Every guide book or internet site will tell you the must-sees in Costa Rica (Manuel Antonio, Arenal, Monteverde, to name a few), but my favourites are the ones a little further from the beaten track. They may be a little harder to get to, but they are well worth the effort! After living here for 20 years, here are a few of my must-sees:
1. Playa Blanca at Parque Nacional Santa Rosa, Murciélago Section: only accessible by 4WD car, best to go in dry season. Camping is available at ranger station, then a 17km dirt road will take you to the most beautiful beach I’ve seen here, Playa Blanca. You will see manta rays, fish, dolphins, and more all swimming so close to shore you could touch them. The water is crystal clear and there is nothing man-made in sight. You’ll need to camp at least one night so you can get up in time for the incredible dawn, when the marine-life is most active.
2. Playa Mina: only accessible by 4WD, only in dry season. Follow the dirt roads south from Playa Conchal and take a right by the only hotel out in the middle of ranchlands, drive several kms, and you will come to Playa Mina. White sand, clear turquoise water and no buildings in sight. Even prettier than Conchal. Take camping gear if you want to stay overnight.
3. Rincón de la Vieja National Park, northernmost access road: Drive north from Liberia and you will see a couple access roads on your right. After the road advertising Hacienda Guachipelín, there will be another smaller road signposted to Curubanda Lodge, or on Google maps as 917. All the way up this road, you will find a couple of very rustic lodges owned by local families who will give you a truly local experience. Plan on staying 2 nights or more.
4. Osa national park, ranger station “La Sirena”. Book in advance, and bring good hiking shoes that are easy on and off, as you walk on sand and through forest alternately. You’ll have to take buses and walk a lot, the main walk through the park will take you upwards of 8 hours, but once you arrive you won’t want to leave. The ranger station is a beautiful old general store circled by wooden porches, from back when the park was open to gold-miners. The grass-covered airstrip is visited by dantas (Baird’s Tapirs) at night, and the many trails around the station lead to waterfalls and as many wildlife sightings as you can imagine. There are jaguars, monkeys, sharks, toucans, parrots, and more. Plan to stay there for at least 2 nights before heading back.
5. Barva Volcano: up in the mountains close to Heredia. Getting there involves a public bus ride and a couple-hour hike, which will bring you to the park entrance. From there another hour or less will take you to a fairytale-like dreamscape of enormous trees and stunted trunks covered in moss, plants with leaves bigger than a kitchen table, mist-covered rainforest and a lagoon cloaked in silence that is broken only by the sounds of birds. One-day trip.
So, if you want a little adventure and you don’t mind getting lost along the way, explore and enjoy. Doubtless you will find your own secret spots and favourite destinations that are not to be found on the tourist maps.
Written by Laura Ellington (Director, Intercultura Language School)