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Riding with the cowboys of Costa Rica – and 8 other adventure holidays

Howdy partner: visitors enjoy a taste of life as a Costa Rican sabanero

The zipline was invented in Costa Rica – which is now home to Latin America’s longest. But Chris Moss preferred the quieter pleasures of a campfire barbecue, exotic birdsong and a horseback journey around an active volcano

A wisp of cloud drifts over the forest, which, in the morning light, is the vivid green of new leaf. I’m following a man called Jorge. He rides with the steady, upright gait of a practised sabanero – the Costa Rican cowboy, whose heritage goes back rather longer than the American version.

I am not quite such an impressive sight as I slope along on a white mare called Trucho, but that might be because I’m distracted by everything around me. The Rincón de la Vieja national park – a Unesco world heritage site since 1982 – is one of Costa Rica’s most beguiling protected areas and its best-known horse-riding region. One of its two volcanoes is right beneath our feet and hooves but what’s caught my attention is the birds. I’ve already seen a common blue-crowned motmot and some parrots, and a laughing falcon just laughed at me.
As we ride upwards, we pass through montane and dwarf forest. After a couple of hours, Jorge signals that it’s time to rest. We eat our elevenses – cured meats, salads, plantain chips, gallo pinto (a traditional dish of rice and beans) and zingy dips – before saddling up again and heading through a steeper, wooded area. Here we come to a glade where the floor is actually bubbling, as hot volcanic steam bursts through. Large lizards move along the edges of the fumaroles, and hummingbirds dart around the vegetation.  

Down on the farm: the hotel on the family-run Guachipelin ranch

My home for three nights is a hacienda called Guachipelin, which was established in 1880. The ranch has a hotel that is surrounded by 3,400 acres of land with pastures for cattle, pigs and horses; these are the “sabanas” or savannahs that make the region look and feel distinct from the rest of Costa Rica. Patches of dry tropical forest provide areas of shade and the agri-tourism project is run on strict sustainable terms. I start my mornings helping out with the milking – the hacienda makes its own cheeses – and visiting the honey hives.

Like any ranch worth the name, the family-run Guachipelin does a mean barbecue. There’s nothing like a meat and seafood feast after a long day. On the menu is chicken, tilapia and shrimp, as well as vegan delicacies.

Rincón de la Vieja is a perfect spot for walking. Armed with binoculars, I head off for some early-morning birdwatching. There are around 300 species in the park, including big, bold characters such as curassows, toucanets and the gloriously monikered montezuma oropendola, a bird that rocks back and forth as it bawls out a bizarre musical trill – probably my favourite birdcall on earth.

But every cowboy must eventually ride into the sunset, and Rincón de la Vieja is close to other inviting regions. West is the Nicoya Peninsula, a legendary surf and beach strip. East is the imposing Arenal volcano. Just 20km away is Liberia, Costa Rica’s sabanero capital and a transport hub (TUI offers direct flights from the UK).

Down time: after a day in the saddle, relax in a hot spring

Before that, though, a rider needs some relaxation. Where there are volcanoes, there are often hot springs – and Rincón de la Vieja doesn’t disappoint. I lie back in the muscle-soothing waters of the Río Negro – sure, there’s a full-on spa session available back at the ranch but, for a seasoned sabanero, nature does the job just as well.

For more Costa Rican adventure holidays, go to Visit Costa Rica

Surf’s up: improve your skills on the water at the Del Mar Surf camp

  • 8 more Costa Rica holiday adventures
  • Surfing - Originally for women only, the Del Mar Surf Camp in Nosara is open to anyone keen to learn to surf or improve their level; combine your stay with Spanish classes or yoga.
  • Ziplining - The zipline experience was invented in Costa Rica in 1974 when Donald Perry, an American biologist who was studying the country’s primates, developed it as a way of moving through the forest canopy without having to climb up and down the trees. These days, Costa Rica Aventura Canopy Tour in Monteverde claims to have the longest zipline in Latin America. It’s a breathtaking 1,590 metres long, but is so fast it seems over in a flash.
  • Cycling  - Las Catalinas biking trail in Guanacaste has a gently winding downhill ride with no killer climbs. The track is located in the pretty car-free beach town of Las Catalinas, where you can limber up with a stand-up paddleboarding session – and wind down with a cold drink.
  • White-water rafting - The Peñas Blancas river has lots of grade I sections – the easiest – which are ideal for a water-borne “stroll”. Look out for sloths and howler monkeys.
  • Snorkelling - Cano Island, off the Osa Peninsula, has gorgeous reefs. Visitor numbers are regulated to control impact and enhance the viewing of marine flora, sea turtles, dolphins, stingrays, manta rays, moray eels and more.
  • Paragliding - The beaches of Dominical, Jaco and Puerto Caldera all have the mellow winds and predictable thermals that are ideal for beginner-level classes and tandem rides – i.e. a skilled instructor does the driving.
  • Kayaking - The calm waters of the Cuarto river are perfect for birdwatching and wildlife spotting in the forest canopy.
There’s a wealth of sealife to be spotted off the Osa Peninsula