Planning a trip to Costa Rica—where your choices are virtually endless—can be overwhelming. Here, five takes on Central America's jungle-and-beach paradise, whatever your interest.
1 ADVENTURE Costa Rica Expeditions (011-506/257-0766; www.costaricaexpeditions.com; 10-day packages from $1,808 per person) pioneered active travel in the country in 1978; founder Michael Kaye was the first outfitter to raft some of Costa Rica's rivers, and in the process helped turn the area's compact collection of seas, rivers, and jungles into the ultimate escape for adrenaline junkies. The company's multisport packages are still the best way to get your fix: you can fly through the canopy on a zip-line 98 feet above the forest floor, raft Class Four rapids on the Pacuare River, and mountain bike around Arenal volcano. Or request a bespoke itinerary, customized to your most heart-racing extreme.
2 ECO Twelve years ago, with the opening of 16-room Lapa Rios (011-506/735-5130; www.laparios.com; doubles from $484) beside Corcovado National Park, Costa Rica became a haven for eco-travelers. Built around the rain forest (instead of the other way around), using indigenous natural materials and supporting local businesses whenever possible, the palm-thatched bungalows and bamboo furniture remain the standard of eco-friendly luxury. • Newer Aguila de Osa Inn (866/924-8452; www.aguiladeosa.com; doubles from $878, two-night minimum) is even more remote than Lapa Rios—you have to access it by boat, and it's barely visible from the waters of Drake Bay. Hidden behind a thick forest are 13 oversize rooms with cathedral ceilings and Italian- tiled baths. • On the other side of the country in Tortuguero, Costa Rica's own mini-Amazon, guests help scientists tag leatherback turtles for the Caribbean Conservation Corporation (800/678-7853; www.cccturtle.org; doubles $2,798 for nine days, all-inclusive) while living in the research facility's basic (but beachside) accommodations.
3 LUXURY The Four Seasons Resort Costa Rica at Peninsula Papagayo (011-506/696-0000; www.fourseasons.com; doubles from $395) brought the private-jet set to Costa Rica when it opened two years ago; now hotels with Frette linens and 24-hour room service are strung like pearls along the country's western coast. Go from one to the next, starting just below the Nicaraguan border at the Four Seasons, whose earth-tone buildings cascade down from the cliffs to two gold-sand beaches. • Some 60 miles south, the 10-villa Florblanca (011-506/640-0232; www.florblanca.com; doubles from $375) combines surprisingly sophisticated cuisine (think: foie gras with cherry compote) with decadent outdoor bathrooms and stucco porches—perfect for watching the spectacular sunsets. Rest easy with the knowledge that the teak in your canopy bed (and everywhere else) wasn't harvested: it's driftwood. • Swim up to the bar in the mushroom-shaped pool at Hotel Punta Islita (011-506/231-6122; www.hotelpuntaislita.com; doubles from $280) for a tangy mojito. Then treat yourself to a hot-volcanic-stone massage before retiring to one of the 17 thatched-roof villas. • Gaia Hotel & Reserve (011-506/777-2239; www.gaiahr.com; doubles from $240), near Manuel Antonio, is Costa Rica's latest luxe addition. Guests are given a private butler for laundry, room service, and arranging tours—though many are content to simply drink in the view of the Pacific from the dark-wood, clean-lined rooms.
4 CULINARY With rice and beans as the national dish, Costa Rica has hardly garnered prestige as a gourmand's getaway. But a handful of inventive chefs are changing that reputation. Not far from the Monteverde Cloud Forest, the Creole Cooking School at the Inn at Coyote Mountain (011-506/383-0544; www.cerrocoyote.com; three nights with classes, from $1,500, double) teaches you to make dishes such as empanadas and tamales, using organic produce—heirloom tomatoes, mangoes, vanilla—from the inn's gardens. • At the San Ramon Angel Valley Farm Bed & Breakfast (011-506/447-4684; www.angelvalleyfarmbandb.com; four nights with classes from $800, double), Beth Frischberg—of Washington, D.C.'s Tabard Inn—demonstrates healthful, modern fare like coconut-rice-watermelon gazpacho. • No time for a cooking class?Right near the San José airport is Finca Rosa Blanca (011-506/ 269-9392; www.fincarosablanca.com; doubles from $185), where you can spend your last day riding through a coffee plantation on horseback, then sit down to a family-style feast of roasted loin of pork, stuffed with macerated prunes, in port-wine sauce.
5 FAMILY Spider monkeys by day and spa treatments by night—Costa Rica's got your crew covered. All the family itineraries from Backroads (800/462-2848; www.backroads.com; six-day packages from $7,674 for a family of four) come with a dedicated Kid Coordinator who organizes activities such as scavenger hunts and art contests so that parents can get some time alone. Their new Home Base trip is ideal for groups with lots of small kids and gear in tow who are looking to stay put. The company sets you up in bungalows in the jungle near Corcovado National Park, where you can pack in mountain biking and kayaking. • For the super-active family with older kids, Thomson Family Adventures (800/262-6255; www.familyadventures.com; nine-day packages from $10,160 for a family of four) has introduced teen-focused itineraries that include surfing, photography, and salsa dancing.
Angel Valley Farm Bed & Breakfast
At the San Ramon Angel Valley Farm Bed & Breakfast, Beth Frischberg—of Washington, D.C.'s Tabard Inn—demonstrates healthful, modern fare like coconut-rice-watermelon gazpacho
Gaia Hotel & Reserve
Avid environmentalists, this small, five-star luxury boutique hotel on the central Pacific coast won the award for Leading Green Hotel for Central America by the World Travel Awards for its efforts in conservation. Originally the Jardin Gaia, it was once a center for native orchid conservation and endangered wildlife rehabilitation. Today, the Gaia Hotel operates the preserve while offering suites, studios, and villas for a small number of guests — with an on-site restaurant, spa, gym, and pool to boot. All-inclusive packages are available that focus on wellness, adventure, relaxation, spa treatments, and cuisine.
Sea Turtle Conservancy
The Sea Turtle Conservancy in northeast Costa Rica is the oldest turtle research facility in the world. Founded in 1959 by Dr. Archie Carr in an effort to save the species from extinction, the conservancy now invites tourists to visit the wildlife refuge (adjacent to Tortuguero National Park) and take part in the mission. Duties include observing the nesting habits of hawksbill and leatherback sea turtles and recording the data, usually at night. The refuge has three accommodation options—shared dorms, private bedrooms, and private eco-lodges—and fees also include three daily meals of authentic Costa Rican cuisine.
Aguila de Osa Inn
Perched on a remote cliff-top and reachable only by boat or seaplane, Aguila de Osa has sweeping views of Drake Bay—arguably Costa Rica’s most gorgeous spot. Adventurous, get-up-and-go types will feel most at home here; cacophonous birdsong (the unofficial morning wake-up call) begins at about 5 a.m. Once roused, guests can head out for guided hikes and horseback rides through the pristine, adjacent Corcovado National Park rainforest; snorkeling off nearby Caño Island; or sportfishing charters. The 14 rooms, spread among three villas, have high, vaulted ceilings, walls of windows that flood them with light, and gleaming Costa Rican hardwood paneling and floors. As in most Costa Rican hotels, they’re cooled by ceiling fans and ocean breezes. Meals of locally caught roosterfish and marlin are served family style in the restaurant, the best in the area.
Room to Book: The large Master Suite has a superior ocean view and the most privacy.
If the idea of open-sided, thatched-roof bungalows with netted teak beds, private decks with hammocks, and secluded outdoor showers stirs you, you’ll get your fix here. Lapa Rios, built on high ground to catch the Pacific breezes (and provide glorious vistas), is set amid 1,000 acres of protected virgin rainforest. Both the building materials (hardwood, stone, bamboo) used for the 16 bungalows and many of the property’s staffers are indigenous to the area—but being ecologically conscious doesn’t mean sacrificing comfort here. The locally sourced cuisine is inventive; birds perch in a flowering tree right outside your bungalow; and the cool stone bathroom floors, the bamboo and teak furniture, and warm service can make you forget you’re doing the right thing.
Room to Book: Secluded bungalows 13 and 14 are ideal for a private retreat, though ones with lower numbers require less of an uphill hike.
Hotel Punta Islita
At nearly 15 years old, Hotel Punta Islita is a granddaddy of Costa Rica’s eco-resorts. This attentively run mainstay shares its crescent-shaped stretch of beach with a neighboring village, Islita, which has been transformed into a thriving outdoor community art project by Costa Rican artists. The hotel’s 23 private bungalows and villas—and a few larger buildings housing nine expansive suites—are spread in tiers down a hill above the Pacific. At sea level, guests laze between beach, pool, restaurant, and landscaped gardens at the Borrancho Beach Club. The hotel offers activities like zip-line tours through the rainforest canopy, golf, hiking, bird-watching, and kayaking, as well as more eco-conscious ones like leatherback sea turtle encounters and cultural visits to the surrounding communities.
Four Seasons Resort Costa Rica at Peninsula Papagayo
Take Four Seasons pampering (chilled towels delivered to your pool chaise), cross it with the charm of location (just north of the Nicoya Peninsula, above the placid Gulf of Papagayo), and you'll see why guests return to this hilltop property year after year. The design here falls into the simple-but-luxurious category: bamboo and rattan, indigenous stone and wood, and Costa Rican art. Activities exceed the average menu of options: guests can go horseback riding in nearby national parks; boost their energy with a body wrap using volcanic mud from the Osa Peninsula; spend the day at either of the resort’s two golden-sand beaches or four pools; sign up for a trip to Diria coffee plantation; follow a naturalist on a bird-watching expedition; and much, much more. At the end of the day, you'll be ready to fall back into one of 175 unfussy yet plush rooms, suites, or private residences, complete with verandas and deep soaking tubs.
Finca Rosa Blanca
Inn at Coyote Mountain
Once upon a time, when travelers came to Costa Rica, they expected to eat freshly caught seafood but little else of note. Then, in 2004, this eco-lodge opened in the mountains above the Pacific and immediately became a destination retreat for foodies with active lifestyles. The intimate Inn at Coyote Mountain—just five guest rooms— flourishes in its own 70-acre nature preserve. Besides the requisite tropical gardens, the hotel also maintains fruit, vegetable, and herb gardens that supply the kitchen. Guests can hike in virgin cloud forests, mountain bike to waterfalls, take zip-line canopy tours, ride horses, and then return to the inn for some of the best meals in the country, inspired by the local bounty and cooking traditions.
Room to Book: The Observatory room in the tower for breathtaking 360-degree views of mountains and ocean.
Named for the frangipani flower, with rock waterfalls and tropical landscapes, Costa Rica’s Florblanca is an ideal Nicoya Peninsula getaway for beachgoers in search of solitude paired with the occasional fitness class or surfing excursion. On seven acres along the talcum beaches of Santa Teresa and Malpais, 11 pink stucco villas have three-walled living rooms that open to the Pacific Ocean, with low-slung hammocks on every shaded patio. Suites are painted in neutral hues, accented by natural fabrics and local hardwoods, and feature alfresco rain showers, while Pan Pacific touches are found throughout the property (Balinese carvings in the rooms, Buddhas perched around the property, a Japanese-inspired temple of a spa). After a day on the beach or at the spa (where daily yoga and Pilates classes are on offer), join the honeymooners and surfers for fruity cocktails at the Nectar restaurant and bar, overlooking the pool, while howler monkeys call in the distance. For a quiet night on your own, reserve the palapa over the pool for a private meal of freshly caught Pacific mahimahi.