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Travel Guide: Costa Rica Highlights

12th Oct 2011 2:01am | By Editor

Explore steamy cloud forest and surf epic Pacific waves.

Flying in the forest

Zip-line tours are big business in Costa Rica. The local Tico Times estimates there are more than 50 scattered through the country's countless national parks. In Monteverde and Santa Elena, the popular nature reserves in Costa Rica's central north, four companies battle it out for supremacy of the skies. The tours consist of steel cables tied between mammoth cloudforest trees. Sitting in a harness below a pulley, riders literally zip between wooden platforms connected to the trees. Once there, a guide disconnects your pulley (you remain safely harnessed to one line at all times) and connects you to the next one. And like this you glide carefree through ancient woodland.

Walking through the tree tops

For those who prefer to take in nature at a more sedate pace, many zip-line companies also offer suspension bridge tours. Starting out like a normal bushwalk, you're soon wandering across 200m bridges, 60m above the tree-line. This is a far better way to absorb Costa Rica's renowned wildlife, which includes monkeys, sloths and hundreds of species of bird, the most revered of which is the quetzal.

Getting back to nature

With some 25% of the country made up of national parks, Costa Rica has no shortage of natural beauty, and the virgin cloudforest around Monteverde is among the nation's best. At ground level, this region is a nature-lover's dream.

Abundant wildlife

Costa Rica is home to a stunning variety of flora and fauna. The country has just 0.1% of the world's landmass but punches well above its weight with 5% of the world's biodiversity.

Corcovado National Park is internationally-renowned for its biodiversity, with big cats, tapirs and an abundance of wildlife. Tortuguero National Park, which translates as ‘full of turtles’, is packed with spider, howler and white-throated Capuchin monkeys, the three-toed sloth, more than 300 species of birds and is also the most important nesting site for the endangered green turtle species. Meanwhile, the Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve is home to 2000 plant species including dozens of rare orchids.

Caribbean flavours

In the early 19th century, the east coast of Costa Rica became a haven for immigrants from the Caribbean islands. With the colonial Spanish focused almost exclusively on the Pacific Coast, the black Garifunas were free to come in increasing numbers to work on the railroads and banana plantations. By default, they almost took over the entire coastal province, known as Limon.

These days, it’s vastly different from the Spanish, Pacific Ocean side of Costa Rica. Bob Marley blasts from car stereos and English is widely spoken throughout town. Cahuita is a good base with no shortage of activities on offer, with the town and nearby beaches hosting snorkelling, surfing, horse riding and mountain biking. Be warned, however, that once you've started, lounging is a difficult habit to break, especially when you're lounging on beaches such as these.

Climbing volcanoes

The highest point in the country is Cerro Chirripó, at 3,820 metres — the fifth highest peak in Central America. The highest volcano in the country is the Irazú Volcano (3,431m).

Surfing the Pacific

Southern Costa Rica has some amazing surf breaks to offer, particularly a left hand point break called Pavones that rates as one of the longest waves in the world. On the other side of the Osa Peninsula, Matapalo is a hidden gem with great surfing and eco resorts.