Destination focus • July 2017
With tropical rainforests that are home to two-thirds of the world’s animal and plant species, Costa Rica is nature’s paradise playground. But thanks to a surge of innovation, from technology start-ups to inventive chefs, it has plenty of urban appeal too. Journalist Sorrel Downer, who lived in the Central American nation for a number of years, reveals six reasons to visit the happiest country in the world
Head to Costa Rica’s capital, San José, to discover its gastronomic hub Barrio Escalante, an eclectic foodie haven with a buzzing community feel and a pool of young, innovative chefs, such as French-trained José González. Calle 33 ‘La Luz’ is a great place to graze. Make sure your culinary crawl includes Gambas for seafood (pictured), Frida’s Pub for Mexican and, because the area’s a craft beer stronghold, Costa Rica Beer Factory.
Spending a couple of hours in the National Insurance Institute in downtown San José may not sound appealing, but step inside and you find the magnificent Jade Museum, with its 7,000 priceless pre-Columbian jade and ceramic artefacts, some dating back to 500BC. Interactive whizbangs were added during a recent $21m revamp, but just seeing the bowls and amulets – and wondering who used them – is the real charm.
Of the many volcanoes along Costa Rica’s mountain spine, Arenal is regarded as one of the best. No matter that it’s currently ‘resting’ and its firework spectaculars are off, you can still admire its perfect cone from several of the bath-temperature springs around its base. Try Baldi, with its 30 hot pools, spa and swim-up bars, or go for more sedate luxury in the landscaped gardens of Los Perdidos Hot Springs and Tabacon Hot Springs. Nothing beats sitting under a hot waterfall on a balmy evening.
Should you need quirky souvenirs – anything from spices and coffee to unidentifiable medicinal roots – head into the old covered Central Market in downtown San José. It’s almost impossible not to get lost, but if you stumble across Café Central, stop and order gallo pinto (similar to Caribbean rice and beans but not, as any tico [local] will tell you, at all the same) and fried eggs with a splash of Tabasco – the breakfast of champions.
No need to put on rubber boots and DEET, you can enjoy the clinking, squawking and rustling sounds of the rainforest with a cocktail while lolling on a lounger beside the infinity pool at adults-only Kura Design Villas. It’s a coolly sleek upmarket boutique hotel, tucked into veritable jungle overlooking the Pacific Ocean on the hills above Highway 34.
Costa Rica has no shortage of world-class surf spots – most, including Jacó, Pavones and Tamarindo, are on the Pacific side. But head to Puerto Viejo on the Caribbean coast and you’ll not only get the legendary Salsa Brava Break, but also a laid-back atmosphere, white, palm-fringed beaches, reggae music and a cluster of the best cafés and restaurants outside San José. Be sure to sip cocktails at sunset at the surprisingly cosmopolitan, rancho-style lounge bar Koki Beach fashioned – coolly – out of reclaimed materials (re-opens 4 July).
British Airways flies to Costa Rica up to three times a week from London Gatwick. Use the Avios calculator to see how many Avios you need to get there