The Top places to visit in Costa Rica – Discover the best cities, best beaches, best mountains, and much more!
When it comes to Costa Rica, there’s one proverb that continuously applies: Good things come in small packages.
Costa Rica may be one of the smallest countries of the world, occupying only 51,100 Km2, or about 0.03 percent of the earth’s surface; but what it lacks for in size, it more than makes up for it in natural wealth. This little piece of heaven contains nearly 6 percent of the world’s biodiversity, including 1,300km of pristine coastline, seven sentinel volcanos, virgin cloud and rainforests, lowland swamps, mangroves and river canals, and even the odd frost-dusted mountain peak. Its topographical and biological diversity is truly staggering.
No wonder thrill seekers from around the globe flock to visit the country’s natural parks and sun-drenched shores, there’s more than enough excitement to go around. Discover the best tourist destinations – like bustling beach-front cities with world-class surf, or explore off the beaten track jungle and mountain hideaways, there are hundreds of places to see in Costa Rica.
THE BEST VACATION DESTINATIONS IN COSTA RICA
An Alphabetical Guide to the Best Vacation Spots in Costa Rica
Arenal Volcano – One of Costa Rica’s top tourist attractions
Arenal Volcano is perhaps Costa Rica’s most popular vacation destination and top place to go if you’re short on time. Nestled in the central lowlands approximately 2.5-hours north of San Jose, the iconic cone-shaped volcano looms nearly 5,000 feet above the jungle floor and is the source of a diverse and fascinating landscape. Today the volcano is dormant; however, in 1968 the seemingly placid Arenal awoke in an earth-shattering explosion of ash and gas that shook the country and decimated three nearby towns. A mildly constant eruptive phase followed for the next four decades bringing visitors by the thousands to the nearby La Fortuna town to witness the fiery displays of lava and steaming boulders roll down its flanks. Since 2010, Arenal’s temperament has cooled, and the conical peak releases only the occasional puff of steam.
Surrounding Arenal visitors will find dozens of great places to stay as well as a virtual playground of eco-adventures to choose from. Spelunking through an ancient seabed of underground caves and rivers at the Venado Caves, and white-water rafting down class III and IV rapids on the Rio Toro, are two of the more challenging options to choose from. For the more serene vacationer, there’s the Arenal National Park, Observatory, and Museum with an impressive network of hiking trails that pass through past lava fields and scenic countryside, as well as the stunning La Fortuna Waterfall and Arenal Lake and Damn. Head into the surrounding rainforest and you’ll find hanging bridges to hike over and zip lines to send you careening through the jungle canopy. But what pleases the crowds the most, are some of the best mineral-rich hot springs bubbling up all over the countryside and the focal point of dozens of wellness resorts and spas.
One of the best places to visit for hiking in Costa Rica
Costa Rica’s tallest mountain, Cerro Chirripó, rises 12,533 (3,820) feet above sea level and is considered one of the tallest mountains in Central America. Hiking Chirripó is not for the faint of heart; however, those that reach its peak will be rewarded with a breathtaking view of both the Pacific and Atlantic oceans as well as the misty Talamanca mountain range stretching off into the distance. The expansive Chirripó National Park covers part of three provinces and protects a number of different habitats such as alpine mountain plateaus, marshes, fern groves, lakes and of course, rainforests. Those wishing to visit this must see should reserve their dates with the national park ahead of time as access is limited to minimize human impact on the fragile ecosystem.
Corcovado National Park
This is where to go for untouched nature and wildlife in Costa Rica
Corcovado National Park is considered the “crown jewel” of Costa Rica’s national park systems. It is the country’s largest protected area, covering 424 km of land – nearly the entire Osa Peninsula on the South Pacific Coast. The park is home to at least 13 different life zones including marine and coastal habitats, mangroves and palm forests, and highland rain and cloud forests and is considered one of the best places to go to be surrounded by nature and wildlife. Scientist and ecologists flock to the area year-round; however, the dry season from December to April is considered the best time to visit. At least three ranger stations are based around its perimeter offering visitors guided hikes and overnight treks into the interior to discover why National Geographic named the park “one of the most biologically intense places on earth.”
One of the best off the beaten path areas to visit in Costa Rica
Drake Bay is a small jungle oasis hidden among quiet canals and mangrove estuaries on the northwest corner of the Osa Peninsula. Famed as harboring the resting place of Privateer Sir Francis Drake’s hidden treasures. Its charm lies partly in the fact that getting there is no easy feat, making it one of the top off the beaten path attractions along the southern Pacific Coast. Visitors must either fly to Drake or take a 1.5-hour boat ride from the town of Sierpe, through wild mangrove wetlands and river. Private eco-resorts dot the forest and beaches surrounding Drake Bay, and some are only accessible by boat. The town offers small hotels and backpacker hostels to accommodate the less affluent travelers as well. Snorkeling nearby Cano Island, beachcombing, and hikes into the northern region of Corcovado National Park are common pastimes.
The best and closest city to travel to in Costa Rica
Located a quick 1.5 hours from San Jose on the Central Pacific Coast, Playa Jaco is Costa Rica’s oldest and biggest party town. Jaco is considered one of the best Costa Rican cities to visit if you don’t want to travel far from the capital. The town limits of Jaco encompass a large and vibrant beach community of national Costa Ricans living side by side with all-inclusive resorts, boutique hotels, family-owned lodges, and backpacker hostels. Ticos (slang for Costa Ricans) from the capital city and Central Valley, and vacationers from all over the world, fill the streets during the weekends and high season, spilling out of the numerous bars and restaurants late into the night. Jaco’s waves also attract a fair share of surfers. However, most aficionados prefer surfing the cleaner and less crowded Playa Hermosa and Playa Esterillos Este to the south. Families will also find plenty to do during daylight hours. Because of its size and proximity to San Jose, you’ll find a large assortment of tour providers and activities to choose from, Including canopy tours, ATV rentals, horseback riding, and more.
Manuel Antonio National Park
Considered the best place to vacation in Costa Rica
Just past the port of Quepos on the Central Pacific Coast, you’ll find the wildly popular town of Manuel Antonio, and the gateway to Manuel Antonio National Park, Costa Rica’s smallest and most visited conservation area. With a large assortment of classy boutique hotels and fine dining, Manuel Antonio could be one of the best places to stay in Costa Rica.
Considered among the most beautiful parks in the world by Forbes Magazine, it’s easy to see why visitors brave the crowds to walk its maintained trails and picnic on the shimmering shoreline of powder-soft sand and crystalline waters. During the high season, it’s best to visit the park on a weekday in order to see the teeming wildlife and get a spot on the beach. Sloths, monkeys, iguanas. Raccoons, pizotes, bats, snakes, frogs, deer, and hundreds of other species call the protected forest and coastal area home, making for an excellent Costa Rica vacation photo op. Just outside the park, on Manuel Antonio Beach, you’ll find fun family-oriented beach activities like parasailing, surfing lessons, kayaking, and even banana boat rides, as well as a handful of open-air restaurants serving fresh seafood and local fare. If you’re wondering where to go in Costa Rica in order to experience a little bit of everything the country offers, then Manuel Antonio is your place.
Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve
Where to go for pristine cloud and rain forests in Costa Rica
Located in the northwest-central region of Costa Rica, high among rainforest draped mountains, lie the Monteverde and Santa Elena Cloud Forest Reserves. Considered one of the best places to experience the marvels of the country’s cloud and rainforest habitats, the convergence of both the Atlantic and Pacific life zones along the country’s continental divide result in an unbelievable population of animal and plant species, many of which are found nowhere else on earth. Nearly all prearranged Costa Rica vacation packages will include a visit to Monteverde, and for a good reason, it is one of Costa Rica’s top eco-destinations. Guided day and night hikes into the reserves are a great way to learn about the delicate ecosystems and rare species coexisting in the dense foliage. Aerial trams, canopy tours, and zip lines offer an equally entertaining glimpse from above. Among the 100 mammals, 400 types of birds, 2,500 plant species, and countless reptiles are jaguars, ocelots, coati, poison dart frogs, eyelash pit vipers, and the brilliantly plumed resplendent quetzal.
Montezuma, Mal País, and Santa Teresa
Costa Rica’s top beach and surf destinations
Occupying the southernmost tip of the Nicoya Peninsula on Costa Rica’s Pacific Coast, are the picturesque beach towns of Montezuma, Mal País, and Santa Teresa. What makes these small towns so spectacular is much more than their beachy charm. The magic of the area lies in the rugged and dramatic natural environment and a steep cliff backdrop where the famous Montezuma Waterfall lures hikers and adventurers into its cool river pools. Occupying the peninsula’s southernmost point is one of Costa Rica’s first absolute reserves, Cabo Blanco, considered by many to have spearheaded the country’s national park movement. And further north is the iconic, endless palm-lined beaches of Santa Teresa and Mal País, famous for their beach breaks, funky bohemian vibe, and daily sunset ritual.
Puerto Viejo and Cahuita
Where to go on the Atlantic Coast of Costa Rica
Known as the reggae capital of Costa Rica, the southeastern Atlantic Coast boasts a warm Afro-Caribbean vibe and stunning, palm-lined beaches. Puerto Viejo and a hamlet of neighboring towns dotting the coastline have long been the Caribbean side’s go-to beach destinations for both day and nightlife. In addition to the groovy Creole-infused culture, visitors will find endless stretches of pristine white and black sand beaches, Salsa Brava—the country’s most famous wave, the breathtaking Gandoca Manzanillo Wildlife Refuge, coral reefs and marine-rich waters for snorkeling, and a vibrant town brimming with eclectic restaurants, bars, cafes, and shopping.
Approximately 10km to the north, the sunny village of Cahuita offers a much smaller and quieter version of Puerto Viejo, as well as the “must see” Cahuita National Park, which protects what is considered Costa Rica’s best coral reef formations and an idyllic lowland Atlantic tropical rainforest. Visitors can stroll along the horseshoe-shaped white-sand beach and turquoise waters under the shade of tall almond and palm trees, home to a host of bird and wildlife including herons, monkeys, raccoons, pizotes, iguanas, and much more.
Rincón de la Vieja Volcano
A Costa Rica Must See Destination
Far to the north along the Central Mountain Range of Guanacaste lies the geologically fascinating Rincón de la Vieja Volcano, perhaps one of the best areas to visit if you want to witness the earth’s remarkable geothermal protentional. Hiking into the Rincón de la Viejo National Park, visitors will see mysterious steam vents, great lagoons of boiling and bubbling clay mud, and misty thermal rivers and hot spring pools, in addition to cascading waterfalls and panoramic vistas of sweeping grasslands and cattle ranches in the valleys below. Just to the north of Rincón de la Vieja is another impressive phenomenon of nature known as Rio Celeste, located in the Tenorio Volcano National Park. Perhaps Costa Rica’s most enchanting river, the 14km stretch of river is a brilliant powder blue, resulting from the convergence to the Buena Vista and Quebrada Agria rivers and the presence of an aluminosilicate mineral composition that reacts to sunlight creating the enchanting blue color.
Within and around the Rincón de la Vieja and Tenorio National Parks are plenty of activities for anyone enjoying the great outdoors. Hiking, horseback riding, mountain biking, and even tubing and white-water rafting keep visitors coming back for more.
San Gerardo de Dota
Costa Rica’s best birding destination
Located approximately 90 km from San Jose in the remarkable Talamanca Mountains, the cool and misty San Gerardo de Dota is nothing like what you’d expect from a tropical country only 10 degrees north of the equator. The narrow valley follows the Savegre River, which eventually empties into the ocean near Quepos. Its descent from the Cerro de la Muerte Mountain Range is the last biological corridor that connects the Central American Cordillera with the Pacific, making the region rich in biodiversity. Over 2,000 different species live in the Savegre basin, of which 1,972 are native to the area. It is also home to 20 percent of the country’s flora, 54 percent of its mammals, and 59 percent of its birds. Around San Gerardo de Dota there are about 180 species of birds, including the resplendent quetzal, and even large animals such as jaguars and tapirs have been sighted. Cozy mountain lodges with roaring fireplaces are the norm and guests are encouraged to hike and enjoy the bountiful wildlife and bird species.
Costa Rica’s most popular family vacation spot
Over the past thirty-years, Playa Tamarindo has evolved from a sleepy fishing village, visited by the rare surf guru or brave eco-adventurer, into one of Costa Rica’s top attractions. Situated on the north Pacific Coast of Guanacaste, the big and vivacious beach town borders a picturesque arc of golden sand and excellent surf. Some of the world’s most challenging surf waves are also nearby, including Witches Rock—a 45-minute boat ride from Tamarindo—or Ollie’s Place in nearby Labarinto. Estuary tours of the mangrove-lined canals at Tamarindo Wildlife Refuge is a must-see, as is a visit to Playa Grande National Park, which protects both marine and coastal habitats, and sees the arrival of nesting leatherback turtles from March to October. The town also hosts a variety of festivals throughout the year, as well as an impressive assortment of fine dining international restaurants, popular local eateries, bars, nightclubs, and plenty of shopping. Visitors can find just about every adventure tour included on Costa Rica’s menu of activities, making Tamarindo an excellent place for family vacations.
Where to visit for amazing turtle nesting excursions and wildlife in Costa Rica
Named after the turtle hunters that used to brave the wild beaches and shoreline in search of valuable turtle meat and eggs, the small town of Tortuguero now champions the creatures’ protection and has become an internationally recognized base for wildlife conservation and environmentalism. Getting to Tortuguero is an experience in itself. Visitors travel by passenger boat from the La Pavones Dock near Guapiles (or Moin). The 1.5-hour trip winds through mangroves and along jungle-lined rivers where passengers are likely to see myriad wildlife, including caiman, lizards, monkeys, and a host of bird species such as the bare-throated tiger heron and magnificent frigate bird. Giant leatherback, green, hawksbill, and loggerhead turtles lay their eggs in the warm sands of Tortuguero National Park, attracting thousands of spectators annually. Permission to approach the nesting grounds on a guided tour must first be obtained from the Ministry of the Environment and Energy (MINAE) who is responsible for the protection and maintenance of the park. A handful of all-inclusive eco-lodges provide comfortable and convenient lodging options, leaving guests free to explore the canals and beautiful beaches.