Eco-tourism Advices: Visit Costa Rica’s Eco-paradise in Low-season

The Green Season in Costa Rica lasts from May to November, but not all months are created equal. The earlier ones are drier, the latter are rainier. The “Green Season” sounded like one of those marketing ploys to convince me to visit a place when I’d really rather not.

That’s what the tourism sites called this time of year in Costa Rica and, in my mind, it screamed “pouring rain”.

So days later, while standing on a stunning white-sand beach, neck high in the sun-baked waters off Manuel Antonio National Park – monkeys hooting in the distance – I knew I was dead wrong.

I was in an  with low-season crowds, and loving it.

We flew to and stayed overnight in the dusty capital, San Jose, then chose the grassroots option for escaping to the mountains: a public express bus – never again.

The Green Season in Costa Rica lasts from May to November, but not all months are created equal. The earlier ones are drier, the latter are rainier. We’d arrived for the former, and awoke in La Fortuna to – surprise – a sunny day.

As it was the Green Season, we’d easily secured a villa at our first pick, Arenal Green, a quiet, tropical tree-lined complex of seven wooden villas that offered volcano views, an easy walk to a popular waterfall and tasty Tico (‘‘local’’) breakfasts: fried eggs, sweet plantains, black beans and rice. The cost of such luxury? A low season $US50 a night.

From here, we hiked to the park entry of the 70m La Fortuna Waterfall where a 20-minute clamber down steep steps led us to the lush base of the battering falls.

The weather also co-operated at a memorable dinner with new-found friends at The Observatory restaurant, located in the only hotel allowed in the national park. The drive took nearly an hour up a dirt road, and peaked to awe-inspiring close-ups of the volcano.

Bum-jarring drive

Leaving La Fortuna, we headed for the cloud forests of Monteverde and Santa Elena. The area is among the country’s most eco-friendly, and thanks to its community-minded Quaker founders, has long stretches of dirt roads to keep tourists and development in check.

To shortcut the bum-jarring drive, we opted for the “jeep-boat-jeep” – really a van-boat-van – and cruised the small ferry across expansive Lake Arenal as we glided past forested coves.

We based ourselves at Claro de Luna in Santa Elena, a well-priced B&B resembling a ski chalet. Famished, we walked into town in search of one of the country’s famed ceviche.

Originally a Peruvian delicacy, Costa Ricans have adopted ceviche – raw fish “cooked” in lime juice – as their own, and we found a terrific example at a first-floor seafood eatery called El Marque’z, crafted with fresh tilapia and prawns.

Speaking with local residents, I discovered that the area is known as a cultural hotpot for food, music, organic coffee farming and ecotourism.

True to form, the next night, we stumbled upon our best meal in Costa Rica, at a Latin-American tapas restaurant called Chimera. We were served creative dishes such as coconut shrimp with mango-ginger sauce, a superb chicken tortilla soup, and plantain-encrusted sea bass.

Monteverde is the birthplace of canopy tours: barrelling down a skyhigh cable over the forest with a climbing harness as sole support. And while I wondered whether we’d regret it, we still chose Selvatura Park for its circuit of 15 zip lines, including the area’s longest – a 1.3km plunge.

We nervously approached the first lines, but with each success, our boldness grew. Then came the grand finale, with all of us paired in tandem because of higher winds.

The doubled weight set my partner and I plummeting along the line, the cable above wailing.

Stunning white-sand enclave

After days in the mountains we hankered for the beach, and everyone we spoke to praised Manuel Antonio.

To get there quickly, we hired a private shuttle and, hours later and one notable crossing of a crocodile-infested river, we arrived to find a beach jam-packed with bodies, touristy shops, loud music and backpackers looking to party.

It had the makings of a disaster (for us at least), but then we discovered the gentler side of Manuel Antonio.

It began with a walk through the lush, 1600ha national park, where seeking out hundreds of mammals, reptiles and exotic birds is the primary pursuit.

We spotted three-toed sloths, ghost crabs and iguanas and then cut through the forest to the main beach, a stunning white-sand enclave.

We swam and relaxed until the sun set, upon which capuchin monkeys marched and leapt across palm trees like a 5pm work commute.

The next day, Manuel Antonio turned from a club-kid haven into an intimate resort. It came from an unexpected boon – the park closes on Mondays and the tourist throngs

We also discovered the relaxed part of town, far uphill from the beach, and it was there we sipped coconut-laced rum cocktails and watched passing showers from El Avion, a clifftop bar built around a C-123 cargo plane once intended for the Iran- Contra affair.

Still seeking a near-empty beach, we ended the trip by doing something we had been warned against due to poor roads and death-wish drivers. We rented a car.

We headed south along rattling, unpaved roads past sugarcane plantations, tractors and U-shaped villages built around soccer fields.

Then abruptly, after 90 minutes of pothole swerving, the road turned smooth-as-silk, and we quickly reached the small village of Uvita and an undeveloped Pacific coastline with few beach-goers.

The waves were ours, and it proved yet again that preconceptions about Costa Rica – whether they be driving, food or the Green Season – are easily dashed and unexpectedly enjoyed.

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