Costa Rica's Quirky Gems

By Chris McBeath

San Lucas Island - Former Prison Building; (Photo: Costa Rica Tourism)
Most people come to Costa Rica for its tropical climes, secluded beaches, and endless eco adventures. For those who think they know the landscapes, or prefer a less trodden path, here are some gems to discover.

1. San Lucas Island
This one-time penal island – Costa Rica's Alcatraz - has been transformed into a national wildlife refuge where howler monkeys, snakes, deer, pheasants and at least eight species of bats, are as abundant its marine life. Against such beauty, though, is a cruel history. First when the Spanish conquistadors imprisoned and slaughtered hundreds of the local Chara people on their sacred burial grounds; then as a brutal prison where incarceration was a virtual death sentence. Remnants of the buildings including cells embellished with graffiti, the church, and infirmary make for an evocative tour.

2. Finca Sanatoria Duran With its pastoral location on the Cartago mountainside, en route to the Irazu Volcano, it's hard to believe this is the country's most haunted building. Most people mistake this former hospital, for mental and tuberculosis patients, for a farm. Since closing in the 1960s, the complex has lain abandoned and only recently has it become a visitor attraction. Today, you can wander the property and its rather spooky, derelict buildings with their barred windows, and feel its sudden cold breezes, even on a hot, sunny day. The hallway full of children's handprints is especially eerie.

Cabuya Island seen from the Mainland; (Photo: Diana Larcom)
3. Cabuya Island Another ghostly spot is Cabuya Island at Cabo Blanco Park, perhaps because the entire island has been a cemetery since time immemorial. It is one of Costa Rica's most remote areas. Graves aside, you'll also discover terrific snorkeling for everything rainbow-hued, as well as puffers, lobsters and plentiful, albeit evasive, seahorses. Hiking, too, is magical because when the tide is low, you can cross over to the island from the mainland, as if walking on water. For those looking for off-the-beaten track destinations, where tourism hasn't turned paradise into a commodity, Cabuya township also delivers.

727 Hotel - Fuselage in Jungle; (Photo: 727 Hotel)
4. Fuselage Fantasy Finding a broken fuselage in the jungle is somewhat disconcerting but the bright red vintage airplane (circa 1965) has morphed into one of the world's most unusual hotels. Tucked into Costa Verde's rainforest canopy, overlooking a spectacular oceanfront, this luxurious spot is for those looking for a 'lost' experience. If both Boeing 727 suites are booked, get a fuselage fix at El Avion.
727 Hotel - Fuselage Interior (Photo: 727 Hotel)
Converted into a funky restaurant and bar, this is the CIA sister aircraft to the C-123 Provider that was shot down during the Iran-Contra affair in the 1980s.

5. Overnight in a Cave Trekking to the Diamante Waterfalls is a play 'n stay adventure bar none. Like many waterfalls in Costa Rica, they are on private property and a local guide is essential. Getting there is a strenuous, 3-hour hike up on loose gravel, slippery clay and earthen stairs so is not a trip for neophytes. On the way, you'll learn about medicinal plants, snack on termites, and enjoy a meal of sweet lemons, native bananas, and a host of other jungle bounty. The star attraction lies behind two, twin, 26-metre waterfalls. The cave outfitted with a kitchen, elevated sleeping platforms and even bathrooms.

Zarcero Topiary Arches (Photo: Costa Rica Tourism)
6. Topiary Gardens If you're traveling to the Arenal Volcano area, the topiary gardens at Zarcero are a must-see stop. Look for the church - a Gothic Renaissance style gem in its own right, and you'll find greenery shaped into arches, animals, Christ on the cross, an ox-drawn cart, a monkey on a motorcycle and even a helicopter. All are the work of Evangelista Blanco Brenes as his gift to the town. The big white balls hanging from roadside stands and pulperias (small stores) are homemade cheeses, a specialty of the region, as are cajetas (caramel candy).

Tortugero Island Nesting Turtle (Photo: Costa Rica Tourism)

7. Tortuguero Island Accessible only by plane or boat, this beautiful island has the country's most unique wildlife. It also has one of the world's foremost turtle nesting beaches for the endangered Green Sea Turtles as well as Leatherback, Loggerhead and Hawksbill turtles. Since most arrive at night – and it's an amazing spectacle to behold, beach access after 6pm is only permitted with an official guide. Although you can see individual turtles year round, the Green Sea and Hawksbill turtle's nesting season runs July to October (peaking in August), and Leatherback turtles nest from February to April.

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