The perfect holiday in the world’s happiest country

Costa Rica is many people’s first choice for an initial foray into Central America

Costa Rica is many people’s first choice for an initial foray into Central America

Credit: Prosicky

Green, serene, wild and wondrous,
Costa Rica is many people’s first choice for an initial foray into
Central America. Adored by intrepid travellers and those who like to
combine some comfort with their hikes and horseback rides, it’s a safe
and relatively small country that packs in a lot of experiences.

While all kinds of turmoil have shaped the lands to the north, Costa
Rica has enjoyed peaceful elections since 1953 and has no standing army.
It routinely makes headlines for green power initiatives and was the
first developing country to state its aim of being carbon neutral, by
2021. Formerly a banana republic famous for fine coffee, it’s now a
regional hub for technology and communications.

But if Costa Rica is a superpower in anything, it is in adventure
tourism. The country pioneered the use of zip-lines and walkways to open
up its jungles in the mid-Eighties to offer visitors a window on to the
teeming wildlife that inhabits the canopy.

The country’s Pacific seaboard harbours rare coastal rainforest and
mangrove, complex networks of rivers and canals, and, at Tortuguero,
some of the best turtle-watching sites anywhere in the world. The
Caribbean coast contains swathes of unpopulated wilderness as well as
tiny pockets of chic living and surfing as found on the beaches of the
Nicoya peninsula.

Mapped: The world’s happiest (and least happy) countries

The spine of soaring mountains and volcanoes that zigzags through the
country has endowed it with a dramatic topography. Drive, trek or ride a
horse through landscapes riven by deep valleys and canyons flowing with
white-water rivers and Costa Rica no longer seems the diminutive
country it does on a map.

In all these environments, flora and fauna abound. The statistics
impress: Costa Rica has more than 850 bird species, it has more
butterflies than Europe, a quarter of its territory is protected
(including 28 national parks and reserves), it has five per cent of the
planet’s diversity. But that’s nothing to the wonder visitors feel on
seeing a sloth, or hearing a troop of howler monkeys at dusk.

The suggested itinerary is based broadly around a fly-drive, making
use of Costa Rica’s good highway network as well as visitor-friendly
back roads. I have also tried to ensure you have plenty of time on foot,
on boats, in the saddle and in the surf.

The accent is on active fun, and the route heads east out of capital
San José to see the marine wildlife of Tortuguero and then north west to
take in some of the most accessible national parks, volcanoes, cloud
forests and beaches. Over 13 days, you’ll get the chance to hike, bike,
go rafting and zip-lining, and to visit both coastlines.

You’ll also have the chance to sample some of the country’s culture
and cuisine, soak in thermal pools, and to sip some of the world’s
finest coffees. English is widely spoken, and listen out for the
best-known of all local sayings: “Pura vida!” simply means that life is
very good indeed.


Fly non-stop to San José with British Airways.

San José

Day 1 

Check in to Grano de Oro (, a boutique hotel named after the “golden bean” – coffee.

San José is a small, leafy, low-slung capital, and is friendly to
walkers and cyclists. You can go it alone or go with a guide; if you opt
for the latter, book with Local company Chepe Cletas (00506 2222 7548).

San José

San José

Credit: Lazar

I’d recommend walking off your flight with a stroll around historic
Barrio Amón, ogling the mansions of the big coffee-growing families.
Continue eastwards into Barrio Escalante, which has lots of cool bars
and cafés including the Beer Factory (Calle 33, Ave 7, 00506 2234 2644).
Afterwards, have dinner at Alma de Amon (Calle 5, between Ave 9 and 11;
00506 2222 3232), which serves Latin Soul food.

The wild coast

Day 2 

Take the 30-minute Nature Air ( flight to Tortuguero on the Caribbean coast. It’s a short boat ride to Tortuga Lodge (, a 27-room jungle retreat.

Tortuguero is very special. The whole area has national park status.
Between July and October green sea turtles nest here, hatching from
August through to November. Towards dusk, take the hotel’s guided
nesting trip to avoid queues and to see unspoilt beaches; you also get
to have an alfresco dinner on the riverbank.

Day 3 

After breakfast, take off on a guided river excursion, arranged by
the hotel. Look out for monkeys and three-toed sloths; caiman, iguanas
and turtles are routinely seen swimming from shore to shore.

After lunch at the lodge’s riverside restaurant, why not head out on a half-day sea fishing trip? Acclaimed angler Eddie Brown ( has great boats and crew and can provide all the tackle and advice you need.

For dinner, stay put at the lodge or hop into a boat in to the local
village to dine on Costa Rican-Californian fusion food at Wild Ginger
(00506 2709 8204;

A further night excursion, available between July and September, is
to see leatherback turtles nesting – call local guide Bony Scott (00506
2709 8193) to arrange a trip.

A newly hatched leatherback turtle

A newly hatched leatherback turtle

Irina K. – Fotolia/Kozhemyakina Irina

Silent-ish night

Day 4 

Get up with the birds and head out for a dawn stroll around the
gardens, spotting birds, including keel-billed toucans, ringed
kingfishers and tiger herons.

Depart on an early flight to San José, then make a journey of about
an hour and a quarter to the Poás Volcano National Park to see the
impressive crater.

Afterwards, drive on (under two hours) to El Silencio (,
a luxury lodge and spa in a remote, densely forested reserve. Dine at
El Silencio’s Las Ventanas upscale modern Costa Rican cuisine
restaurant. You can even request to dine on a table set up in the

El Silencio

El Silencio

Getting active under the volcano

Day 5 

After breakfast, your drive north skirts the Juan Castro Blanco
National Park, site of three more volcanoes, before heading west towards
the Arenal volcano and the national park of the same name. The journey
takes at most two hours.

For the next two nights I recommend a stay at the Arenal Nayara Spa and Gardens (, a romantic hotel surrounded by lush rainforest.

Once you’ve checked in, set off to join a 3½-hour guided hike with local firm Pura Vida (00506 2479 9045;

The hotel has a tapas bar as well as four restaurants.

Day 6 

Steep mountains, narrow canyons and a tropical climate – most rain
falls between May to October – means inland Costa Rica is ideal for
white-water rafting.

Desafio Costa Rica (00506 2479 0020; offers rafting trips on the Río Balsa and Río Sarapiquí.

In the evening, take a 10-minute taxi ride to the town of La Fortuna.
If you want to take back some original crafts, drop into Hecho a Mano
(00506 8611 0018, Calle 1). For dinner, there are excellent steaks at
Don Rufino (00506 2479 9997;

Land of the Costa Rican cowboy

Day 7 

It’s about three hours by road, using the Panamerican Highway for
part of the journey, to the Rincón de la Vieja National Park and its
namesake volcano.

Check in at the Hacienda Guachipelin ( It has been here since 1880 and rears cattle, horses, pigs, chickens and turkeys.

After lunch at the lodge’s own “farm-to-table” restaurant, set off on
one of the estate’s three mountain bike trails – the only such trails
in Costa Rica to be found on an active volcano.

A sabanero – the Costa Rican equivalent of the Argentine gaucho

A sabanero – the Costa Rican equivalent of the Argentine gaucho


Day 8 

Set off after breakfast with one of the lodge’s expert naturalists,
escorted by sabaneros – Costa Rican equivalents of the Argentine gaucho –
on a six-hour horseback riding and hiking excursion that takes you
inside the national park. See the bubbling clay and steaming fumaroles
of the volcano, visit the Oropendola waterfall and swim in the Río

Return for lunch, with the afternoon free to explore. In the evening enjoy a barbecue at the lodge.

Canopy in the clouds

Day 9 

Drive south for three hours to the tiny corridor of civilisation that sits between the villages of Monteverde and Santa Elena.

Stay in one of the 28 forest-view rooms at the Monteverde Lodge (, which can organise activities, including a canopy tour in the Monteverde Cloud Forest.

Around dusk, set off on a wildlife walk, looking out for olingos, kinkajous, two-toed sloths and possums.

Day 10

This morning, set off on an easy hike with one of the lodge’s guides
around the Santa Elena Cloud Forest. Return to the lodge for lunch and,
after a rest, set off in the afternoon on the Café de Monteverde Coffee
Tour (00506 2645 75550;, organised by a cooperative of local families.

An elevated path through the Costa Rican rainforest

An elevated path through the Costa Rican rainforest

dmitriy_rnd – Fotolia

The Nicoya Peninsula

Day 11 

After breakfast, drive to the stylish surfer hub of Santa Teresa on
the Nicoya Peninsula, which is about a five-hour trip whether you use
the road-only route or go via the ferry at Puntarenas. I’d suggest
taking along someone to talk you through the regional wildlife, as well
as the natural history of the peninsula. For a well-travelled expert
guide, contact Ligia Fernández at Costa Rica Expeditions (00506 2224

On arrival, check in to the exclusive Latitude 10 resort (
for your last couple of nights. South of the hotel lies a string of
beach resorts, including smart Santa Teresa, picturesque Carmen and
grungy Malpais. It’s fun to drive down, stop in at bars, eateries or
hotels for a cocktail or snack, and compare the vibe. There’s everything
from pizza shacks for surfer dudes to ultra-smart sushi restaurants –
as well as surf schools, bikini boutiques and little grocers’ stores.

Day 12 

You might want to keep today as a total day off, perhaps combining
dozing and book-reading with a mahi mahi ceviche lunch at Chilean-run
Alma (00506 2640 1055;
in Santa Teresa. Alternatively, now’s a good time to book a surfing
class, either through the hotel or at one of the many local operators.
Blue Surf Adventures ( does lessons for all ages and levels – and also has yoga sessions if your partner wants to opt out.

Day 13 

Fly from Tambor, the local airport, to San José and back to the UK.


The dry season (roughly mid-November to April) is the best time to
visit. Choose November (just after the rains) and early December and
April) to avoid the boom months when Americans arrive in large numbers.

More ‘Ultimate Itineraries’

South Africa