Costa Rica may be small, but it is packed with natural wonders and has been tagged the world’s happiest country. Judith Baker reports

Hacienda Termales

Hacienda Termales

Hacienda Tubing

Hacienda Tubing

Lacqua Room

Lacqua Room

Oso Perezoso

Oso Perezoso

Parque Nacional Manuel Antonio (3)

Parque Nacional Manuel Antonio

Puentes Colgantes - Monteverde

Puentes Colgantes Monteverde

Puentes Colgantes Monteverde

Puentes Colgantes Monteverde

Paseo a caballo en Manuel Antonio

Paseo a caballo en Manuel Antonio

Despite accounting for just 0.1% of the world’s landmass, Costa Rica contains 5% of the world’s biodiversity, across four mountain ranges, 800 miles of coastline, 200 volcanic formations and hundreds of national parks, most of which is reasonably accessible from the capital San Jose.

Costa Rica has lodges on the Pacific coast, a great base for seeing wild life with family tours, eco adventures, kayaking and fishing. But it also has magical cloud forests, fabulous beaches with great surfing and miles of open spaces for horse-riding and hiking


Most visitors to Costa Rica enter via the capital San Jose, but until recently not many of them chose to linger. Narrow streets, poor air quality and run-down neighbourhoods gave the city a bad name, but now it is regaining some of its old world charm and has several points of interest

Start with the imposing St Joseph’s cathedral and then head to the imposing The Teatro Nacional built in the style of the Paris Opera from money raised by the coffee tax. Although tickets to see top shows can cost hundreds of dollars, on Wednesdays you can see a half hour taster performance of music, theatre or some other performance for just one dollar

Afterwards have a cocktail or coffee at the lovely Waldorf Hotel, the first hotel in the city to be built exclusively for tourists in the 1920s.


As well as large hotels, San Jose has some characterful and affordable guest houses, many built in tropical Victorian style such as Case De Piedra, a 130 year old house which once stood on a coffee plantation just a few minutes from the city centre. Owners Norman and Loriana provide comfortable homely rooms with a communal kitchen and offer holistic activities including yoga, tai chi and reiki.


But for those who want to get close to nature and enjoy a sustainable life head to one of Costa Rica’s many eco-lodges. Costa Rica prides itself on its green credentials and most lodges let you get up close and personal with sloths, monkeys, agoutis and birds including toucans, macaws and parrots with all the creature comforts you’d expect from a top hotel with organic food often grown on site and stylish furnishings and décor made by local craftspeople

But the real luxury is waking up in your own enchanted tropical forest to the sound of howler monkeys and cicadas. Early morning river tours take you gliding past red mangrove forests where you may spot snakes, baby crocodiles, and white-faced monkeys.

Playa Nicuesa Rainforest lodge ,only accessible by boat from the former banana port of Golfito, is a 165 acre private reserve and stylish sustainable resort on the site of a disused cocoa plantation at Golfe Duce in the south of the country .

Rooms are in individual wooden cabins surrounded by luxuriant foliage and come with outdoor shower, comfortable beds with white mosquito nets and private balconies with hammocks and comfy chairs from which you can spot jungle wildlife and listen to the waves crashing on the pebble beach. Activities include yoga and chocolate making from beans grown on the reserve


Just a few hours away, but like a different world is the country’s magical cloudforest. Home to jaguars, pumas and the gorgeous quetzal bird Monteverde’s rare ecosystem is internationally famous as one of the most extensive cloud forests in Central America. At 5,900 ft., this natural sanctuary is like a lofty green cathedral with More than 2,500 different types of plants and animals, including 400 species of birds living here

Guided natural history walks take you through the Monteverde Reserve which is home to jaguars and pumas. There’s also a zip-line tour of the reserve where you look down on mammals such as the fuzzy martilla.    But the best way to see the lush cloudforest and its inhabitants is by walking on hanging bridges which take you alongside the canopy of trees. The suspended bridges are wobbly and not for those suffering from vertigo, but the heady experiences affords breath taking views over the misty tree tops

In the early 1950s, a group of Quakers from the United States left their homes in Alabama and arrived in Monteverde at a time when the region was just beginning to be settled. The Quakers, fleeing the United States to avoid being drafted into the Korean War, were attracted by the fact that Costa Rica has had no army since 1948, established a simple life in Monteverde centred on dairy and cheese production. Some of these families helped establish the Monteverde and Santa Elena Cloud Forest Reserves some 20 years later. To this day they have an influence on the region, including at the lovely La Establo Swiss chalet style hotel with rooms in blocks staggered up the mountain side. Looking out to the magnificent scenery and spectacular sunsets. Down the hill from the hotel the pretty town of St Elena looks like a Swiss village nestling beneath the misty mountains and has lively restaurants, hostels and bars filled with hikers and bird spotters.

El Establo arranges Night Walks to see forest mammals such as racoons, sloths, armadillos and bats and early morning guided walks include an orchid tour


The cattle ranching region of Guanacaste is also home to the Rincon de la Vieja volcano, a thermally active area. Adventure junkies will thrive on the activities on offer here from zip wires, Tarzan swings, white water rafting and horseback riding after which a dip in the hot natural springs is a must. Paint yourself in mud before jumping in the thermal waters surrounded by lush forest at the Rio Negro


The Pacific Coast has some beautiful beaches with conditions that offer some of the best surfing in this part of the world. Towns such as Nosara are packed with bright driftwood signs pointing to surf shacks and sunset bars. Beaches have an abandoned Robinson-Crusoe feel with rickety shelters constructed from wood and sticks with covers of dried palm leaves

Although simple rooms in surf shacks can be had for as little as £20 a night in this laid-back George Clooney and Leonardo di Caprio are said to have a soft spot for the five star l’Acqua viva resort and spa, separated from the beach by protected forest

How to get there

Iberia ( flies daily to San Jose via Madrid. Return flights from the UK from £498.

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