Deep-sea diving, zip-lining and surfing are well-known draws for tourists in Costa Rica, but another kind of soft-adventure option is gaining traction in this Central American country: rural tourism.
Costa Rica is wedged between Nicaragua and Panama, with the Caribbean on one side and the Pacific on the other, so it’s easy to see why water sports and beaches get top billing here.
But the rural tourism spans a range of cultural, historical and ecological interests in a country that encompasses rain forests and mountain landscape as well as beaches. A rural itinerary provides an understanding of the country’s pastoral heritage and a closer look at local communities, some living in the shadows of the hundreds of volcanoes that dominate the landscape and create the fertile soil. And there’s always time along the way to soak in the hot springs that some volcanoes create.
We started in the capital, San Jose. The central market is an animated and interesting slice of life there, but we were happy to leave the traffic and crowds behind and head for the central valley, Poas Volcano and its hiking trails through the cloud forest. We also made our first agritourism stop on the same day: a visit to Freddo Leche, a farm near Alajuela that offers tours in addition to growing strawberries, crafting artisanal cheeses and housing dairy cows and horses. Visitors can milk the cows or ride the horses, picnic at the on-site Abuelo’s Lake, and taste the strawberries and cheeses.
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In 2014, more than 12,000 people visited the farm and its six cows, seven horses, two dogs and 5,000 strawberry plants.
“The thing about rural tourism is that it makes the people proud about what they do and what they are,” said Diego Jimenez, Freddo Leche manager, who showed us around the farm and told us about a worker who sings to the strawberries and another who plays guitar for the cows, and presumably the tourists, on Mother’s Day.
After a stop at a family-run coffee plantation, we headed to the new Chayote Lodge for our overnight stay. The lodge was built with coffee lovers in mind: Individual bungalows are designed in the shape of recibidores, the bean-receiving stations at coffee collectives. The theme is neither tacky nor kitschy. Rustic yet chic, combining modern and rural touches, the bungalows offer a sophisticated but comfortable design sense, with balconies overlooking coffee fields. A fresh pot of coffee is brought to your bungalow each morning; I was sorry we had only one night to spend there.
Later in the week, we visited the Don Juan Educational Farm in La Fortuna, where we took a tour led by a machete-wielding guide who explained how this sustainable organic farm works. We used a machine to press sugar cane and tasted the local moonshine made with the juice. But drinking coffee at the farm’s riverside restaurant, brewed in the traditional chorreador, was much better.
In addition to farm visits, you can experience farm stays, like the one we enjoyed at Rancho Margot, a sustainable eco-lodge in the shadow of the Arenal Volcano.
It’s an extraordinary place, which is a good thing, because the traveler deserves some reward for the last 30 minutes or so of the journey to the lodge, over some of the most bumpy, pothole-pocked roads imaginable.
There are at least two rewards, actually. First, the resort’s accommodations are mostly small, rustic-but-comfortable bungalows, each tucked away in its own small patch of jungle garden. No screens or air conditioning here, just mosquito nets and ceiling fans. Sit on your bungalow’s porch, and you'll feel you are alone in the rain forest, with brilliant crimson flowers that stand out against the teeming greenery, and lively bird calls echoing nearby.
Reward No. 2: an accessible, ingenious, human-scale example of how far a resort can take ecological sustainability. Rancho Margot does the obvious stuff, such as growing its own vegetables. But it also raises livestock for meat and dairy, generates methane for cooking from the animals’ waste, uses compost ovens to heat water and cranks its electric generators with hydropower from the streams that rush through the property. It even makes its own soap. Visitors can see it all, and you'll surely walk away wondering, “Why doesn’t everyone do that?”
Agri-tourism projects have drawn increasing numbers of visitors over the last several years, according to the Costa Rica Tourism Board. More than 500,000 visitors participated in rural tourism projects in 2014. Compare that with 1.8 million of the 2.5 million international visitors in 2014 coming for deep-sea diving and nearly 825,000 who dropped some of their cash on the 125 companies that offer zip-lining.
For me, an ideal trip to Costa Rica would be one that combines rural tourism with either some beach time or the more-active adventure options. Maybe both.
If You Go
Getting there: Many of the big airlines fly to San Jose, so finding a convenient flight should be easy. You can rent a car or book tours that include day trips or longer from San Jose. If you are driving, be aware that the geography means there are lots of winding mountainous roads passing through varying climates.
If you rent a car, or maybe even if you don’t, be sure to sample two decidedly Costa Rican highway businesses: a soda and a pulperia. A soda basically is a diner with very inexpensive full meals (about $5) that include chicken with rice and beans and salad, for example. The sodas got their name when U.S. workers on the Pan-American Highway asked the locals for drinks. Some locals opened businesses to feed the workers. Named after the Spanish word for octopus, a pulperia is a small convenience store where the owner can reach anything a customer needs standing in just one place.
Where to stay: At Chayote Lodge, the recibidor bungalows go for $180 a night. www.chayotelodge.com
Rancho Margot has high-season rates (late November through late April) for the bungalows at $165 night. A two-night stay is required. www.ranchomargot.com
The Volcano Lodge, near the Arenal Volcano, is a family-friendly, no frills but comfortable place with terrific volcano views, lots of birds and its own hot springs in the pool area. The included breakfast is very good. High-season rates are about $200 per night. www.volcanolodge.com/en
Info: There’s a wealth of information for planning your trip on the country’s official tourism website at www.visitcostarica.com.