The breathtaking Celeste Falls in rural northwestern Costa Rica

Costa Rica Calling

15th December 2017

Having come top in 2009 and 2012, Costa Rica has once again topped the Happy Planet Index rankings with a substantial lead. Ticos (Costa Ricans) have higher wellbeing and better life expectancy than the residents of many rich nations, including the USA and the UK. Not only is it a great place to live, it’s a superb holiday destination too. Paul Parry explores, and offers ten reasons to visit…

With plenty to appeal to families and foodies, honeymooners and backpackers, thrillseekers, environmentalists and almost anyone else, Costa Rica is one of the most eclectic, unspoilt and interesting places on earth. ‘The Switzerland of Central America’ offers something for everyone: climatic and biological diversity, stunning beaches, active volcanoes, rainforest and cloud forest, canopy zip wires... you name it. It’s also known for its inclusive nature, welcoming LGBTQ tourists from across the world. English is widely spoken, vegans and vegetarians are catered for fantastically well, US dollars are accepted alongside colones (and dispensed from local ATMs)... and wifi is available everywhere you’d expect it. To use the cliché ‘tropical paradise’ would not be wide of the mark.

1. PURA VIDA

Following your arrival in Costa Rica, it’s not long until you hear ‘pura vida’ (pronounced poo-rah vee-dah) or read it emblazoned on a t-shirt. Its use is multi-purpose: it’s anything from a customary greeting to an expression of well-being or family unity to a set of ideals – a catch-all catchphrase that emphasises and celebrates the rich life that thrives here.

Costa Rica is one of the world’s five ‘Blue Zones’, where people can enjoy a life expectancy longer than almost anywhere else. The country’s rich, natural environment, stress-free lifestyle and healthy eating (including good, clean water from the tap) contribute to the long life that the population can enjoy here.

Heavy investment in education, culture and medicine results in excellent social wellbeing. In measuring overall health system performance across 191 countries, the World Health Organisation ranks Costa Rica above the United States.

In 2015, Costa Rica was able to produce 99 per cent of its electricity from renewable sources, and the government continues to invest in green energy generation to meet its goal of becoming carbon neutral by 2021. It’s also pledged to eradicate single-use plastics.

2. FANTASTIC FEASTS (& WHERE TO FIND THEM)

“OMG, it’s a TVP!” says a guest at Papaya, the restaurant at the Conchal Hotel in Brasilito.

“TVP? What’s that?” asks Hilda Rodriguez, who runs the establishment with her partner, Simon Preston.

“Your restaurant,” continues the British diner, “is a tropical vegan paradise. A TVP.”

Costa Rican cuisine is a blend of Native American, Spanish, African and many other influences, and Papaya does a very good job of blending many of them to cater for steak-lovers, pescatarians and vegans equally well. It serves quality dishes prepared with the best fresh local produce, and the menu is both wide-ranging and mouth-watering in equal measure. Filet mignon sits beside coconut mahi-mahi, while casados – variations of the Costa Rican national dish – and Tico-style tacos (‘gallos’) take your palate on an exotic journey.

You’ll find fabulous food the length and breadth of the country, with wonderful tropical tastes and an emphasis on freshness – and great coffee, too, of course.

3. THERE’S NO ARMY

Costa Rica dissolved its armed forces in 1948 to ensure democracy and to end coups using the military so, naturally, Costa Ricans have few war heroes to celebrate. There is one, however – Juan Santamaría, a poor drummer boy from Alajuela, whose bravery thwarted a notorious US figure’s march through Central America during the 1850s.

Having overthrown the Nicaraguan government, William Walker and his mercenary army targeted other Central American countries to try to develop a slave-trade empire. The Costa Rican government sent troops north to Nicaragua to fight the threat and, with defeat looming, young Juan Santamaría set fire to a hostel where enemy soldiers were staying. The fire led to a heavy loss in Walker’s troops, but Santamaría also died.

Costa Rica’s sovereignty was thus confirmed, and Juan Santamaría Day is celebrated in style throughout the country on 11 April every year.

4. BEACHES

Nestling between the Pacific Ocean and the Caribbean Sea, Costa Rica’s plentiful and unspoilt beaches really are something to behold, but it’s their sheer diversity that marks them out as remarkable.

There are beaches for everyone here: long stretches of beautiful white sand with swaying palm trees, such as Marino Ballena National Park (pictured) in Uvita; ‘playas negras’ covered in volcanic black sand; fantastic surfing beaches like Tamarindo and Dominical. If you’re a nature enthusiast, try Ostional beach within Ostional Wildlife Refuge on the Nicoya Peninsula, where olive ridley sea turtles nest annually (known as ‘arribada’) between four and ten times a year from July to October.

The warm waters of the Pacific lap the beautiful Conchal, Flamingo and Tamarindo beaches, while on the southern Caribbean shore, Manzanillo beach offers coral reefs and tropical rainforest, and is a great spot for diving and snorkelling.

5. INCLUSIVITY

One of the oldest democracies in the Americas, Costa Rica is proud of its tradition of tolerance, and gay travellers can be more relaxed here than in other Central American countries. Homosexual acts are legal, and in 2015 Costa Rica became the first country in Central America to recognise gay relationships. Same-sex couples are unlikely to face harassment (although public displays of affection might attract unwanted attention).

Quepos, on the central Pacific coast, has been popular with LGBTQ travellers since the 1990s, and nearby Manuel Antonio – with its national park – is regarded by many as the undisputed gay and lesbian capital of the country.

6. OUTDOOR ACTIVITIES

The Costa Rican government uses taxes collected on the sale of fossil fuels to pay for the protection of forests, and it’s estimated that up to 80 per cent of all visitors to the country come for ecotourism-related activities.

Costa Rica is one giant adventure playground, and many of its most popular tourist attractions focus on outdoor activities such as canopy tours (including zip wires and hanging bridges), scuba-diving, snorkelling, surfing, quad-biking, horse-riding, fishing and whitewater rafting.
The zip wires of the Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve offer a thrilling experience, enabling you to glide through the canopy over the tops of the trees, guided by local experts, and soak up stunning views at every turn.

If zipping across 1,000 metres of forest canopy through the clouds is your idea of purgatory, however, then fret not: there are many more relaxing ways to enjoy the ‘pura vida’ lifestyle. Since the 1990s, the tourism industry has grown here following investment in luxury resorts (try the Baldi Hot Springs Resort, which sits beside the Arenal volcano), lodges, casinos, hotels, villas and world-class golf courses.

7. ‘THE LIVING EDEN’

Often referred to as ‘the living Eden’ by scientists and naturalists, Costa Rica is one of the most biodiverse places on earth, accounting for only 0.03 per cent of the earth’s surface but nearly six per cent of its biodiversity.

This is partly because the country sits just ten degrees north of the equator, so its climate is tropical and subtropical. Also, situated as it is between North and South America, it has served as a bridge for countless species of animals and plants for thousands of years. Around a quarter of the country is protected, and with good reason: rainforest, cloud forest, two coastlines, a huge inland lake, mountain ranges, islands, beaches, active volcanoes, hot springs, mangrove swamps, caves, river canyons, coral reefs and waterfalls are all popular with tourists.

Ten thousand species of plants and trees, more than 850 indigenous and migrant birds, 205 species of mammals, over 35,000 species of insects, 160 species of amphibians, 220 species of reptiles, and around 1,000 species of fresh and saltwater fish all call Costa Rica home, making it truly a natural paradise.

8. DOUBLING UP

Costa Rica’s Central American location might be seen as a negative: it’s relatively remote, and a long way from Europe and Asia. But this is easily turned into a positive when you consider the possibilities for further travel that are available as a result.
Those coming from Europe can travel via a city in the United States or Canada, for example. There’s nothing like breaking up a long journey with a brief city break to make your time away feel longer than it actually is.

And, once you get to Costa Rica, try a ‘trip within a trip’. If you’re staying near one of the beautiful beaches, consider a trip to the cloud forest of Monteverde mentioned above, situated in the mountainous north-west of the country, or a trip to Lake Arenal and its volcano and hot springs.

Alternatively, both Nicaragua and Panama are within easy reach and offer plenty to see and do in their own right.

9. WEDDING WONDERLAND

Costa Rican beach weddings are nothing new – singer P!nk married her husband here in 2006 – but tying the knot beside the ocean as the sun sets is always going to hold a magical, romantic appeal.

“People want to feel very special, very relaxed and completely looked after... all in bare feet, usually,” says Simon Preston, who organises weddings on one of the local beaches. “It’s so special here… people can’t believe that with the average cost of a UK wedding, for example, they often save money by travelling all this way and marrying in an idyllic setting like this.”

10. CULTURE & HISTORY

Costa Rica’s rich history is an attraction in itself. Its indigenous heritage and Spanish colonial influence combine with numerous other cultures and peoples, including Jamaican, Chinese and Jewish, to create a uniquely warm blend.
When Christopher Columbus arrived on the country’s Caribbean shore on his fourth and final voyage in 1502, fewer than 20 indigenous tribes occupied the lands. Columbus paved the way for Spanish colonists who established a permanent presence in 1563. The country escaped large-scale colonisation – unlike elsewhere in Central and South America – because of the lack of mineral wealth (gold and silver) and people to work the land.

Today, agriculture and – developing particularly in the past 20 years – ecotourism and technology are major industries, and Costa Rica is a draw for people across the world.

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