Centuries before the Wright brothers made their seminal engine-powered flight, humans were clearly obsessed with flight. From the Daedalus and Icarus tales of Greek mythology to Leonardo Da Vinci’s ingenious sketches of flying machines, humanity has been set on defying gravity and soaring through the air in search of that ultimate freedom bestowed upon the bird species by Nature.
Flying and tourism go hand-in-hand, not just for travel, but also for sightseeing. Some of Nature’s wonders such as the Grand Canyon in the United States, Sugar Loaf in Brazil and Ayers Rock in Australia were meant to be appreciated from the air. In Costa Rica’s case, almost the entire country can be enjoyed from a bird’s eye view.
Domestic Flight Destinations
Flying around Costa Rica isn’t limited to the Juan Santamaria (SJO) and Daniel Oduber Quiros (LIR) international airports. A couple of dozen airfields dot the land, many of them located near tourist spots. Ground transportation by bus is still the dominant method for getting around, mostly because of the price and relative convenience, but domestic flights and chartered trips by air are becoming very popular. Our small country makes it ideal for flying, and the scenic opportunities make it very enticing for anyone to take to the skies for some spectacular sightseeing of our beaches, forests, jungles, rivers, and volcanoes in minutes. Our country is very enjoyable at the surface level, but our climate diversity, topography and sketchy highway infrastructure often makes ground transportation challenging.
The ideal choice of aircraft for a quick getaway to our airfields located off the beaten track is either passenger propeller airplanes or helicopters. Many of our aerodromes will not accommodate jet aircraft runway and air traffic control requirements, but propeller and rotor-driven aircraft are welcome just about anywhere.
Our two major domestic airlines for regional flights, Nature Air and Sansa Regional, offer a great number of flights to the most popular tourist destinations. In the high season (from mid-November to late April), both airlines offer daily flights to places like Liberia, Puerto Jimenez, Quepos – Manuel Antonio, and others. The flight frequency is reduced during the low season, from May to August, and the super-low season in September and October.
Nature Air operates out of the Tobias Bolanos airport in the San Jose suburbs near Pavas. The airline holds the distinction of having achieved carbon-neutrality before any other flight operator in the world, an expensive and socially-responsible endeavor that the company rightly uses as a marketing effort. Only a handful of airlines around the world can lay a certified claim to the feat of balancing their aircraft emissions, and two of them are in Costa Rica (Sansa is the other one, and they also operate carbon-neutral Aeroperlas Regional in Panama).
Nature Air concentrates on sightseeing, and to that extent its fleet includes Twin Otter Vistaliners, special aircraft that is meant for tourism and sightseeing. Most air travelers are used to the tiny porthole windows on large commercial jets obstructed by the wings; that is not the case with the Vistaliner windows that offer an almost panoramic view of our verdant landscape.
Sansa Regional operates out of Base 2 in SJO, and just like Nature Air, it is a carbon-neutral airline. Sansa’s air fleet includes the spiffy-new Cessna Grand Caravans; super-versatile and reliable turboprop planes that can be easily configured with landing gear appropriate for amphibious take-off and landing. Grand Caravans have been placed into the service with the military air forces of the Bahamas, Brazil, Chile, Mexico, and South Africa; in Iraq they may soon be fitted with Hellfire missiles. In Costa Rica, Sansa’s Grand Caravans have been fitted with comfortable leather seats and air conditioning.
Sansa takes great pride in its aircraft rotation program, as it will soon hold the distinction of having the youngest fleet of airplanes in the world. Sansa’s modern fleet ensures comfortable and speedy service within domestic destinations, and the airline’s participation in the LifeMiles program makes it inviting for travelers who fly Lufthansa, United Airlines and other major airlines.
For travelers who can’t be bothered by schedules and timetables, or who would prefer a more intimate flight experience, both Nature Air and Sansa offer chartered flights. The costs will vary greatly depending on the number of passengers and the destination, but they are very fair in comparison to their regular airfares. For example, Nature Air advertises a chartered flight to Tortuguero in our north Caribbean (a great spot for ecotourism) on a Twin Otter Vistaliner carrying 19 passengers for $1,575, plus a $300 aircraft fee. Divided among 19 travelers, that’s less than $100 per passenger – a great deal.
Flight charters offer a great deal of flexibility. For better aerial enjoyment and great photography, an early morning flight departing San Jose due south could easily fly over the Talamanca Mountain Range, turn east towards Limon and fly around the Turrialba volcano, dance over the Irazu, continue straight to the Barva volcano, loop around the Poas, and land back in San Jose in time for lunch. Our entire Caribbean coast could be explored by air in just a couple of hours, and flying over most of our major national parks -Braulio Carrillo, Corcovado, Manuel Antonio, and Tortuguero- could be a nice charter flight idea that a Tico pilot would love to accomplish in just one day.
Chartered flights are not limited to Costa Rica, either. Both Nature Air and Sansa fly to other locations in Central America and the islands of the Caribbean (extra charges may apply). Travelers should always carry their cedula or passport when boarding aircraft in Costa Rica and ensure that they have proper visa clearance if traveling beyond our borders. Perpetual tourists who have overstayed their visa should keep in mind that immigration enforcement at our airports is not as relaxed as our terrestrial checkpoint in Paso Canoas, and thus it may be a good idea to update visa status by taking ground transportation south before boarding an aircraft. Baggage restrictions may also apply.
Helicopters truly came of age during the Vietnam War, when pilots logged hundreds of thousands of flight hours in missions that transcended combat. With the right conditions and pilots, helicopters can fly in and out of just about any situation, and to that degree they are very useful in Costa Rica. The reason why helicopters do not traverse our skies with greater frequency has a lot to do with noise pollution and the high cost of fuel; still, rotary-wing aircraft is a great choice for getting around our country.
Helicopter flights can go beyond the traditional tourist spots. Some of our most pristine and remote areas, like Isla Calero and Tortuguero National Park in the northern Caribbean tip of Costa Rica bordering Nicaragua, are only accessible by boat or helicopter. A few helicopter tour operators are based in the Tobias Bolanos airport, but with proper planning a helicopter could land at someone’s doorstep and whisk them away to within 50 meters inland from the beach, provided the conditions are right and the authorized landing spot is within private property.
For aerial filming and photography purposes, a helicopter flight provides better angles and stability. Helicopter travel is not restricted to airport operating hours, and they can be ready for vertical take-off within 10 minutes after the rotors are engaged. For someone who needs absolute privacy when traveling, helicopters are adequate since they can operate under the cover of darkness, but it is important to remember that international flights always require proper immigration clearance.
A few helicopter operators are based in the Tobias Bolanos airport, including Aerotec, Volar, Aerotour and Puro Vuelo. In a 2011 article in La Nacion, Don Carlos Marten of Aerotec explained that a helicopter flight can run between $800 and $3,000.
For air passengers whose sole flying experience has been on Boeing and Airbus jets, taking a flight on a propeller plane or helicopter may make them a bit queasy at first. Our diversity in microclimates can quickly change atmospheric conditions that can be strongly felt in mid-flight. That should be the extent of discomfort in our domestic flights, as both Nature Air and Sansa Regional boast some of the best safety and maintenance records in the Americas.
For those doubting the superior flying skills of Tico pilots, consider the following: at the end of 2007, a Fuerza Publica pilot flew near the heights of Mount Chirripo to pick up an indigenous baby girl who was severely dehydrated. That pilot calmly landed the helicopter right on Paseo Colon across from the Children’s Hospital. In February of this year, a Cessna 152 prop trainer crash landed on the Virilla river (just upstream from the Platina Bridge), but the pilot and student survived with a few bruises. The pilot explained that he knew the entire time they were going to make it, but that he tried his best to avoid hitting power lines because he did not want to cause a power outage.
As discussed before, both Nature Air and Sansa are carbon-neutral airlines. Engine-powered flight may not be the greenest method of transportation, as both rotary and fixed-wing aircraft burn fossil fuels and emit a considerable amount of carbon dioxide and methane gases, but the carbon footprint left by driving around in a gas or diesel-powered vehicle with just one or two people on board would be greater.
An interesting byproduct of flying over Costa Rica comes in the form of environmental awareness. The dramatic sights of our deep green jungles, the mists of the cloud forest, the snaking rivers, the brown-sugary sands, and the sapphire blue of our oceans are enough to turn someone’s mindset in the direction of conservation. That may be the greatest hidden effect of flying over our country.