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Joe Meredith

Costa Rica hidden gems: 10 places to go off the beaten track

Costa Rica means ‘Rich Coast’ – and what better name for a small country with such a wealth of natural beauty? It’s this bountiful nature that is drawing ever more eco-tourists here, to the tropical forests, palm-shaded beaches and cloud-shrouded volcanoes. But, while Costa Rica is attracting more attention, you can still find less-visited gems just off the beaten track. Here are 10 recommended spots for a Costa Rica holiday without the crowds. 

Coffee farms in the San José highlands

Coffee has been grown high on Costa Rica's hills since the 18th century, and the fertile, volcano-enriched soil yields quality beans sought around the world.

In the forested highlands above San José, you’ll find a number of coffee farms that double-up as accommodation. Of these, we recommend the sustainable, eco-luxe property of Finca Rosa Blanca. Here, coffee connoisseurs can trace the journey from bean to cup, rounded off with a tasting. Guest rooms marry rustic charm with contemporary luxury, and place you amid lush forest that tempts the adventurous out to explore. 

 

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Birding paradise of San Gerardo de Dota

Gaze up into the secluded, misty canopy of San Gerardo de Dota and you may spot an icon of Central America: the resplendent quetzal. It’s one of around 150 bird species that punctuate the greenery of this cloud forest with iridescent shocks of colour. On hikes here, you also have chance to spot diminutive hummingbirds zipping between nectar-rich flowers, woodpeckers hammering away, and toucans flashing their bright fruit-grabbing beaks.

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Private reserves in Monteverde Cloud Forest

Home to 2.5% of the world’s biodiversity, Monteverde – or ‘Green Mountain’ – is a firm favourite amongst nature seekers. The reserve was established in 1973 by biologists who recognised the importance of this virgin cloud forest, a habitat for hundreds of animal and plant species.

While Monteverde is an established spot on the tourist trail, there are wilderness retreats here that preserve a sense of off-the-grid escape. Savia Private Reserve is one such ‘natural playground’, offering guests immersive, guided excursions in the daylight and after dark; down on the forest floor and up over hanging bridges.

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Wild and remote Osa Peninsula

At least half of all species living in Costa Rica call the Osa Peninsula home. This wild place on the Pacific coast is a habitat for some 350 species of bird, alongside all manner of mammals, from spider monkeys to anteaters; sloths to ocelots. Remote eco-lodges – some accessible only by boat – wrap you up in this nature, offering guided nature walks and safaris both day and night. Encompassing 424 sq km of the Osa Peninsula, Corcovado National Park is especially notable for its biodiversity, with creatures great and small roaming what is one of the world’s largest areas of lowland tropical forest.

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Whale watching in Ballena National Marine Park

Punta Uvita is a delightful coincidence. This sandy tombolo stretches out into Pacific waters frequented by humpback whales, and just so happens to be shaped like a whale’s tail. It’s a landmark of Ballena National Marine Park, where, alongside whales, you may spot dolphins, manta rays, hammerhead sharks, and a colourful array of fish.

Deeper into the forest surrounding the marine park, you will find boutique lodges balancing intimate stays with access to the coast. We especially recommend Oxygen Jungle Villas, an adults-only resort enwreathed by lush greenery with views to the ocean.

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Terrifically turquoise Rio Celeste 

Rio Celeste is a sapphire set in emerald. Winding through the foothills of the Tenorio Volcano, this river is strikingly turquoise – the sort of hue you’re more likely to see in glacier-fed fjords than jungle tributaries. Local legend has it that, after painting the sky, God washed his paintbrush in the river, while the less romantic explanation is the scattering of light by minerals. Either way, the result is remarkable, and perhaps best appreciated at the Rio Celeste Waterfall – about an hour’s walk from the entrance to Tenorio Volcano National Park.

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Hot-spring haven of Rio Perdido 

Near the foot of Miravalles Volcano in northwest Costa Rica, magma warms the groundwater, resulting in natural hot-springs and the thermal river of Rio Perdido, which flows for more than a kilometre. These geothermal waters form part of a private nature reserve enjoyed by guests of the Rio Perdido Hotel. Here, you can round off hikes into the dense dwarf forest with soothing dips in the springs.

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Eco-lodges in the Upala mountains 

Up on the mountain slopes overlooking sparsely populated Upala, you’ll find lodges that feel a world away from civilisation. Of these, we especially recommend Origins Luxury Lodge, a boutique eco-retreat with 45-hectare grounds including walking trails and horse-riding routes. From its elevated vantage point, you enjoy views over jungle treetops and farmland to distant volcanic peaks. 

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Coastal hideaways on the Nicoya Peninsula 

Nobody is certain what quirk of history gave Malpais its name – which translates to ‘Badland’ – but the pretty scenery of this coastal idyll offers an easy rebuttal. It’s set on the Nicoya Peninsula and south of Santa Teresa beach, whose soft sand and scooped waves attract larger crowds. Malpais, meanwhile, maintains its sense of remoteness, and at times you may have its quiet coves and beaches all to yourself.

On the edge of Santa Teresa beach, with easy access to Malpais, you’ll find Nantipa hotel. Its name is more apt than that of Malpais; nantipa is the local Chorotega word for ‘blue’, and guests are only ever a stroll from the lapping Pacific waves. Accommodation comprises elegant villas, bungalows and suites framed by swaying palms.

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Glamping in the Gulf of Nicoya 

Islands little and large dot the Gulf of Nicoya. Among the smallest is Isla Jesusita, whose froth of greenery rises straight up from the Pacific and cloisters the luxe tents of the Isla Chiquita glamping resort. Come here for adventures on land and sea, from forest bathing and birdwatching to snorkelling and island hopping.

We especially recommend the bioluminescence tour, which takes you out into the bay by boat to witness a natural phenomenon few ever see. As the sun sets, the islets become silhouettes and nocturnal creatures stir. A strange glow emanates from beneath the water: clouds of plankton displaying their natural talent for emitting light. Finding the best spots in the bay to witness this spectacle is a treasure hunt, and visibility depends on the weather and moon phase. But the guides are experienced hands, and there is every chance you’ll get to see this rare sight up close. 

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Inspired to explore Costa Rica? Browse our Costa Rica holidays, or contact our Central America specialists for more inspiration and to begin planning.