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An ecotourism pioneer, Costa Rica lives up to its Pura Vida reputation. This is the place to reconnect with nature: you won’t need to venture far from your lodge in La Fortuna or the Osa Peninsula before you start clapping eyes on brightly coloured birds and chittering monkeys. Go down the same route with an experienced guide, and they’ll point out a sloth or two you may have missed. When you start craving something a little more thrilling, Costa Rica delivers in bucketloads, be it surfing the roaring waves of the Pacific or gliding down a zipline like a quetzal.

Recommended for your packing list: a sense of adventure and a zoom lens.

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Tortuguero National Park

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Beaches teeming with turtles and a Venice in the jungle

Nature’s beauty unfolds before your eyes in Tortuguero. The main attraction here is the sea turtles that come ashore every year to lay eggs, sometimes en masse, and their babies that hatch a few weeks later and make a frantic dash down to the sea. Watching these living dinosaurs laying their eggs and/ or the sand erupt with hundreds of hatchlings is one of nature’s most magnificent spectacles.

Even if the turtles are out at sea, the park is still a wildlife lover’s paradise. A network of narrow canals and waterways has created circuits for canoeists to explore, surrounded by lush vegetation and home to playful river otters and Jesus Christ lizards. There is also a short hiking trail near the village where macaws and monkeys are often spotted.

 

The Osa Peninsula

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Untamed, yet paradise

The Osa Peninsula, even by Costa Rican standards, boasts exceptional biodiversity. It is a pristine knob of Pacific coast whose forests and wildlife give it a primaeval feel. While its southern half is protected by Corcovado National Park, the entire peninsula feels wild. You'll experience this firsthand as you go for a swim with macaws swooping overhead or enjoy breakfast in the company of monkeys and iguanas.

For nature enthusiasts and laypeople alike, an expedition into the national park is sure to be a highlight of any stay here. Guided down rainforest trails and boating through mangrove swamps, there’s a high chance of encountering tapirs, coatis and monkeys along the way. If you’re lucky you may stumble upon something more unique, such as a tree-climbing anteater or a manakin bird performing a mating dance. Guides will also tell you about some of the forest’s fascinating plants, including wild pumpkins and a palm tree that walks – albeit at a rate of about a metre a year.

Corcovado’s natural beauty extends beyond its shoreline: it’s not uncommon to see humpback whales offshore, and very occasionally pods of dolphins hundreds strong. Snorkelling around Caño Island is also a highly popular activity, with its reefs brimming with colourful fish and turtles.

Expert tip: night walks are not permitted in the park itself, but can be done on the farms and reserves in the surrounding areas. Red-eyed tree frogs and fer-de-lance snakes are common sights on these.

 

Tamarindo

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Surfing and sunset delights

If Pura Vida has a home, this must surely be it. Tamarindo is a pleasant, yet well-developed, town whose waves ensure a steady stream of surf enthusiasts. Whether you’re a seasoned expert or a complete beginner, Tamarindo is the ideal place to catch the perfect wave or learn how to – even if it means falling ten times in the process.

Tamarindo is also a great base from which to explore the Nicoya Peninsula, and like anywhere in Costa Rica, wildlife abounds here. Tours into the mangroves will take you past bright pink spoonbill colonies and drifting crocodiles, and nearby Playa Grande attracts scores of leatherback turtles between October and March.

 

Arenal and La Fortuna

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The rainforest, minus the humidity

A popular spot for tourists and retirees alike, La Fortuna is a countryside town located not far from the capital. La Fortuna used to attract droves of visitors thanks to the nearby Arenal Volcano and its lava flows. Although the majestic volcano is dormant nowadays, there are still plenty of reasons to visit, and this town hasn’t lost its edge when it comes to visitor services and accommodation.

La Fortuna is a pleasant place to experience nature: low enough in altitude that lush rainforests surround the town, but not so low that it experiences the humidity of Costa Rica’s coastal parks. There’s also ziplining, horse-riding, white-water rafting and a Tarzan swing to be enjoyed nearby. If you work up a sweat, there are plenty of natural hot springs dotted around town, many of which are surrounded by cascading waterfalls.

Wildlife highlights

Sloths are especially abundant around La Fortuna, and it’s not unheard of for guided walks on the town’s periphery to turn up twenty. Guided, mind you – sloths’ camouflage makes them excellent at hiding. Toucans are also common sights in the trees, and keen birders should keep an eye out for dinosaur-like curassows.

 

Monteverde Cloud Forest

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If the Garden of Eden had England’s misty weather…

Monteverde Cloud Forest is a realm of mist-shrouded enchantment, a place to walk among towering trees adorned with epiphytes, as the air teems with the calls of exotic birds. You won’t just be on the forest floor here, though – hanging bridges, including a rather famous suspension bridge, and zip lines will bring you into the quetzal’s realm, and a trail running along the spine of a ridge provides a spectacular view of the surrounding hills.

Wildlife highlights

Birdwatching is the area’s top draw. With the help of a specialised guide, this is the best place to spot birds such as the resplendent quetzal and the wattled bellbird, an avian oddity with a face like an octopus.

The cafe near the reserve entrance brims with feeding hummingbirds, and the coffee is excellent too.

 

Talamanca Mountains

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An offbeat alternative to Monteverde

Southeast of the capital, the Talamanca Mountains offer trekking through misty forests, chasing waterfalls and/ or quetzals, and are a place where you bed down in a log cabin when the chilly night sets in.

Located in the cloud forest zone, the Talamanca Mountains are quite similar to Monteverde. The main difference is that visitor numbers are considerably lower here – getting that wilderness experience while trekking is much easier out here, and wildlife is equally abundant.

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