Tortuguero is the buzzword for sea turtles… but lesser known Ostional is where it’s really at. While Tortuguero’s nesting season is short, in Ostional, olive ridley turtles arrive ashore year round on the nights leading up to the full moon, culminating in hundreds of thousands each month from August to December. The sight itself is stunning – and the setting is remote and undeveloped.
The primary rainforest of this nature reserve was once something of a hidden gem, but travelers are wising up to its true value. Pacuare River has grade II-V rafting, while rapelling and zip lining reveal different perspectives of the jungle. The superb lodge works closely with local communities, and eco-friendly bungalows offer a carbon neutral stay. The fun begins before you even arrive, as the only way in is by raft.
With little evidence of its pre-Colombian inhabitants and tourism focusing heavily on wildlife, you could be forgiven for forgetting that there are humans here at all. But this country has been so beautifully preserved thanks to its people, and from the Creole-speaking Afro-Costa Ricans of the Caribbean, to the Bribri of the Talamanca Mountains and the rural coffee farmers, they’re all well worth getting to know.
It’s hard to get away from it all in a country this compact and popular, but the largely undeveloped Caribbean coast may just be the answer. It lacks the beach resorts of the Pacific, but if rustic bungalows, reggae and a laid-back vibe are your thing, you’ll be right at home. The Afro-Caribbean culture extends into the music, dance and coconut infused cuisine, and the unspoiled beaches are backed by rainforest.
Begin your adventure by boat – the only way into this remote region, famed for its wildlife and particularly the green turtles that gave it its name. Peak nesting season falls from July-Oct, but you can hike and canoe through the verdant Caribbean forests most of the year, looking out for otters, howler monkeys, manatees and sloths around the rivers and lagoons. Tortuguero is also well set up for families.
Plenty of countries have astounding wildlife, but rarely have they preserved it so carefully for decades – and few offer so many ecosystems in such a tiny space as Costa Rica. Sightings are so superb here as there is simply nowhere for the creatures to run. Turtles, quetzals, howler monkeys, sloths, caiman, otters, dolphins… take your pick of iconic species, and don’t forget your binoculars.
Of Costa Rica’s 16 volcanoes, Arenal is the most famous, and it was once its most active. Lava flows have ceased in recent years, but the national park still has much to offer. Cross suspended walkways and traverse nature trails through the forest to discover birds, howler monkeys, cascades and barren lava fields, then revive your achey legs in the thermal baths. The little town of La Fortuna is a convenient base.
With the possible exception of the Galapagos, which is both costly and remote, you could argue that Costa Rica is the most enticing destination for family travel in Latin America. Safe, tiny, with superb facilities and widely spoken English, this is ideal for even the youngest of travelers, while the mind blowing menu of adventure activities will keep older children busy for weeks.
We recommend stopping by this beach – just so that you really appreciate the fact you’re staying elsewhere. Although the surrounding national park is incredible, Manuel Antonio’s fame and proximity to San José mean that more people head here for the beach than the wildlife, and you’ll have to endure the noise that comes with that. Numbers are capped; but at 600-800 per day, you’ll barely have space for your beach towel.
This former fishing village is now one of the country’s most hyped hotspots, thanks to its reliable surf, direct airport access and abundance of hotels, restaurants and all night parties. Pebbly Playa Grande is unlikely to inspire anyone other than surfers, and the town is bordering on overdevelopment – Westerners dominate and the lack of Tico culture appears to be a big selling point. Tamarindo National Wildlife Refuge, however, is worth a visit.
Costa Rica’s most restless volcano spewed lava for over four decades, but since 2010 its been taking a well earned break. Visitors won’t see the lava or ash rising from its peak, and as its peaks is often shrouded in low cloud, it can be a bit of a disappointment. So don’t come for the volcanic views – or photographs – but for the still-superb activities, including hiking, zip lining, rafting and canopy tours.
In 1948, Costa Rica decided that the military was overrated and abolished the army, navy and air force. The country has local police forces only, and no heavy weapons, tanks or warships. This is a country where peace comes first, and rather than being greeted by military officials, foreign dignitaries arriving in Costa Rica are greeted by schoolchildren. A bold move for a tiny nation in a volatile region.