Christopher Columbus was one of the first tourists to visit Costa Rica, apparently making such a lasting impression, the country named its currency—the colón—after him (remember: back in Spain, Columbus was known as Cristóbal Colón). Costa Rica has been the poster child for Central America for several decades, earning the perception of being more stable and safe then its neighboring countries.
I hadn't been to Costa Rica in 25 years when I decided to pop in this week and see what all the fuss was about lately, as the recent Turrialba volcano eruption and subsequent, breathless media reports led me to believe I might step off the plane into a pool of hot liquid magma. As is usually the case with the news, the volcano was quite far away from the international airport and there were no signs of disruption anywhere.
The capital of San Jose is the kind of city that doesn't have many lingering tourists. Kamikaze drivers and a lack of interesting sites means most adventurers head west once they arrive, which brings us to the first choice that all travelers to Costa Rica must make: Caribbean or Pacific? The majority of travelers opt for the Pacific side since it's a little more accessible and has almost three times the coastline. The tourist infrastructure is more developed there as well, meaning more shops, restaurants and little luxuries like gas stations and ATMs. The Pacific side also features terrific surfing and plenty of hotel choices from inexpensive to extravagant.
Many visitors who choose to head west never make it the other way, however, to the the Caribbean side. Here, you'll find much more of a West Indies feel, with a large population of African-Caribbean people and more English being spoken. I only had a few days in Costa Rica, however, so I headed northwest from San Jose towards one of Costa Rica's most visited attractions, Volcán Arenal.
Volcanos are rarely boring, especially in Costa Rica, and there are lots of fun things you can do hanging around a town like La Fortuna. The town was renamed in the late 1960s (La Fortuna means "The Fortunate" in English) after it was the only place left standing after the nearby Arenal Volcano erupted unexpectedly in 1968, destroying the small town of Tabacón. La Fortuna—or El Burío, as it was called back then—just happened to be in the right spot at the wrong time and today it thrives as a tourist mecca. Using La Fortuna as your base, you can set up lots of adventures in the area and easily spend a week playing around the semi-active volcano.
Below, five fun things you can do if you only have a few days to spend in Pura Vida country:
Canopy tours, or zip lining, are scattered throughout Costa Rica. The key to a great experience is to find a well-reviewed company with a good safety record and an interesting course. Zip-lining is sometimes sold as part of an eco-tour since there's a chance you might catch a glimpse of a monkey or get bitten by a giant ant, but it's really more about flying through the trees and pretending to be Tarzan. Don't let anyone tell you any different. The longer the line, the bigger the thrill. Most of the tour guides are happy to snap pictures and take videos of you screaming like a little girl on your first run. If you've never zip-lined, you need to try it at least once. In Costa Rica particularly, it's usually very safe and has a very high thrill-per-minute ratio.
2. Horseback Riding
Costa Rica is a much more exciting choice than riding in some place like Utah or New Mexico, since you'll likely see far more interesting animals and sites along the way. We were ambushed by a couple of families of howler monkeys that seemed to enjoy scaring passing tourists with their insanely loud simian calls. We joined in the revelry with our best monkey impersonations and whipped them into a frenzy. Lots of giant iguanas and other lizards were lounging around watching us inquisitively. The horses knew where they are supposed to go, so equestrian experience is not required, and tours last anywhere from one to four hours, so you can take a trot at your own pace and on your own schedule.
3. Spas and Hot Springs
The natural springs combined with the thermal volcanic activity near Arenal creates the perfect natural hot tub. Many large hotels have, as such, created resorts around these watering holes, improving upon nature with cold drinks and pampering. But if you aren't opting for a spa hotel and you don't want to blow big bucks on a fancy treatment, head just a few miles west of Fortuna, to a public hot spring creek that tourists and locals frequent. It's free if you can find it. Just look for Río Chollín (though locals also call the rushing river Río Tabacón or Río Arenal), and head for the waterfall.
4. Nature Walks
One of my favorite activities in a flora-and-fauna-rich country is a nature walk and Costa Rica does not disappoint. Why? In a nutshell, the tiny country only accounts for 0.03 percent of the earth's surface but contains nearly 6 percent of the world's biodiversity. As such, "eco-tourism" is the buzzword for many activities in the country, though some places are definitely more eco-friendly than others. For instance, it's not uncommon to find an eco-park which is really a renamed zoo. The upside is you're guaranteed to see a lot of animals; the downside is they're there because they can't escape. One of my favorite places to visit is an underrated wildlife park called Ecocentro Danaus that has a good grasp of eco-tourism. In a short one-hour walk, we learned lots of interesting facts about the birds, butterflies and strange creatures that congregate in the jungle. We saw a three-toed sloth, amazing frogs, iguanas and more.
Two words: Endless Summer. If you ever watched this iconic surfing movie, you'll recognize Tamarindo Beach as the place where it all started. The Nicoya Peninsula on the west coast has some of the best surfing in Central America and the locals are all set up to rent you a surfboard, get you a drink, and give you surfing lessons. Costa Rica isn't really a place for shopping, visiting museums or exploring old churches. Its treasures lie in its jungles, animal preserves, volcanos and beautiful coastlines. If you want to get away from it all, Costa Rica might be just the place you've been looking for.