Tucked into the narrow Central American isthmus, Costa Rica may look small, but it conceals mysterious cloud forests, quiet beaches and extraordinary wildlife.

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.’

Further information
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.

Seeing lava flows today depends on the volcano’s daily moods, and a lack of clouds around the summit. However, Arenal’s activities have also turned La Fortuna into a centre for outdoor adventure, with trails that range from wheelchair friendly to a four-hour hike up to the crater lake of Arenal’s dormant neighbour, Volcán Chato. To the east, the churning rapids of the Balsa and Toro Rivers deliver heartpumping white-water rafting. To the south, in a narrow mountain canyon, hikers abseil down cliffs and waterfalls, and to the west, visitors soak away aches and pains earned in more energetic pursuits in a series of steamy hot springs.

Standing at the edge of ‘El Salto’ – a deep natural swimming hole on the southern edge of the village – Sergio says the area was attracting local explorers back in the early 1900s, when people came to scale the steep Arenal and camp in the warm, plant-filled crater at the top. ‘Some folks used to call it the Cerro de Los Arrepentidos – the Mountain of Regret,’ says the gregarious Sergio with a chuckle, ‘because so many people who started the climb would regret it about halfway up and then just walk back down.’ In recent years, the volcano has mostly become quieter. The last significant flare-ups were in the 1990s, but traces of the behemoth’s blistering past can still be found all over Parque Nacional Volcán Arenal, where short trails wind through lava fields studded with coal-coloured igneous rocks. Today walkers are obliged to stop well before the summit, because occasionally – just when all is quiet – Arenal groans and rumbles to remind her visitors that she is merely taking a nap.

Further information
For guided adventures, see desafiocostarica.com.

Where to eat
This is cattle country, so you can’t go wrong with the delicious grilled steak at Don Rufino (steaks from £15).

Where to stay
Four miles west of town and surrounded by tropical rainforest, each of the 50 woodlined casitas (little houses) at the tranquil hillside retreat Nayara Hotel, Spa & Gardens comes with a volcano view. The resort also has a restaurant, pool and a spa with an open-air treatment room overlooking the forest (from £180).

Monteverde: Best for forest walks
‘The cloud forest is an interminable source of surprises,’ says Eduardo Venegas Castro as he walks beneath the trees. He has spent most of his adult life in Monteverde, having served as a director of two of the area’s most prominent cloud forest parks. Today he leads hikes around the mountains, armed with a spotting scope, a camera, binoculars and a small birdwatcher’s book.

Straddling the continental divide, the Monteverde area is a conservation zone preserving cloud forests where evergreen vines and lichens cling to every available surface, and jewel-coloured quetzals and hummingbirds flit between the trees. Hiking through the Santa Elena Cloud Forest Reserve, it is easy to understand Eduardo’s sense of mystery. Sitting at more than 1,650m above sea level, the reserve marinates in near-constant cloud cover. Moody light conditions are accompanied by a running soundtrack of drips and trickles, occasionally punctuated by the startling, synthesizer-like cry of the three-wattled bellbird.

The vegetation seems intent on covering everything in sight: massive plants sprout leaves the size of patio umbrellas and the vines of the strangler fig curl around wild avocado trees. Everywhere there are bright bursts of orchids, some of them no bigger than the head of a pin. Santa Elena is home to roughly 600 of Costa Rica’s 1,400 or more orchid species. Eduardo smiles as he looks out into the trees where a curling mass of green disappears into the mist. The forest does not reveal its secrets easily.

Further information
Half-day tours are available from flordelistours. com (from £30 per person, including park fees).

Where to eat
On the road to Monteverde, cosy Chimera serves excellent tapas (from £3; 00 506 2645 6081).

Where to stay
On the site of a former cattle ranch, the large, ski chalet-style hotel  El Establo has 155 spacious wood-and-stone rooms, each with a balcony or terrace. It’s possible to see all the way to the coast on a clear day, and the heated hilltop pool is ideal for a sunset dip (from £140).

Nosara: Best for beaches
The road to Nosara is a bouncy one. A shaded, dirt lane crawls between rice plantations and herds of Brahman cows before it takes up its course alongside the gleaming Pacific. Here, an endless expanse of white sand and body-temperature water is fringed by sea grape trees and capped on either end by a rocky point. ‘It’s a simple life,’ says Nosara native Juan, nicknamed ‘Surfo’ locally to differentiate him from all the other men named Juan. With his sun-bleached hair and deep tan, he looks like an extra in a Californian surf flick. ‘You can run around without shoes or a shirt. It’s very informal.’

There are countless seaside communities in Costa Rica, but few that have retained their character like Nosara, which sits in the middle of the Nicoya peninsula’s long, craggy coast. Though the area has grown more popular in the past couple of decades, strong development laws keep Nosara decidedly low-key: construction isn’t allowed along the shoreline, which means that the sand is backed by vegetation, not blocky resort hotels. The few businesses are independent and scattered around the forest – like Juan’s surf shop and school, which lies on a narrow, tree-lined lane about 100 metres from the beach.

Juan is a surf addict who has taught people of all ages how to ride boards – from three-year-old tots to their grandparents. ‘This beach isn’t just for one type of person. It’s for everybody.’ He points out how the long beach break makes it ideal for all beachgoers, providing three different kinds of wave. Upfront – popular with scampering children, local mutts and paddling grown-ups clutching cocktails – a set of baby breakers spill out onto the sand. In the middle, novice surfers and boogie boarders attempt to catch their first rides. Out in the deep water, advanced surfers bob around on the swell, lying in wait for the perfect curl.

Other nearby beaches offer different incentives to explore. A few miles to the north is Ostional, a protected nesting site for olive ridley sea turtles, which arrive in their hundreds every full moon. Immediately to the south is Playa Garza, a wide bay with gentle waves, where local fishermen can still be found on the beach tending to their nets.

Even further south along the coast are the adjacent beaches of Carrillo and Sámara, both lined with swaying palms. The latter bustles with village life, including some excellent beachside grills. Still, it can be difficult to peel away from Nosara’s perfect warm waters and glistening white sands fringed with green forest. ‘This is as a beach should be,’ Surfo says. ‘It’s a place where you can always feel the nature all around you.’

Further Information
Surf lessons and board rentals can be found at surfocostarica.com (lessons from £30).

Where to Eat
Giardino Tropicale
, on the main road in Nosara, offers an Italian-inspired menu of brick-oven-cooked pizzas, pasta dishes and salads, plus a daily selection of seafood (pizzas from £6).

Where to stay
Located off the main road, the dramatic 35-room inn L’Ac qua Viva Resort & Spa takes its design cues from the soaring lines of Balinese architecture. Decorative touches include wood floors, bamboo doors, roomy sandstone bathrooms and bright textiles (from £130).

Osa Peninsula: Best for wildlife
In the spring of 1579, Francis Drake landed on the shores of Costa Rica’s Osa peninsula. He needed a protected spot to make repairs to his ship without drawing the attention of the Spanish fleet, having recently relieved a galleon of its treasure. Here, he found just what he was looking for: a chain of isolated bays fronted by a vast tangle of rainforest. As well as providing an excellent place to hide, it had plenty of wildlife. In his journals, he records great quantities of fish, ‘alargartoes’, and ‘munckeyes’ – fish, crocodiles and monkeys are still to be found here. The views that Drake admired from his ship the Golden Hind have changed little.

The coast remains a riot of steamy rainforest, and the main way of getting around Bahía Drake – the minute Osa settlement named for the swashbuckler – is still by boat or foot. The peninsula now contains the last remaining strand of coastal Pacific rainforest in Central America, protecting the habitats of elusive jungle species such as the jaguar and puma, not to mention a roll call of other exotic characters – from squirrel monkeys and sloths to silky anteaters and poison-dart frogs.

‘You’ll see animals here that you simply can’t find anywhere else,’ says Orgel Chavarría, who was raised on the Osa. He now helps run the westernmost ranger station of the Corcovado National Park at San Pedrillo, where leggy herons patrol a tidal pool out the front. ‘This is a treasure.’

A web of footpaths connects one end of Corcovado to the other, through a carpet of lowland rainforest and past estuaries where Drake’s ‘alargartoes’ sleep off their lunch. In the upper reaches of the forest canopy, clusters of macaws cackle loudly.

Spotting some of the jungle’s shyer creatures requires patience – slaty-tailed trogon birds blend into the tangle of tree branches, and gangs of croaking frogs come out only at night. ‘This is not a zoo,’ says Orgel with a gentle smile. ‘The animals are constantly on the move. You’ll see them, but you have to be quiet and be willing to wait. Sometimes, nature decides when she is ready to come to you.’

Where to eat and stay
Set on a reserve bordering the National Park, Casa Corcovado has bright bungalows with screened-in porches, two bars, several swimming pools and a dining hall serving local specialities. Rates include meals and a guided hike (three-night packages from £500 per person)

The article 'The perfect trip: Costa Rica' was published in partnership with Lonely Planet Magazine.