Fly to San Jose.
After an early start we head northeast out of San José, driving first through coffee plantations, with fine views of some of Costa Rica's volcanoes. Soon we ascend into the tropical cloud forest and begin to appreciate some of the amazing bio-diversity; giant gunnera, busy lizzies and orchids grow around us. We descend towards the warm and humid coast and join our motor launch for the scenic 2-hour boat trip along canals rich in wildlife to bring us to our lodge in Tortuguero. We normally stay at Laguna Lodge, a small cosy lodge with 12 acres of forest gardens, where you can experience being inside primary rainforest. This area can only be reached by boat or light aircraft so the way of life of this beautiful spot remains remarkably unspoilt, without car pollution or noise! The total travelling time today is around 6 hours.
In the morning, after a short orientation boat trip we can go for a pleasant walk in the surrounding area of Tortuguero Hill. In the afternoon, visit to the 'Caribbean Conservation Corporation' museum (at the entrance you will be asked for a donation) and Tortuguero village, which lies in the north-eastern corner of the park, on a thin strip of land between the sea and the main canal. After lunch, a fascinating boat trip along some of the canals and swamps gives us the opportunity to see monkeys, caiman, iguanas, turtles, butterflies and many of the 309 bird species recorded here. Tortuguero is probably most famous as a hatching ground for Atlantic green turtles, which, subject to permission, can be seen laying their eggs from late July to early September.
A boat takes us back to our bus and we drive northwest through an area of banana plantations to stay in our lodge near the immense Arenal Volcano. The drive is spectacular, passing pineapple and sugar cane plantations. Since a massive explosion in 1968 the volcano is active almost every day and if the weather is clear we should have some spectacular views from our lodge. Apart from the volcano, this region has much to offer, including thermal waters, waterfalls, dense vegetation, and the Cano Negro Wildlife Reserve. Optional night excursions are available today or tomorrow to the hot springs, and there is also a 'Sky Tram' or cable car through the rainforest which offers great views of the volcano. Travelling time today is about 6.5 hours.
We take a morning trip to La Fortuna Waterfall. This is a steep 20-minute climb down (and back up) through jungle, but well within the capabilities of any able bodied person, with some lovely pools to swim in. The plant and insect life here is of particular interest. After lunch we have an optional short scenic hike to the lava fields of the Arenal Volcano, a fantastic moon-like landscape. The volcano has a classic conical shape, grey on one side and green on the other, and it has several fumaroles that spit out steam and red-hot lava.
This morning we transfer to the Tilaran Mountain Range with breathtaking views of the Gulf of Nicoya and the islands below as we ascend the hills to Monteverde and Santa Elena. The road (which is bumpy and can be in poor condition following rains) climbs to this forest-covered region whose name literally means 'Green Mountain'. Today's drive is about 4 hours, on bumpy dirt roads.
Today we visit the Santa Elena Cloud Forest Reserve, world-famous for its biodiversity. The reserve is the perfect place to take an unforgettable walk in the clouds and is ideal for bird watching and hiking. Santa Elena is one of the first community-managed reserves in Costa Rica and is administered by the Santa Elena High School. It is dedicated to conservation and also to the improvement of local standards of education. On clear days we may also enjoy spectacular views of the Arenal Volcano. The afternoon is free for optional excursions.
We travel southeast along the coast, following the Pan American Highway and passing plantations of African oil palms and teak. The drive takes around 5 hours. We spend 3 nights at Manuel Antonio, a beautiful spot; the forest here comes right down to the sea, and iguanas and white-faced monkeys can often be seen on the beach. We stay at Hotel Playa Espadilla, located just 150 metres from the main entrance to the Manuel Antonio National Park and 75 metres from the beach of Playa Espadilla. If you feel like relaxing, a cocktail at the poolside bar is highly recommended!
This morning we have a guided tour of the Parque Nacional Manuel Antonio. This is a little gem of a park, with a combination of tropical beaches, jungle and dramatic rocky headlands. The wildlife abounds and you are most likely to see monkeys (white-faced, squirrel and howler), iguana, sloths and agouti. The beaches here (in the National Park, not out) are considered to be some of the most beautiful beaches in the country; we have the afternoon free to enjoy them.
Today has been left free for us to relax on the beaches of the central Pacific coast, or to take optional tours. There are plenty of activities on offer, from exhilarating canopy tours in the coastal rainforest to kayaking through mangroves and snorkelling cruises (note: snorkelling is best in the dry season, as rains in the wet season lead to high sediment levels in the water).
We continue on south again, towards Golfito ('little gulf'), passing through more oil palm and coffee plantations. The 4 hour drive takes us to a relatively wild and undiscovered region, not seen by many visitors, and the dense jungle has been hardly explored or researched. We stay for the next two nights in the beautiful Esquinas Rainforest Lodge set in the heart of primary rainforest and bordered by the newly created Piedras Blancas National Park and Golfito Nature Reserve. The lodge is financed by the government of Austria as a project combining forest research, development aid and nature conservation. In the afternoon we can explore some of our fascinating surroundings, the bird and insect life here is particularly abundant.
We head back northwest, passing through San Isidro and then up and over the Cerro de la Muerte (Mountain of Death)! The driving time is around 4.5 hours. We stay up in the cloud forest and our lodge (Savegre Lodge) is said to be the best place in the whole of Costa Rica to see the beautiful Quetzal, Costa Rica's notoriously shy national bird. There are many other interesting species of wildlife to be seen and these are very different from those seen in the last few days down in the rainforest.