One of my earliest international trips was to Costa Rica. I remember spotting a flyer posted in a hallway while in college and being immediately intrigued. My major was related to Biology and the advertised trip led by one of the professors trip focused on the flora and fauna of the country. I remember making a decision almost immediately after I read through the trip description; have fun, see a new country and earn college credits while abroad. Absolutely!
The country is safe, the people friendly, there is plenty of tropical fruit (one of my passions) and the standard of living is pretty good. Our class was all on the same plane. Our professor had been to Costa Rica many times over the years and his guidance and knowledge of the country was much appreciated. In addition all the transportation was already arranged, helping us make a very smooth transition from the airport in San Jose to our first destination, the cloud forests.
The drive from San Jose to Tamarindo is about 5 hours. This small town is located in the north west part of the country directly next to the Pacific Ocean. A number of places along the Latin America Pacific Ocean coastline are great for surfing. On a seperate trip we hung out with some surfers in San Juan del Sur, north of Tamarindo in Nicaragua. That was our first introduction to the surfing culture. Tamarindo revolves around water and is one of the best places in Costa Rica to learn how to surf. And the prices are extremely reasonable both to take surfing lessons and to rent surfboards. And despite its diminutive size Tamarindo offers a number of bars and other watering holes for some fun in the evening.
Need a break from the ocean for a day or two? Head inland and visit Rincon de la Vieja National Park. This park is about a 2.5 hour drive from Tamarindo; its highlights are its vistas, bubbling mud springs and the gorgeous La Cangreja waterfall (visitors can jump into its refreshing waters at the base).
Monteverde Cloud Forest
This is one of the most interesting parts of the country. The drive from San Jose is about 3 hours, through countryside, hugging the coastline for a short while before climbing into the mountains. We were saddened to see the lower elevation hillsides completely clear cut but once we started reaching a higher altitude we entered the cloud forest, a section of the country well preserved, located above the lowland jungles and out of the much warmer and humid zones. This is named a cloud forest for a reason; its often covered in a misty layer of fog and clouds; the resulting precipitation keeps the foliage regularly moist and in addition to the elevation, keeps the temperatures cool.
The diversity in flora and fauna is incredible and the park offers numerous hikes. One highlight among many is the opportunity to see the rare and colorful resplendent Quetzal. This bird features a myriad of bright colors including reds and greens with tail feathers that are much longer than its actual body. Birders come from around the world to catch a glimpse of this rare creature. When one spots it, it is almost always sitting high up in the canopy; photographers will need a tripod and a long zoom lens to capture closeup images.
One can see a diversity of wildlife during the day (monkeys, toucans, sloths, giant butterflies and other animals) but I remember being highly impressed by nighttime walks. We wore headlamps and were amazed by the diversity of small forest-floor creatures that were easily seen.
Museo de Oro, San Jose
During another trip to Costa Rica, I had only a days in San Jose before continuing down to Peru. One of the highlights here is definitely a visit to one of the best pre-Colombian museums in Latin America. Their collection of gold is absolutely amazing with hundreds of hand carved jewelry pieces and other artifacts. We read that this museum has more than 20,000 troy ounces of gold in their collection. The roots of the museum began in the 1950s when the Central Bank of Costa Rica began amassing what would become today’s impressive collection.
Some of the most valuable items are located within a huge bank vault. Of personal interest is their collection of raw gold nuggets. We used to have a mining claim in California; and it is always a treat when we can see large pieces of natural gold all in one display.
My first ever visit to a coffee farm was in Costa Rica; it was an enjoyable experience. Did you know that you can eat the fruit directly from the coffee plants? There is not a lot of pulp as the inside of the fruit is primarily filled with the coffee bean seed, but when fruits turn red, they are fairly sweet. Our group hiked down a dirt road into a canyon where the coffee trees grew on the sides of the hills. My Spanish at the time was rudimentary; the guide spoke in Spanish and our professor translated for us.
Our guide gave us small baskets to pick the fruit in, just for fun but had already picked numerous coffee berries earlier in the morning. What was memorable about our visit is our host walked us through the entire process of making coffee and all the steps they do by hand to ensure the final product is of the highest quality. And of course we sampled several of their products at the end of the tour, some of us taking home some bags of coffee beans.
Have you been to Costa Rica before? If so, what are some of your highlights? Leave comments below.