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Costa Rica: Go Your Own Way

Go your own way to Costa Rica, says Flight Centre’s Tess Watkins, who hired a 4X4 for this independent adventure.

The car hugs the coastline as we wind our way along the open road. Every now and then, I catch a teasing glimpse of the cobalt-blue Pacific through the dense rainforest. The sun is just coming up, bathing everything in an orange glow. 

Manuel Antonio National Park

Locals say Manuel Antonio is one of the best places to spot a sloth in the wild; I amble along the jungle trails, passing monkeys and raccoons, with my fingers tightly crossed. The locals aren’t wrong. I stop in my tracks, and it fixes me with an upside-down stare as I gaze up into the trees. Then, oh-so-slowly, the three-toed sloth turns its seemingly smiling furry face back to the task at hand: lazily moving its arm from one branch to another.

One of the things I love about independent travel is being able to stop wherever we want. Heading south towards the Osa Peninsula in our trusty 4X4, we pass some of the most spectacular scenery imaginable. 

A magnificent emerald lake sparkles in the beaming sun – pulling over, we discover we’re the only people here. The roads are lined with bright-pink bougainvillea, abundant foliage surrounds shimmering lakes, incredible rainforests are alive with birds of every colour… This is one of the most biodiverse regions in the world, but hard to visit unless you’re travelling under your own steam, as many tours simply don’t venture this far.

Wildlife watching in Corcovado National Park

We jump in waterfalls hidden deep in the jungle, feast on some of the freshest fish I’ve ever tasted and stay in the Danta Corcovado eco-lodge enveloped by jungle. Woken by the golden sunrise each day, I sit in the hammock on the balcony and listen to the rainforest come alive – the long whistles of the birds, the soft croak of the tree frogs and the high-pitched calls of the monkeys. One morning, we hop on a tractor and set out into Corcovado National Park. In just half an hour, I spot white-faced monkeys, a scarlet macaw and a toucan, its brilliant yellow beak unmissable against the greenery – and our ranger unearths tracks of the elusive jaguar.

Montezuma dolphin watching

Back in Manuel Antonio, we ditch the 4X4 then head to Jaco to board a speedboat to Montezuma, on the Nicoya Peninsula. After 20 minutes the engine cuts out and we bob silently in the water. Suddenly, a dolphin soars through the air right next to me, landing with a huge splash. Before I have time to grab my camera, an entire school appears, swimming around us inquisitively then leaping back through the waves out of sight. 

Santa Teresa beaches

From Montezuma, a 50-minute drive takes us to Santa Teresa. Known for its sugar sands, jaw-dropping sunsets and neat swells for surfers, its laid-back vibe is instantly captivating. We kick off our shoes and sink our toes into the sand, ready to spend our days taking sunrise yoga classes and riding the waves. There’s no need for your own wheels here – everything is within walking distance, and the main street is lined with surf shops, beach bars and restaurants serving up dishes from across the globe. 

But the best meal I have is conjured up by a local fisherman, in the middle of the ocean. We’re on a snorkelling trip when his sun-faded rowing boat approaches, and he begins preparing fresh oysters and scallops alongside us. Served in their shells, I enjoy mine with a squeeze of lemon juice, as zingy as the sun above us, before diving into the ocean for a swim.

Explore Costa Rica on one of our group tours, or chat to a Travel Expert about tailor making your own Journey.

Written by Tessa Watkins

Formerly a local news editor and reporter covering court cases and crime stories, I’m obsessed with all things travel. Often found exploring a new city and seeking out the world’s best beaches, there are a plethora of destinations I remain desperate to discover. Tweet me @tess1977