A mish mash of mountains and mangroves, volcanos, jungles, national parks, cloud forests, black sand beaches and white sand coastlines - here's the towns to visit if you like to stay active while you're away.
“This isn’t a holiday, it’s b***** bootcamp.” Ahhhh, the love between sisters. Before we start, I can categorically confirm that our trip to Costa Rica was nothing like a bootcamp, but to be fair to her, it was 6am and I was dragging her out of bed to head off on our third hike of the week. Five years ago, I’d have been on her side, but today being up and moving is the most exciting part of any trip.
A mish mash of mountains and mangroves, volcanos, jungles, national parks, cloud forests, black sand beaches and white sand coastlines, the country is a veritable playground for anyone interested in the natural world. It is also – as I was to discover – paradise for someone whose idea of a holiday is all hikes, hill runs, hot springs and surfing. So where to visit in Costa Rica if you like to stay active while you're away?
La Fortuna: Thermal Springs and Volcano Clambering
La Fortuna, approximately four hours from San José, is the gateway to Arenal Volcano National Park, home to the Arenal volcano which towers above the town. Access to the summit was closed a few years ago – it’s one of central America’s most active volcanos – but even a morning spent clambering through the lava fields and fertile green-lands below worked up enough of a sweat in itself.
This entire area is awash with hot springs, ideal for a little recovery time, so we later headed to Rio Tabacón, a thermal bath perched under jungle canopy (and a graffiti-laden overpass) and popular with local families. If a life of luxury is more your style, the nearby Arenal Springs spa resort – which features a volcano-framed hot tub and is frequented by the Kardashians – gets great reviews.
Top tip: Volcanoes, especially in tropical countries, are notoriously warm. Take Water. We didn’t. She swore at me. A lot.
Monteverde: Treetop Yoga and (More) Hiking
After the heat of La Fortuna, a few days enjoying some fresh air in the relative cool of the town of Monteverde was a welcome relief. In fact, for a city-dweller like me, spending a day walking through rainforest canopies at the Monteverde Cloud Forest, which is home to over 2500 species of plant, felt a little bit like the lung-equivalent of a turbo-washing your drive.
However, a visit to Monteverde is also likely to bring other benefits, with studies showing that spending even just a few days surrounded by forests – also known as forest bathing or Shinrin-yoku – can bring about benefits including lowering cortisol levels, blood pressure and pulse rates (1). Alternatively, you could fly through the canopies on a zip line tour, with many providers operating in this area.
Continuing the wellness theme, many hotels and hostels in this area offer yoga classes for an additional fee. And let’s face it: ‘did yoga in among a rainforest canopy’ is not an experience you’re going to have every day.
Top tip: Get up early and visit the cloud forest early in the morning, before the rain sets in and jet-cleans your entire body.
Manuel Antonio: Spot Wildlife and Rack Those Steps Up
Every holiday deserves a bit of relaxing beach time, but the best way to earn it might just be with a sweaty walk through Manuel Antonio National Park, commoly regarded as one of Costa Rica's most beautiful spots.
Boasting trails of varing lengths, with the two main routes totalling 3.5km plus a number of shorter offshoots, it takes far longer than you'd normally expect to walk this distance, filled as it is with sloths, iguanas, toucans and snakes, just some of its roughly 300 species of wildlife.
The best bit? You won’t have to actually leave the park to enjoy a dip– the national park includes three pristine white-sand, green-sea beaches, also inhabited by the wildlife.
Puerto Viejo Surf and Cycling
Contradictory as it may seem, laid-back Puerto Viejo is the star of the show if you're looking for an active holiday. Most famous for being home to the notorious Salsa Brava reef break, but boasting beginner-friendly surf sports too, it also has even more national parks within easy reach.
For cycling fans, a 14km road straight from the village takes you along the coast, stopping off at various beaches ideal for swimming, snorkelling and surfing, and is mostly flat, although there’s one relatively tame hill climb, which I’m afraid to say did seem much harder in 30-degree heat. Nonetheless, this one was a winner even for my bike-shy sister.
Elsewhere, 7am runs suddenly seemed like an absolute treat – running between bushes and jumping logs along the coast path to Playa Cocles made me feel like Super Mario, and jogging down the beach is a true test for the legs. For those really committed to maintaining the gym-based workout, there’s even the Caribbean Fitness Centre complete with TRXs, free weights and a mat area.
Top tip: Refuel at The Bakery, where you’ll find the best pan au chocolat outside of France, as well as dishes such as huevos rancheros – eggs, spicy tomato stew and avocado – and granola bowls.