When you find yourself eating juicy starfruit plucked from a tree after a midday rain has lulled you into a misty trance, you’ve embraced the pace of Costa Rica. Go during shoulder season – late September is often ideal – which is the temperate period between distinct dry and wet times of year.
Following is a suggested itinerary for a first-time Costa Rican traveler.
Days 1-2: Arrive in San Jose, the capital, and rent a car with GPS because signage is not always reliable. The drive through the sultry countryside takes 3 hours but feels much shorter because of the Eden-esque landscape. Away from the city, you assimilate into la pura vida, the country’s slogan, meaning the simple life.
On Highway 702, stop at the roadside tavern Soda Las Orquideas for an immersive culinary experience. As you dine, take in vibrant visuals of draping tropical fruits. The owners give a tour of their backyard, miniature rain forest, replete with hanging vines, bananas, avocados, coffee beans and butterflies, all overlooking a rushing river.
Like Alice going down the rabbit hole in Wonderland, you descend into a realm of unrecognizable vegetation during your drive. Farms and schoolchildren decorate hillsides in a swath of soft pastels – not neon hues typical of other Caribbean locales. You reach La Fortuna when you see the town’s centerpiece, the arresting Arenal Volcano.
For lodging, the Arenal Luxury Paradise Home Rental is a 6-acre retreat. Feeding wild birds at sunrise and sighting sloths and massive iguanas in trees amount to an excursion in and of itself. The creek encircling the home surges and babbles. Sit in rocking chairs and empty your mind. Peruse the laminated chart of indigenous wild birds while sipping coffee. Try sweet or savory patacones (fried plantains). Watch a daily rain shower.
Tabacon Thermal Springs, with its dazzling Shangrila Gardens, is a resort option that includes restaurants, a spa and a pool. You can buy a day pass if you don’t lodge there.
For dining, Parilla de Maria Bonita, Nenes and Nanku are excellent choices.
Day 3:After acclimating to this beguiling country, you can enjoy some in-depth excursions. Mistico Arenal Hanging Bridges Park has 16 bridges and 600 acres of forest sanctuary for ecotourism. You see pit vipers, monkeys, peccaries and other wildlife. The bridges seem intrepid to cross, but the vistas are so spectacular that your fright is quickly replaced with awe. The thundering waterfall is climactic on this winding, 2-mile trail. Look for the mimosa pudica, a plant that recoils when you touch it, and learn about the unique reproduction of parthenogenetic insects.
Day 4: Trek through a canyon or go rapelling for high-octane adventure. The Lake Arenal Sunset Cruise captures the magic of the Arenal Volcano with pink skies and white egrets at the shoreline. On the way there, spot toucans in the trees.
Day 5:Visit a finca (farm). Meander trails of horticultural beauty to gain perfect closure for a trip that turns the tables on the tourist; you’re the one in captivity and animals and nature observe you. An appreciation of untouched nature is strengthened when you’re surrounded by it. One tour guide, who asserts that people would be better stewards of the earth if they knew this much beauty exists in it, says, “You cannot love what you do not know.”
Know Costa Rica. The spiritual souvenir you take home is the attitude of la pura vida.