When a friend of mine – an avid surfer – asked me if I’d like to accompany him to Costa Rica (one of the world’s best surfing destinations) back in 2010, it’s fair to say that I didn’t exactly know my ‘hang five’ from my ‘duck dive’, never mind where Costa Rica was located on the world map, or what on earth else (aside from gnarly waves) this tiny, faraway Central American nation might have to offer.
Back then, I was not only a lowly kook (what they call a wannabe surfer), but also a rookie backpacker. However, what I lacked in experience I more than made up for in giddy sense of adventure, so quite naturally, I jumped at the opportunity to get on board (pun intended).
Having booked my flights and purchased my Lonely Planet guidebook (as invariably every prospective backpacker does), I soon came to realize that the country famed for its coastline would have an incredible amount more to it than just beaches and boarders.
While a decent number of the 2 million or so tourists who visit Costa Rica each year are undeniably first attracted to the world renowned waves, especially considering the fact you can drive from the Pacific Ocean to the Caribbean Sea in 4 hours, most end up leaving the country with their fondest memories of the stunning natural beauty and wild escapades that can be found in between.
This is because, aside from being insanely picturesque (think virgin rainforest, jungle-fringed beaches, rolling mountains, lush river valleys and active volcanoes), it is also one of the most biodiverse places on earth. To put that in perspective, Costa Rica – a country which covers less land than the state of West Virginia – is home to a greater variety of animal and plant species than the whole of the U.S. and Europe combined.
It is not surprising then that Costa Rica has, since the 1990s, become one of the world’s best loved eco/ adventure-tourism destinations. That is not to say the place has become perennially swamped by visitors. It is still possible to find yourself on a secluded beach with only monkeys for company, especially so if you come during wet season (between May and November when the hordes of young Americans on spring-break style trips generally stay away).
The other advantage of coming during ‘green season’ (as the locals call it) – aside from cheaper accommodation – is that everything is a lot, well, greener! The rainforest comes alive (and the descent of wet mist gives it that mystical, otherworldly feel), the rivers run high (allowing you to enjoy the year’s best conditions for white-water rafting) and even the country’s dry forests turn lush.
Whatever time of year you come to Costa Rica, one thing you can be sure of is that it will be one of your greatest opportunities to witness nature at its most glorious. The surfing trip that my buddy and I had originally planned quickly turned into what felt like being an extra in a David Attenborough/Discovery Channel documentary.
During my five-week stay in Costa Rica, I managed to witness (in the wild) four different types of monkey, 10-feet crocodiles, venomous snakes and spiders, giant lizards, countless tropical (and endangered) birds, sloths, dolphins, sharks, whales, turtles, creepy crawlies and countless other wonderful little critters.
As the Costa Ricans (or Tico’s as they’re affectionately called) often say, “Pura Vida.” Its translation as “Pure Life” is a national mantra which perfectly sums up what you can expect to find in this amazing country. Oh, and if you’re not really in to nature, then you can always just catch those waves instead.
There were many spots among my Costa Rica highlights, but the one I loved the most was Tortuguero.
Straddling the Caribbean Sea coast to the north of Costa Rica is the incredible Tortuguero National Park. The clue as to why so people visit here each year is in the name. Translated as the ‘Land of Turtles’, it is one of the best spots in the world to catch a glimpse of Green Sea Turtles nesting, and if you’re very lucky (as I was), a chance to see the tiny hatchlings emerge and scramble into the sea. Tortuguero village – a settlement that has sprung up with hotels and restaurants to accommodate turtle spotting tourists – is only accessible by boat (or air) as it is located on a thin sand bar separated from the mainland by a river.
While there is the much cheaper option of public transport to reach the island via bus and water taxi, most visitors go by organized tour. This takes out the stress of having to coordinate infrequent bus times with the even more infrequent river boat service, and also gives you the advantage of a guide. By my reckoning, this is an expense worth paying for, especially as the river journey is likely to be one of the highlights of your whole trip. If the sea side of Tortuguero is famous for its turtles, its river banks are famous for its huge crocodiles. You are pretty much guaranteed to see at least one (as the guide will know where they bathe), while the surrounding forest provides plenty of co-stars; monkeys swinging from tree to tree, luminous snakes and reptiles slithering and scrambling between branches, tropical birds chirping along with the cacophony of crickets.
When you arrive at your accommodation – sandwiched between the sea and the river – despite the likelihood you’ll be staying in a luxury cabin, the novelty of feeling like your camped out in the middle of the jungle is not lost (don’t be alarmed if a family of cheeky monkeys are playing on the roof of your hut). Witnessing the amazing spectacle of a Green Sea Turtle laying its eggs should also be organized as part of your tour, but if you go independently, you can book in the village (where budget accommodation is also widely available).
The remarkable sight of the giant creature (a Green Sea Turtle can grow up to 5 ft in length and weigh over 300 kg/700 lbs) drag itself up the shore, dig a large crater in the sand, enter a trance like state before dispatching its eggs and returning to the sea, is a wonder of the natural world, and an experience you will never forget. Or at least you better not forget, as photos are not allowed (the flash can disturb the nesting process which takes place at night).
More highlights to follow in part II of this Costa Rica adventure blog post! Coming soon!