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Costa Rica: In Pursuit of Happiness

According to the 2016 Happy Planet Index, Costa Rica is the most satisfying place to live in the world. Maybe it’s got something to do with the abundance of wildlife or the hidden waterfalls, its biodiversity or perhaps it’s the world-renowned coffee. Here's why you should consider Costa Rica for your next holiday.

I woke to the sonorous roar of howler monkeys and a chorus of unidentified chirrups, whoops and caws. Squabbling squirrel monkeys swung past my terrace, a pair of jewel-coloured scarlet macaws preened each other, while giant iguanas sunned themselves on tree trunks. It was just a typical morning in Costa Rica – no wonder the Ticos’ refrain is pura vida, or pure life.

From lush rainforests to dramatic peaks and pristine beaches, the country is a nature lover’s paradise and new direct flights from London are making travel to Costa Rica easier than ever. With over a quarter of its land protected by national parks and reserves, it’s home to an astonishing array of wildlife, including humpback whales, sea turtles and four species of monkey, all in an area around two-thirds the size of Scotland. 

And you don’t have to sacrifice luxury to go green while travelling in Costa Rica, with a host of stylish, eco-conscious hotels opening up. My first base was Hacienda AltaGracia, a new rustic-luxe retreat from Auberge Resorts, tucked away in vast estate among the gorgeous greenery of Pérez Zeledón’s mountains, just a three-and-half-hour drive south from the capital San José, or a short flight to its private airstrip. 

Its 50 secluded casitas are decorated in earth tones, warm woods and local art that echoes the serene setting. And they all come with picture windows to frame the endless views over stunning green peaks, terraces perfect for sipping a sunset Daiquiri and log fires to ward off the evening chill. 

After waking up and smelling the organic coffee on my sun-filled deck – along with gallo pinto, the hearty Costa Rican breakfast of rice, beans, eggs and tangy salsa, washed down with fresh pineapple juice – the only dilemma was how to spend my day. 

Should I saddle up one of the handsome horses – there’s a steed to suit every rider, from beginners to accomplished equestrians – hike or bike along scenic mountain trails, or simply swing in a palapa-shaded hammock, wallow in a hot tub and lounge by the infinity pool that seems to pour down the forest-clad slopes? You can even take an ultra-light flight, gliding low over impressive waterfalls or pods of whales in season.

I chose to visit the award-winning El Cedral coffee finca, to see how the beans are picked, dried and roasted, before going back to nature in style with a pampering bamboo therapy massage at the enormous wood-scented spa. 

There was no shortage of dining options either. I could feast on local flavours at El Bistro, or fine-dining fusion at Ambar – perhaps roasted beef tenderloin with green plantain ragout – followed by a creative cocktail at clubby La Cantina. 

From mountains to coast in pursuit of happiness (and points of interest). My next stop was the Arenas del Mar resort, sitting on a cliff top surrounded by lush, tropical forest overlooking a glorious sweep of sand and the glittering Pacific, where iguanas sunbathed by the pool and monkeys chattered in the trees. 

It’s a hop, skip and a jump from Manuel Antonio, the country’s smallest, and one of its most popular, national parks. Fronted by spectacular beaches and backed by dense rainforest, it’s one of the easiest places to spot wildlife.

I was met at the entrance by a black spiny-tailed iguana and along the trail, my sharp-eyed guide spotted a cyanide-oozing millipede that smelt faintly of almonds, glass frog eggs attached to the underside of a leaf and a perfectly camouflaged Jesus Christ Lizard – so called because they can walk on water – basking on a log.

I didn’t need him to point out a boisterous posse of squirrel monkeys as they scampered from tree to tree, or the bad boy white-faced capuchin monkey that bared its fangs at the strange creatures staring up at it. But I was amazed when, what I thought was a shadow, turned out to be a three-toed sloth slumbering in its twig bed. 

There was almost no need to leave the resort, as everything dropped by. Walking through the grounds, I came across an impossibly cute baby sloth dangling lazily from a branch, a pair of nuzzling toucans and a miniature but noisy, primary-coloured red-eyed tree frog. 

I strolled along the sand, as novice surfers wavered unsteadily on their boards. Then down to the resort’s tranquil private beach for a leisurely lunch of just-caught fish, washed down with an ice-cold beer, watching brown pelicans dive for their own lunch. 

If you’re not content with wildlife spotting or chilling on boundless beaches, Costa Rica has no shortage of adrenaline-inducing adventures, including white-water rafting, scaling volcanoes and zip lines that’ll send you speeding – and squealing – over the jungle canopy.

The adults-only Nayara Springs is one of the most luxurious boutique hotels in the country. It’s surrounded by barely tamed jungle, filled with vibrant tropical blooms and exotic birds, and overlooks Arenal Volcano that rises out of the rainforest and into the clouds, looming over the town of La Fortuna.

My intimate villa boasted a four-poster bed, hand-carved wooden furniture, sparkling chandeliers, and I could shower inside or out. Best of all was my wraparound terrace, where I could flit from daybed to hammock and jump into the pool fed by thermal, mineral-rich waters.

I lunched at Asia Luna, a brightly coloured Asian-Peruvian fusion restaurant, trying out marlin and shitake gyoza and grilled yellow fin tuna, as well as the creative signature cocktail made with mango, ginger, lemongrass and the national tipple guaro, or sugarcane rum.

Then I worked off the gastronomic delights with a hike up Arenal. One of the country’s most active volcanoes, it hasn’t erupted since 1968 but until recently it let off atmospheric plumes of smoke and red-hot lava, and the trail wound over black lava fields dotted with bright green lichen, for the closest possible view of its perfect cone. Later, I headed to the spa to be slathered, appropriately, in mineral-rich volcanic mud. 

I began my evening at the Nostalgia wine bar, with tapas and a choice of 24 fine wines by the glass. Then on to Amor Loco, the flagship restaurant with a Moorish feel and a Mediterranean-influenced menu that makes the most of local, seasonal ingredients, in dishes such as hearts of palm salad and a succulent filet mignon. 

Later, I sat on my terrace under a star-studded sky and listened to the rustle and hum of the jungle. I’d found my pura vida. 

The Ultimate Travel Company (020 3051 8098, www.theultimatetravelcompany.co.uk) can tailor-make a 10-day trip to Costa Rica from £3,875 per person, including three nights at Hacienda AltaGracia, three nights at Arenas del Mar, two nights in a deluxe casita at Nayara Springs and a night at Hotel Grano de Oro, two private air charters, private transfers and direct flights to San José with British Airways.