Private Journeys

Off the beaten track Costa Rica: National parks and private reserves

13 days from £2,490pp

Costa Rica


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Overview & Highlights

A Costa Rica wildlife and relaxation holiday with a difference: avoid the busy, commercialised places in favour of less visited, but equally beguiling spots with excellent small eco-lodges.  

  • Guided excursion in Carara National Park and Rio Tarcoles crocdile spotting
  • Guided excursions and activities at Santa Juana Lodge
  • Guided excursion to spot quetzals in San Gerardo de Dota forests
  • Whale-watching at Uvita (depending on season)

For decades Costa Rica has been a leading light in conservation, and as a result over a quarter of its territory is given over to well managed national parks and private nature reserves. Many of the parks are popular and much visited, with many facilities of all kinds for tourists, all of which provides for a very different experience from the remote wilderness adventure that many wildlife enthusiasts are hoping for.

So for this holiday we have selected a few of our favourite parks and reserves which, although situated in stunning locations, don’t have the infrastructure to receive hoards of visitors. Among them are Carara National Park and the rugged hills and beaches close to Ojochal. Accommodation is in delightful rustic eco-lodges, usually small and family-run, which offer the opportunity to understand how real life is lived in these bucolic areas.  Again, we’ve picked out the best. At these lodges you’ll have the opportunity to participate in optional or included activities, anything from crocodile spotting to coffee tours.

Itinerary

Day 1

Transfer from the airport to your countryside lodge.

Travel west by road for an hour from San José airport to Cerro Lodge, situated close to Carara National Park. Carara National Park hosts a wide range of ecosystems ranging from lakes and swamps to sub- tropical rainforest. The park sits between the dry forests of the north and the humid zones of the south. Many endangered and threatened species live and breed here, such as the American crocodile. Carara is also considered a sanctuary for the scarlet macaw, as well as many other bird species: tiger herons, egrets, sand-pipers, stilts, tanagers, honeycreepers, trogons, toucans among them.

Day 2

Guided discovery of the Carara National Park and crocodile spotting on Rio Tarcoles.

Start with a guided nature walk in the park, where there are opportunities to spot sloth and moneys in addition to an abundance of tropical birds, including the scarlet macaw. This is followed by a well organised river safari where the star attractions are the huge crocodiles which can reach four metres in length, although bird life is also plentiful here including hawks and different types of heron. There have been crocodiles on Earth for over 200 million years, during which time they haven't evolved much - so the toothy creatures have a really prehistoric air. You can also see iguanas and basilisks basking in their natural habitat.

Your covered boat will be steered by a Captain and a bilingual guide will also accompany you, both of them able to navigate expertly in order to maximise the opportunity of spotting these gigantic reptiles. They can also tell you about all the fauna and flora of the river, pausing to let you photograph and film the wildlife at close range.

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Day 3

Transfer to Santa Juana Lodge inland from the Pacific coast.

The journey to your next lodge takes you along the coastal section of the Pan American Highway. This small, family-friendly property is situated an hour’s drive on a bumpy road inland from Quepos (25km) on the Pacific coast, so the drive gives you the enhance to survey a varied mix of landscapes from palm plantations up through typical rolling Costa Rican countryside.

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Day 4

Activities from the lodge.

Various activities are on offer at the lodge, such as horse riding, waterfall swimming, coffee and nature tours. We recommend maybe taking a canopy zip-line tour for a bird’s eye view of the forest at tree-top level, and maybe visit a sugar-cane plantation to learn about the production techniques for this nowadays much maligned product.  

Day 5

Transfer to Trogon Lodge close to San Gerado de Dota.

It’s a journey of about three hours along highways and latterly steep, unmade roads to San Gerardo de Dota, huddled up against the Talamanca mountain range which dominates the landscape. Tourism hasn't yet made its mark on this little settlement nestled in the Savegre river valley, although it’s a launch point for visits to Los Quetzales National Park and a base for hikers and bird watchers. The terrain is rugged and hilly: a collage of green trees and mountains; a peaceful setting soothed by the sounds of the river.

Day 6

Guided activities from the lodge.

This is one of Costa Rica's prime areas for opportunities to spot the glorious resplendent quetzal, owing to the temperate climate and the abundance of tropical fruit bearing trees. With its bright green, crimson and gold plumage, this striking (but sadly endangered) bird has been adopted as the national bird of Guatemala and the currency of that country; is revered by the Mayans of the era of empire and the present day who use its feathers in their traditional head-dresses.  Accompanied by an experienced guide, your chances of spotting one are pretty good. 

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Day 7

Transfer to Ojochal area.

Climb out of the Savegre valley. The road continues to rise as you wind your way up to the highest point (3,335m) on the off-puttingly named Cerro de la Muerte (Death Hill - nowadays however, to reassure visitors, it’s more appealingly known as Cerro Buena Vista  (Lovely View Hill).

On a clear day views of the Talamanca mountain range are spectacular. Now the road descends an unpaved all the way down to your lodge (you switch to one of the lodge's vehicles; the driver knows the route well and can stop to point out wildlife) at sea level where the climate is sub-tropical, with vegetation to match.

Yaba Chigui Lodge is a friendly eco-lodge situated in the hills behind the southern Pacific coast.

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Day 8

Activities from the lodge

Bookable at the hotel are many optional activities you can choose from including whale watching (in season), snorkelling, scuba diving, canyoning, white-water rafting, deep sea fishing, stand-up paddling and horse-riding (pay locally for these). We recommend a trip out to the marine reserve at Caño Island, where you can snorkel in clear, sapphire blue water lapping suntanned beaches. There have been interesting pre-Columbian artifacts found here too including Diquis stones, spherical petroglyphs attributed to an now extinct culture. 

Alternatively spend the day relaxing on this tranquil property.

Day 9

Travel north up the coast to Dominical and Playa Uvita.

Dominical is a beach-front town well known for its year-round Pacific rollers; making it popular among surfers. The gorgeous, whale-tail shaped beach at Uvita is a popular destination for whale-watching, especially in March and September. If you are visiting between August and September or January and April, you can sign up for a water-borne expedition in search of these huge yet curious mammals as they breach the surface of the ocean or swim alongside the boat. 

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Day 10

Free time on the beach or explore the area.

You are staying at La Cusinga, an eco-lodge tucked away in a private rainforest reserve, with sweeping views over the Pacific and a sandy palm-shaded beach studded with natural pools. The property sits on the border of Ballena Marine National Park, one of only two nationally protected marine zones in the country. Here you can observe abundant wildlife on gentle trail hikes and take a dip in natural swimming holes. Sport fishing, surfing, kayaking, horse riding, sailing and snorkelling among schools of tropical fish, turtles and octopuses are also popular additional activities available to book from the lodge. It’s not all action though: the property has a spa with yoga classes, and you are welcome just to sit back and enjoy a tangerine sunset with a cocktail in your hand.  

Close by, a number of French expatriates and North Americans have settled in the village of Ocotal and opened high end restaurants offering mouth-watering takes on Costa Rican and French cuisine. 

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Day 11

Transfer to San José.

It’s a four-five hour drive to your accommodation, set in leafy gardens in a peaceful location outside the capital but close to the airport.

Day 12

Transfer to the airport for your international flight.

Essentials

Tour info

Transport

64 road journeys (longest 4.5 hrs).

Accommodation

Stay at small, intimate and mostly family-run eco-lodges, rustic but comfortable, with a wildlife and outdoor activity focus as well as offering peaceful relaxation.

Meals

Breakfast daily.

Guides

English speaking guides with good wildlife knowledge.

Summary Of Nights

12 days, 11 nights: Carara 2; Naranjito 2; San Gerardo de Dota 2; Ojochal 2; Dominical 2; Alujela 1.

Currency

The unit of currency in Costa Rica is the colón.

How To Take It

Cash machines are available in San José airport: taking a debit or credit card with a PIN number is the most convenient way of withdrawing money while on your trip and in many shops and restaurants you can also pay by card. However, since cards can get lost, damaged, withheld or blocked, you should not rely exclusively on a card to access funds.

We recommend that additionally you take a reasonable quantity of US dollars cash (no more than is covered by your insurance), which you can exchange into local currency in San José at the beginning of your trip. Dollar bills should be in good condition, soiled or torn bills may be refused. You can exchange sterling but the rate may be unfavourable and there are fewer outlets providing this service.

Tipping

Tips are welcomed and local guides often rely on their tip as a significant proportion of their income. 

Most service industry workers will welcome a tip of some kind and so it is useful to have spare change for hotel porters, taxi drivers and the like. It is common to leave 10 – 12% in restaurants.

Insurance

Travel insurance is essential. 

Details of our recommended policy can be found on our Travel Insurance page.

Airport Taxes

Departure tax is included in he price of the ticket.

Journey Grade

Generally this holiday is suitable for all able, reasonably fit visitors, including families with children.

Climate

The trip covers climates ranging from tropical lowland to more temperate zones in the highlands. Those travelling between May and October journeys should encounter high temperatures (around 35°C) and high humidity in the lowlands. The ‘official’ rainy (green) season is May to October. 

Clothing And Special Equipment

Bring plenty of light cotton clothing and good, comfortable walking shoes.  A waterproof jacket is also necessary. We suggest that you plan to ‘layer’ your clothing; it is easier and more efficient to put on a couple of light layers than one thick jumper, and sensible to have long sleeves for areas where mosquitos may be lurking. Sandals are a good informal option for evenings. Protection against the sun (sunblock, sun hat) and mosquito repellent are essential and you should bring swimwear. A daypack is useful for carrying sunblock, guidebook, water and any extra layers. If you have your own binoculars we strongly recommend taking them.

Please get in touch with the office before departure if you have any doubts. Good equipment is very important and hard to come by in Central America.

Vaccination

Preventative vaccinations are recommended against the following; typhoid; polio; tetanus; hepatitis A. For specific requirements you must consult your GP.

You can also find helpful information on the Masta Travel Health website.

Visa

Holders of a full British passport do not require a visa, although passports must be valid for at least 6 months after the trip begins. Anyone with a different nationality should enquire with us or check with the relevant consulate.

If flying to the US, or via the US you will need to fill in your online ESTA application.

What's included in the price

  • Services of our team of experts in our London office
  • Services of Journey Latin America local representatives and guides
  • All land
  • transport within Latin America
  • Accommodation as specified
  • Meals as specified
  • Excursions as specified, including entrance fees

Included Excursions

  • Guided excursion in Carara National Park and Rio Tarcoles crocdile spotting
  • Guided excursions and activities at Santa Juana Lodge
  • Guided excursion to spot quetzals in San Gerardo de Dota forests
  • Whale-watching at Uvita (depending on season)

What's not included in the price

  • Tips and gratuities
  • Meals other than specified
  • International flights to Latin America
  • Airport taxes, when not included in the ticket
  • Optional excursions

Real Latin America Experts

  • Ben Line
    Ben Line - Travel Consultant

    Ben fell in love with Latin America on a six month backpacking trip from Colombia to Mexico in 1995. Since then he has explored most of South America, including living in Peru for a year. He is now Manager of the Tailor-made Department.

  • Paul Winrow Giffen
    Paul Winrow-Giffin - Travel Consultant

    After graduating in Computer Science, Paul spent seven months travelling from Colombia to Argentina and came home hooked on Latin America.

  • Carrie Gallagher
    Carrie Gallagher - Travel Consultant

    A former JLA tour leader, Carrie brings a wealth of on-the-ground experience to our London-based Escorted Groups team.

  • JimAshworth
    Jim Ashworth - Travel Consultant

    Jim first caught the Latin American travel bug in 2001 when he decided at the last minute to join a friend travelling around Central America – he hasn't looked back since.

  • Chris Rendell Dunn
    Chris Rendell-Dunn - Travel Consultant

    Anglo-Peruvian Chris grew up in Lima and spent much of his adult life in between London and Cusco as a tour leader, before settling permanently in our Sales team.

  • Evie Oswald
    Evie Oswald - Travel Consultant

    It’s hard to believe that Evie has had time to cram so much in to her life so far. Having lived as a child in the Americas and Europe she found herself immediately attracted to Latin America.

Meet the team