Best Things To Do in Costa Rica
Costa Rica's strikingly diverse terrain – lush forests, wildlife reserves, and tropical beaches – offers a little something for every traveler. Beach lovers staying along the Pacific Coast should head to Guanacaste and the Nicoya Peninsula's palm-fringed coastline for sun and surf. Nature-seekers staying in the Northern Plains or along the Caribbean coast should pay a visit to Puerto Viejo de Talamanca before venturing inland to zip line above Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve and hike Arenal Volcano. Whether you seek sun, nature or adventure, there's much to discover in this paradise.
Updated August 13, 2018
- #1View all PhotosfreeNicoya Peninsula#1 in Costa RicaBeaches, Free, Neighborhood/AreaTYPEMore than Full DayTIME TO SPENDBeaches, Free, Neighborhood/AreaTYPEMore than Full DayTIME TO SPEND
The Nicoya Peninsula's sparkling 80-mile shoreline boasts beach-centric towns with cream-colored shores and dense forests. Half of the peninsula is found in the Guanacaste province, while the other half sits in the Puntarenas province. Nosara Beach's powdery sands line the Nicoya Peninsula's western edge. You'll also find fishing and cattle-ranching communities east of the rustic coastline. After a significant rise in tourism that began in the 1970s, an influx of restaurants and hotels have enticed visitors to the peninsula's sandy coast.
Recent travelers highlight Nosara Beach's gorgeous sunsets, colorful fish and turquoise waters as ideal for surfers and beach lovers alike. But be warned: shade is minimal (and it gets hot!) and the undertow can be challenging; sunset walks on the beach are highly encouraged. Other hot spots include Mal País and Montezuma, a charming coastal town that boasts affordable hotel accommodations and untamed splendors, like magnificent waterfalls and gentle cerulean waves.
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Arenal, one of the world's most active volcanoes, stands more than 5,000 feet high. For the latter half of the 20th century, admirers traveled to its base in droves to catch a glimpse of glowing rocks and molten lava tumbling down its sides. But Arenal wasn't always spewing fiery lava, rocks and ash. The volcano sat dormant for hundreds of years, but on July 29, 1968, Arenal awoke from its slumber. A thunderous earthquake shook the area and a subsequent explosion of lava wiped out three nearby villages. Frequent eruptions continued until 2010, when the volcano re-entered a non-active state.
Today, travelers head to the Arenal Observatory Lodge, which sits in an ideal viewing spot along the volcano's northern side. Arenal is often concealed by a thick layer of fog, but if you visit between February and April, you will have a better chance of unobstructed views. Recent visitors say it is worth the trip, though it the quality of the view depends heavily on the weather. You can hike the park's trails on your own with just a trail map, but several recent visitors recommended hiring a guide to learn more about the history of the volcano and the flora and fauna that inhabit the area.
- #3View all PhotosfreeGuanacaste#3 in Costa RicaBeaches, Free, Neighborhood/AreaTYPEMore than Full DayTIME TO SPENDBeaches, Free, Neighborhood/AreaTYPEMore than Full DayTIME TO SPEND
Costa Rica's "Gold Coast" is one of the nation's most unique destinations and that's not just because of its secluded beaches. The region's dry, sunny savannas contrast the misty cloud-covered rainforests found in other parts of the country. To the east, you'll admire volcanoes comprising the Cordillera de Guanacaste. Along the coast – which extends all the way to the Nicaraguan border – you'll find pockets of white sand flanking hotels and remote fishing villages. Further inland, you'll discover a thriving cowboy culture that has flourished since Spanish colonial rule in the 19th century. More notable highlights include the pristine, palm-studded Playa Carrillo beach and the Rincón de la Vieja National Park. Another must-see attraction is the Santa Rosa National Park, a UNESCO World Heritage site that preserves the site of the 1856 Battle of Santa Rosa.
Recent travelers particularly recommend visiting Rincón de la Vieja National Park, which boasts hot springs and beautiful waterfalls. You'll also get to see some impressive volcanic activity.
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Travelers come to this 160-square-mile misty rainforest for its diverse wildlife. Buzzing insects and chirping birds can be seen and heard as you stroll through the verdant jungle. Trek along the hazy trails and you're likely to spot macaws, tapirs, jaguars, spiders or howler monkeys.
Recent visitors suggested arriving early in the day (7 to 9 a.m.) to increase wildlife sightings, but no matter when you go, there will be plenty to see. To fully experience all of Corcovado's sights and sounds, you'll want to carve out two or three days for exploring. If you need a break from hiking, head to the 23 miles of beaches, but be warned the sand is hot.
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Manuel Antonio National Park is one of Costa Rica's smallest protected green spaces, but don't let its size throw you off. Within the park's 3 square miles, you'll find untamed beaches, secluded coves, nature trails and a thick rainforest. You can stretch out on the park's coastline or wander along one of the walking paths to spot rare birds, camouflaged iguanas and purple-and-orange crabs. If you're a lover of furry creatures, you'll be pleased to discover that this park contains so many monkeys that the park built a suspension bridge to grant them free reign of the area.
Travelers recommend visiting Manuel Antonio's remote white-sand beaches in the southeastern tip of the park where visitors can relax under palm trees. Reviewers also recommend bringing a picnic lunch to enjoy. However, you'll want to watch your food closely as the monkeys have been known to steal food. To enjoy the park's untouched landscape without the crowds, consider arriving right when the park opens at 7 a.m.
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Imagine winding through a misty oasis; strikingly tall trees wrap you in a sea of green. Add to that more than 100 mammals, 400 types of birds and 2,500 plant species, and you have Monteverde's lush 25,700-acre reserve. While wandering along one of the hiking trails, you may spot a small hummingbird or a resplendent quetzal feasting on a ripe aguacatillo (a fruit similar to an avocado).
Although some travelers complain about the high frequency of tourists and the arduous trek to the reserve, most praise the forest as a must-see example of Costa Rica's rich wildlife diversity. Recent visitors recommended taking a Sky Walk (hanging bridges) or Sky Trek (zip lining) tour to avoid the crowds and see the reserve from an aerial view. For more information, consult Sky Trek's official website. If you'd prefer to stay on the ground, the reserve also offers guided walking tours year-round. Past visitors highly recommend hiring a guide if you've come to the reserve in search of wildlife.
- #7View all Photos#7 in Costa RicaFree, Neighborhood/AreaTYPEHalf Day to Full DayTIME TO SPENDFree, Neighborhood/AreaTYPEHalf Day to Full DayTIME TO SPEND
The village of Puerto Viejo de Talamanca, located on Costa Rica's Caribbean coast, comes alive with reggae music, funky bamboo bars and a wild nightlife. Surfers crowd coconut-fringed Cocles Beach; nature-lovers venture inland to explore rainforests; and foodies check out downtown's delectable cuisine. Off the beaten path, you'll find dusty biking and walking paths running through tropical farms and gardens. Along the coast, you'll discover remote bungalows and empty stretches of sand.
Travelers recommend visiting Playa Negra's black-sand beach – located in the northwest end of Puerto Viejo de Talamanca – for a less touristy retreat. Visit between September and October for the best chance of sunlight in this often damp, tropical region.
- #8View all PhotosfreeJacó#8 in Costa RicaFree, Neighborhood/AreaTYPEHalf Day to Full DayTIME TO SPENDFree, Neighborhood/AreaTYPEHalf Day to Full DayTIME TO SPEND
Far away from northern Costa Rica's foggy rainforests lies Jacó, a beautiful town teeming with shops, restaurants and beachfront hotels. It's also the closest beachside retreat to San Jose, the country's capital. Surfers should venture to Hermosa and Esterillos Este's sprawling palm-lined shores for the best waves. If you're looking for a calm beach day sans the waves, consider Playa Mantas and Playa Blanca – two beaches popular with locals. Nature seekers should head to wildlife havens like the Pura Vida Gardens and Waterfalls to spot the area's beloved residents – colorful birds and monkeys – and gaze at the soaring coastal mountains. Whatever you do, save some energy for the lively night scene, which is known for its adults-only activities.
Recent travelers highlight one major drawback: the city's popularity. But if you don't mind sharing this sprawling beach retreat with others, previous visitors said it's worth a day or two.
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Short for Catarata La Paz (or "peace waterfall"), La Paz may seem quiet and still at first glance. But take another look, and you'll find this rainforest buzzing with activity. From croaking frogs and fluttering butterflies to rumbling jaguars and howling spider monkeys, there are plenty of creatures to be found in this wildlife-lover's paradise. And there is much for nature-seekers to admire too, from the garden's five flowing waterfalls to its colorful orchids and sea of leafy green canopies.
Recent travelers said it is a must-see for every first-time visitor to Costa Rica, describing the waterfalls as "amazingly beautiful." Others were pleased with the friendly and knowledgeable staff. If you don't want to pay the admission price, you can see the waterfalls from the highway, according to visitors. But many said the entrance fees were worth the experience.
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If you trek to Arenal Volcano to witness its looming presence for yourself, save time to bathe in the Tabacón's luxurious thermal springs. With its serene flowing waterfalls, tropical foliage and mineral-rich natural springs, it's no wonder the Tabacón Grand Spa Thermal Resort costs a pretty penny. But its distinguished springs and spa treatments will leave you swooning. Visitors call it relaxing and beautiful, with great facilities. A handy tip from past travelers: Bring water shoes to protect your feet as you walk from one pool to another.
The springs are 97 percent rainwater and 3 percent magma. And next to the thermal baths, you'll find Tabacón's top-notch Grand Spa, which boasts volcanic mud wraps, coconut and coffee exfoliations and meditation trails. Though past guests bemoaned the presence of tourist bus crowds, many still said this is a "must-do," especially if you're looking for a relaxing afternoon.
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Bird-watchers rejoice: This swampy wildlife refuge houses thousands of water birds, including jabiru storks, cormorants, ducks and roseate spoonbills. This haven sits near La Fortuna and you'll notice an abundance of sea dwellers as you stroll along the Caño Lake and Frío River. You'll also find large crocodiles crawling through muddy swamps and jaguars, turtles and sloths roaming the wetlands. But if you're in Costa Rica between January and April, skip exploring Caño Negro; during these months the lagoon becomes dry and the local sea creatures flock to other places.
Recent travelers praised the refuge's warm staff saying they possess a wealth of knowledge about where to look for the area's rare bird species and wildlife. Many visitors also recommend bringing insect repellent and binoculars.
- #12View all PhotosfreeSan José#12 in Costa RicaFree, Neighborhood/AreaTYPEMore than Full DayTIME TO SPENDFree, Neighborhood/AreaTYPEMore than Full DayTIME TO SPEND
San José, Costa Rica's vibrant capital, serves as a central base for exploration. You'll likely want to stop here before heading to the country's magnificent rainforests and beaches. Soaring offices, apartment buildings and museums will tower above you as you roam through the city's interconnected barrios (districts). Barrio Amón is popular with tourists for its centuries-old mansions and photo-worthy architecture. Barrio Escalante is equally popular for its variety of restaurants, bars, cafes and bakeries. If you plan on staying in the city for a few days before connecting elsewhere, consider heading downtown to explore the exquisite collections at the Jade Museum and Pre-Columbian Gold Museum. Both facilities house dazzling and rare pre-Columbian artifacts.
Recent visitors were equally impressed with the Jade Museum's presentation as they were with the extensive collection displayed in its confined space, though they did say it is a bit pricey. Travelers in search of the city's trendier areas may wish to drive about 3 ½ miles west of San José to reach Escazú, a sophisticated spot that boasts vibrant shops, nightclubs and restaurants. If you need help navigating the capital's dining scene, consider signing up for a food tour.
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Tortuguero National Park sits tucked away in a northeastern pocket of the Caribbean coast. Tied to Costa Rica's mainland by weaving rivers and canals, this isolated park lures nature-seekers looking for a remote piece of jungle paradise. The park houses white-faced monkeys, toucans, jaguars, bright lizards, red-eyed frogs and blue morpho butterflies.
Recent travelers suggest exploring the park by boat to marvel at its beautiful landscape and animals. Plus, at various times during the year, visitors can spot sea turtles – green, leatherback, hawksbill and loggerhead – nesting in the area. If you want to witness turtle nesting, plan a visit between early March and mid-October. Turtle nesting walks can be arranged through a licensed guide. Past visitors praised Tortuguero Tours and Tortuguero Eco Experiences.
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