canoeing Costa Rica beach

Where have you been?
I went on a familiarisation trip to Costa Rica with my colleague Paul.

Have you been before?

A few times but my last trip was in 2006 so almost 10 years ago.

If so… notable differences?
Previous trips have concentrated on San Jose, Tortuguero, Arenal, Monteverde, Manuel Antonio and the Pacific beaches of the Nicoya Peninsula. This time I headed to completely new areas but what hasn’t changed is the sheer abundance of the flora and fauna. Also, the sensitivity to the environment is just as acute and it is still the backbone of the country’s tourist infrastructure, which continues to develop.

What has definitely changed is the ease with which you can now get to San Jose thanks to the direct BA flight – it was such an easy and comfortable journey and travelling to Costa Rica no longer means having to transit in the USA, Amsterdam or Madrid.

How long were you there?
We spent just one week in Costa Rica before crossing overland into Panama for a further week.

General route?
After an overnight in San Jose (at the Hotel Grano de Oro, still the best hotel in town with a great restaurant and bar!) we drove about 3 hours south into the less-visited Pérez Zeledón agricultural heartland of Costa Rica to stay at Hacienda Alta Gracia. A former coffee plantation, it has excellent stables with beautifully trained horses and an abundance of scenic riding trains. The infinity pool is also one of the nicest I have seen with views from up on high of the lush green surrounding hills.

From there we continued south to the Osa Peninsula where we spent 4 nights in different lodges. The golden sand beaches are wild and beautiful whilst the rainforest is teeming with colourful birds and exotic animals.

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After driving across the Osa Peninsula we took a short boat ride across the Golfo Dulce to Playa Cativo Lodge. Feeling remote (yet easy to get to) and surrounded by the primary rainforest of the Piedras Blancas National Park, we spent a few days paddle boarding, birdwatching and generally enjoying what is to all intents and purposes a private palm-fringed tropical beach.

It was then time to cross overland into Panama, via Paso Canoas – a border crossing I last did in 1996 during my memorable first backpacking trip to Latin America.

Which was your favourite…

Place: That’s a tough call but I guess it has to be the Piedras Blancas National Park as that is where we saw the most wildlife – spider monkeys, howler monkeys, white-faced capuchin monkeys, a sloth (high up in the trees!), a family of peccaries (wild pigs), toucans, macaws, several different types of eagles and other birds of prey, kingfishers, hummingbirds, and a (harmless) cat-eyed snake.

Hotel: Playa Cativo Lodge was excellent and was overall my favourite. The service was top-notch yet informal and relaxed. The chef does a great job of serving up inventive and delicious dishes making the most of the interesting tropical ingredients that are so abundant in Costa Rica. The rooms are really spacious and make the most of the stunning location with great big screened windows and really comfy big beds. The gardens are full of hummingbirds and other amazing birds, which you can literally just watch from the refreshing waters of the swimming pool. The guide was also great - not only in terms of spotting animals and birds we would otherwise have completely missed, but also in terms of knowledge and infectious enthusiasm. Finally, the location really is to die for – primary rainforest dropping right down to the untouched palm-fringed beach.

I really enjoyed the paddleboarding at Playa Cativo. I can’t believe I’ve never done it before as not only is it great fun, it is also really easy! It felt pretty magical paddling slowly up the shoreline enjoying the late afternoon sun whilst watching macaws fly out of the jungle in pairs and off into the distance.

Appeals to which type of traveller?
Costa Rica really is for everyone. Adventure-seekers, honeymooners, families and nature lovers alike. What it perhaps lacks is culture and history (when compared to neighbouring Nicaragua and Panama) but that is one reason I really enjoyed combining Costa Rica with Panama as the latter has plenty of history and culture to get into.

What did you pack?
A telescopic lens – essential if you want close up pictures of the stunning hummingbirds that seem to be everywhere (not so necessary for the monkeys as you manage to get so close to them).

A small dry-bag (like the ones kayak or rafting operators often provide) if travelling during the green season (May-Nov). We had great weather but did of course get the odd afternoon downpours you would expect. When it rains in the rainforest, it rains, so this is the best way to protect any camera equipment.

Any good food, drinks, restaurants or bars recommendations?
Breakfast everywhere! Costa Rica produces great coffee, the pineapple and bananas are incredible and the slight American influence means you get good quality pancakes instead of the typical egg options.

Room for improvement?
Only in my failed efforts to photograph the huge Blue Morpho butterflies!

How would you sum up your trip in a sentence?

A fantastic trip which showed me new, exciting regions of Costa Rica and stunning hotels in beautiful locations.

Any top tips?
I’d recommend taking some silica bags (as in the ones that come included in the packaging of most electronic goods nowadays). The humidity in the rainforest in May (the worst month for humidity apparently) is pretty intense so these help protect camera gear.

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