After stepping off a plane in Costa Rica, it wasn’t long before I heard the words “Pura Vida.” It’s a distinctly Costa Rican expression – used as a greeting, an exclamation, a send-off. And though every local has his or her own idea of what it means, all their definitions seem to convey a common theme: a good, positive, spirited life.
Luckily for them (and for you), Costa Rica is an easy place to embrace la Pura Vida – especially if your idea of a spirited life is an active one. From waterfall rappelling and kayaking to mountain biking and scuba diving, there are a ton of things to do. Here are just a few of my favourite reasons to take a trip to this small-but-lively strip of Central America:
1. Playing wildlife bingo
Pack your binoculars. Costa Rica is home to a variety of habitats and ecosystems, so every hike comes with a chance to spot exotic species – scarlet macaws, squirrel monkeys and (my personal favourite) sloths. There are lots of places to spot wildlife, so keep your eyes and ears open wherever you go.
For a unique and colourful bird tour, hop aboard a boat in Caño Negro Wildlife Refuge – it’s a globally significant wetland. Another wildlife hotspot is the famed Corcovado National Park, which is home to a wide variety of species. The park is also filled with coastal and inland hiking trails that will take you over Pacific beaches or through mangrove swamps and rainforests.
2. Ziplining through clouds, rappelling down waterfalls
Costa Rica is known for its ecotourism, and the best way to see the landscape is to totally immerse yourself in it. The Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve, which has 13km of marked and maintained trails, is one of its most popular spots. There’s plenty of wildlife to see during the day (like the colourful quetzal), but I suggest you visit at night with a guide to get a peek at some nocturnal species. You can also take in the view from the treetops with a canopy zip-line tour here (along with other places). It’s the closest I’ve ever come to feeling like I could fly.
Another option? Soak in the landscapes by going waterfall rappelling (a.k.a. canyoneering). You’ll be roped up as you descend rock walls, glide past waterfalls and dunk in natural pools – all while you’re surrounded by rainforest scenery and sounds. There are lots of places to try it out on guided tours.
3. Mastering some of the world’s best rapids
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Sure, we have rapids in Canada, but Costa Rica is one of the world’s top whitewater rafting destinations. The best of the best are around La Fortuna and Turrialba, where there are two major rivers: Reventazón and Pacuare. When you’re not barrelling through the Pacuare’s Class III and IV rapids, be sure to take in the view. The riverbanks are covered with thick jungle, and there are tons of waterfalls. In calmer waters, you might even want to take a dip – it’s definitely warmer than the water back home!
4. Surfing two oceans in a single day
It makes for a long day, but because Costa Rica is so narrow, it’s entirely possible to start your day surfing the Pacific coast and catch your last waves on the Caribbean. The drive between Jacó and Puerto Limón (which includes the Salsa Brava reef break) takes just over five hours, but with so many surf spots, the possibilities are endless. New to the sport? Learners like me love Tamarindo and Santa Teresa, which are both on the Pacific coast – I took a lesson and then stretched it out with an ocean-view yoga class.
Pro tip: No matter how eager you are to make it for last-call waves, be careful. The potholes on Costa Rican roads can be dangerous and are often hard to see because of the shadows from overhanging trees. I nearly took the suspension off a little Yaris while rushing to catch the sunset in Santa Teresa (but yes, it was worth it).
5. Soaking in volcanic hot springs
After all that adventuring, it’s time for a break – and a soak. Costa Rica is part of the Ring of Fire, so it’s home to several volcanoes. Around La Fortuna, you can relax and recover your sore muscles in one of the area’s many natural hot springs. But if that sounds too chill for you, there are plenty of nearby trails to hike that start on the grounds of the Arenal Observatory Lodge, or you can paddleboard or kayak on Lake Arenal.
What to pack for Costa Rica
Regardless of which adventures are calling your name, you’ll need good gear. Here are some items to pack for your activity-packed trip:
- Sturdy walking shoes or hiking boots, plus good quality socks
- Rain gear (jacket and pants)
- Warm clothes for highland hiking
- Binoculars to help you spot sloths, squirrel monkeys and toucans
- Beach and hot springs essentials (sunscreen, sun hat, swimsuit, packable beach towel)
- Dry bag and a waterproof case for your phone or camera – a must for rainforests
- Reusable water bottle
- Insect repellent