Cloud forests in the north, jaw-dropping beaches hugging both the Caribbean and Pacific coasts, active volcanoes to conquer, national parks covering more than 25% of the terrain, a cornucopia of exotic and colourful wildlife to discover, acres of coffee fields and drooping banana trees, misty rainforest trails and a way of life which has become a national symbol - for anyone seeking out an unforgettable few weeks of travel, Costa Rica really does have it all. And, given the stability the country has historically enjoyed in a region not short of turmoil, it is no surprise that it has become safely established as the most popular destination in Central America.
But, for some of us, that's the problem; Costs Rica is just too popular.
With something for every type of traveller - from young families and intrepid honeymooners to gym-honed adrenalin junkies, stoned surfers and eco-hippies, wealthy retirees and 5-star resorters to backpacking first-timers, organised mass tours and North American school trips - crowds and development are a natural consequence. But if you've travelled before, then Costa Rica, in parts, can feel a little overrun.
So, does that mean Costa Rica is done for the intrepid adventurer? Have all the dusty roads and secret treasures been paved over or touristified beyond all recognition?
Thankfully, the answer is a resounding no.
A unique Costa Rican experience can still be had, but you just have to go out and find it yourself. Despite two million tourists visiting every year, there are still some incredible spots off the normal gringo trail. Fortunately, companies like Nomad America have made it all the easier to reach them by offering 4x4 rental catered to couples or groups looking for 'off the beaten track' adventure.
Although the most famous sites like Monteverde's cloud forest canopy and the idyllic beaches in Parque Manuel Antonio are still going to form an essential part of any first-time road-trip route, having your own vehicle and camping equipment offers you the chance to also get away from the crowds. With the open road ahead of you, and your own hands on the wheel, you will still be able to discover a little slice of Costa Rica that feels like it's yours and yours alone.
Here are seven stops you simply can't miss on your dream Costa Rican road-trip:
Coffee, mountains and hiking
When you think of Central America, your mind may bring up images of picture-postcard beaches and colonial towns. However, the region is also blessed with beautiful and verdant valleys and mountain ranges - and that's where you'll find the best coffee and photography opportunities.
Due to a new highway changing the traffic flow, 4x4 adventurers are now able to enjoy driving through scenic old mountain roads connecting the capital of San Jose with the southern region of Costa Rica with hardly any other traffic to block the views. Drive up to an altitude of 3,300 metres, camp next to trout-filled streams and mountain lakes, do some spontaneous hiking, perfect your landscape photography or stop off to discover the coffee-making process from bean to cup in the beautiful village of Santa Maria de Dota.
the mountain of death
Bolivia may have the world famous 'Death Road', but Costa Rica comes close with its own infamous 'Cerro Muerte'.
For any driver, this perilously narrow twisting road with numerous sheer drops is a white-knuckle challenge, so do approach it with caution (the clue's in the name after all!)
However, for those brave enough to drive their rental where few others would dare, you can be rewarded with a stay in San Gerardo de Dota. Nestled in a cloud forest, it's home to one the most important (and gorgeous birds) of the Central American region - the Quetzal - and a wonderful laid-back atmosphere in a picturesque tropical setting.
Secret surf spot? Check. Some of the best right breaking waves in the country? Check. Waves for both beginners and pros? Check.
In a place with no electricity, and the nearest bit of civilisation being a 30 minute drive away, this is a must for anybody looking for authentic 'off-the-beaten track' Costa Rica. With a 4x4 from Nomad America, you'll thankfully have all the right gear for some wild camping and cooking at Matapalo, allowing you to enjoy a place that very few other travellers are able to visit.
Out of the three beaches clustered together, Matapalo has some of the most technical waves, whilst nearby 'Backwash' breaks a little more towards the left and is good for medium level surfing over 300 meters wave whilst 'Pan Dulce' is perfect for long boarders and those learning easy rights.
If your road-trip is all about bringing you to the best waves, then you should also check out Santa Rosa National Park. There, you can set up camp and wander though the rainforest with your surfboard to spend all day on some these secluded, yet world famous, waves. All you have to worry about is how and where you're going to enjoy the gorgeous sunset.
Pura vida in it's purest form.
If your road-trip route already includes a visit to the iconic Volcan Arenal, then you simply have to add on a diversion to Rio Celeste; its stunning azul waters will live long in the memory.
Set in Tenorio Volcano national park in the north of Costa Rica, you can park up for the morning and take the 7.5 km hike through the photogenic rainforest. Along the way, you'll witness the incredible blues (created by a unique chemical reaction inherent to the river), pass geysers, natural hot springs and have the option to cool off at a stunning waterfall - you simply won't believe the colours!
Just try and avoid the jaguars that live around here!
Named after Sir Francis Drake, it's understandable that this is an ideal spot for adventurers and, if you take the road less travelled in your 4x4 to this section of the Osa Peninsula, then the journey there may just prove to be the biggest adventure you'll have in all Costa Rica.
Several rivers will have to be traversed, pot-holed dirt roads navigated and you'll have to do all this whilst trying not to be distracted by the stunning vistas at every corner. Note that some of these roads and rivers can't be used or crossed if rainy season is in full force, so do check ahead.
Once you've recovered from the bumpy drive in, you can park up, set up camp and pick between watching wild dolphins, snorkelling in pristine waters around Isla del Caño, respectfully watching turtles come in to nest, hiking in Corcovado National Park, monkey-spotting, discovering your own secret beach or just hanging in a hammock living the dream travel lifestyle in a wonderful little corner of the world.
If hiking and nature are your thing, then summiting the highest peak in Costa Rica should be number one on your list.
It's a a two day undertaking (you'll have to spend one night in a base hut near the peak - make sure you reserve ahead) but trails are all well-marked. Although the most popular activity is summiting 3,820 m Chirripó Grande and enjoying the spectacular views it offers (on clear day you can see both the Pacific Ocean and the Caribbean Sea), there are miles of other eco-trails through the dense and diverse flora.
In the far north of the country, on the Pacific side, road-trippers will find the sort of pristine beaches that will make your friends at home crazy with jealousy when they see your photos on Instagram. And the best part? You will probably have them all to yourself.
The advantage of having your own 4x4 and only having to keep to your own deadlines is that you can cruise around in the sunshine, stopping off wherever and at whatever takes your fancy. However, if you want an insider tip, then Playa Rajada is a gorgeous spot where you can wild-camp, swim and snorkel all day and catch some incredible sunsets.
If you want to explore this part of the country, but prefer campsites at night, then nearby Refugio de Vida Silvestre Junquillal has good camping facilities right on the beach.
4x4 Rentals In Costa Rica
Nomad America offers excellent 4x4 rental options to travellers looking to find their own Costa Rica on unforgettable road-trips. Their jeeps - perfect for navigating Costa Rica's more demanding roads - come fully-equipped with everything you need for an off-road adventure: camping and cooking equipment, roof-top showers, Costa Rica guidebooks, hammocks and even on-board wi-fi!
Their team also offer personalised 24/7 support and will also help you plan the perfect itinerary.
Visit their website for more information or to make your rental: www.nomadamerica.com
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This post was sponsored by Nomad America to promote road-trips in Costa Rica.