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Costa Rica: Big Trip, Little Country
Twenty-five years ago, Costa Rica pioneered the ecotour—and it's only gotten better.  Text by Cliff Ransom   Photograph by Lucas Gillman
Photo: Costa Rica
WATER PARK:  The rain forest teems with possibilities, such as paddling chutes
along the Río Savegre, in the mountains near Manuel Antonio National Park.

The Perfect Week: Action plans for the trips of your life
Do-It-Yourself  |  Vitals  |  Go Guided

Before they were married, Mark and Eliza Eisendrath hiked the eastern coast of Africa. As newlyweds, they hunted caribou in the far north of Quebec. Then they had their first child, and then a second, and the traveling stopped—for a while. But finally, this past winter, with the kids now four and two, it was time to refire the travel jets and take a full-blown family vacation. Their choice? Costa Rica.

Bridging the gap between the Caribbean and the Pacific in the heart of Central America, Costa Rica is the epitome of an ecotourism paradise. It was in the Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve that the trend took hold 25 years ago—before any other country in the region—and the Ticos, as the locals are known, have been fine-tuning it ever since. To hardened backpackers, this sort of well-trod vibe is sometimes considered a liability. For the rest of us, Costa Rica's astounding diversity and easy access put the exotic squarely within reach.

People like the Eisendraths can get a taste of their adventurous days without schlepping their children through hell to find it. Daring women can placate reluctant husbands with good food and plush digs while they're off tracking wildlife in the jungle. And die-hard paddlers and surfers have more churning rivers and private breaks to explore than they have time.

To get the most out of a trip to Costa Rica, consider the vacation a series of short, contained journeys, each distinct from the next. The jungle-covered volcanoes of the central highlands are worlds apart from the dry,
cactus-studded hills of Guanacaste or the deserted beaches of the Península de Osa. In any other place, linking such disparate geographies would be a chore, but because of Costa Rica's size—a touch smaller than West Virginia—you can string them together with ease.

Buses are a bargain but you're better off renting a car. Roads are good, for the most part, and with a 4x4 at your disposal you can pull up stakes effortlessly, bring your own baby seat, or rack some mountain bikes on the roof. If you need to make longer hauls, local air carriers are adept at dealing with travelers and generally keep a tight schedule.

The only problem you'll have in Costa Rica is that, given the profusion of opportunities, you'll strain yourself trying to do it all. Resist the urge. The perfect trip should take in two regions in a week or so. Any more and you'll miss out on those subtle but sublime moments: spending a few hours in a saddlemaker's shop in San José or opting for the extra-long loop on your cloud-forest hike. Any less and you'll end up whiling away your entire vacation in the hammock of a jungle lodge—which, all things considered, could be worse.
 

1. Do-It-Yourself: These options can be done in three days or so. Pick two and you've got yourself a trip.
 
Hike a Smoking Volcano
The three-day circuit from lava-spurting Volcán Arenal to the cloud forests of Monteverde is the trip that jump-started the ecotourism boom in Costa Rica. Accessible from the funky hub of La Fortuna, the area around Arenal is rich with hot rivers and warm caves and home to top-drawer hiking and biking in Arenal National Park. Monteverde boasts some of the most renowned forests in Central America, where bromeliads are backed up like rush hour traffic on the arms of buttressed ficus trees. If you're lucky, you'll catch a glimpse of the quetzal, an ornately plumed bird sacred to the ancient Mesoamericans. One must-do is a canopy tour near Monteverde. Flying along on a network of ziplines a hundred feet up in the treetops may seem a little campy, but it's still a bona fide Costa Rican classic. Selvatura Park, in nearby Santa Elena, has some of the best maintained ($40; www.selvatura.com).

Base Camp: Shorefront Hotel Lago Arenal ($55; www.arenallake.com) commands a small army of guides for horsepacking and hiking the volcano's flanks and for windsurfing or fishing the lake. The staff will also arrange transport to Monteverde.


Raft a River Classic
"There are a lot of great rivers in Costa Rica, but the Pacuare ranks as one of the great rivers of the world," says Michael Kaye, founder of Costa Rica Expeditions, among the country's most long-standing guide services. "It's on par with the Middle Fork of the Salmon, only the water's a lot warmer." More than 22 miles (35 kilometers) of Class II–IV rapids, deep jungle, and even deeper canyons make two days on the river a quintessential Costa Rican odyssey ($260; www.costaricaexpeditions.com).

Base Camp: The Ríos Tropicales Lodge ($250 for lodging and a two-day trip; www.riostropicales.com) is hewed Swiss Family Robinson style from rich jungle woods and offers something no other Pacuare accommodation does: hot water.
 

Go on a Jungle Safari
While the backyard of an average Costa Rican home can be a safari in itself, most wildlife lovers head to Tortuguero. This network of beaches and black-water canals in the country's northeast is rife with caimans, jaguars, tapirs, and massive leatherback, hawksbill, and Caribbean green sea turtles that nest seaside throughout the year. New and affordable flights have also made the old-growth jungle of Corcovado National Park, on the Península de Osa, in the southwest, an emerging center for fauna junkies. Soaring trees, sun-rebuffing canopy, and flocks of red macaws—give yourself four days to do it right.

Base Camp: Though the Rafiki Safari Lodge ($150; www.rafikisafari.com) is not explicitly devoted to wildlife, it runs horsepacking trips through the surrounding Caribbean lowland jungle into the Cordillera Central, billeting you in deluxe tents. When turtle-watching in Tortuguero, stay at the comfy Tortuga Lodge ($119; www.tortugalodge.com).
 

Surf a Legendary Break
Costa Rica has Central America's greatest concentration of well-charted, accessible surf breaks. At the heart of the action is Tamarindo, a party town in the country's northwest with surfing schools, board rentals, boat hires, and head-high summer swells. For something more off the radar (but requiring at least four days), experienced surfers head to the thatch-hut surf eden of Pavones, in the country's far southwest. The break is one of the longest lefts in the world—about half a mile when it's hitting right—and the scene is made up of surf nomads down for the summer.

Base Camp: Owned by Louis Wilson, one of Costa Rica's best known surfers, Hotel Las Tortugas ($40; www.tamarindo.com/tortugas) is across the bay from thrumming Tamarindo but still close to great breaks. Lessons ($40 for two hours, including equipment) are available, and Wilson can give you the scoop on where the breaks are popping.

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2. VITALS
Costa Rica the Right Way
 
WHEN TO GO: In most of the country the dry season runs from late December through April, and if you don't want to be mired axle-deep in mud, it's strongly advised that you go then. For surfers, the best swells hit in summer.

GETTING AROUND: Cheap buses run all through the country. For longer hauls, fly from San José on Nature Air (www.natureair.com) to Golfito ($85) to get to Pavones; to Puerto Jiménez ($95) for Corcovado National Park; and to Tortuguero ($68).

WHAT TO BRING: You can get most everything you need in San José or Tamarindo, but bring along some top-notch bug spray, such as Cutter, and a light rain jacket. No matter what time of year you visit, you'll definitely need both.

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3. GO GUIDED
Choose the Trip That Suits You and Let the Pros Do the Rest
 
THE FAMILY AFFAIR: Shuttling between the forests and mountains of Monteverde and Arenal and the beaches of Manuel Antonio National Park, Horizontes leads an ideal ten-day family adventure ($1,580 for adults, $680 for children, including domestic travel; www.horizontes.com). The highlight comes on the last day, when you choose between a zipline canopy tour and an outrigger canoe trip off the beach.
 
THE SAMPLER PLATECosta Rica Expeditions practically invented the classic Tico trip ($1,808 for ten days; www.costaricaexpeditions.com). Among the highlights are a stay at its resplendent Monteverde Lodge, mountain
biking and hiking the flanks of smoke-belching Volcán Arenal, birding in cloud forests, kayaking Tortuguero's black-water canals, and turtle-spotting on nearby beaches.
 
THE HONEYMOONERS: Solimar Travel arranges some of the best custom tours in Costa Rica ($4,680 for two people for nine days; www.solimartravel.com). For postnuptial decompression, Solimar highly recommends a night at the Finca Rosa Blanca Country Inn, near hulking Volcán Barva; then a few nights at the Bosque del Cabo Lodge, in the jungles of the Península de Osa; and for a coda, the supercush honeymoon suite at the Hotel Punta Islita, on the sandy Guanacaste coast.
 
THE MULTISPORT SPREE: For folks who just can't come home satisfied unless they've been thoroughly challenged, Wildland Adventures fits the bill. Its
trademark itinerary ($1,998 for ten days; www.wildlandadventures.com) combines mountain biking on Volcán Arenal's recent lava flows, sea kayaking along the torpid channels of Tortuguero, and rafting the legendary
Río Pacuare.   

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Photo: March Cover


Pick up the March 2006 issue for more secrets of the Southwest, nine Caribbean adventures, the best gear for runners, and our World Class outfitter trips.

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