Costa Rica is Spanish for "rich coast", and was the conquistadors' name for this stretch of Central America. Yet this peaceful gem – tucked between Nicaragua and Panama, and covering an area slightly larger than Switzerland – is far removed from the Spanish Costas. And for a country of such a modest size, it packs a real punch in the entertainment stakes.
You come to Costa Rica for cool cloud forest, hot springs – and a hyperactive volcano. In a region that has experienced frequent conflict, Costa Rica is a model of good order: in a most un-Latin-like move in 1948, the army was abolished (though it was replaced by a highly efficient and heavily armed police force).
Adrenalin junkies will be spoilt for choice, and those looking to flop in sun-drenched bliss will soon feel in tune with Costa Rica's many two- and three-toed sloths, usually found asleep in the trees. The surf is high, the ambience is relaxed, and the prices are low.
Costa Rica possesses a staggering diversity of scenery, nature and culture. The eastern coast retains a strong Caribbean vibe, while traditional sabaneros (cowboys) patrol the Pacific. Sandwiched between both, high in the mountains, are the Monteverde-Santa Elena biological reserves, home to some of the most extraordinary swathes of cloud forest on the planet. Intrepid adventurers can head further south into the deep, humid jungles of the remote Osa peninsula. It is easy to get carried away when describing Osa, whose Corcovado National Park has been described by National Geographic magazine as "the most biologically intense place on earth".
Where do I start?
Most international flights land close to San José, the scruffy capital city, although an increasingly popular alternative is to fly to the Daniel Oduber Quirós airport in Liberia – handy for many beaches on the Pacific coast.
Many visitors leave San José as quickly as possible, eager to explore the plethora of natural attractions on offer, but a stay in the capital is essential to understand Costa Rican culture. The city holds a trio of modest attractions worth visiting: the Gold Museum (00 506 2243 4202; museosdelbancocentral.org; open daily 9.30am-5pm; $9/£6.40), which contains a remarkable collection of pre-Columbian creations; the impressive National Theatre (00 506 2221 1329; teatronacional.go.cr; open Monday-Saturday 9am-4pm; admission free, performance ticket prices vary); and the exquisite exhibits on display at the Jade Museum (00 506 287 6034; open Monday-Friday 8.30am-3.30pm, Saturday 9am-1pm; $2/£1.40).
From San José, a relatively short bus ride could take you 3km above sea level into the clouds, deep in the jungle, or down to the glorious coast. Most visitors ensure that they see the nightly fireworks of the erupting Volcá*Arenal, one of the most active volcanoes in the world, but after that, the list of possible sights and activities is endless.
Costa Rica Expeditions (00 506 2257 0766; costaricaexpeditions.com) can offer tailor-made itineraries to match your priorities.
Costa Rica has no fewer than 112 volcanoes, five of them active. The touristic heart is at Volcanoville - or La Fortuna as it's officially known. It's become a real backpackers' hub for one reason: wherever you choose to eat, drink or sleep, there's no escaping Arenal, which was considered dormant until it decided in 1968 to clear its throat in violent style and remind everyone that it was still there. Despite the crush of tour operators and upmarket accommodation on offer here, it has a surprisingly laid-back ambience. This is one of those rare locations where Mother Nature has kindly laid on all the entertainment. Plenty of places have sprung up to tap into the many hot springs, and there is a wealth of exploring to be done by mountain bike (or should that be volcano bike?) in the surrounding area.
At the Tabacon Resort (00 506 2519 1999; tabacon.com), they've harnessed Arenal's power and added a few diversions to create an enormously opulent spa, although it comes at a price, at $60 ($43), or $45 (£32) after 7pm.
For something a little more understated (and more affordable, at $29/£21), Eco-Termales is a highly recommended alternative, although you should book in advance (00 506 479 8484; tiny.cc/ct9qV).u
oBut Mother Nature has a sense of humour, it seems – whereas previously those in La Fortuna could enjoy nightly displays from their hotel balconies, the lava flow has recently diverted and instead now heads in a more westerly direction, forcing the tour operators in La Fortuna to drive their customers on a bumpy route each evening around the base of the volcano to get the best views. La Fortuna's misfortune has been a boon to others, with peaceful mountain villages such as the tiny El Castillo thriving with its new-found prime location.
Nido del Colibri (00 506 8835 8711; hummingbirdnestbb.com) is a delightfully intimate little bed and breakfast perched on a hillside overlooking the volcano. From here you can spend the evening soaking in the outdoor hot tub with a drink in one hand and Arenal in all its explosive glory performing right in front of you.
To feel the earth move on a more regular basis, the Arenal Observatory Lodge (00 506 2479 1070; arenalobservatorylodge.com) is situated only two kilometres from the menacing crater and offers front- row seats of the action. Built as a scientific research station, the lodge has since tacked on an increasing number of amenities over the years, such as professional massages to revitalise weary limbs after a hard day's exploring. The rate of $59 (£43) for a double room during low season includes breakfast and a tour of the lava flow and the forest – where it's easy to forget that there's a volcano with a very bad temper nearby. The contrast is amazing: up near the lava flow, it's a scene of natural devastation; down in the rainforest, there's a cacophony of animals and birds, intense colours and the scent of the jungle.
How deep in the jungle?
With tourism now such an integral part of the economy, Costa Ricans (who refer to themselves as Ticos), have tried hard to preserve the natural treasures with which they have been blessed. The result is that it is still possible to disappear into remote, thick jungle for days on end, and to live alongside teeming wildlife.
Perhaps the most remote location of all is the Peninsula de Osa in the far south, just above the Panamanian border. Here you can find prime examples of pristine undergrowth. A great base for exploring the area is the Esquinas Rainforest Lodge (00 506 2741 8001; esquinaslodge.com), an Austrian ecological aid project that is a lot more than just a hotel; there's a centre for research into biodiversity. It's a blueprint for sustainable tourism. And by choosing to stay here, you are in some small way helping to save the rainforest. Doubles start at $95 (£70) per person per night, including meals, as much trekking as you can handle, and a regular jungle chorus as your morning alarm.
The crown jewel of Costa Rica's national parks is, arguably, Corcovado, on Osa's southern tip. Corcovado Adventures (00 506 8384 1679; corcovado.com) is situated nearby and offers tented accommodation from $80 (£59) per person per night including meals. Activities here are as varied as your interests; galloping along empty beaches, whale- watching, diving, hiking and canopy tours are just a few of the ways to pass the time.
High in the clouds?
Shrouded in mystery, Costa Rica's cloud forest is an extraordinary natural spectacle and a magnet for adventurers. It is centred on the tourist town of Monteverde. From here you can either slump in one of the trendy cafés or restaurants, or strike out into the mist in search of the resplendent quetzal, a bird of such dazzling colours it's a wonder that they are so elusive.
Monteverde has turned into a kind of eco-theme park. A high-pitched shrieking heard from somewhere high in the branches above is just as likely to be a terrified tourist whistling through the trees on a "canopy tour" as it is a troupe of monkeys. The zip lines used in these tours can be seriously fast, and in some cases stretch for nearly a kilometre. They provide high-speed views of the rainforest. Selvatura (00 506 645 5929; selvatura.com) is a huge complex catering for pretty much every possible way of experiencing the cloud forest.
If imitating Tarzan is not your preferred choice, a host of hanging bridges, horseback riding tours and, of course, plain old hiking trails are on offer. Many of the most interesting inhabitants of the cloud forest come out to play at night, which is why an increasing number of outfits offer guided night tours of the forest. While the prospect of wandering the cloud forest with a flashlight looking for tarantulas the size of one's hand may not be everyone's cup of tea, it's an excellent way to get a different perspective on the forest.
The central mountains also serve as a starting point for some furious whitewater that can test the best, especially when the rains come from May to November. Rios Tropicales (00 506 2333 6455; riostropicales. com) offers multiple day tours of most of the country's best whitewater; a two-day guided trip on the Rio Pacuare, including a night at the Rainforest Eco-Lodge, gloriously sited on the river itself, starts at $285 (£204).
The 'rich coast'?
Costa Rica's Pacific shoreline is nothing short of superb, with miles of beautiful sand, tremendous ocean breakers, and as many, or as few, tourists as you want. Spots such as busy Tamarindo, immortalised in the classic surf film Endless Summer II, entice partygoers, while quieter spots such as Dominical or Manuel Antonio National Park provide quintessential travellers' hangouts where you eat banana pancakes and listen to Hendrix. With warm water and abundant marine life, there is excellent diving to be had here, too.
Costa Rica has its fair share of world-renowned surf spots, including Witch' s Rock and Ollie's Point in the north-west near Parque Nacional Santa Rosa. There is plenty of scope to learn the ropes, so to speak, with surf shops up and down both the Caribbean and Pacific coasts. Tamarindo and Jaco are good bases in the north-west, as is Pavones in the south and Puerto Viejo de Talamanca on the Caribbean coast.
The real excitement, however, is at the end of a 36-hour boat trip into the Pacific to Isla del Coco, often referred to as a Costa Rican Galapagos. The number of marine animals is breathtaking. Undersea Hunter (00 506 2228 6613; underseahunter. com) organises tours from San José.
Costa Rica's eastern coast is very different from the west, with a distinctly Caribbean atmosphere. This long sandy arc, stretching from Nicaragua to Panama, is home to spicy seafood, nesting turtles, rolling surf and a permanent carnival atmosphere.
The year-round humid climate has resulted in lush, green rainforest in the south and a vast expanse of wetlands in the north. The aptly named Parque Nacional Tortuguero ("Turtle National Park") is a hotspot for exploring a network of waterways which are home to rich wildlife, including six of the world's eight species of sea turtle, most of which nest there.
Closer to the Panamanian border, Cahuita is a wonderfully relaxed affair where time has slowed to a crawl, set alongside the unusual black, sandy beach of Playa Negra – perfect for some quality hammock time. The nearby Puerto Viejo de Talamanca is livelier, and has calypso and Caribbean flavours in ready supply. Further along the coast towards Panama is Manzanillo, a postcard-perfect town with spectacular beaches. If it's wildlife you are after rather than nightlife, this quiet town is the place for you.
Surrounded by the quaintly named Children's Eternal Rainforest, Rancho Margot is a Chilean-owned resort, with the purpose of protecting and reforesting the area.
"Eco-tourism" gets bandied about a lot, but what does it actually mean? The buildings should be made from local materials, use minimal energy and blend in with the environment. Food and water should come from down the road, not thousands of miles away. It should provide jobs and benefit the community.
So how does Rancho Margot shape up? The aim is for it to be self-sufficient, with energy derived from water-powered turbines and the conversion of organic waste. Dairy is obtained from cows reared on the ranch and the water comes from local springs. Pigs, fishing ponds and organic gardens provide food. Those that pick up a nasty bug can be treated by one of the many holistic remedies cultivated in the medicinal garden.
A stay here will set you back from $70 (£50) per night, including breakfast, internet access, a tour of the ranch's ecological activities and yoga classes.
There's plenty of adventure-related fun to be had on and around the ranch. It's also the perfect spot from which to take guided horseback tours and gallop across the open plains and rivers of the Cano Negro and into the Children's Eternal Rainforest, which is an extraordinary ecological story in itself. In 1987, a group of students in Sweden decided it was time something was done to prevent the loss of our beautiful rainforests, so they raised about $1,500 (£1,070) to buy part of the Monteverde cloud forest. Pretty soon, children from all over the world were getting in on the act. It's a remarkable tale of conservation and indicative of the kind of atmosphere you'll find at Rancho Margot (00 506 2479 7259; ranchomargot.org).
Costa Rica: travel essentials
Since British Airways abandoned its non-stop link from London to San José, a change of plane has been necessary to travel between the UK and Costa Rica. The US is the main connecting country, with American Airlines via Miami or Continental Airlines via Houston the main options. If you want to avoid applying for online permission to enter the US, and the attendant problems on arrival, travel on Iberia via Madrid or Mexicana via Mexico City.
When you leave Costa Rica, budget for a departure tax of $26 (£18.50), payable at the airport.
English is spoken on the Caribbean coast, and by some in San José and the tourist hotspots. Elsewhere, little other than Spanish is understood, and visitors should attempt to master at least a few essential phrases (particularly the phrase pura vida, literally meaning pure life but deployed by the Ticos for just about everything – you'll be sure to get a big smile in return).
Language courses are offered throughout the country, and are a great way to meet new people or even to live with local families. One such recommended course provider is Centro Panamericano de Idiomas (00 506 2265 6306; cpi-edu.com).
When to Go
If you are looking for permanent sunshine, December through to April is your best bet. The rainy season runs roughly from May through to November. During this time, some roads become impassable and you may find that you have to disappear indoors for a couple of hours each afternoon as blue skies rapidly transform into heavy downpours. But whitewater rafting is at its most turbulent, the surf can be more exciting, and many animals thrive in the rainy season.
The Costa Rican coló*is currently around 750 to £1. It slides in value constantly, so prices here are given in US dollars. Money changers will find you before you find them; most are trustworthy.
Almost everyone travels by road, with frequent long-distance buses supplemented by minibuses. Many Ticos supplement the local bus service with impromptu hitching. Costa Rica's railways comprise a couple of lines around San José and a weekends-only service from the capital to Caldera. Air is a possibility, with domestic carriers such as Nature Air (natureair.com) and Sansa (flysansa.com) flying to most parts of the country, reducing, for example, the four-hour trip from San José to Quepos to a 20-minute hop. Baggage restrictions are strictly enforced.