The Trip Of A Lifetime: Ecotourism, Wildlife, Luxury & Rainforest Adventures in Costa Rica
As I gazed out from our balcony, a rainbow emerged in the distance and brightened the landscape with a vibrant blend of colours. We’d just arrived in the country, and it was as though Costa Rica was sending me a personal greeting. ‘Oh hey there, welcome to our dreamy country. Expect rainbows and magic and a whole host of surprises!’
And that’s certainly what we got.
The main goal of our trip? To determine whether Costa Rica still deserves to be the mighty king of ecotourism. Oh, and see some amazing animals of course. Read on to discover more about Costa Rica’s conservation efforts and how as a country, they really are leading the way when it comes to sustainable tourism. I’ve seen it with my own eyes and witnessed proof of eco-friendly measures being used by forward-thinking businesses and individuals.
Our trip included releasing baby sea turtles, epic rainforest treks, sleeping in the forest surrounded by animals, flying on a gyrocopter, horseback riding through rivers, and following in the footprints of wildcats. What more could you want?
I’m warning you, this post will give you some serious envy – so if these activities are right up your street, get in touch with the guys at Eco Companion today. I can’t recommend this trip enough. Here’s how it all went down…
First stop, Monteverde cloud forest
We landed at Liberia airport and set off on a two-hour journey to El Establo Mountain Hotel in Monteverde. We encountered what would be the bumpiest road in our trip to get there, but the driver navigated it with ease. After a long flight, this was the perfect hotel to get some r & r before getting to the more hard-core part of our trip.
The rooms here were absolutely enormous with gigantic beds and a lovely big bathtub. And the view from the balcony was beyond lush. You can see the mountain peaks in the distance behind the thick green forest and the gardens are dusted with powder blue hydrangeas.
The pool is located at the top of a hill, boasting yet more gorgeous views and some stylish architecture. The water’s really refreshing and you can enjoy plenty of cocktails by the pool. Whilst you’re sipping on your mojito, you’ll feel safe in the knowledge you’re staying in a family owned, eco-friendly establishment in the midst of the famous Monteverde cloud forest. The owners of the hotel swapped cattle farming for sustainable tourism and it has certainly paid off. We had a lovely dinner here, Max and I had ‘Emma’s chicken’ which was a tasty combo of lemon chicken in pinto breadcrumbs with rice.
Swapping majestic scenery for city vistas in San Jose
We then made the journey to the Studio Hotel in San Jose. Along the route, we stopped off for supposedly the best sandwich in Costa Rica (or so the driver said) packed with never-ending toppings, and hopped out for a few moment’s respite on a volcanic beach.
I was really impressed by the Studio Hotel. If you’re flying into San Jose airport it’s the perfect place to grab a bit of luxury and rest for a night or two. You don’t expect to stumble upon such a serene pool in the bustling city. The stylish rooftop pool overlooks both the mountains and the outskirts of San Jose.
I loved the buzz of being close to a big city but also being able to look out my hotel window and see vibrant green mountains and trees in the central valley. The interior of the hotel is jam-packed with quirky local art and you can’t help but stop and glance at each and every one. The hotel apparently hosts the next best collection of art after the main San Jose gallery.
This plush five-star boutique hotel provides some much-needed respite a stone’s throw away from the bustling busy city. There’s a rather impressive tree just outside reception, which looks like it has been taken from the Elf Forest in a Lord of The Rings movie and somehow transported to San Jose. The bedrooms are modern, comfy and colourful with all the finishing touches you’d expect from a hotel of this calibre.
We didn’t get to explore much of San Jose, because we arrived late in the day and left the next morning. But we did venture into the city for dinner at an Italian restaurant (Sofia Mediterraneo) which was located in what seemed a rather hip and funky part of the city. I was treated to a squid starter and a seafood pasta main, and the wine was delish too. If we weren’t so tired and still plagued by jet lag this would have been a fab place to go on a cheeky night out.
Our first taste of the rainforest at Selva Bananito…
Next, we made the journey through some Jurassic Park style terrain and breathtaking scenery, ending up at Selva Bananito Lodge. This place is out in the middle of the rainforest. It’s so far in that we had to travel by 4×4 for 40 minutes, through several rivers. Quite an experience! It sort of feels as though you’re travelling back in time, away from civilisation which is a complete breath of fresh air.
As soon as I arrived in Selva Bananito I felt connected to nature. I befriended two of the dogs that live there (a German Shepherd and Old English Sheepdog) and they decided to chill on my balcony for the afternoon. I sat outside in the hammock and cast my eyes on the rainforest right outside the cabin. The noises from the wildlife sort of take over and call out to you as if to say, ‘Pura Vida, life is good.’ It makes you feel really insignificant being a human in this mesmerising landscape.
We met the owner, Jurgen, who is quite a character. You can tell instantly how passionate he is about the wildlife reserve where his property sits and helping to protect the animals that call it home. For me, this was ecotourism at its finest. Jurgen’s family have owned the land for years, his father used to use it for logging. But what’s particularly interesting about their story is Jergen and his siblings turned things around and instead convinced their father to venture into ecotourism instead of destroying the land.
We did sooo much at Selva Bananito in the two full days we were there. From birdwatching and spotting toucans and hummingbirds to horseback riding through the rainforest and our filmmaker Andy even got to go on a flight in a Gyrocopter.
Oh, and we went on an epic 8-hour hike in search of wildlife and saw all sorts of weird and wonderful creatures including the strawberry frog, a rainforest crab (totally unexpected), plenty of spiders and creepy crawlies and tons of cool birds. The scenery here is very rich, lush and green and the woodland is fairly dense. We navigated through some tough terrain (despite Max having a bad knee) and got to see the viewing platform where they camp out overnight.
One night in a luxury Volcano lodge
It was quite muggy in the rainforest so we were glad to make the journey to Poas Volcano where the air is much cooler and fresher. You notice it instantly as soon as you arrive. On the way there, we also managed to squeeze in a trip to an animal rescue centre called The Jaguar Rescue Centre near Puerto Viejo de Talamanca.
As we drove through this town we noticed the distinctly laid-back Caribbean vibe. It’s a surfing town with plenty of rasta type characters and people living a seemingly carefree existence near the beautiful beaches. We didn’t have time to stop but I wish we could have had an afternoon here. The rescue centre had some super adorable animals, including baby sloths, monkeys, a resident peccary who was best pals with the pet dog, and a very lovable affectionate deer. They seemed to have good intentions and were making attempts to release injured animals back into the wild.
Our night at Poas Volcano Lodge was wonderful. I think of all the places we stayed, this hotel had the most impressive interior design and architecture. Huge wooden beams and a distinctly rustic feel made this hotel super cosy. The bed was large and comfy and the boys’ enormous suite was very impressive. The breakfast here was also superb. You know it’s going to be a fab breakfast when the granola is uber #instaworthy.
Osa Conservation – the most biologically intense place on earth
On the drive to Osa, we saw more animals than we’d seen most of the trip. We instantly knew this place was going to be pure magic. Howler monkeys screamed from the treetops, white-faced capuchins peered at us from the branches and the spider monkeys put on an acrobatic show jumping from tree to tree.
In fact, spider monkeys are endangered and, in other places around the world, pretty difficult to spot. People in other countries spend their entire life looking for them, but there’s a high concentration of them in the Osa, and we were lucky enough to see them a few times.
Let me give you a little intro to the Osa Peninsula and why it’s so unique. It has existed for less than half of human history, having been separated from the mainland of Costa Rica. Here you’ll find the tallest canopy in Central America and an immense concentration of wildlife.
Rachel, one of the incredible staff who work here explained that there are more biological interactions here than you’d find in a tropical rainforest. There’s an extraordinarily linked system and a dense web of interactions between the animals and plants here – which is why it’s so crucial to help protect its inhabitants.
For the amount of land, there’s an extremely high level of biodiversity with five species of cats (including the ever elusive jaguar). National Geographic named it “the most biologically intense place on earth” and we certainly witnessed this for ourselves.
The research centre is in a beautiful little clearing in the middle of the forest. It feels very open and peaceful (apart from the really loud howler monkeys calling to each other). We stayed in accommodation at the base which included comfy bunk beds and a pretty cool rainforest shower. Picture yourself having a good wash whilst looking up at the monkeys in the trees above you and listening to the sounds of the inhabitants of the forest. You can’t get wilder than that.
Our schedule here was packed full of exciting things – including releasing baby sea turtles into the ocean. That’s definitely up there in my ecotourism #lifegoals, and one of the most memorable and heartwarming moments of my existence so far.
One morning we woke up to a stunning sunrise and moved a green sea turtle nest. The eggs were placed in a risky place on the beach where the babies would have a lower chance of survival, so we very carefully relocated the eggs to the hatchery, where they have protection from predators. We also caught gigantic shrimp in the river, went out tracking wild cat footprints and visited their farm where they grow all sorts of plants and trees for their rewilding program.
I can’t delve deep into Osa’s story in this post – keep an eye out for a full post if you’d like to learn more and discover the incredible Osa Conservation story.
Gaia Hotel – a plush hotel within a wildlife reserve
After staying in slightly more basic accommodation in the rainforest, we were certainly ready to live it up a little. And that’s exactly what we did at the Gaia hotel in Manuel Antonio. I was pretty pumped about the pool at this place and kept going on about how Insta worthy I thought it would be to the guys. And boy, was I right.
Picture a multi-level infinity pool perched right in the middle of a nature reserve with views of the ocean and the mountains in the distance. You’re so close to nature here that you can occasionally see sloths and monkeys in the trees engage in a spot of bird watching in the pool and we even watched a large iguana perform a balancing act along the pool edge.
The restaurant has eye-popping views of the surrounding landscape and our three-floor villa…well, that was pretty sweet. There’s a whirlpool bath with a huge window where you can watch the colourful sunsets. It was pure bliss. I’d say this hotel is ideal for couples looking for oodles of eco-friendly luxury. Take. Me. Back.
Hotel Bosque del Mar – ecotourism on the coast
We finished our trip at the Hotel Bosque Del Mar in Playa Hermosa. This hotel is located right on the beach and a fab family-friendly hotel. You can take a dip in the pool, and then walk a few hundred yards and soak up the sun on the soft, sandy beach. I loved the balcony in my room because it was overlooking the pool and encased by vibrant green trees which made me feel like I was in the jungle. Except I was staying in a luxurious hotel room with the comfort of air con and a super comfy bed. #winning
We ate dinner in the restaurant one of the evenings and I had some delicious salmon whilst the boys tucked into steak and a chicken thigh curry.
I think one of the best things about our stay here was the unbelievable sunsets in the evenings. Picture orange and purple warmth spreading across the sky and reflecting on the calm waters. The sea was really warm, so much so that I probably could have stayed in it all day long (if I hadn’t got super burnt).
Our main goal was to see if Costa Rica deserves its reputation as the Ecotourism King of the world. Well, from what we saw, it certainly gets my seal of approval. As with most things in life, there’s always room for improvement. But there’s no doubt that the people and business owners here are working together towards a brighter and more sustainable future for their magnificent kingdom.
I particularly loved the stories behind some of the local people’s journey towards eco-tourism. How a few of them actually went from harming the environment to protecting it, how they turned poachers into conservationists. They’ve changed and adapted their businesses to meet a growing need to protect the diverse selection of wildlife that they’re lucky enough to share their country with.
From working on reducing water consumption to finding alternative sources of energy, and perhaps most importantly, educating guests – we saw some inspiring examples of ecotourism in action. Now it’s time for more countries to follow suit. Costa Rica deserves a round of applause, and I’m honoured to be able to shout about all the great things this country is doing. Thanks for having me, folks….PURA VIDA!
Want to see what Costa Rica is like for yourself and have some of these amazing experiences? Get in touch with the experts at Eco Companion who will plan the perfect itinerary for you.