If you're looking for a lazy beach vacation, with a fruity cocktail in your hand, then don't go to Costa Rica. Not that there aren't breathtaking beaches in this lush Central American country with both Pacific and Caribbean coastlines, but there's so much more to take advantage of beyond the beach, with endless natural wonders and the opportunity for adrenaline-fueled adventures.
In one action-packed week crisscrossing the country, I tried Costa Rica's top adventures, from surfing to whitewater rafting to ziplining. I even spent a night trekking in the rain forest looking for tarantulas.
This was my second visit to the country; my first trip to Costa Rica was inspired by a dream to learn to surf. Costa Rica's waves beckon top surfers from around the world and newbies like me who want to learn to pop up in warm, long-breaking waves.
Six years later, as a guest of Costa Rica's Small Distinctive Hotels collection, I found myself on the same beach in Tamarindo where I took my first surf lesson years ago. I'd love to say that with the other lessons I've taken around the world I returned to Costa Rica an expert surfer. Sadly, I'm still a beginner, but I did fall back in love with the sport and my love for the ocean with a private sunset lesson with Luis Seitour of Radical Surf. It was in front of my beachfront bungalow at Capitan Suizo, an environmentally conscious boutique hotel tucked away on a quiet beach stretch in Tamarindo.
The author gets ready to go ziplining at the Hacienda Guachipelin, part of Costa Rica’s Small Distinctive Hotels collection.
Costa Rica's lush forests are home to the Original Canopy Tour, so the next morning my travel companions and I set out early to drive to Hacienda Guachipelin, a mecca for ziplining and adventure tours. Costa Rica is all about conquering fears, so with a little peer pressure I ziplined; upside down and screaming my head off the entire time.
My hands were still shaking when I moved on to the adventure park and tried a freefall and rock climb. It was only Day Two and I already felt I had conquered a few fears.
While it was hard to leave the ocean and my budding surf career behind, I had yet another water adventure on my agenda: whitewater rafting on the Pacuare River, named one of the top five whitewater rafting spots in the world by National Geographic.
The Casa Turire, a colonial-style hotel with only 16 rooms. The Turrialba Volcano is in the background.
After recharging at Casa Turire, a charming, colonial-style hotel with just 16 rooms and stunning views of the still-active Turrialba Volcano, we braved a light rain and headed out to the Pacuare: Class III and IV rapids would be ours for the taking. Upon gearing up for our whitewater rafting trip with Explornatura, I felt the telltale signs that you're on a vacation in Costa Rica: my heart was pounding, and adrenaline was coursing through my veins.
Even with some gnarly rapids, no one fell out of our raft, and there was even time to relax and take in the views along the Pacuare's lush gorges (the drizzle contributed to us having the river to ourselves the entire day). We refueled with burritos filled with salty, young Turrialba cheese and got pumped about the Class IV waves we'd take on after lunch. Back at Casa Turire, we replayed the action on the rapids over delicious, warm banana coconut soup like we were the hard-core, fearless rafters that we clearly weren't.
After saying goodbye to our new friends at the hotel and farm — a baby goat was born there the previous day — we boarded a 30-minute Nature Air flight to the most remote part of Costa Rica: the Osa Peninsula.
A guestroom at Playa Nicuesa.
Our home base while we explored the rain forest was Playa Nicuesa, an ecolodge only accessible by boat on the Golfo Dulce and bordering the lush Piedras Blancas National Park. Our first adventure began right after our welcome dinner: a night trek through the rain forest looking for the jungle's nocturnal creatures. Our guide, Jose, pointed out the sounds of three monkey species — white-faced, howler and spider monkeys — and to my reluctant excitement, a tarantula. Then Mother Nature welcomed us to the rain forest by showing us who was in charge with a dramatic downpour. The next few days were spent kayaking through mangroves and stand-up paddleboarding at sunrise. The nights were no less exciting, surrounded by the symphony of rain forest sounds.
Before heading back to the urban jungle of New York, I spent my last night in the capital city of San Jose at the luxurious Grano de Oro, a perfect way to transition out of paradise and rest my weary muscles.
The restaurant at the Grano de Oro hotel in San Jose.
Over an elegant and tropically influenced five-course dinner, my travel companions and I rehashed our adventures while wishing we had time left for some exploration of San Jose.
And that evening, our only activity was lifting our well-deserved coffee-infused cocktails to cheers to a return trip.
For more information on Small Distinctive Hotels, visit www.distinctivehotels.com.