The Best Kept Secrets in Costa Rica – circa 1996
Some of these have been discovered but many are just as pristine and applicable over twenty years later.
If you’re on a tight budget and can’t shell out the $US 35-50 for a nature cruise in Tortuguero or Caño Negro, or you just want to try something different, consider the collectivo water taxi from Puerto Viejo de Sarapiquí to the Río San Juan and east.
The cost is less than a quarter of the tours, and although there is no official guide, when we went the locals were very proud to show off their neighborhood.
The trip took much longer than the normal run because the boatman was constantly forced to pull to the shore so we could snap photos of crocodiles, birds, monkeys and sloth while the other passengers gave us natural history lessons. There are a few small places to stay along the Ríos Sarapiquí and San Juan, including the very rustic but beautiful and welcoming lodge at La Trinidad.
Many people rent four-wheel-drive vehicles to travel around Costa Rica simply because of the potholes and rough roads, but if you’re going to pay the premium, why not take advantage of what you get? Routes that require 4WD, but no significant off-road driving skills lead to three of the most visited destinations in Costa Rica. The cost is a little extra driving time, but the rewards are incredible views, remote waterfalls, deserted beaches, and spectacular forests.
La Fortuna and Arenal Volcano can be reached by a number of routes from the Central Valley but the most impressive route is easily the one through Sarchí (don’t miss the woodworkers and oxcarts) and Valle Bajo del Toro Amarillo.
From the Central Valley the most direct route to Manuel Antonio is also the most beautiful, but requires 4WD, a good map, and a sense of adventure. From San José head south to San Pablo, continue to Nápoles where you’ll shift into 4 wheel low and drop down to the coast.
Though much of it doesn’t appear on maps, there is a road that follows the coast of Nicoya from south of Playa Panama all the way to Mal País on the tip of the peninsula.
The southernmost reaches are impassable in the rainy season because the waters of the Ríos Coyote and Bongo are too deep to ford, but any segment of this road is worth a try if you have the chance.
Please take care on the sections where you drive on the beach. Stay in the track or you may be crushing unborn turtles under the sand. Ask locally about routes and river levels.
Lankester Botanical Gardens east of San José is a great addition to a day trip to volcán Irazú. Many people are surprised to discover that cacti and other succulents are common in Costa Rica. Many species are from the Tropical dry forests of Guanacaste. Others thrive in the treetops where constant drying winds, scorching sun, and the lack of soil to trap rainwater create an unexpectedly arid environment. One tree dwelling plant family that is very well represented at the gardens is the orchids.
Most visitors overlook Barra Honda National Park because the main attraction is limestone caverns. One is accessible to the public using a fixed ladder but others can only be entered with technical climbing gear and guides. That’s not the secret part though. If you are traveling on a budget, spend the night. It’s one of the few places you can get a bed and a roof inside a National Park (~$US 6 pp) without hiking in several miles.
There are only about 8 bunks, but campsites are also available. The network of hiking trails used to access the caverns are great for exploring one of the rarest habitats on earth, tropical dry forest.
The juxtaposition of capuchin monkeys and cactus seems odd, and some of the trees flower only after they’ve dropped all their leaves. Any time of year you can hope to see howler monkeys, deer, raccoons, peccaries, kinkajous, agoutis, and anteaters.
Cerro de la Muerte
Cerro de la Muerte is not purely a rainy paramó ecosystem, but it’s as close as you’re likely to get to this high altitude wet tundra unless you climb Chirripó or visit Chile. If you’re driving to the southern Pacific coast then you’ll likely cross this mountain pass on the Pan American Highway.
Take a few minutes at the top, pull on your windbreaker and have a look around this unique environment. It’s actually one of the few places where an ecosystem is expanding in Costa Rica. Logging has changed the environment, and more paramó species are appearing in this area even though it’s too low for this life zone to predominate without interference.
Santa Rosa National Park—Daniel Janzen and his wife Winnie Hallwachs initiated a crusade over two decades ago that resulted in an incredible gift to the world. Santa Rosa National Park protects and provides a mechanism for restoration of perhaps the only significant tropical dry forest in the world that will survive our generation.
The main campsites at the headquarters and on playa naranjo serve as jumping off points for extended explorations, La Casona is an important historical landmark, and witches rock marks the location of a surfer’s paradise.
Marino Ballena National Park has been protected from crowds by rough surf on many of the beaches and rougher roads to get there.
The coast road is easily passable without 4WD (if you’re patient), and if you ask before you swim you’ll be rewarded with beautiful deserted beaches.
Rancho Merced Wildlife Refuge on the northern border of the park is a birdwatchers paradise, and if you visit in May through November the Olive Ridley and Hawksbill turtles are nesting, and humpback whales migrate here each year from December to April.
Hot Springs & Waterfalls
Hotsprings and waterfalls—What we can tell you about the secret hotsprings and waterfalls of Costa Rica is that they are out there—everywhere. What we’re not allowed to tell you is exactly where. There are a number of non-resort but accessible to the public hotsprings, swimming holes, and waterfalls listed in most guidebooks, and these are usually relatively uncrowded. Most of the ones that aren’t listed in guidebooks are on private land, or require crossing private land to access.
That doesn’t mean you can’t visit them, it just means you need an invitation. Let the locals know that you are interested and you’ll almost certainly get a response like “oh we have the best hidden hotspring in Costa Rica right outside town, I’ll take you tomorrow.” at some point.
Palo Verde National Park—is a relatively undiscovered jewel in the Costa Rican park system.
Native and migratory birds crowd the waterways and marshes and while the trails are nearly always muddy, they are definitely not crowded.
The camping areas near the park head quarters have well drained grassy tent sites and very rudimentary outhouses and outdoor showers. Needless to say there are no RV hookups. The park is also relatively easy to reach from the Pan American Highway and would make a great stop on the way to the beaches of Nicoya.