Discovering Costa Rica With Photographer Mandy Sham

Photographer and journalist Mandy Sham gives her recommendations on exploring the Latin American country’s rambunctious rainforest, coastline and cuisine

Costa Rica is nature's symphonic lullaby. It's the centuries-old stories of ceiba trees and the paintbrush strokes of citrus skies. It's the papaya-scented markets and the sputter of motorcycles. It's the sound of iridescent birds and their human imitators; the musicality of a fizzy drink bubbling up like the foamy Pacific shoreline; the cicadas and howler monkeys reverberating across the tree canopy. Costa Rica is nectar in the form of blue passion flowers, and in melting drips of clove, hibiscus seed and vanilla ice cream. Read on to discover how best to explore this swirling, kaleidoscopic country.

Monkeys, Drake Bay, Costa Rica
Beach hut, Jaco, Costa Rica

A photographer's guide to Costa Rica

How to get around

Nature lovers, adventurers and beachgoers will find that paradise awaits in this jewel of Central America. The country is home to half a million known species, dispersed across 12 different ecosystems spanning volcanoes, tropical forests and mangroves. Renting a car is the best way to get around - especially if your goal is to avoid peak crowds at the hotspots - but if you have ample time and a tendency to go with the flow, as many ticos (locals) do, the country is also well connected by buses.

Where to head first

Start with a big splash by heading south on Highway 34 - making stops in small beachside towns for lunch or a go at the surf breaks. Dominical and Uvita are great places to pause for a few hours or overnight. In Uvita, the Marino Ballena National Park offers the opportunity to see humpback whales in the protected conservation area, and the beach there is shaped like a whale's tail. My favourite, though, is a pass through the numerous waterfalls in the area. Catarata Uvita is one of the more accessible ones, with a waterfall you can even slide down, and plenty of space to set up in the shade, have a picnic or pop open a book.

La Fortuna, Costa Rica
La Fortuna, Costa Rica

Where to find the wildlife

Head to the Osa Peninsula, where you're likely to find some of the densest wildlife and plant diversity the region has to offer. To get to the so-called '"last frontier", home to the famous Corcovado National Park and Isla del Caño, take a lancha (taxi boat) from the village of Sierpe to Drake Bay. (You can also drive for a few hours to reach the town.) Once there, it's time for a well-deserved glass of fresh juice or a beer, and some of the delicious fried empanadas sold out of beachside trucks.

A hike you can't miss

Costa Rica is known for its commitment to eco-tourism, and the efforts to protect the immense biodiversity of the Osa Peninsula are apparent in the richness of what you'll see here, even from your room's balcony. Trips to Corcovado, the place National Geographic once described as the most "biologically intense place on Earth", often begin from Drake Bay. Daily entry is capped, meaning your best bet is to reserve well ahead of time; to enter the park, hiring a guide is mandatory. Once there, the wildlife spotted on the trails is nothing short of breathtaking - from coatis (or pizotes, as they're known locally) to tapirs and sloths.

One of the peninsula's true gems is the half-day hike from Drake Bay to Playa San Josecito. The trail leads past frolicking capuchin monkeys, startlingly vibrant macaws and countless beach coves. San Josecito is a beautiful white sand beach covered in palms and blessed by a refreshing ocean breeze. For this hike, you might like to start the morning with a hefty gallo pinto, the emblematic Costa Rican dish capable of powering anyone through the day: rice and beans cooked with Lizano sauce, an ubiquitous local condiment. You'll often find it accompanied by fried plantains, eggs and cheese, or tortillas.

For postcard-perfect beach days

After a few days in Costa Rica's stunning southern tip, it's time to make the journey back up the coast. (It's a scenic ride all the way, but you can also fly to Liberia airport.) Next on the itinerary is quality beach time in Guanacaste and the Nicoya Peninsula - a region documented as being one of the world's "blue zones", where people live a lot longer than average. The turquoise waters and strips of palm-lined beaches might have something to do with it...

Playa Conchal and Playa Carrillo are postcard perfect. If it's surfing you're after, Tamarindo is a good destination for beginners, while Santa Teresa and Playa Hermosa offer more challenging waves. Take plenty of opportunities while in town to eat Costa Rican ceviche; you might also find vendors selling an ingenious snack of ceviche poured into a bag of barbecue-flavoured corn chips. For a hefty lunch, try the casado (an all-encompassing rice and beans, plantains, tortilla and protein dish), which is available at traditional eateries. It's also hard to top having grilled fish at a beachside restaurant shortly after sundown.

Uvita, Costa Rica
Tamarindo, Costa Rica

When you're seeking something extraordinary

There are few places in the world quite like Monteverde, a cloud forest reserve with its own cooler, mistier microclimate. To beat the crowds, it's best to spend a night here - then show up first thing in the morning to hike the trails. The biodiversity here is nothing short of amazing: elfin forests sculpted by wind, and at least 3,200 recorded plant species. With a bit of patience and luck, you might just spot a quetzal between the foliage.

A touristy spot that's worth a second look

La Fortuna is one of the best-known tourist hotspots in Costa Rica - but it certainly shouldn't be discarded on that basis alone. It's the gateway to the Volcán Arenal, the nation's most active volcano (though dormant since 2010). You'll find plenty of outdoor activities, and hot springs to unwind in afterwards. If you can splurge a bit extra on accommodation, that money will go a long way; some hotels have views facing the volcano, and even private trails that you can walk along. Make a beeline for El Silencio. A lesser-known, privately run park, it has seven trails, and gets you the closest to the volcano (including a small section that offers views over lava rock). Finish strong by getting a day pass at one of the various hot spring resorts in town.

Uvita, Costa Rica
Tamarindo, Costa Rica

What to bring home

Costa Rica has no shortage of pleasant surprises, outdoor adventures, and café WiFi passwords being "pura vida". In all likelihood, you'll emerge from this trip with a newfound appreciation for the beauty of this planet - so much of it concentrated into this slice of Central America. From wildlife sanctuaries to jungle hikes to unmatched golden hours on the beach, there's something for everyone.

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Santa Teresa, Costa Rica