Travel

Costa Rica Is the Ultimate Beach-Meets-Jungle Adventure

Coast to coast in six hours, with a few dinosaurs along the way.

Matt Champlin/Moment/Getty Images
Matt Champlin/Moment/Getty Images
Matt Champlin/Moment/Getty Images

There’s something about Costa Rica that feels like stepping into a live action Jurassic Park. Hiking the slopes of a volcano in the rainy darkness, the light from my headlamp bobs over giant, wet jungle leaves as I scan for poisonous creatures. Badass local guides point out the wonders the rainforest holds, while monkeys howl in the trees above, toucans with multicoloured beaks swoop by, and neon blue- and orange-hued frogs peer up at me with their red beady eyes. Maybe I won’t find any velociraptors this time, but the lush, wild landscape makes it easy to see why the classic dinosaur franchise took place right here in Costa Rica.

Over 1,500 types of orchids bloom in this country, some as big as the size of a fist and others as tiny as a pinhead, all pollinated by teeny tiny bees. Trees literally grow on top of other trees, and what appear to be vines hanging down from above are actually thick roots reaching for the ground. The biodiversity is so in-your-face that the call to protect the forests is as loud as the cicadas’ siren song, and pretty damn hard to ignore.

“We traded in the rifle for the telescope-point and shoot,” says Andreas Valverde, co-founder and director of curated forest immersion company SAVIA Monteverde. Costa Rica got rid of its military in 1948, since shifting into a peaceful country focused on sustaining natural abundance. And there’s a whole lot of beauty worth fighting for. In lockstep with all the other guides, Valverde slings his tripod on his shoulder and sets up his lens at different points along the route, capturing sloths climbing so very slowly upside down, lizards skipping over water, and birds with iridescent feathers shining metallic in the sunlight.

In Costa Rica, you can watch the sunrise over the turquoise Caribbean Sea, then see it set over the deep blue Pacific Ocean-all in one day, since the drive from the east to the west coast only takes six hours. The journey in between is packed with rolling green mountains and volcanoes, cloud forests, caves fit for spelunking, and verdant valleys ideal for zip-lining.

You can lounge on the numerous black sand, pink sand, and micro-seashell beaches stretching down both sides of the narrow country, or you can head to the more overgrown inland area to see what the good life-known colloquially as “pura vida”-is all about. Bring your refillable water bottle to load up on the pristinely drinkable tap water and buckle your seatbelt for the bumpy ride across the wild roads of Costa Rica-here are all the jungles, beaches, and possible dinosaur sightings that await along the Rich Coast.

SAVIA Monteverde
SAVIA Monteverde
SAVIA Monteverde

Climb high into the trees of a cloud forest in Monteverde

A guide in Monteverde helps me climb up the inside of an enormous tree that’s hollowed out in the middle, as it once swallowed another tree. The trunk it suffocated has since crumbled away, leaving a tall, empty cavity behind. Turns out, nature is pretty metal. This happens quite often in Monteverde, and exploring these natural curiosities is what the mountainous cloud forest is all about.

Elsewhere, SAVIA guides strap visitors into harnesses and tote them up into the canopy, like so many monkeys perched above it all. Guests can even have a picnic up there, spread across platforms that sway gently with the breeze more than 100 feet off the ground, complete with a view of Pacific islands in the distance. There are torch-lit night tours, interactive sensory gardens that let you feel, hear, and taste the surroundings, hammocks strung hundreds of feet off the ground, and multiple options to repel back to earth. As co-founder Valverde explains, “We use awe as a tool for change.”

Matteo Colombo/Moment/Getty Images
Matteo Colombo/Moment/Getty Images
Matteo Colombo/Moment/Getty Images

But don’t get it twisted-this is no gimmicky adventure park. “If everyone who comes through here has a connection, we maximize the impact,” says Valverde. He leads people on “adventures with a purpose.” Each structure is painted with natural colours of the forest so as to not distract the animals, and leaf-like building materials allow light to pass through to the forest floor. Every aspect is centred around preservation and understanding, an ethos that sticks with visitors long after they’ve descended down from the towering treescape.

You can base yourself in the cute hippie town of Santa Elena, but to really immerse yourself (and save time commuting to morning hikes and night tours) nearby Belmar Hotel makes a strong case for the best hotel in all of Costa Rica. While many hotels talk about sustainable attempts, Belmar lives and breathes environmental protection without losing an ounce of luxury. The gorgeously rustic interior employs 100% reforested wood, the soaps are biodegradable, and solar panels heat the shower water. The cocktails, on-site brewery, and chef’s tasting menu only use produce from their own gardens or from local farmers, and the hotel landscapes exclusively with native plants that benefit the ecosystem. Plus, the views from each room’s private wooden balcony look out onto glowing sunsets that light up the swirling, fast-moving clouds, like a mini aurora borealis whipping across the sky.

Unsplash/trail
Unsplash/trail
Unsplash/trail

Hike around Arenal volcano then dip in soothing hot springs

Checking out the Arenal Volcano is basically mandatory when visiting Costa Rica. You’re truly missing out if you just stick to beaches and don’t venture inland.

Arenal itself is exactly what you’d imagine for a volcano-filled with lava, a plume of vapour escaping out the top. Don’t worry too much about eruptions, though, as it’s been quiet since 2011. The jungle has reclaimed much of its flank, but you can still see the deep rivulets the lava once carved into the sides. You can trek in the national park at the base of the volcano from the visitor’s centre, gaze into the water-filled crater of Cerro Chato beside it, hike to the postcard-perfect La Fortuna waterfall, or kayak in the turquoise waters of Lake Arenal, rimmed in red-sand shores.

Kosuke Machida/Shutterstock
Kosuke Machida/Shutterstock
Kosuke Machida/Shutterstock

A huge draw here are the hot springs. Many choose to pay the entry fee at the numerous businesses that funnel the bubbling hot water into swimming pool-like structures, such as at Ecotermales. The amount of guests is limited, and the facilities are outfitted with bathrooms and sometimes restaurants. But if you want a decidedly local experience, head to the no-cost hot river. You can access the river next to the Tabacon Spa, just walk down the dirt path until you get to the rushing hot water, where natural pools are bordered by candles and steam drifts up into the hanging branches above.

Numerous spas line the road around these parts, and though all these lodgings make for a pampered stay, none are better positioned than the Arenal Observatory Lodge. As the only hotel located inside the national park, it sits at the base of the mighty volcano overlooking Lake Arenal. You’ll feel like you’ve entered the unlocked cage of a T. rex as soon as you drive over the dirt road past the gates. Most hikes also start out from the Lodge, so you’ll be right in the middle of all the action.

Luis Alvarado Alvarado/Shutterstock
Luis Alvarado Alvarado/Shutterstock
Luis Alvarado Alvarado/Shutterstock

Hang out in trendy restaurants, bars, and museums of San Jose

Flying into San Jose is standard operation procedure, since the centrally located capital makes it easy to set out for Monteverde and Arenal or jet over to the Pacific or Caribbean side. But don’t make the mistake of not setting aside a day or two to explore the city.

Travellers are often anxious to get past the sprawl that spans the outskirts of San Jose-since, of course, the call of the jungles and beaches is strong. But central San Jose is full of some of the best restaurants and bars in the country, not to mention beautiful old buildings influenced by neoclassical, baroque, and tropical Victorian styles from the 1800s. After checking out the National Theater, Gold Museum, or Jade Museum downtown, grab food and drinks in San Pedro and Escalante, both excellent neighbourhoods to discover by foot.

Sikwa Restaurante
Sikwa Restaurante
Sikwa Restaurante

You’re going to find a lot of plantains, beans, and rice in Costa Rica, but Sikwa, a restaurant inspired by indigenous cuisine, has your back when it comes to a true taste of the country. Yes, there’s still plantain, but it’s ground into flour and transformed into an empanada with pickled vegetables. You’ll also find purple corn, smoked palm, cacao nibs, and a peachy palm fruit called pejibaye. For a more modernized version of Costan Rican cuisine, make your way through Restaurante Silvestre’s many creative recipes. The Octopus Ceviche is a tingly treat for the tongue, and the Banana-wrapped Fish elevates tradition. Save room for the Osa Sphere come dessert, a devilishly delicious greenish ball of guava, caramelized corn, cashew butter, and chocolate.

For drinks, La Yerbatera is a new, happening speakeasy-and a real one at that, as you have to call a WhatsApp number for reservations, directions, and a password to enter. Once you manage to find it, you’re treated to a dimly lit apothecary-like interior, which makes sense since the cocktails here make good use of herbal infusions. Stick to the theme by hopping a couple blocks over to Apotecario, a brick-and-wood bar plastered with plants and dry flowers, plus the occasional miniature skeleton or voodoo doll hanging from the ceiling. They brew their own beer and kombuchas, and concoct mixed drinks spiked with smoked whiskey and healthy doses of zesty ginger.

phortun/Shutterstock
phortun/Shutterstock
phortun/Shutterstock

Slow things down to Caribbean island time in Cahuita and Puerto Viejo

This is a two-for-one, as Cahuita and Puerto Viejo sit right next to each other. The towns are on the Caribbean side of Costa Rica, a more laid-back expanse with reggae bars and a slower-paced, island life mantra.

Puerto Viejo is artsy, hippie, and rowdy, all at the same time. You’ll find hostels with hand-painted signs and bar after bar lining the sand under the palm trees. Keep going south along the coast for Caribeans Chocolate and Coffee, where you can sip mighty fine espresso while looking out at the beach across the road, fully understanding why Costa Rica was a wealthy coffee republic for centuries. Since the cacao plant is another big economic force here, don’t be surprised to find a lot of chocolate on menus, such as the one at Bread and Chocolate. The Caribbean Pancakes stand out with toasted coconut and, of course, a sweet brown chocolate sauce drizzled on top.

Simon Dannhauer/Shutterstock
Simon Dannhauer/Shutterstock
Simon Dannhauer/Shutterstock

You’ll find bungalows and backpacker hotels dotting the roads, but the real move is to book a stay in a treehouse. Tree House Lodge is a fun and colourful option, while many other locally owned operations are available via Airbnb.

Cahuita, on the other hand, is less populated, with just a smattering of restaurants and quieter beaches. It’s also where you’ll find the entrance to Cahuita National Park, a gorgeous preserve boasting an incredible protected coral reef. On the way there, make sure to stop off at Playa Negra, a long beach with dazzingle stretches of black sand that are definitely worth a stroll.

Unsplash/Max Bender
Unsplash/Max Bender
Unsplash/Max Bender

Feel luxurious with upscale leisure and beachy views in Guanacaste

Guanacaste is a fairly touristy and developed area. This Pacific-side oasis is where you’re most likely to find all-inclusive resorts, golf courses, and celebrity sightings. But there’s a reason for that: the million dollar views. Beaches here are hugged by lush hilly coves, with a smattering of tall rock islands jutting out of the ocean.

But its appeal extends far beyond touristy draws-the entire peninsula is an official blue zone, meaning it’s one of the densest areas in the world where locals live to be over 100 years old. There’s either something in the water or residents are genuinely happy enough to stick it out for the long haul.

Galyna Andrushko/Shutterstock
Galyna Andrushko/Shutterstock
Galyna Andrushko/Shutterstock

Largely thanks to rip tides on much of the Pacific coastline that make swimming a cautious activity, there’s not all that much to do here other than laze around on the beach. If you’re looking for action, you could learn to surf, check out the mud baths and geysers in Rincon de la Vieja National Park, hike to a practically glowing-turquoise waterfall at Rio Celeste, or try out one of the zipline tours advertised all over the country. You can basically zipline anywhere in Costa Rica, with formations ranging from two-person tandem rides to the solo superhero head-first style.

Beaches abound in Guanacaste. Set your sights on the pinkish sands of Playa Flamingo, the white micro-seashell Conchal Beach, the busy shop- and restaurant-filled Tamarindo, or Samara, with its calm, waist-high waters extending 600 feet out. For a luxe dining experience, snag a table at Latitude 10 Norte at the W Hotel in Puerto Viejo and get your fill of ceviche, tartare, paella, tacos, and expert cocktail pairings. Or to eat with the locals, check out Patagonia del Mar for an extensive menu and beach views, plus a shallow wading pool where you can sip drinks in splashy style.

CL-Medien/Shutterstock
CL-Medien/Shutterstock
CL-Medien/Shutterstock

Hang with sloths and wander a national park in Manuel Antonio

Whether you’re talking about the town or its eponymous national park, Manuel Antonio is a lovely destination. Who was Manuel Antonio? Honestly, no one knows. Might’ve been a pirate. No matter the case, the man had good taste.

The town of Manuel Antonio sits up in the hills overlooking the ocean. You’ll find Indian, Thai, vegan, and falafel restaurants alongside choice cocktails here, in addition to typical Costa Rican food. A favourite is Emilio’s Cafe, which has a fun Pop Art-meets-Victorian aesthetic, a scenic open-air balcony, and an excellent Caribbean-style fish dish smothered in a coconut-tomato sauce. Closer to the park, Restaurante Puerto Escondido hawks some of the most inventive recipes around (don’t sleep on the Almond and Mandarin Orange Salad). Igloo Beach Lodge sports an excellent mix of modern dishes (many of which are vegan) and a stellar breakfast spread. It’s also conveniently located next to both the beaches and entrance to the national park, and spending the night in one of the igloo guest rooms is always a fun time.

Philipp Frerich/EyeEm/Shutterstock
Philipp Frerich/EyeEm/Shutterstock
Philipp Frerich/EyeEm/Shutterstock

Manuel Antonio National Park is a patch of forested cliffs jutting into the sea that’s pinched in the middle, forming a strip of long, secluded beaches. The main trail leading to the beach is short, flat, and often full of sloths and trickster monkeys (don’t carry food and keep an eye on your belongings). There are a few offshoot trails that lead up wooden stairs to lookout points, which you’ll want to do first so you get a sense of the layout-and so you can earn your lounge time by sweating it out over each monstrous staircase.

Guides aren’t really necessary in Manuel Antonio, but you’ll need to make a reservation in advance online. It takes about three or four hours to traverse all the trails combined-a very small park with a big sandy, aqua-blue payoff. Still, the little park captures tons of attention, with the adorable sloth population stealing the spotlight from noted admirer Barack Obama.

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Danielle Hallock the Travel Editor at Thrillist and will take any tips on where to find T. rex.

Travel

Ditch your Phone for ‘Dome Life’ in this Pastoral Paradise Outside Port Macquarie 

A responsible, sustainable travel choice for escaping big city life for a few days.

nature domes port macquarie
Photo: Nature Domes

The urge to get as far away as possible from the incessant noise and pressures of ‘big city life’ has witnessed increasingly more of us turn to off-grid adventures for our holidays: Booking.com polled travellers at the start of 2023 and 55% of us wanted to spend our holidays ‘off-grid’.  Achieving total disconnection from the unyielding demands of our digitised lives via some kind of off-grid nature time—soft or adventurous—is positioned not only as a holiday but, indeed, a necessity for our mental health. 

Tom’s Creek Nature Domes, an accommodation collection of geodesic domes dotted across a lush rural property in Greater Port Macquarie (a few hours’ drive from Sydney, NSW), offers a travel experience that is truly ‘off-grid’. In the figurative ‘wellness travel’ sense of the word, and literally, they run on their own independent power supply—bolstered by solar—and rely not on the town grid. 

Ten minutes before you arrive at the gates for a stay at Tom’s Creek Nature Domes, your phone goes into ‘SOS ONLY’. Apple Maps gives up, and you’re pushed out of your comfort zone, driving down unsealed roads in the dark, dodging dozens of dozing cows. Then, you must ditch your car altogether and hoist yourself into an open-air, all-terrain 4WD with gargantuan wheels. It’s great fun being driven through muddy gullies in this buggy; you feel like Laura Dern and Jeff Goldblum in Jurassic Park.  As your buggy pulls in front of your personal Nature Dome, it’s not far off that “Welcome…to Jurassic Park” jaw-dropping moment—your futuristic-looking home is completely engulfed by thriving native bushland; beyond the outdoor campfire lie expansive hills and valleys of green farmland, dotted with sheep and trees. You’re almost waiting to see a roaming brachiosaurus glide past, munching on a towering gum tree…instead, a few inquisitive llamas trot past your Dome to check out their new visitor. 

To fully capture the awe of inhabiting a geodesic dome for a few days, a little history of these futuristic-looking spherical structures helps. Consisting of interlocking triangular skeletal struts supported by (often transparent) light walls, geodesic domes were developed in the 20th century by American engineer and architect R. Buckminster Fuller, and were used for arenas. Smaller incarnations have evolved into a ‘future-proof’ form of modern housing: domes are able to withstand harsh elements due to the stability provided by the durable materials of their construction and their large surface area to volume ratio (which helps minimize wind impact and prevents the structure from collapsing). As housing, they’re also hugely energy efficient – their curved shape helps to conserve heat and reduce energy costs, making them less susceptible to temperature changes outside. The ample light let in by their panels further reduces the need for artificial power. 

Due to their low environmental impact, they’re an ideal sustainable travel choice. Of course, Tom’s Creek Nature Domes’ owner-operators, Cardia and Lee Forsyth, know all this, which is why they have set up their one-of-a-kind Nature Domes experience for the modern traveller. It’s also no surprise to learn that owner Lee is an electrical engineer—experienced in renewable energy—and that he designed the whole set-up. As well as the off-grid power supply, rainwater tanks are used, and the outdoor hot tub is heated by a wood fire—your campfire heats up your tub water via a large metal coil. Like most places in regional Australia, the nights get cold – but rather than blast a heater, the Domes provide you with hot water bottles, warm blankets, lush robes and heavy curtains to ward off the chill.

nature domes port macquarie
Photo: Nature Domes

You’ll need to be self-sufficient during your stay at the Domes, bringing your own food. Support local businesses and stock up in the town of Wauchope on your drive-in (and grab some pastries and coffee at Baked Culture while you’re at it). There’s a stovetop, fridge (stocked as per a mini bar), BBQs, lanterns and mozzie coils, and you can even order DIY S’More packs for fireside fun. The interiors of the Domes have a cosy, stylish fit-out, with a modern bathroom (and a proper flushing toilet—none of that drop bush toilet stuff). As there’s no mobile reception, pack a good book or make the most of treasures that lie waiting to be discovered at every turn: a bed chest full of board games, a cupboard crammed with retro DVDs, a stargazing telescope (the skies are ablaze come night time). Many of these activities are ideal for couples, but there’s plenty on offer for solo travellers, such as yoga mats, locally-made face masks and bath bombs for hot tub soaks. 

It’s these thoughtful human touches that reinforce the benefit of making a responsible travel choice by booking local and giving your money to a tourism operator in the Greater Port Macquarie Region, such as Tom’s Creek Nature Domes. The owners are still working on the property following the setbacks of COVID-19, and flooding in the region —a new series of Domes designed with families and groups in mind is under construction, along with an open-air, barn-style dining hall and garden stage. Once ready, the venue will be ideal for wedding celebrations, with wedding parties able to book out the property. They’ve already got one couple—who honeymooned at the Domes—ready and waiting. Just need to train up the llamas for ring-bearer duties! 

An abundance of favourite moments come to mind from my two-night stay at Tom’s Creek: sipping champagne and gourmet picnicking at the top of a hill on a giant swing under a tree, with a bird’s eye view of the entire property (the ‘Mountain Top picnic’ is a must-do activity add on during your stay), lying on a deckchair at night wrapped in a blanket gazing up at starry constellations and eating hot melted marshmallows, to revelling in the joys of travellers before me, scrawled on notes in a jar of wishes left by the telescope (you’re encouraged to write your own to add to the jar). But I’ll leave you with a gratitude journal entry I made while staying there. I will preface this by saying that I don’t actually keep a gratitude journal, but Tom’s Creek Nature Domes is just the kind of place that makes you want to start one. And so, waking up on my second morning at Tom’s —lacking any 4G bars to facilitate my bad habit of a morning Instagram scroll—I finally opened up a notebook and made my first journal entry:

‘I am grateful to wake up after a deep sleep and breathe in the biggest breaths of this clean air, purified by nature and scented with eucalyptus and rain. I am grateful for this steaming hot coffee brewed on a fire. I feel accomplished at having made myself. I am grateful for the skittish sheep that made me laugh as I enjoyed a long nature walk at dawn and the animated billy goats and friendly llamas overlooking my shoulder as I write this: agreeable company for any solo traveller. I’m grateful for total peace, absolute stillness.” 

Off-grid holiday status: unlocked.

Where: Tom’s Creek Nature Domes, Port Macquarie, 2001 Toms Creek Rd
Price: $450 per night, book at the Natura Domes website.

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