Arenal. The area surrounding this constantly smoking volcano is the country’s best in terms of adventure activities with a breathtaking setting. Take your pick from hiking and mountain-biking trails on the volcano’s slopes, horseback riding through lush forested valleys, white-water rafting on gushing rivers, canoeing on Lake Arenal and kloofing through canyons. After all that, pure relaxation comes in the form of hot-spring soaking. There are natural hot springs all over this part of the country, and many establishments have their own hot springs at which you can while away an evening swimming in pools as warm as bathwater, while sipping on pina coladas.


Wildlife wonderland

One of the world’s most biodiverse nations, Costa Rica is home to half a million species of plants and animals. That’s a whopping 4% of the world’s total species, which is quite something for a country that makes up less than 0.1% of the world’s landmass. All over Costa Rica there are opportunities to encounter wildlife in the many parks and reserves that make up a quarter of the country.


Whether it’s going on a canal cruise in Tortuguero National Park to see caimans, walking a trail to spot squirrel monkeys in Corcovado National Park – the wildest place in the country – or hiking up Cerro Chirripó – the tallest mountain – to spot ocelots, the best thing about Costa Rica’s amazing animals and birds is that they’re hardly elusive: monkeys hang out in the branches right outside your hotel room, sloths snooze in trees on the side of the highway, poison dart frogs jump across your path, and the tiniest hummingbirds beat their wings like fans near your face.


Big swell

Costa Rica’s two coasts – the Pacific and the Caribbean – boast 1 500 km of beaches between them, with sands ranging in colour from cappuccino to icing sugar, flanked by palm trees and rainforests. While beautiful beaches are easy to come by, one of the best is in Manuel Antonio National Park on the Pacific coast, which is not only a long stretch of white sand and palm trees for shade, but also a forest reserve home to monkeys, birds, lizards and sloths.


It’s easy to see why this Central American nation is a famed surf mecca: there are great swells and breaks and plenty of surf retreats to stay at in order to hone your skills. While you’ll find a decent amount of surf spots on the Caribbean side, the surf is far better on the Pacific. The Nicoya Peninsula is particularly legendary, with surf spots like Malpais, Nosara and Playa Avellana drawing board riders from all over the world.


Finding your zen

While Costa Rica offers a heart-pumping wealth of adrenalin activities, the country is also quite a hot spot for downward-dog downtime with the huge concentration of yoga centres and retreats. Take your pick from places like community-oriented Yoga Farm on the southernmost Pacific coast or Samasati, which is perched high in the trees above the Caribbean Sea, or Rancho Delicioso where you can learn all about permaculture alongside yoga. Some yoga retreats like Danyasa in Dominical offer a combination of yoga and surfing – the perfect holiday Zen.


More than just adventure, wildlife and incredible scenery, Costa Rica is also one of one of the most cheerful places you’re ever likely to visit – part of the reason it’s so popular with the yoga crowd. It’s been internationally recognised as the happiest country in the world – and its people are living proof. Eternally blissful and laid-back, their main saying is pura vida, which means ‘pure life’, and there’s hardly a situation or context to which this phrase is not applied. By the time you have spent a few days in Costa Rica, whether you end up surfing, doing yoga, hiking or getting sprayed by waterfalls, you’ll be uttering pura vida as often as the locals!


Photography: Gallo/GettyImages, Greatstock/Corbis, iStockphoto, Surin Vacaru,
February/March 2016

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