The perfect trip: Costa Rica
The white-sand beach at Playa Carrillo is one of the highlights of Costa Rica's Pacific coast, and feels refreshingly low-key. (Jonathan Gregson)
Tucked into the narrow Central American isthmus, Costa Rica may look small, but it conceals mysterious cloud forests, quiet beaches and extraordinary wildlife.
Puerto Viejo de Talamanca: Best for food
In a bright kitchen, Elena Brown flits between a pan, where strips of yellow plantain hiss, and a potful of bubbling sauce. Elena has spent much of her life practising the traditional cooking of the Caribbean. ‘My mum had 14 children,’ she says with a toothy grin. ‘So everybody had to take a turn.’ These days she cooks at her namesake restaurant in the seaside village of Puerto Viejo de Talamanca.
For generations, Costa Rica’s Caribbean coast has brought together English speaking settlers from Jamaica, indigenous groups from the Talamanca Mountains and Spanish creoles living in the country since Christopher Columbus dropped anchor nearby in 1502. By the 20th century, the area had developed a distinct culture: locals spoke Mekatelyu, a rapid-fire Creole dialect based on West Indian English, Calypso musicians penned ballads about banana companies and malevolent women, and the fusion of people and ingredients turned food into one of the area’s enduring symbols.
The cuisine mixes island spice with Central American heartiness. One of the most beloved dishes is the steamy soup rondón, an exquisite coconut milk concoction studded with cassava, green bananas, fish and shrimp, and laced with blazing Scotch bonnet chilli peppers.
Puerto Viejo has grown into a popular seaside destination, but the area holds on to its roots. Radio sets play contemporary calypso songs, local smallholders farm cacao (cocoa) and – on a wooden terrace fringed with hot-pink tropical flowers – Elena serves up the recipes her mother taught her, plus a few others picked up along the way. ‘I love it when people eat my food,’ she says. ‘When people come, they aren’t just eating. They’re tasting the Caribbean.’
Artisanal fishing trips and tours to cacao farms are available from ateccr.org (half-day tours from £25).
Where to eat
Grab a table at Restaurante Elena Brown, on the eastern road out of town (dishes from £5).
Where to stay
Located four miles east of Puerto Viejo in Playa Chiquita, intimate Namuwoki Lodge has eight whitewashed bungalows accented in tropical hardwoods and cosy outdoor sitting areas. There is also a swimming pool for lounging by, a whirlpool bath and a restaurant that serves excellent grilled seafood (from £75).
La Fortuna: Best for adventure
For centuries, no-one in La Fortuna knew that a volcano loomed over their town. Its last major eruption occurred around 1400, and it had then fallen into a long, deep sleep. By the time the 20th century arrived, the farmers who lived in the area referred to the towering peak simply as Cerro Arenal – Arenal Hill. The misnomer didn’t become apparent until the 1960s, when the ‘hill’ suddenly rumbled into life. Its name has since been upgraded to Volcán Arenal.
Sergio Rodríguez, a naturalist guide who grew up in the region and has lived in La Fortuna for the past 12 years, has studied the volcano and climbed it hundreds of times. The eruptions, he says, can feel otherworldly – ‘like an earthquake followed by the sound of someone turning on the world’s biggest transformer’. As he makes his way through the scrub, he tells Arenal’s story. La Fortuna sits in the foothills of the Tilarán Mountains and, for much of the 20th century, it was known as a cattle-ranching hub. Yet when Arenal began putting on its regular pyrotechnic displays in the late 1960s, the area drew the attention of international volcanologists as well as thrill-seeking travellers.