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Regarded by many as the jewel of Central America, Costa Rica is a bucket-list destination that is guaranteed to deliver. From towering volcanoes and vast rainforests to pristine beaches with excellent surf, this relatively small country has it all. Want to dive right in, but not sure where to start? Here is our guide to the very best places to visit in Costa Rica.
Any trip to Costa Rica should include a visit to Arenal Volcano National Park. Towering a full 1,600 meters above the lush Costa Rican jungle, the Arenal Volcano remains one of the country’s best-loved attractions. With no significant eruptions since 2010, tourism in the surrounding Arenal Volcano National Park has flourished, and the area is now at the very heart of the local adventure tourism scene!
- Hike one of the countless trails leading through the dense jungle that surrounds the Arenal Volcano.
- Explore the charming towns of La Fortuna and El Castillo.
- Get the adrenaline pumping with some white-water rafting on the beautiful Balsa River.
- Swim, boat and go fishing at Lake Arenal.
- Arenal remains one of the most active volcanoes in Central America, and an eruption could occur at any time, so keep up to date with local news and follow the advice of the local authorities.
Good to know: It is common to experience several seasons in just one day with both sunshine and rain, so pack accordingly!
This charming seaside town has become one of the surf capitals of Central America, and undoubtedly one of the key places to go in Costa Rica. The pristine beaches and clear waters are paired perfectly with a developed town offering quality hotels and a thriving nightlife scene. The young, hip crowd oozes surf-culture making Tamarindo beach the perfect place to party and play.
- Grab a board and ride a wave! The varied conditions in the region make this the perfect spot for both beginner and pro-surfers.
- Try your hand at some sports fishing in waters packed with wahoo, sailfish, tuna, dorado, marlin and more!
- Get your boogie on in one of the town’s many bars and nightclubs.
- The sheer popularity of Tamarindo may not appeal to those seeking a quiet beach getaway.
Good to know: Nearby Grande Beach is generally much quieter, and is a great place to see Leatherback Sea Turtles!
Easily accessible from San Jose, Manuel Antonio is the country’s smallest, yet most visited national park and it’s easy to see why! Lush rainforests with diverse ecosystems meet endless fine sandy beaches, which in turn play home to some of the area’s most exquisite coral reefs. A true eco-paradise and, for many, the best place to vacation in Costa Rica!
- Take a walk through the park’s dense jungle to spot wild monkeys, sloths and a whole range of fascinating birds.
- Learn to surf on the gentle waves found on this stretch of coastline.
- Explore the lively nearby town of Manuel Antonio which boasts an impressive range of hotels and restaurants.
- Some of the bars and restaurants in the town center can get quite lively and loud in the evenings!
Good to know: Tour guides in the park will often carry binoculars or a telescope, making it easy to spot the incredible wildlife!
Located on the wonderfully remote Osa Peninsula, the Corcovado National Park is often touted as one of the most biologically diverse places on earth. Home to over 1000 different animals and trees spanning over an area of 424 square kilometers, the region is not only staggeringly beautiful but also a fascinating insight into the local environment. Get your hiking boots on and get back to nature in this unfrequented place to visit in Costa Rica.
- Take a hike from nearby Drake Bay for the best chance of seeing jaguars, tapirs giant anteaters, crocodiles and the fabulous scarlet macaws!
- Take time out from your hike to relax on one of the stunning beaches that line the park.
- Some of the wildlife can be dangerous to humans, so it’s best to explore with an experienced guide!
Good to know: Domestic flights are available from San Jose to Puerto Jimenez, from where you will need to arrange your own transportation to the park.
Another of Costa Rica’s eco-tourism hotspots, the cloud forests at Monteverde are a great place to explore this fascinating ecosystem without having to venture too far off the beaten track. With a staggering array of wildlife and mysterious, misty landscape, this is one experience not to miss!
- Take a hike through the forests to experience the unique flora and fauna found in this environment. Jaguars & Pumas make for some of the more exciting sightings!
- Spend a peaceful day watching the hundreds of birds that inhabit the forest.
- If you want to spot wildlife in the dense canopy forest, take binoculars with you.
Good to know: For the adrenaline seekers, there is a network of canopy walks, zip lines and cable cars that crisscross the park!
In the far north-east of Costa Rica, Tortuguero is a staggeringly beautiful area that plays home to no less than 5 species of the sea turtle. Hundreds, if not thousands of turtles can be seen making their way up the beaches at night to lay their eggs in the sand — a truly world-class phenomenon best experienced between July and October.
- Taking a guided walk along the beaches to see giant sea turtles lay their eggs in the sand.
- Witnessing a tiny baby turtle hatching and making its way back down to the ocean. The first hatchings usually occur in September each year.
- The beaches here are not suitable for swimming, with rocks, strong currents and sharks!
Good to know: Tortuguero is only accessible by boat or airplane, so make travel arrangements well in advance!
When deciding where to go in Costa Rica, you would be missing out if you overlooked the bohemian beach town of Montezuma. At the very north of the Nicoya peninsula, this laid-back destination is a hit amongst travelers, young families and couples seeking an idyllic retreat a little off the beaten track.
- Take a boat trip to nearby Tortuga island for world-class snorkeling and a delicious BBQ lunch on the beach.
- Explore the region with its pristine beaches and towering Montezuma waterfalls, and cool off with a swim in one of the pools.
- Walk out to the mini-island of Isla de Cabuya when the tide is low.
- Road conditions are not the best when driving from San Jose to Montezuma.
Good to know: As tempting as it may look, you shouldn’t risk the jump from the Lower Montezuma waterfall due to submerged rocks in the pool below.
Suggested tour: Montezuma Backpackers Beach Escape
As both the capital city and home of Costa Rica’s main international airport, San Jose is certainly worth at least a day or two of your itinerary. You will be surprised at the numerous things to do in San Jose. A modern city with an abundance of eating, drinking and sleeping options, along with museums suited for all ages, this can be a great place to recharge your batteries for a day or two.
- The Museo Nacional offers a fascinating insight into the country’s history.
- Browse one of Costa Rica’s most extensive art and craft markets at the Mercado de Artesanias Nacionales.
- Get your fill of excellent local food in Barrio Escalante to the east of the city centre.
- Taxi drivers are notorious for overcharging tourists, particularly to or from the airport. Be aware!
Good to know: Easyride operates a shared door-to-door shuttle between the airport and your accommodation for around USD 15* per person.
The perfect blend of beachside town and modern city, Jaco is a great escape from San Jose for those who like their creature comforts. Modern apartments and hotels, together with a range of international-standard bars and restaurants mean that most travelers in Costa Rica will, at some point, find themselves in Jaco for a day or two!
- Make the most of the reliable surf or take a swim in the clean and safe waters of Playa Jaco.
- Get your fix of international food in one of the city’s excellent restaurants.
- Jaco beach is the closest beach town to San Jose so it can get quite crowded during peak season.
Good to know: Jaco can be reached in less than two hours from San Jose, making this a great first stop to visitors arriving into the capital.
A haven for surfers and backpackers, the beaches surrounding the town of Santa Teresa are home to many a traveler who never quite managed to leave! The area boasts many excellent beaches and charming villages, each special in its own way.
- Surf by day, party by night in Mal Pais with its excellent range of trendy bars and hotels.
- Take a trip to a local coffee plantation to experience one of Costa Rica’s most famous exports at its best.
- Although still popular as a surfing town, it is no longer a secret beach destination. Popularity has resulted in more commercialization and eroded much of the laid-back charm that initially put the area on the map.
Good to know: Santa Teresa claims to be home to one of the world’s most spectacular sunsets — the perfect end to a long day riding waves?
So, with its world-class selection of wildlife, beaches, scenery and adventure activities, it’s not hard to see why so many people arrive in Costa Rica and never want to leave. There has never been a better time to visit, so pack your bags and discover for yourself the very best places to visit in Costa Rica!
*Note: Prices are as of June, 2019.
Editor’s note: This travel article was originally published on 17 December, 2018, but has since been updated for accuracy and comprehensiveness.