No place on Earth is perfect… but Costa Rica is pretty close. A hotbed for ecotourism, this Central American nation roughly the size of West Virginia is home to some of the most biodiverse regions in the world. More than 900 known bird species inhabit its landscapes, from volcano slopes and thermal springs to jungles and cloud forests. The country is frequently held up as a model of sustainability, with 98 percent of its energy coming from renewable sources. It’s no wonder its population of around 5 million repeatedly ranks among the happiest in the world. (Costa Rica is home to one of the planet’s six Blue Zones, said to foster longer-than-average life expectancies.) Is three days enough to attain a state of pura vida? Probably not, but it’s worth a visit to find out.
Dreamy waterfalls and cheeky monkeys in Guanacaste
I’ve plotted a full day of hikes and outdoor adventures in Guanacaste province, so my alarm is set for sunrise, at 5:30 a.m. It turns out I don’t need it—the deep growl of howler monkeys outside rouses me a half hour early. I open the blackout curtains of my room at the Andaz Costa Rica Resort at Peninsula Papagayo to glimmering rays of light reflecting off the pristine waters of Culebra Bay in the distance, just beyond Marina Papagayo.
I make my way to the Andaz’s stunning outdoor lobby, its arched wooden roof awash in the glow of the morning light, where I meet my guide, Luis Diego Soto, who greets me in English. I respond in Spanish—as the daughter of Salvadoran and Cuban parents, any visit to Latin America feels like a homecoming of sorts, and it’s a chance to speak my first language freely. The absence of a language barrier creates an instant rapport between me and Soto, who has dedicated the better part of four decades to shepherding travelers around Costa Rica’s many marvels. For the next three days, it’s my turn.
First on the itinerary is the hour drive to Hotel Hacienda Guachipelín, a hotel and adventure center in the shadow of the Rincón de la Vieja volcano, which, at 6,286 feet high and nine miles wide, is the largest and most active volcano in Guanacaste. Before I head out to explore the many natural wonders of Rincón de la Vieja Volcano National Park, I fill my energy reserves with a buffet breakfast at the on-site La Hacienda Restaurant: scrambled eggs, home fries, two razor-thin tortillas, a salty slice of queso fresco, and some gallo pinto. I’m not much of a coffee drinker at home, but in Costa Rica it’s a must. “It tastes smoky because it’s made using firewood,” Soto notes.
Satiated, I head to the property’s stable to meet Joanella, the horse who will be carrying me along the area’s mountain trails this morning. My tour guide, Erick, wears a well-worn sabanero hat, but he hands me a decidedly less cool blue helmet, then gives me a lift into the saddle. I’m not sure if it’s the coffee or Joanella’s rogue spirit, but I start to get a little jittery, and I think the horse can sense it. She ups the pace to a bouncy trot, occasionally attempting to veer off-trail when we come upon other horses or stopping altogether to eat freshly fallen cas, a type of guava mostly found in Costa Rica. I can’t blame her; I had a glass of cas juice at breakfast this morning, blended with sugar and ice, and it was delicious, like sweet lemonade.
I hear the sound of rushing water before we reach our final destination: the 82-foot Oropendola waterfall. Erick herds our horses into a holding area, and we hike further into the forest, down a wooden boardwalk and across a log-rope bridge to an observation deck. The waters of the Blanco River cascade down on me as I work my way into the turquoise-blue pool at the base of Oropendola. The cold water halts my breath, but it’s the perfect balm after the humid journey here.
I meet back up with Soto, and we head out on another of Hacienda Guachipelin’s many excursions, to the Rio Negro Hot Springs, just 10 minutes away. I soak in mineral-rich natural pools heated by the Rincón de la Vieja volcano, but not for long: The waters can run up to 104 degrees Fahrenheit.
After a quick change back at the Andaz, Soto and I go to lunch at Rio Bhongo, one of the property’s three open-air dining concepts. “Have the monkeys been around today?” Soto asks our server, Daniela. “In the morning,” she responds. I see no sign of the howlers, but as I scarf down my lunch—a hearty quinoa bowl topped with grilled vegetables, pumpkin seeds, and a dash of chimichurri—I hear their growls echoing through the lush canopies of the surrounding trees.
Those howls seem to beckon me to the next activity: a jungle monkey tour with Ersel Aguilar Villalobos, the operations manager of adventure tour company Papagayo Explorers. He picks me up in a camouflage UTV, and we drive into a dry tropical forest just a few minutes away. “There are 16 families of monkeys here,” Aguilar tells me. “Twelve are howlers, and four are white-faced [capuchins].” Pumas and jaguars also call this forest home.
I confess to Aguilar that I’ve come to Costa Rica looking not for the pumas or the monkeys, but for the birds, so he keeps a lookout for local avian species. As I step onto my second log-rope bridge of the day, he gasps and stops me. He points to a bright, multicolored bird perched on a nearby branch: a turquoise-browed motmot, the national bird of my mom’s home country, El Salvador. It hadn’t occurred to me that I might see them here.
Upon reaching the canopy lookout, we hear rustling in the branches a few feet away. I know from past birdwatching experiences to look for movement in the trees before drawing my binoculars, and just as soon as I spot the swaying branch I come face to face with the culprit: a white-faced capuchin. We make eye contact for a moment before he leaps away.
Clouds start to gather overhead, but Aguilar and I push on. “Even if it rains,” he tells me, “we’ve already gotten very lucky.” Indeed, our sightings during the hour-long hike include a juvenile white-tailed deer, a worm-eating warbler, a northern tropical peewee, great kiskadees, and industrious army ants carrying leaves many times their weight.
Just as I spot my first baby howler monkey, riding its mother’s back, we hear a rumble of thunder. Mom and baby jump down, seeking cover in a lower part of the canopy, and we take the hint. A wall of rain chases us as we power-hike back to the UTV.
I’m beat from all the hiking, so after a calming shower back at the Andaz—with golden-hour light peeking through a frosted floor-to-ceiling window—I head to one of the hotel’s restaurants, Chao Pescao, for an early dinner. The menu offers an assortment of dishes from countries throughout Latin America and the Caribbean, and I choose Costa Rican casado: rice and beans with chicken, green papaya, mango salad, and sweet plantain.
I sit at the bar and listen to an acoustic trio play classic salsa and cumbia songs as couples eat candlelit dinners on the outdoor terrace. Watching the twinkle of boat lights mirror the reflection of the moon on the water around Marina Papagayo, I think that I’m sad to leave Guanacaste, but I’m comforted knowing that today was merely my first taste of Costa Rica’s bounty.
An epic volcano, a gooey empanada, and a rare bird
I’m up before my howler monkey alarm today. Soto and I have a long road trip ahead, from the Pacific to Costa Rica’s geographic, cultural, and political center, San José. It’s typically about a four-hour drive, but we’re taking the scenic route and making some pit stops along the way. Before we hit the Pan-American Highway, we stop for breakfast in Guanacaste province’s largest city, Liberia.
The muraled facade of Secretos de la Abuela (Secrets from Grandma) has a simple message, but it catches my eye: “Comida casera: Desayuno, almuerzo, y cena” (“Home-cooked meals: Breakfast, lunch, and dinner”). I’m in.
I’m already settling into my Tico routine, so I order a repeat of yesterday’s breakfast (albeit with a much puffier, hot-off-the-stove tortilla) and, of course, a refreshing glass of fresco de cas. Soto orders a pork tamal and scrapes every last bite off the banana leaf in which it’s wrapped.
The homey atmosphere tempts me to linger at this soda (the name for this type of traditional Costa Rican mom-and-pop restaurant), but we’re up against the clock, so we get back in the car. After 90 minutes of driving east through agricultural landscapes and lush green mountains, we reach Café y Macadamia, a roadside restaurant and souvenir shop that overlooks Lake Arenal. We sit down to contemplate the views of Costa Rica’s largest lake, with the help of some caffeine. I’m still full from breakfast, but I indulge in the shop’s specialty, coffee mixed with macadamia nut liqueur cream and topped with ground macadamias. I pick up two pastries for the road: a puffy, dark-chocolate cookie topped with—you guessed it—macadamia nuts, and a thinner, flatter option with guava spread and sprinkled almonds.
As we continue on, Soto tells me more about the manmade lake and its inextricable link to its namesake peak. Arenal Volcano has been dormant since 2010, but it wasn’t that long ago that it was Costa Rica’s most active volcano: In 1968, it erupted suddenly for the first time since the 1500s, burying three villages and killing 87 people. About 2,500 people had to be relocated in the wake of the eruption. “There was a river in the valley,” Soto says, “so they decided to build a reservoir for the production of hydro-electric power.” There are still villages buried underneath the lake today.
Our commute elucidates the lake’s scale: It takes another hour of driving along the shore to reach the volcano. We park at the trailhead and begin an hour-long hike up an old mile-and-a-half-long lava flow. As the incline escalates, the rocks beneath my feet evolve from pebble-size bits of gravel to massive boulders coughed up by the volcano nearly six decades ago. Along the way, Soto points out some of the life forms that have risen from the ashes. The hum of cicadas, for one, is deafening. “That’s an indication of good weather,” Soto tells me as a young family carrying walking sticks passes us on the trail. “I hope so,” says the dad, and I agree—running to a UTV to hide from the rain isn’t an option up here.
Soto highlights a plant that looks like any other to me. When he turns over the leaf of the Columnea consanguinea, however, I see it’s covered with heart-shaped red splotches that make the plant appear to be bleeding—an adaptation that attracts pollinators.
I’m still marveling at the dramatic trait when a high-pitched screech cuts through the cacophony of the cicadas. Soto recognizes it as the call of a white-collared manakin, but I struggle to find the bird’s yellow belly, white throat, and black cap through the forest thicket. We watch patiently, but I catch only a split-second glimpse of its distinctive bright-orange legs.
I have better luck as we approach the end of the hike, briefly spotting one of the more than 50 known hummingbird species in Costa Rica. The hummingbird isn’t even the highlight, though, as it’s next to a gorgeous scarlet-rumped tanager—the most striking bird I’ve seen since… yesterday’s motmot.
Vultures circle overhead and two majestic crested caracaras perch on branches below as we reach our lookout point, the Lava ’68 Cafeteria. I treat myself to a generously sized fried empanada, the gooey white cheese oozing out of it resembling the now-dormant lava flows that lured travelers to this spot for decades. Before we go, I crawl onto a hammock for a front-row view of Arenal’s peak. A passing rainstorm covers the mountaintop for some time, but we wait long enough for the clouds to part so we can see the volcano in all its glory.
During our final three-hour stretch to San José, we drive through La Fortuna, where most travelers stay when they visit Arenal or the nearby Tabacón Hot Springs. Soto brakes suddenly as we come upon a turkey-like brown bird on the road. “A great curassow!” he practically yells. “That is very rare to see!”
As the sun sets, we drive past other Costa Rican landmarks, including the Monteverde Cloud Forest Biological Preserve, which Soto says is one of his favorite places in the country. Unfortunately, we have to skip it to limit our time on the road after dark. Sensing my disappointment, Soto rolls down the windows so I can experience the steep temperature drop as we climb to an elevation of 4,364 feet.
As we descend the other side of the Continental Divide, I watch the rolling hills disappear into the fog in our rearview. Two hours later, the twinkling lights of Costa Rica’s capital city illuminate the way in front of us.
I’m tempted to crash once I check into my hotel room at the Costa Rica Marriott Hotel Hacienda Belen, but the cool San José air lures me out once more, onto the pool deck. The bartender at Bar 10, the property’s casual soccer bar, sees me wandering around and invites me in. I’m too beat to eat dinner or watch a game, but I’m never too tired for a nightcap. After a pint of Imperial, Costa Rica’s national beer, I head up to bed so I can get the most out of my last day here.
Old-fashioned ice cream and contemporary art in San José
Was it wise to decompress in nature for two days and then end my visit by running around a fast-paced city? I’m questioning the decision as I prepare for a packed day of sightseeing, but when I exit my guest room and step into the open-air hallways of the Hacienda Belen, the cool breeze of Costa Rica’s Central Valley washes over me, calming my anxieties.
I skip breakfast at the hotel, because I’m about to embark on a tasting tour. I meet Alex González of ChepeCletas Tours on Avenida Central, one of the city’s busiest thoroughfares and home to the historic Central Market, which dates back to 1880. “This is the heart and soul of San José,” González tells me, adding that Costa Rica’s last census accounted for about 5.2 million people living in the country, with up to 1.5 million of them regularly visiting the Central Market. More than a third of the country’s population lives in the greater metropolitan area surrounding San José, and many Ticos commute to the market to stock up on traditional fruits and grains (plus the occasional indulgent treat).
González spotlights some essentials, from maíz pujagua (purple corn) to tapa de dulce, a tub-shaped block of raw sugarcane. He’s a regular here—we stop by numerous sodas throughout the morning, and he’s on a first-name basis with most of the shopkeepers. “We’re going to eat a lot,” he warns as we step up to the counter at Soda Tala, run by owner Doña Blanca. Banana leaves are stacked in a corner of the stand, pots bubble on the stove, and fried cheese gleams on plates strewn about the cramped space. The servers, clad in black hairnets and colorful, breathable shirts resembling scrubs, perform a delicate dance to avoid bumping into one another as they cook and attend to customers.
González orders a chorreada, a pancake-adjacent blend of maize, sugar, and eggs, and a corn-and-cheese tortilla. A creature of habit, I also order more fresco de cas. “It’s usually yellow,” González notes, but the fruit juice in my glass is green because it’s blended with leaves of culantro—the way his own mom makes it. “If you ask my mom,” he says, “traditionally, this juice was always green.”
The sweet chorreada is my favorite, but I pace myself to save room for the rest of González’s market go-tos. Just across from Tala is Marisquería y Soda Brigitte, where we sample a caldosa, ceviche poured over a bag of Picaritas (a brand of corn chips). The snack dates back to the ’90s, when a young child in Palmares, unable to afford ceviche, asked a shopkeeper for broth to pour over his chips. Today, it’s sold by street vendors and sodas around the country. “The idea,” González says, “is for the chips to soak in the ceviche.”
We wrap our culinary tour at La Sorbetera de Lolo Mora, a Central Market institution. Founded in 1901, the ice-cream shop serves just one flavor: vanilla mixed with a blend of spices ranging from nutmeg to cinnamon and clove. What the stand lacks in variety, it makes up for with the memories it has created for generations of Ticos. González tells me that his father, as a child, visited the Central Market every Monday to buy supplies for his father’s shop.
González remembers his grandfather as a stoic man, but, he says, he’d always end the day with a scoop of ice cream from Lolo with his son. “It was their quality time, so, since I was a child, my dad has brought me here every time we’ve visited the Central Market. I think he’s very emotionally connected [to those times].” The elderly woman sitting next to us also shares a testimonial: She’s been coming to Lolo every week for 55 years.
I’m stuffed and need to walk off that feast, so I make my way to the nearby National Theater of Costa Rica. I’ve just barely missed a rehearsal by the National Symphony Orchestra, but I’m still able to get some behind-the-scenes insight from Alicia Zamora Murillo, the director of ConArte Restauración, a Costa Rican art conservation company working on the restoration of the 126-year-old theater’s foyer. The project is expected to span 16 months, with each golden ornament taking days to restore: The process involves mechanical and chemical cleaning, structural reconstruction, polishing, painting, and the reapplication of the original gold leaf. For a few minutes, I watch Zamora Murillo and a member of her team, Ericka Martínez, meticulously working on the walls. I’ll have to come back and see the theater again when the project is complete.
After that brief glimpse into Costa Rica’s future, I’m taken back in time once more at another historic building, the Museum of Costa Rican Art. The rotating collection is housed inside San José’s former airport, with the atrium showcasing works by contemporary national artists such as Juan José Alfaro and Basthian Magaña Moreno. Upstairs, the bronze-painted stucco mural in the museum’s Golden Room depicts scenes from the country’s history, ranging from pre-Columbian times through the arrival of the airport (when the space served as a meeting room for dignitaries) and its closure in the 1970s.
Exhausted, I take González’s dinner suggestion and finish the day at another building with simultaneous identities. Orvieto, an unassuming restaurant in a dimly-lit historic home just outside the city center, doubles as an art gallery. I order a black truffle risotto and sit on the back porch to watch golden hour settle in. As I wait for my meal, a tropical kingbird serenades me from a perch on an avocado tree in the yard. I listen to his pittering trill, remembering it was the birds that first brought me to Costa Rica. I’ve seen plenty of them, and it turns out that here, in the middle of the busy city, they’ve also found me.
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