The 7 Natural Wonders of Costa Rica
Costa Rica is a nature lovers paradise. This country features mountains, beaches, waterfalls, rainforest and volcanoes. In 2007 the people of Costa Rica voted in an open poll contest for the seven natural wonders of Costa Rica. These natural sites are among the most popular destinations by both foreign and domestic tourists, with the exception of Cocos Island, which it is not easily accessed, because it is located in the Pacific Ocean, approximately 550 km (340 mi) from the Pacific shore of Costa Rica.
The resulting list encompasses the full range of Costa Rica’s incredible geographic diversity: remote islands; mountains and volcanoes; untouched cloud forests; canals that slice through the rainforest; and a river so blue that friends will think you faked the pics. These seven treasures lie in all parts of the country’s terrain, meaning that travelers will find a wonder no matter where he travels.
These are the seven natural wonders of Costa Rica:
1. Cocos Island (Isla del Coco). The only UNESCO World Heritage Site on the list, Cocos Island National Park is not a slam dunk to reach but again, rewards those who can afford the trip with delicate and indelible beauty. More than 500 kilometres off the Pacific coast of mainland Costa Rica, the singularly exotic nature of the island’s ecology and climate makes it dissimilar from any other in the world. The underwater world of the national park has become famous due to the attraction it holds for divers, who rate it as one of the best places in the world to view large pelagic species such as sharks, rays, tuna and dolphins.
2. Arenal Volcano (Volcán Arenal). At 5,437 feet (1,657 m), the Arenal Volcano looms large and ominous over the pastured green hillsides that surround its base. This impressive volcano resides within the 29,960-acre Arenal Volcano National Park. Made up mostly of primary rainforest, the park encompasses four different life zones and harbors a tremendous amount of flora and fauna. In fact, nearly 75% of the total 850 species of birds that have been identified in Costa Rica can be found here.
Although the volcano entered into a resting phase in 2010 – meaning that its eruptions have paused – it is still a stunning sight. The immediate area hosts a wealth of activities – including whitewater rafting, waterfall rappelling, hiking and canopy tours – as well as the friendly town of La Fortuna.
3. Chirripo Mountain (Cerro Chirripó). While most of the Talamanca highlands are difficult to access, Costa Rica’s highest peak, Cerro Chirripó, at 3820 m above sea level, is the focus of popular Parque Nacional Chirripó. Climbing Chirripó is possible by obtaining a permit from the National Park office in San Gerardo de Rivas. From the trailhead, the summit can be reached via a 19.5-kilometre (12.1 mi) hike. It takes anywhere from between five and nine hours to climb to the lodge then another 45 minutes to an hour or so to reach the peak. The trip starts after Rivas, and during the climb you pass trough all the different climates of the country: rain forest, dry forest, open forest, coffe plantations and finally moors. It’s the only place in the country where you’ll see it. From the summit, it is possible on clear days to see all across the country from coast to coast, from the Pacific Ocean to the Caribbean Sea.
4. Celeste River (Río Celeste). Within the Tenorio Volcano National Park lies the main attraction of the Gatuso area: the Celeste River. A unique place of great natural beauty. Celeste River has its name due the color of its turquoise waters produced by a chemical reaction, where converge the rivers Buena Vista and Roble, which count with different chemical characteristics, creating the color. The Celeste River also borders several hot springs and has one large waterfall. It takes about an hour to hike to the waterfall from the park’s entrance.
The Indian Reservation, Maleku, is also located quite close to the park. Here one can learn about the unique Maleku culture, interact with its people, and experience a brief glimpse of their distinctive way of life.
5. Tortuguero Canals (Canales de Torguero). Another elusive but terrific wonder in Costa Rica, Tortuguero National Park is reachable only by air and sea. Located on Costa Rica’s Caribbean coast around 158 miles from the capital of San Jose, the Tortuguero Canals are an extensive system of natural waterways used for local transportation and jungle exploration. Traveling through the canals is a fascinating experience rich in wildlife that includes monkeys, sloths, iguanas, and colorful tropical birds in the trees or along the shores. Often one can encounter river turtles, caiman, and emerald-green basilisk lizards here too.
Many Costa Rica tour companies arrange day excursions tours from San Jose or your vacation resort on the Caribbean Coast. If you’re staying at a lodge in the Tortuguero National Park take advantage of the lodge’s canoes for a self-guided tour of the canals. Stick to the main and most-navigated canal as it is easy to become lost in the maze of smaller waterways. Alternatively, hire a guide (who will also paddle) from the ranger station in the National Park.
6. Poás Volcano (Volcán Poás). The volcanic lagoons, fumaroles and otherworldly Poas Volcano craters make it one of the country’s most popular national parks with more than 175,000 visitors every year. Approximately an hour drive from San Jose, Poas National Park is comprised of three craters and four major habitats: arrayans (wiry, wind-swept trees), cloud forest, stunted forest and barren scrub lands. Although its activity is considerably different than Arenal Volcano, Poás is another of Costa Rica’s most active volcanoes. The colorful summit craters comprise a popular attraction, and are accessible by vehicle. The 2,708 meter stratovolcano lies within two vast calderas. The southernmost of two summit crater lakes, Botos, is cold and clear, and last erupted about 7,500 years ago. The other is warm and acidic and has been the site of frequent eruptions since the first was reported in 1828. Eruptions often feature geyserlike ejections of lake water.
Several tour companies in San Jose offer excursions to the volcano. These often include stops at other area attractions such as coffee plantations or butterfly farms.
7. Monteverde Reserve (Reserva Monteverde). Roughly a four hour drive from the Central Valley, Monteverde is considered a major ecotourism destination in Costa Rica. Set atop the spine of Costa Rica’s continental divide, Monteverde is a world above the coastal towns that dot the country’s famous shoreline. It is a place of cloud forests and coffee plantations, monkeys, mist, and friendly locals. National Geographic has called the Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve “the jewel in the crown of cloud forest reserves” and Newsweek has declared Monteverde the world’s #14 Place to Remember Before it Disappears.
For visitors, there are a handful of ways to explore the reserve. First, you can take advantage of the network of trails in the reserve that stretch across 13 kilometers of the forest. The trails are well-maintained and perfect for day trips. Visitors also enjoy the scenic vistas from “La Ventana” overlook, boasting mountain peaks along the Continental Divide. Another great way to explore the forest is to take a skywalk or a zip-line tour or canopy tour, where visitors can experience the forest from a series of bridges and cables that offer a bird’s eye view of the forest. This tour is offered at a nearby forest and not in the actual reserve. With such a lofty altitude, this region is not for the faint-hearted.