Central America is one of the most unique regions in the world. Any visit reveals a compelling blend of Mesoamerican cultures, Spanish colonialism and a lush, untouched wilderness where you can experience mountain rainforests and coastal splendour in the same day.
For its welcoming spirit and passion in preserving its natural world, Costa Rica stands out. And its cousin to the north, Guatemala, shares an equal passion in keeping colourful Mayan traditions alive.
COSTA RICA: The Greenest Country on Earth
The Happy Planet Index, a measure devised by the new Economics Foundation, calls Costa Rica the greenest country on Earth. Little wonder: its varied terrain is blanketed in lush rainforest, towering mountains, sizzling volcanoes and pristine plains and coastlines. This small country (just a quarter of a percent of the earth’s surface) boasts a full 5% of the planet’s biodiversity. This is not a natural phenomenon alone; it is the result of the efforts of local ticos to keep their country unspoiled. Consider that 25% of Costa Rica’s land is protected as national parks and conservation areas and you’ll quickly understand why this tiny country is indeed a model for a happy planet. And Gate 1 Travel introduces you to its most magnificently preserved corners.
San Jose: Gateway to Breathtaking Beauty
Journeys in Costa Rica begin in San Jose, the capital built by coffee barons. As their wealth grew, they imported the talent of European architects and artisans to create a graceful cityscape of plazas and stately buildings. Affectionately called “Chepe” by locals (after the nickname for “Jose”), San Jose boasts a lovely mountain setting. La Sabana Park makes for delightful strolls along green pathways. The city’s finest historic buildings are the National Museum, housed in a butter-yellow 19th-century fortress, and the neo-baroque National Theatre.
Into the Highlands: A Magical Forest and a Soaring Volcano
North of San Jose, emerald hillsides undulate over soaring mountains and fertile plateaus fed by rivers and streams. Living is simple here, as a stop in the village of Sarchi shows. In this artisan town set among coffee fields, workshops produce wooden furniture and ox carts (carretas) painted with colourful floral scenes or geometric designs. Sarchi’s pastel-hued church in the town square is a sight to behold.
In these highlands, it’s easy to get a sense of how fully Costa Ricans respect their land. Endless sugarcane nurtured by rich volcanic soil covers the countryside as farmers tend their fields. The pace is slow and patient and tuned to the cycle of crops. And in the Monteverde Cloud Forest, a soft mist casts a mystical aura. These hills are often engulfed in clouds, the result of humid trade winds rolling up from the Caribbean Sea. The moisture supports a huge array of flora – more than 3,000 species – and more than 500 species of birds, including the elusive resplendent quetzal. Over 130 mammals, like the booming howler monkey, also roam the forest. We stop at a local finca, or coffee farm, to meet a farmer who makes a living from the ubiquitous bean that’s so central to Costa Rica’s economy. Optional walkway tours amidst the forest canopy and along hanging bridges let you peer into a world you never knew existed – the thriving life in the treetops.
North of Monteverde, a wonderland of lakes, forests, thermal-fed springs, and lunar landscapes awaits in the beautiful Arenal region. This outdoor lover’s paradise has been sculpted over thousands of years by the Arenal Volcano, whose towering conical form stands watch over the eponymous lake, dense forest and lava-strewn terrain. Hiking opportunities abound here, and Gate 1 travellers can explore along the Las Coladas trail, whose route snakes around the volcano’s base and passes otherworldly lava flows from past eruptions. You’ll also have the option to soak in some of the region’s famed hot springs and explore the shores of Lake Arenal on a boat tour.
Comb Costa Rica’s Caribbean & Pacific Coasts
Some of the most rewarding explorations of Costa Rica’s natural world unfold closer to its coasts. This is certainly true in Tortuguero National Park on the Caribbean Sea. The park was established to protect the nesting ground of the green turtle and covers 14 miles of tropical shores. The only roads here are canals and inlets, so we explore this watery wonderland by boat, stopping along the way for up-close views of caimans, otters and white-faced monkeys. We meet locals at a Tortuguero village and learn more about turtles – greens, leatherbacks and loggerheads.
On the northern Pacific coast, Guanacaste Province is home to more diversity. Volcanoes reach to the skies, rivers course through valleys, dramatic beaches with pounding waves draw a surfing culture and lush rainforests share the stage with arid woodlands and plains. It’s a region ripe for exploring and Gate 1 helps you do just that, with the option to sail along Costa Rica’s Gold Coast or relax on the beach.
Farther south, Manuel Antonio National Park unfurls its rainforest splendour along the Pacific. Though it only comprises about six square miles, it boasts an amazing biodiversity of flora and wildlife. Sightings of macaws, sloths, monkeys, and others are virtually guaranteed here; we’ll keep our eyes peeled along its trails. Our options to explore by horseback; ascend into the canopy for a bird’s-eye view; or snorkel, dive or fish in pristine waters promise even more thrills. En route to Manuel Antonio, we discover that there’s more to the breathtaking coast than its natural beauty as we visit the small town of Jaco, a national surfing center.
GUATEMALA: Mayan & Colonial Glories
Costa Rica is not alone as a “biodiversity hotspot” in Central America. Guatemala also boasts some of the greatest variety of flora and fauna on earth. But the country’s colonial and Mayan past enjoy more attention. Even the capital, Guatemala City, was famously built around the ancient Mayan city of Kaminaljuyu, now a cherished archaeological site with evidence of pyramidal mounds.
The historic city of Antigua is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, thanks to its Spanish-baroque architecture and colonial-era churches. You just might feel that you’ve landed in a city torn from Spain’s past as you admire the arcaded Palace of the Captains-General, resplendently preserved churches and monastery ruins.
But the region’s indigenous culture is still very much alive in Guatemala. Ancient Mayan ways are on full display in Chichicastenango, a mountain town best known for its outdoor market brimming with textiles, wood carvings, candles and pottery. Nearby, the town’s Church of Santo Tomas has overseen the scene for 400 years, ever since its foundation was first built over a pre-Columbian temple. More remnants of Mayan culture cling to the shores of Lake Atitlan, formerly a volcanic caldera and now the deepest lake in Central America. The 12 lakeside villages here are a delight to roam, nestled gracefully in a setting that Aldous Huxley called “too much of a good thing.”
Guatemala’s most dramatic echoes of the Maya whisper among the walls of its ancient cities, most notably Tikal. Exploring its brilliantly crafted stone pyramids, ceremonial sites, palaces, and temples—surrounded by dense forest and serenaded by exotic bird song—is a once-in-a-lifetime experience.
Explore Costa Rica & Guatemala Your Way with Gate 1 Travel
Costa Rica is such a diverse country, it calls for a diversity of travel styles. That’s why Gate 1 Travel offers so many ways to explore its natural wonders. If some destinations interest you more than others, you’re sure to find the perfect combination among our fully escorted itineraries, lasting as little as 7 days or as long as two weeks. Each trip includes accommodations, many meals, services of a Tour Manager and a full array of sightseeing, combined with time to explore on your own.
If you prefer the flexibility of arranging your own itinerary but still want to take advantage of Gate 1’s buying power, then choose one of our Fly & Drive options, lasting from 5 to 12 days. These unregimented trips include airfare, hotel and car rental, then you’re free to explore independently.
With so much spellbinding beauty and such rich and rewarding cultures to explore, and with the most affordable price you’ll find anywhere, Gate 1 Travel is your clear choice to explore Costa Rica and Guatemala!