Costa Rica's Stunning World of Ecotourism

July 31, 2019

From the slack wood seat of an Adirondack chair, Gil Henry munches popcorn. He flicks every other kernel to a scrum of gulls flittering at his feet as he watches the wan sun emerge from late-day storm clouds and slip back out of view below the Pacific horizon. Henry just finished a blustery round of golf on the Arnold Palmer designed links at the Four Seasons Resort on Peninsula Papagayo, and after he polishes off his Hendrick’s and tonic he’ll head to the nearby town of Playa Hermosa for dinner and then on to his villa in the hills. Just another day in this Latin American Eden. 

“I come every year. Have been for a decade,” he says. “I used to think I should branch out, go elsewhere. But once you find paradise, why change it?” Costa Rica, with its miles of empty beaches and biodiverse forests and easy-to-use infrastructure, inspires loyalty among travelers. With a full 33 percent of its land under some form of conservation protection and everyman’s adventures ranging from cloud-forest hikes to snorkeling and horseback riding, it has become the poster child for ecotourism. In 2012, the latest year statistics are available, some 2.3 million visitors came here to learn to surf and spot birds in the cloud forests and witness sea turtles nesting.

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That’s part of why I’ve avoided visiting the place for years, because no matter how physically endowed or ecologically sensitive a place might be, as far as I’m concerned paradise overrun by crowds is no paradise at all. Besides that, I’ve always scoffed at Costa Rica’s feeble sense of adventure. I once mentioned the place to my parents, and my 68-year-old mother, whose idea of excitement is a social tennis match followed by a glass of sweet rosé, announced that she’s always wanted to go zip lining in Costa Rica. The place must be about as thrilling as a bridge tournament, I decided. But curiosity got the best of me. The millions of people like Henry can’t be wrong, can they? So I booked a ticket to the northwestern town of Liberia, the smaller of the country’s two international airports, and headed up the Pacific coast near Nicaragua in search of the charm of this ecotourism hotbed. Crowds and underwhelming adventures be damned—I would find the secret to this place’s appeal. The only condition: no zip lines. 

Less than an hour’s drive on freshly painted two-lane roads from the international airport, the quiet town of Playa Hermosa and Peninsula Papagayo that wraps away to the north should be overrun with tourist traffic. But unlike the more built-up swathes of beachfront farther south on the Nicoya Peninsula or the hippy traveler hangouts inland in Monteverde and La Fortuna, this northwest Pacific corner of Costa Rica is still mostly undeveloped. A few hotels speckle the waterfront, including the boutique Bosque del Mar that’s literally cut into the jungle on a spit of gray sand. But the land is mostly wild and empty hill country that’s cloaked in an impenetrable canopy of secondary forest tumbling straight down to the untouched edge of the Pacific. “It looked like that was all going to change five years ago. There was a lot of speculation and rumors that half a dozen international hotel chains had plans to open properties here,” says Anne Hegney, a Montreal transplant who moved here over a decade ago and opened Ginger, one of the best restaurants in the vicinity. “But after the global economic crisis in 2008, it really cooled down. Everyone put their plans on hold, and Playa Hermosa has stayed quiet and friendly.” Things look to be picking up again, with the boutique Mongroove Hotel opening in January north of Playa Hermosa and the Hyatt revealing a new property on the Papagayo Peninsula in December. Several other resorts are set to come online in late 2014 or 2015, as well. “But I don’t think it will be that big of a change,” Hegney says. “We’re starting from minimal development. Even the busy towns around here like Tamarindo are relaxed. It’s not like this is ever going to be Miami Beach.” 

 I decide to have a look for myself and set out for Tamarindo early the next morning. Driving in Costa Rica is a little like wandering through a corn maze—you know you’ll eventually get where you need to go, but it’s never clear what route you’ll take or when you might arrive. So vague are the highways that I’m almost surprised to reach Tamarindo, a one-road town sandwiched with surf shops and curio stands and pastel, open-air cafés. It’s busier than Playa Hermosa, but Hegney is right, it’s a far cry from the tawdry visions of Cancún that I imagined.

At Kelly’s, one of Tamarindo’s best-known surf shops, instructor Jonathan Zamora says people keep coming to Costa Rica, crowds or no crowds, because the surfing is that good. “I can put a client in the water on a board, and I guarantee they’ll be surfing by the end of the day,” he says. “But then down the coast, there are breaks to keep me surfing for the rest of my life.” I tag along as Zamora, who’s built like a can of Costa Rican Imperial lager with a crop of shoulder-length hair as curly as Christmas ribbon, guides a couple of clients to the beach for their first-ever session. Zamora leads them through a series of yoga-like drills on land to warm up. All along the beach, I note other neophytes are standing on their boards, moving through similar poses. Within the hour, Zamora’s clients are surfing, grinning and hooting like rodeo clowns. It’s not pretty, but it’s still surfing.

After the lessons are done, strangers gather on the beach and squat on their boards to trade stories, both about the day and their lives back home. Phone numbers are traded. Friends are made. It’s not unlike summer camp for adults, except when the sun sets everyone saunters down the beach to the scatter of restaurants serving icy Imperials and freshfried corn chips to scoop up the lime-tart ceviche. Around dusk, a squall pushes through town dropping rain so heavy that you can’t see from the bar patio to the cars parked out front. Evening plans are scrapped and amended, and another round of Imperial is ordered.

There are two ways to enjoy a stay on the Pacific coast, on the beachfront or in the hills. “The water is nice,” says Kelsey Hill, Inspirato’s destination concierge in Costa Rica. “But the views are what you want.” I’m skeptical. It sounds like marketing spin for, “We couldn’t get beachfront.” Until I visit one of the company’s properties, that is. Set on a finger of wooded land overlooking Playa Coco to the south and Playa Hermosa to the north, the airy singlestory home has a glass-front living space that opens onto an expansive patio and infinity pool with dizzying views to the Pacific. A salty breeze blows all day, making this perch both cooler and more spectacular than the waterfront properties where I’d been staying. It’s just five minutes in the car to surfing, snorkeling and kayaking. Yet the perspective, out over a canopy so thick that it looks like broccoli florets, is worth the extra few minutes of travel time. For the mightiest canopies, however, you must head inland. Arenal, which sits beneath one of Costa Rica’s most active volcanos, is the nearest, biggest rain forest. But it’s a long drive, so I opt for the lesser-known Tenorio Volcano National Park. Farther north, it has a dominant cinder cone akin to Arenal, rain-forest hikes, a spring-fed river that supposedly shimmers as blue as Kool-Aid and fewer visitors. 

The road to Tenorio, as is the case with most byways off the main arteries, is roller coaster steep and covered with boulders big enough to crush a large raccoon-like coati. Along the way is the Celeste Mountain Lodge, a quirky and elegant ecolodge owned by Frenchman Joel Marchal that makes a timely coffee stop and break from the jouncing road. Marchal, whose Canadian-based travel company was one of the first to offer Costa Rican trips, moved here in 2003 to erect his ideal jungle lodge. “It’s not the best-known corner of the country,” he says. “But in our opinion it is the best.” At Tenorio, guide Alex Ordoñez Jarquin meets me at daybreak and leads the way up the steep, rooted national park trail in search of wildlife. There’s the possibility of sighting a tapir, an endangered mammal that, judging by the murals at park headquarters, resembles an overstuffed, cow-size pig with a short trunk. The odd beast proves elusive, though there’s plenty of other fauna, including several beautiful coati and a pencil-thin zopilota snake that Jarquin plucks from a branch for a closer look. He also points out the iridescent blue Rio Celeste, which derives its fantastical color from a chemical reaction that takes place at the convergence of two mineral-rich tributaries. “Last year Paris-Match called the Tenorio waterfall the most beautiful in the world, and most people have never even heard of it,” Jarquin says. “This country is full of untapped spectacles. You just have to look.”

I decide that I owe it to Costa Rica—and to my mother—to see the zip lines. It’s the country’s biggest attraction, and to pass judgment on tourism here without at least trying it would be like going to Peru but skipping Machu Picchu. So I detour eastward toward Arenal where the land turns to pristine, canopied hill country that empties into a broad valley beneath the perfect onyx pyramid of Arenal volcano. No one can explain the connection between zip lining and Costa Rica, though the most reasonable explanation comes from a guide who says that the activity caught on after researchers at the Monteverde cloud forest introduced the cable system for research purposes. One of the biggest operations in Arenal today is a 9-year-old company called Sky Adventures that climbs 775 feet up the mountainside by way of a 1,000-meter-long open-air gondola and then descends on eight lines cut into the canopy, one nearly half a mile long.

A group of twelve visitors conquers the course together, and reactions range from peels of unfettered laughter to screeches of terror. When my turn comes, I zing across the chasms, sometimes as high as 600 feet off the ground and ogle the views. I have to admit that it’s entertaining. But it’s the South African retirees on the excursion who make the experience for me. Having come to Costa Rica for the birding, Pieter and Moira decided they simply had to try the zip lines. Moira, a spry but graying grandmother, is beaming after her first few rides. She later tells me it’s the most thrilling thing she’s ever done. I will forever like the zip lines because of her. We travel to expand our experience, to discover something new about the world and ourselves, and Moira will always remember the day she flew through the Latin American cloud forest. That’s the thing about adventure—you never know where it will take you. It’s also Costa Rica’s secret. Sure the country has world-class surf, rain forest hikes and biodiversity that makes Noah’s ark look like a dinghy. And yes, the northwest corner has some of the most consistently perfect weather of anywhere on the planet, with zero precipitation virtually guaranteed from December through April. Everyone knows these things. But just when you think you have a handle on the place, a tapir will walk out in front of you on the trail, or the dry season skies will unleash a cloudburst so violent you can’t see the car bumper ahead of you, or a volcano will unexpectedly growl and erupt. There are still plenty of spectacles to be found in Costa Rica. You just have to look.  

Make Yourself at Home 

Costa Rica Nestled into the soaring hillside along the Cacique Peninsula, Inspirato’s three Signature Residences offer private pools, a daily housekeeper and a chef (for breakfast and lunch). Homes range from the 4,000-square-foot, 4-bedroom Villa Vientos and Villa Altamira residences to the sprawling, modern 4,600-square-foot, 3-bedroom Serena abode. New this year, Inspirato members can settle into two residences on Peninsula Papagayo with access to the golf course at the Four Seasons Resort.

Must-Do List from a Vacation Advisor 

Day Trips: To get the best of Costa Rica, plan on exploring the country. Travel by horseback to a waterfall close to the Borinquen Resort, and then fly through the jungle on their zip line. Return for a large lunch and spend the rest of the day at the spa. Take the Jungle ATV tour of the rain forest and prepare to get muddy from stream crossings. Want less adrenaline but no less awe? The Palo Verde Tour boat trip up a river through a wildlife sanctuary passes crocodiles, monkeys, iguanas and thousands of birds—on a good day the monkeys will jump into your boat