Original blog post featured on Peregrine Wanderer, by James Shackell.
In 1948 Costa Rica made a choice, to stand down their army and channel that money into useful things like education, healthcare and the environment. Nearly 70 years later, the gamble has definitely paid off. On the downside, if neighbouring Panama and Nicaragua ever decide to invade, things might get awkward; but on the upside the country has world-class public infrastructure, national parks that cover 23% of its landmass and an eco-tourism industry that’s second to none. In the brunch buffet of Central America, Costa Rica is the organic chia seed pudding: green, good for you, and relatively underrated.
Glitzy Belize and ruin-studded Mexico might grab the lion’s share of Central American tourism, but Costa Rica, with its epic wildlife and postcard-worthy beaches, is building momentum in a big way. Here’s why you should be booking a Costa Rica group tour, pronto.
World-class eco tourism
By the early ’90s, Costa Rica had established itself as the global poster child of ecotourism. And nothing much has changed in the last couple of decades. In 2009 the Costa Rica tourism board found that 46% of all visitors come to Costa Rica for its sustainable rainforest lodges, bird-watching, hiking, flora and fauna and isolated rural communities. It’s basically the opposite of Mexico’s Playa Del Carmen: small, locally run lodges, responsible tourism initiatives and a focus on natural learning. It helps when your tiny country contains up to 6% of the world’s plants and animal species. Sloths, toucans, scarlet macaws, white-faced capuchins, golden-eyed caimans cruising the muddy waters – Costa Rica is a conservationist’s dream.
The Costa Rican government knows what’s important, which is why they spend a lot of their time protecting their bio diversity and ensuring certain areas of cloud forest and rainforest are protected from forestation. Good news for the forests, and good news for bird watchers, who flock to Costa Rica seeking any of the 800 species that call the country home. Any of the eco lodges in Monteverde, Tortuguero, Corcovado or Santa Rosa National Parks will have guided bird-watching tours on offer pretty much year round. The scarlet macaw (of which there are 16 different species) is the country’s signature sighting, but keep an eye out for hummingbirds, quetzal, toucans, green parrots and gray hawks too.
Like a lot of Central American countries along the convergence of the Cocos Plate, Costa Rica is big on seismic activity. There are 6 active volcanoes and a whopping 61 dormant volcanoes, all sandwiched into one tiny country. Arenal is probably the most popular volcano for visitors, but there are a few others that are worthy of a mention. Poás Volcano is only an hour and a half out of San Jose, and makes an excellent day trip if you’re after a challenging climb with incredible views of both the Pacific and Atlantic coasts. Irazú is the highest volcano in Costa Rica, reaching nearly 3,5000m, and has a lake in its crater that changes colour depending on its mineral content: one day emerald green, the next crimson red.
Tens of thousands of travellers each year are drawn to Belize and the Yucatan Peninsula for their golden sands and swaying palms, but Costa Rica’s beaches can go toe to toe with the best any day. The majority of the good beaches are on the Pacific side of the country, especially the central coast around San Jose or in fringing the dry, tropical forests of Guanacaste. Our tip is to skip the tourists and crowds on Jaco (San Jose’s main beach) and head south to Corcovado, near the National Park. If you want to swim on the Caribbean side, head to Tortuguero: it’s got those classic Central American vistas, with the added benefit of being a breeding ground for endangered green turtles. You’ll even spot manatees cruising off the coast if you’re lucky.
Costa Rica is renowned in North America as an expat destination. Walk into any café or hostel in San Jose or Limon and there’s a good chance the proprietor will be an ex-American. They flock to Costa Rica because the lifestyle is just that good. There’s an excellent social system, the infrastructure is well developed, and the vibe is laid-back and relaxed. This isn’t Mexico City. Life moves slow in Costa Rica. And there’s a great sense of personal freedom. Want to live in a shack by the beach and surf all day? You can do that. Want to volunteer to protect leatherback turtles or assist on conservation project in Monteverde? You can do that too. If you’re looking for a country that has all the classic colour of Central America with none of the chaos, Costa Rica would be a solid choice.