Lusciously green Costa Rica, a.k.a the 'rich coast', is famous the world over for being a nature lover's paradise. Its ample spread includes wildlife-spotting experiences, adrenalin-pumping adventure, wild beaches, volcanoes, and strong, energising coffee.
Tucked between Nicaragua and Panama in Central America, this tiny country offers the perfect heady mix of adventure, culture, ecotourism and relaxation for visitors. And, taking the Discover Costa Rica Tour with its friendly Spanish-speaking countrymen, the Ticos (as they call themselves), is the best way to explore this tropical country.
San Jose, the 18th-century capital of Costa Rica soars 1,150 metres above sea level and spreads out into the Central Valley, which is ringed by coffee and sugar plantations on hills that rise into lofty pinnacles and three volcanic peaks.
After settling into the quaint historical Gran Hotel Costa Rica, I took time to explore the downtown museum of jade, and the museum of pre-Columbian gold - both of which are enriched by spectacular displays of gems and jewels.
The following day, revived after my flight from the UK, I headed out of San Jose to experience the crafts and coffees of the surrounding hills and towns.
The Doka Estate coffee plantation sits high on the fertile flanks of the Poas volcano and produces 376,000 metric tonnes of coffee per year from the gourmet mountain Arabica bean. The smell of roasting coffee permeated the fresh air as the tour took me by different sections of the farm - from raw bean collection to drinking your cup of freshly ground coffee. After visiting the pretty butterfly garden - with huge turquoise morphos - a chicken lunch was served in an airy ranch with a delicious coconut dessert and, of course, the fresh-from-the-bush coffee!
Driving through the coffee bean bushes past rows of fragrant floripondio flowers, pink hydrangea and scarlet red heliconia, the tour continued on to the small city of Grecia; famous for its 19th-century dusty pink twin-towered metal church, Our Lady of Mercedes, whose metallic materials were transported from Belgium.
After visiting the church, I travelled to an oxcart factory in the town of Sarchi where we were shown the famous brightly coloured and carefully decorated oxcarts, locally known as 'carretas', which were used to transport coffee from Costa Rica's highlands.
Continuing through a lush landscape of sugar cane, volcanoes, palms, giant ferns and coffee plantations, brought me to the slopes of the country's famous Arenal volcano, which was last active, spouting red-hot lava in 2010. The attractive wooden bungalows of Hotel Lomas del Volcan nestle on the lower slopes of the volcano surrounded by bougainvillea and busy, colourful hummingbirds. It was the perfect place to unwind and take a dip in the hotel's cooling alfresco pool with its winning volcano views.
Trekking the green and chocolate-brown lower slopes of the conical Arenal volcano was an exciting way to get acquainted with the birds and butterflies of the Volcan Arenal National Park. The morning walk through forest pathways emerged onto a steel-grey lava flow platform where the solidified, twisted lava sculptures and views of Lake Arenal, could be admired.
From the shores of Lake Arenal, the largest lake in Costa Rica, my passenger boat glided across the tranquil waters to the other side. From here, the onward transport wound through the green hills to take me to the nature paradise of Monteverde.
Monteverde is known for its cloud forests that harbour hummingbirds, the elusive beautiful resplendent quetzal, and the copper-coloured three-wattled bell bird with its distinctive bell-like song. Nights were spent at the quiet, friendly Monteverde Country Lodge in the tiny town of Santa Elena.
The cloud forest Sky Walk gave me a chance to get right up close to the sights and sounds of nature. Five suspension bridges stretched their way through the epiphyte-laden cloud forest rising and falling at different levels of the jungle canopy. Glittering emerald-green hummingbirds flittered, protective umbrella palms towered, and excitingly, big black howler monkeys roared in the treetops just above the canopy bridges. After the gentle meander through the sky with an informative guide, we could fly almost two miles through the air on the thrilling Sky Trek zipline wires that are pitched even higher up the mountains above the height of the jungle canopy. The zipline platforms are reached by the slow-moving Sky Tram cable cars that offer a close-up glimpse of treetop plant and bird life.
After so much adrenalin-pumping adventure, it was time for some well-earned relaxation. At this point in our journey, transport took us down from the forested highlands to the coastal lowlands of Costa Rica's Guanacaste region, near the town of Tamarindo. Here, wild, untamed beaches with huge swathes of golden sand, fringed the Pacific Ocean. Our hotel here, La Posada, is embraced in the grounds of the vast Hacienda Pinilla, a protected haven of some 4,500 acres of beach and coastal forest. La Posada's spacious and comfortable bungalow rooms provided modern comforts, and the inviting blue hotel pool, next to the restaurant, was shaded by tall palms. Tasty meals were served at the restaurant next to the pool by friendly staff.
Within the grounds of Hacienda Pinilla were beautiful Pacific beaches that were popular with walkers and horseback riders, while the ocean was a favourite of early morning surfers. Golfers can enjoy the 18-hole golf course designed by Mike Young, while sunseekers can curl up on a luxury lounger at the beautifully designed beach club on Playa Avellanas. After relaxing by the sparkling pool, the on-site spa awaits, as does the lovely open-sided Beach Club restaurant serving fresh fish of the day, among other tasty platters.
Those wanting to explore the Hacienda Pinilla grounds can go horseback riding, have a picnic at remote Playa Langosta (where there's a chance to spot leatherback marine turtles between September and March), take an early morning walk to go birdwatching with the estate's excellent guides, or snorkel or sail the ocean.
After three days of winding down at Hacienda Pinilla, my direct transport returned me to San Jose for a final night at the ultra-modern Park Inn San Jose where I stayed until the next morning before my onward flight took me back to the UK.