Sublime surfing on Costa Rica's Pacific coast (photo: Ashlyn George)

On the Beach and in the Trees in Costa Rica

By Ashlyn George

There are few better ways to describe Costa Rica than simply calling it by name. Dubbed “rich coast” in Spanish, the country boasts more than a thousand kilometres of shoreline on its Pacific side, plus another 200 bordering the Caribbean Sea. It’s a coast that affords many one-of-a-kind aquatic experiences when you’re kayaking, scuba diving, surfing—or just island hopping aboard a water taxi.

That’s what I’m doing, anyway: Waiting to cross the Gulf of Nicoya from Jaco to the resort town of Montezuma. I’m cautioned by locals that the ride can be both bumpy and wet. But I’m also promised there’s a very good chance of spotting dolphins along the way. I wade into the water to climb aboard the boat, tightly buckling my orange life jacket in anticipation of a rough ride. To my surprise, the waves are calm as we cruise toward the bohemian town on the Nicoya Peninsula.

Most of my fellow passengers gather under our boat’s canopy, seeking relief from the sweltering Central American sun. Suddenly, the captain shouts in Spanish and slows the vessel. As if on cue, several dolphins gracefully leap out of the water. They proceed to swim alongside the boat for a few minutes before disappearing beneath the blue surface.

Once in Montezuma I rush to check into my hotel. I have pressing needs—namely, finding some local cuisine and a beverage to help me cool down in the dry season’s prickly 30 C heat. I find the ideal spot beneath a plastic umbrella on the leafy lawn of a beach restaurant.

I order casado, a typical Costa Rican dish that marries rice, black beans, plantains and, in this case, chicken. Locals usually drizzle theirs with Salsa Lizano, a slightly sweet, peppery condiment found on virtually every table in Costa Rica. I wash everything down with the country’s most popular brew, the red-and yellow-labelled Imperial lager.

Belly full, it’s time for more active pursuits. First up: the three-tiered Montezuma Waterfalls. The falls are a short 20-minute hike from town, on a trail running from the main road into a river valley lined with Guanacaste trees. In the dry season it’s easy to hop along the riverbed rocks, a natural path to the falls. Along the way I’m entertained by a dozen white-faced capuchin monkeys frolicking in the branches overhead.

Costa Rica Casado Dining Food
Casado, a traditional Costa Rican dish (photo: Gmirandah/iStock)

Although a trickle compared to its full splendour during the rainy season, the waterfall is still a lovely sight. The highest cascade tumbles 24 metres into a clear pool and is always popular with cliff jumpers. A tamer experience with smaller cliffs and a rope swing can be found at the second and third set of falls.

I’m about to jump from a smaller cliff when a loud whizzing sound rings out above. I look up to see the flash of a zipliner passing through the trees. SunTrails Canopy Tours, one of many zipline operators in the jungle-filled country, runs trips through Montezuma’s forest on its 13 platforms; the tours end with a refreshing swim at the falls.

The next morning, I continue along the coast to Santa Teresa. Originally a remote fishing village, it’s lately become a tourist town with surfers and yogis honing their skills against a backdrop of ocean sunsets. Roads in the area are unpaved and dusty, so I opt for convenience over cost to get to town: An extra $5 gets me a shuttle ride that’s roomier than the local bus.

The additional fare pays off as the driver proves to be an amiable tour guide. He stops at one of Costa Rica’s largest trees, a giant banyan. Curiously, a banyan starts as an epiphyte, a hitchhiker that germinates in a crack of another tree until its own roots reach the ground. It then smothers the host, becoming a freestanding tree. The banyan I’m staring up at was given the 2009 Exceptional Tree Award by the National Biodiversity Institute of Costa Rica.

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I’m a bit nervous upon arriving in tiny Santa Teresa. I’m here to surf, but it’s been two years since I’ve been on a surfboard. The main drag is dotted with rental shops, so I pick a longboard, tell myself to think positively and make for the beach. Of course I’ve forgotten how difficult it can be to move through the ocean waves, so I spend more time paddling than actually surfing. Ultimately, though, I manage to successfully ride a few big waves.

But I’m overeager. Attempting to catch a wave beyond my skill level, I nose dive over my board and tumble underwater. Surf instructors warn beginners to surface with a hand above their head as the force of the crashing wave can slingshot the board back at you. My board doesn’t hit my head, but instead swings at my heel and slices a wound deep enough to require stitches. (The board doesn’t fare much better; it ends up with a three-inch hole in the fiberglass.)

Sufficiently bandaged, I console myself with another Imperial and a meal at Burger Rancho, one of Santa Teresa’s most popular restaurants.  I know this hasn’t been the last time the ocean sees me on a surfboard, but for now I set my sights inland.

Part of the “Ring of Fire,” Costa Rica is dotted with more than 200 volcanic formations. Thankfully, only five are classified as active today. Arenal Volcano, about 150 kilometres from the Pacific coast, is arguably the most spectacular. It’s been dormant since 2010 and is well worth a look.

Volcanic eruptions over millennia have given Costa Rica its fertile soil and lush forest ecosystem. To see the country’s diverse animal life up close and personal, I hike the rainforest along the base of Arenal. Costa Rica boasts nearly six percent of the world’s biodiversity; Arenal Volcano National Park is particularly noted for its many hundreds of bird species, including the elusive iridescent emerald-and-ruby-coloured quetzal. I make sure to look to the ground as well—land-roaming animals like slow-moving sloths and raccoon-like coatis also live in the forest.

Adrenaline-pumping activities, from zipline tours to white water rafting, abound in nearby La Fortuna, though I’m still in the mood for something lower key. Five kilometres from town, the 70-metre-high La Fortuna Waterfall splashes down into a basin that’s perfect for a dip following a day of hiking. Though the water is a bit chilly, I dry off in no time resting on the nearby rocks. On the way back into town I encounter a local vendor armed with a machete and a bag of coconuts. He expertly slices the top off the green fruit and pops a straw inside, selling me some much-welcomed agua de pipa, the slightly sweet and refreshing water of the young coconut.

Costa Rica Monteverde Cloud Forest
Treetop trekking in the Monteverde Cloud Forest (photo: Focus_On_Nature/iStock)

North of Arenal, Caño Negro Wildlife Refuge affords altogether different wildlife views—from a boat gliding through the wetland fed by the Frio River. Touring the forest, grassland and marshes, I spot migratory birds and at least three different primate species. The guttural roars of howler monkeys provide the soundtrack for the trip. 

My exploration moves from rainforest to cloud forest in the Monteverde region. Fog often shrouds this region due to its higher elevation and humid but cooler conditions. I venture onto a series of hanging bridges that literally put nature at my fingertips—90 percent of the forest’s animals live in its canopy. Particularly beautiful are its 500-plus varieties of orchids, including the Guaria Morada, Costa Rica’s national flower.

The country’s grano de oro (golden grain) coffee is also farmed in this elevated region, so I decide to sample a cup of Joe before heading home. Café Monteverde, a fair-trade coffee cooperative and roastery, offers tours exploring the history and growing process of the world’s most popular bean. The best part? Buying a couple of pounds of the coffee as proceeds support local farmers.

For my final night in Costa Rica’s untamed landscape, I figure it’s a propos to dine in the forest. I head to the town of Santa Elena and grab a table at Tree House Restaurant and Café. A sizable ficus extends its branches through the dining room, and is especially magical at night when it glows with green-hued lights.

Tree House’s menu overflows with local and Latin American specialties. I land on a classic: Ceviche, loaded with seafood, lemon, onion, garlic and cilantro. The burst of flavours is like Costa Rica itself—a wonderful mix of diverse elements that produces an unforgettable experience.