Canopy walking in pristine cloud forests, kayaking on river rapids and bathing in hot thermal pools as red lava fills the night sky make a trip to Costa Rica an unforgettable experience
Walking among the treetops of million-year-old cloud forests, catching the shriek of a howler monkey and sighting exotic birds are the type of adventure even the unadventurous cannot afford to miss. Costa Rica, in Central America, is an easy and friendly country and just as much a family destination as a draw for backpackers and nature-lovers.
While the cloud forests of Monteverde and Santa Elena have been around for centuries, the eco-tourism industry is fairly new, yet governed with strict rules to protect the area. Visitors flock in their thousands to explore the abundant wildlife in the 100 sq km of the Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve, or, to give it its proper name, the Reserva Biologica Bosque Nuboso Monteverde. It is one of the few remaining cloud forests in the region, and home to thousands of plant species, more than 100 mammals, nearly 500 butterfly species and more than 400 different birds. The one bird everyone wants to spot is the strikingly coloured quetzal, the national bird of Guatemala. I was fortunate to glimpse one through my guide’s high-powered (and very large) telescope on a half-day tour through the floor of the cloud forest.
There are numerous types of tour, most starting with an informative slide show on what to look out for, and ranging from a couple of hours to a whole day or even a night walk, when certain creatures become more active and are easier to spot. Unless you’re a botanical expert in your own right, walking with a guide is highly recommended, otherwise the plethora of flora, fauna, insects, birds and mammals can virtually pass by unnoticed. Binoculars are also a must, as is a browse in the informative visitor centre, which is also home to a gallery of hummingbird feeders – teeming with colourful visitors.
Monteverde is not the only cloud forest in the region. Nearby is its sister reserve in Santa Elena, created in 1992 and set higher than Monteverde. Both reserves offer an amazing opportunity to take to the treetops in canopy tours - either walking through a series of suspended bridges, flying along zip wires for a more adrenalin-fuelled adventure or on an aerial tram. The canopy walks offer amazing panoramic views across the forests and more opportunity for spotting birds, trees and butterflies.
The place to stay while exploring the reserves is Santa Elena, a triangle of streets. It has the feel of an alpine skiing village although, with the area’s Quaker influences, the nightlife is rather more sedate, with only a handful of restaurants and cafes serving alcohol.
For those who don’t manage to stumble across rare species in the cloud forests, then a trip to the local Serpentario is a must. It’s home to a fascinating selection of snakes and lizards, some poisonous, and gives you an idea of what to run from in the undergrowth! If snakes are too scary, investigate the frogs and amphibians in the Ranario or the gentler Butterfly and Orchid Gardens.
Back on the adventure trail and the next stop is La Fortuna de San Carlos, a two- to three-hour journey away in either jeeps and a boat or a bumpy bus ride towards the Nicaraguan border. Here you’ll find a world of white water rafting, horse riding, hiking and kayaking – all under the shadow of the tempestuous Volcan Arenal. The volcano is very much active and is an omnipresent rumbling presence, showering dust clouds and molten lava at regular intervals. It’s one of the most active volcanoes in the west, but not everyone gets to see it as the giant can stay shrouded in mist for days or even weeks.
One way to get close is with a guided tour to its slopes, through the rainforests, which are home to an eye-catching array of birds and monkeys. The views from the end of the hike are stunning of both the volcano and the surrounding countryside. At night, a favourite viewing point is in Balneario Tabacon – an amazing centre of open-air thermal pools heated by the volcano.
The pools, which get hotter higher up the hill, are landscaped and many have bars and seats, so visitors can relax, sipping a cocktail, with an eye on Arenal bubbling in the distance. But Arenal is also the adventure capital of Costa Rica and there are at least half a dozen companies offering visitors excursions. Try hiking or horse riding to the Cataras waterfalls, white water rafting or kayaking on the Arenal River, canyoneering, zip wires or gentler visits to nature reserves and on boat safaris.
Whatever your level of adventure, Costa Rica is a joy to explore – friendly, safe and bursting with beauty and unforgettable experiences at every turn.
Where to eat
Morpho's in Santa Elena and Restaurant Mystica in Arenal are both recommended.