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A native Costa Rican who goes back several times a year, Irene masterminds trips to her homeland—as well as to the neighboring nations of Panama, El Salvador, and Nicaragua—that marry sophisticated luxury and ecological sensitivity. She knows which high-design jungle lodges, stylish beach resorts, and adventure outfitters truly prioritize not just comfort but a commitment to preserving the culture and environment. Irene is always eager to arrange meaningful one-on-one experiences with the locals. (You might even get invited to her mother’s home for a lesson in how to make tortillas by hand.) And her warm demeanor ensures that she’ll get to know you well during the planning process, so she can whip up special touches like an unexpected upgrade or a birthday surprise.
Where to Stay and Eat
Best bang-for-your-buck hotel
The Sunset Ranchos at La Paloma Lodge on the Osa Peninsula are stand-alone bungalows that enjoy panoramic Pacific views from their jungle perch. Thanks to a combination of spectacular sunsets and a pristine jungle setting, the lodge is ideal for honeymooners and romantics. This is the kind of place where you’ll want to keep your binoculars tucked away when you’re not using them, in case an overly friendly monkey decides to reach through the window and give them a try. The two-story cabins have beds and baths on each floor and a layout that allows families or friends to comfortably share one unit, holding down trip costs while preserving privacy at one of the most upscale jungle lodges anywhere.
Most luxurious ecolodge
El Silencio Lodge & Spa, features 16 gorgeous cottages and a couple of two-bedroom villas that all have private decks, with outdoor hot tubs and handcrafted rocking chairs. The lodge is built on a slope of the cloud forest 90 minutes from San José International Airport, and the restaurant is one of the best in Costa Rica, with many of the raw ingredients coming from the on-site organic garden. Your eco-concierge would be happy to give you a tour. The owners’ sustainability measures include water- and energy-efficient fixtures, electric vehicles, and collaboration with local communities to provide economic opportunities, and work with the Ministry of Tourism to preserve the nearby biological corridor between the Juan Castro Blanco and Poas Volcano national parks. The effort to reforest the area with local aguacatillo trees has helped bring back the quetzal, a stunning bird that is threatened by loss of habitat.
Restaurants the locals love
El Tigre Vestido, the restaurant at the Finca Rosa Blanca hotel, in the hills of Santa Bárbara de Heredia. It’s a big perk for hotel guests and beloved by locals, who make the drive up the winding road for the delicious food and views of the Central Valley. Much of the produce is grown on-site. And Finca Rosa Blanca now offers Sabor!, a culinary-themed stay which includes private cooking classes, various insider tasting opportunities (think cheese, mead, and chocolate), guided nature hikes, and an innovative coffee-themed four-course dinner utilizing beans from the hotel’s own plantation.
Adventurous eaters looking for real local food in San José should go to the Mercado Central (Central Market). Among the many traditional dishes you’ll find a purist’s olla de carne, Costa Rica’s most enduring rural meal, a beef stew prepared with roots like cassava, sweet potatoes, and potatoes, along with squash, chayote, and corn.
For the best carne en salsa anywhere, a visit to Dona Mara’s house is in order. Guests get the chance to visit with locals (who just happen to be Irene’s family), while learning how to make tortillas and enjoying a typical Tico lunch prepared on a wood-fired stove.
And for travelers with a sweet tooth, the chocolate cake at the Hotel Grano de Oro, on the outskirts of downtown San José, may be the best we’ve tried anywhere. Pieces of chocolate are mixed into the fluffy, smooth cake, and they melt in your mouth like ice cream.
Meal worth the splurge
Kapi Kapi (a Maleku word meaning “welcome”): This sophisticated restaurant just up the road from Manuel Antonio National Park specializes in fresh seafood—a task made easy by the deep-sea fishermen just down the hill in the town of Quepos. By straying from traditional Costa Rican preparations (the menu shows French and Asian influences), the chef always brings out subtle flavors from the catch of the day.
Another great option is Nectar at the Hotel Florblanca, where you can dine while watching the ocean waves crash along the beach, and see iguanas and monkeys moving from tree to tree.
What to See and Do
Osa Peninsula, home to Corcovado National Park. Despite a certain level of press over the years, the peninsula’s remoteness leads most travelers to substitute easier-to-reach rain forests and jungles. Although you’re likely to see a scarlet macaw in one of those other locations, on the Osa Peninsula you might see a tree full of them. The abundance of wildlife among majestic old-growth trees makes the payoff well worth it.
Making the long slog to Monteverde Cloud Forest. The area outside the reserve has become more developed than other nature destinations in Costa Rica, with hotels, restaurants, tour offices, shops, and even a large supermarket. The mystic cloud-forest experience that awed visitors in the ’80s and ’90s just isn’t there anymore. Meanwhile, the road up to Monteverde hasn’t been improved, which makes for a three- to five-hour bumpy ride in pursuit of an experience that most people rate as their least favorite and most tiring—especially for families with younger kids.
Travelers often overlook the Turrialba region, but there are plenty of good reasons to make it a priority:
How to spend a Sunday
Take a walk in the park. Costa Rican towns are all built around a central square, with the church at one end and the park occupying the center. Local families gather on Sundays to socialize after church in the mornings and late afternoons. No activity will give you a better feel for life in Costa Rica. Grab a bench. The wait will be short before somebody strikes up a conversation.
In addition, wellness packages are increasingly popular in Costa Rica, with a holistic focus on a life well lived. Your perfect Sunday could start with yoga on the beach, and include private classes with a local chef focused on healthy ingredients. Or relax all afternoon at the spa after a guided hike surrounded by nature.
Mid-June to mid–August is the middle of the rainy (or “green”) season—but with very predictable weather patterns, so you get beautiful sunny mornings and strong showers nearly every afternoon. This gives you time to take part in activities in the morning and then rest in the afternoon while listening to the tropical rain that cools things off for the evening. Prices are lower and places are not as busy as during the drier high season, and everything is lush and green. Additionally, this is whale migration season on the southwest Pacific coast. Sometimes we have an Indian summer in the middle of July, when it may not rain much at all for two weeks.
The December holiday season is the busiest time of year, but the first two weeks of the month are quiet (with low-season rates in effect), and you can enjoy the transition from rainy to dry season when everything is still lush and green. After New Year’s, there is a lull when foreign travel to Costa Rica slows. Moreover, it’s one of the nicest times of the year weatherwise for a winter escape, right in the middle of the Costa Rican dry season. It is often the only time in the high season that you can plan a last-minute trip and still have your first choice of the top properties.
October: It’s consistently the rainiest month of the year, with some days when it just rains constantly. By postponing your travel to mid-November, you’ll have a much better opportunity for sun.
Easter week: You will be competing for space with international adventure-seekers and a growing number of wealthy Costa Ricans on traditional beach breaks. The weather is usually gorgeous, but the nature parks and hotels are at their most crowded.
To us at GreenSpot, there is nothing more valuable than creating a better environment for future generations. And there is much that we can learn from the few indigenous communities left throughout the world about preserving Mother Nature. We can arrange for clients to meet the Cabécar indigenous people of the Talamanca Mountains, in the southern Pacific side of the country. Access to this area is difficult, involving a helicopter ride and several hours of hiking. The community has stayed true to its ageless traditions, maintaining its identity in an intact natural environment while surrounded by a modern world seen as “polluted”; visitors are rarely allowed. You’ll be shown around the village, taught about the group’s history and beliefs, and then served a meal on plantain leaves.
The Hanging Bridges in the foothills of Arenal Volcano are quieter right after lunch. For a perfect picture, stand in the middle of one of the longer bridges with the jungle canopy at eye level while the sun sneaks between the openings in the thick forest. You can wait until no one else is in the shot, but you may still get photo-bombed by a sloth.
A chorreador. A wooden apparatus used to make coffee in rural areas and traditional households, it’s a simple yet elegant system that creates a taste very distinct from machine-brewed joe. Coffee and a simple life represent the true Costa Rica. You’ll find the best prices in La Fortuna or San Ramón.
A 10 percent tip is already included in restaurant bills by law. If you get good service, an extra 5 to 10 percent tip is appropriate. Other service providers don’t have the same type of law covering them and should be tipped properly; we recommend $5–$15 per person per day for guides, $3–$5 per person per day for drivers, and $1–$2 per night for housekeepers.
A refillable water bottle. All of the upscale hotels that we work with have filtered water, or bottled water in much larger containers. Disposable plastic water bottles purchased by tourists in Costa Rica (and around the globe, for that matter) create a lot of waste, and there’s a shortage of available recycling facilities.
It’s also good to have a cream for insect bites, sunburn, and other irritations (your skin takes more abuse in the tropics). Your own hair conditioner comes in handy when visiting the jungle, too; some of the conditioners offered at the lodges leave your hair completely unmanageable in the heat and humidity. Just make sure it’s biodegradable!