Most people come to Costa Rica for its tropical climes, secluded beaches and endless eco adventures. For those who think they know the landscapes, or prefer a less trodden path, here are some gems to discover.
San Lucas Island
This one-time penal island — Costa Rica’s Alcatraz — has been transformed into a national wildlife refuge where howler monkeys, snakes, deer, pheasants and at least eight bat species are as abundant as its marine life. Against such beauty, though, is a cruel history. First, Spanish conquistadors imprisoned and slaughtered hundreds of the local Chara people on their sacred burial grounds. Then, it became a brutal prison where incarceration was a virtual death sentence. Remnants of buildings, including cells embellished with graffiti, the church and infirmary, make for an evocative tour.
Finca Sanatoria Duran
With its pastoral location on the Cartago mountainside, en route to the Irazu Volcano, it’s hard to believe this is the country’s most haunted building. Most people mistake this former hospital for mental and tuberculosis patients for a farm. Since closing in the 1960s, the complex has lain abandoned and only recently became a visitor attraction. Today, wander the property and its rather spooky, derelict buildings with their barred windows and feel its sudden cold breezes — even on a hot, sunny day. The hallway full of children’s handprints is especially eerie.
Another ghostly spot is Cabuya Island at Cabo Blanco Park, perhaps because the entire island has been a cemetery since time immemorial. It is one of Costa Rica’s most remote areas. Graves aside, discover terrific snorkeling for everything rainbow-hued, as well as puffers, lobsters and plentiful, albeit evasive, seahorses. Hiking, too, is magical because when the tide is low, you can cross over to the island from the mainland, as if walking on water. For those looking for off-the-beaten-track destinations, where tourism hasn’t turned paradise into a commodity, Cabuya township also delivers.
Finding a broken fuselage in the jungle is somewhat disconcerting but the bright red vintage airplane (circa 1965) has morphed into one of the world’s most unusual hotels. Tucked into Costa Verde’s rainforest canopy, overlooking a spectacular oceanfront, this luxurious spot is for those looking for a ‘lost’ experience. If both Boeing 727 suites are booked, get a fuselage fix at El Avion. Converted into a funky restaurant and bar, this is the CIA sister aircraft to the C-123 Provider shot down during the Iran-Contra affair in the 1980s.
Overnight in a Cave
Trekking to the Diamante Waterfalls is a play ‘n stay adventure bar none. Like many waterfalls in Costa Rica, they are on private property and a local guide is essential. Getting there is a strenuous three-hour hike up on loose gravel, slippery clay and earthen stairs so is not a trip for neophytes. On the way, learn about medicinal plants, snack on termites and enjoy a meal of sweet lemons, native bananas and a host of other jungle bounty. The star attraction lies behind twin 26-metre waterfalls. The cave is outfitted with a kitchen, elevated sleeping platforms and even bathrooms.
If you’re traveling to the Arenal Volcano area, the topiary gardens at Zarcero are a must-see stop. Look for the church — a Gothic Renaissance style gem in its own right and you’ll find greenery shaped into arches, animals, Christ on the cross, an ox-drawn cart, a monkey on a motorcycle and even a helicopter. All are the work of Evangelista Blanco Brenes as his gift to the town. The big white balls hanging from roadside stands and pulperias (small stores) are homemade cheeses, a specialty of the region, as are cajetas (caramel candy).
Accessible only by plane or boat, this beautiful island has the country’s most unique wildlife. It also has one of the world’s foremost turtle nesting beaches for the endangered green sea turtles as well as leatherback, loggerhead and hawksbill turtles. Since most arrive at night — and it’s an amazing spectacle to behold — beach access after 6 p.m. is only permitted with an official guide.Although you can see individual turtles year round, the green sea and hawksbill turtle’s nesting season runs July to October (peaking in August) and leatherback turtles nest from February to April.
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