Widely recognised as one of the most diverse, picturesque countries in the world, Costa Rica is overflowing with exceptional scenery, swarming with exotic wildlife and abundant in glorious beaches. Ideally situated in Central America, it has a tropical climate with high temperatures year-round. Rain showers, most common in the late afternoon or evening, keep the greenery lush and prosperous.
As much as Costa Rica has a worldwide reputation for its natural treasures, it also attracts fame for its people. Social services, long life expectancy and the caring nature of local people have all contributed to Costa Rica consistently ranking highly in tables for the happiest places in the world.
Life in Costa Rica is represented by one of the country’s most common phrases, “Pura Vida”. Translated as ‘Pure Life’, it reflects the inhabitant’s outlook and is regularly used as a greeting or an expression of how someone is feeling.
As a country, Costa Rica puts great value on its people and education. As a result, this spills over into the tourism industry, where you will meet happy and helpful people. Many will speak very good English and they love to go above and beyond to provide a fantastic service for you. Even locals and workers who speak little English light up and love it when tourists make the effort to speak to them in Spanish (however limited!) and will still appreciate a shout of “Pura Vida!”.
Costa Rica is blessed with countless incredible places. Deciding where to go and what can do can, in the very best way possible, be extremely hard. Here’s our guide to seventeen of the most amazing places in one of the world’s most desirable locations.
The Best Places to Visit in Costa Rica
1. Arenal Volcano
The Arenal Volcano’s perfectly conical shape creates a stunning backdrop for local towns such as La Fortuna. Still active, Arenal is most famous for its sudden eruption in 1968 when rocks, lava and ash buried some of the towns and villages below. La Fortuna to the east, already named ‘the fortunate’ due to its rich and fertile land, survived the disaster and is now a hive of activity in the area.
Geologically considered a young volcano and standing at over 1,600 metres high, Arenal is one of the most aesthetically pleasing volcanos in the world. Its sad, but fascinating history is compelling.
While it is illegal to climb Arenal volcano, there is an extinct volcano, Cerro Chato, next to it that you may climb. The old towns of Arenal and Tronadora now lie at the bottom of Lake Arenal, the largest lake in the country, on which you can go paddleboarding.
In nearby La Fortuna, there are a multitude of opportunities for activity-filled days, including white water rafting, a visit to La Fortuna Waterfalls fed by the Arenal River and relaxing in free geothermal hot springs.
Be sure, too, to keep an eye out for local wildlife. Sloths can often be seen nestled in the trees!
2. Manuel Antonio
A small national park on the Pacific coast, Manuel Antonio has a stunning array of wildlife, scintillating beaches and rewarding hiking trails.
A popular whale-spotting location, dolphins and colourful marine life also frequent the clear waters. Catamaran boat tours run regularly and you can be certain of catching an enviable sunset shot after a day of soaking in the sun relaxing, swimming, snorkelling and playing games on the beach. Soft sand underfoot and shade provided by trees make the beach ideal for a stroll at any time.
El Avión is a world-famous restaurant in Manuel Antonio offering amazing views of the Pacific ocean below. However, the most intriguing thing about the restaurant and the real reason to visit is that it is built into an old cargo plane. Part of a 1980s scandal, you can learn the history, delight in the views and spend a memorable evening in one of the more unique dining venues in the world.
Quepos, the nearest city, is often used as a gateway to Manuel Antonio. It is a great place to take in local life as it has mostly retained its authentic Tico feel.
Monteverde, although only a small community, is one of Costa Rica’s major ecotourism destinations. Having seen its tourism industry grow exponentially in recent years, Monteverde is now more equipped to deal with this and give tourists a stunning experience and memories.
Visit the Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve early in the morning and you will most likely catch glorious sunshine and a hive of activity among the trees. A shelter for thousands of animals, the reserve is a treat for every sense and houses pumas, monkeys and endangered jaguars, as well as a plethora of birds and plant species.
Explore the local town, take a nighttime guided tour of the cloud forest or, for the more adventurous and daring explorer, climb the locally-famous ficus tree with its hollow inside and exceptional views from the top, or take a birds-eye-view across the canopy of the jungle on Latin America’s longest zipline.
A town and river area close to Puerto Viejo, Sarapiqui is the ideal place for relaxing and river-based activities. Home to several nature reserves and the endangered Green Macaw, it is a really diverse area and a superb spot for nature spotting for ecotourists.
White water rafting is a popular activity in the area, and there are a number of jungle lodges you can stay in. Be sure to have insect repellent if heading to such an area, but be sure that you will have the most stunning experience as you grow closer to nature and more acutely aware of every sound movement and smell. Immerse yourself in your surroundings and treasure each moment.
Only accessible by plane or boat, Tortuguero is famed for its turtle populations. Catch the right time of year and you will be blessed with a stunning show of different types of turtles both on the edge of and in the surrounding waters. The waters here are not safe to swim in due to strong currents and rough conditions, but the beaches are still highly recommended as a place to see different species of sea turtle.
Sitting on the Caribbean coast, Tortuguero is also blessed with migrating North Atlantic humpback whales from December to March.
Travelling to the village is reason enough itself to visit. Your vantage point from a boat cruising peacefully across still waters is perfect for spying out local wildlife, including caiman, iguanas and monkeys hanging out in the surrounding trees.
Puerto Viejo de Talamanca
A past reputation as a party town is being somewhat retracted as more little gems are being revealed in this south-eastern town on the Caribbean coast. While it can still be a great location for a party, with plentiful bars, karaokes, discos and restaurants, it is also much more with attractions for all tourists.
As you’d expect, its beaches are stunning and warm-watered. Some are specifically for experienced surfers and not recommended for swimmers, so be sure to check, but there are ample places to swim, snorkel and diving. Horseback adventures, mountain biking and kayaking are also popular here, while a visit to the animal rescue centre is not to be missed.
A fast-paced and buzzing destination during high season and a much slower and more laid-back way of life during the low season, Uvita is on many people’s to-do lists for a variety of reasons.
It is home to the Whale’s Tail beach and a popular destination for people heading out on whale watching tours. The Marino Ballena National Park is famous for migrating pods of whales. Nearby, you can also find impressive waterfalls, while many walking and hiking routes, from a comfortable stroll to a more challenging trek are available in the area.
A small fishing village on the edge of the Nicoya Peninsula, Santa Teresa is a truly beautiful setting. It is now a haven for surfers regardless of ability and offers explorers the chance to hike interesting trails and for people to explore on horseback.
Canopy tours and nature reserves can be found nearby for the visitor seeking their wildlife fix. Impressively, the area has retained its traditionally peaceful feel in amongst the changes made to accommodate increased tourism in the area.
One of the most popular regions for tourists, Guanacaste’s reputation is built on pristine shorelines, stunning mountain ranges and volcanos. Diverse and exotic, it is found in the northwestern region of the country and borders Nicaragua.
Long summer days, activity-filled regions and typically impressive Costa Rican wildlife are some of the major attractions. It is home to over 30,000 acres of national parks and its capital city, Liberia, has managed to retain its native Tico atmosphere while also becoming more accommodating of tourists.
Tenorio Volcano National Park
Found in the northern part of Costa Rico, the national park is famous, as its name suggests, for the volcano found there. The volcano consists of four peaks and two craters.
The Rio Celeste running through appears blue in colour because of the sulphur emitted from the volcano. The upper areas of the park are dominated by cloud forest, while the lower areas are covered by rainforest. Waterfalls, lagoons and hot springs are spread across the park, and pumas are known to reside in the area.
Corcovado National Park
On the Osa Peninsula, you will find Corcovado National Park once described by National Geographic as the “most biologically intense place on earth in terms of biodiversity”. For this reason among many others, it is widely considered as a ‘crown-jewel’ in Costa Rica’s vast national park collection.
American crocodiles and bull sharks are known to inhabit the rivers and lagoons of the park, while jaguars and all four types of Costa Rican monkey are also known to live there. Day trips or short stays are available, but it’s best to check in advance. All visitors to the park must be accompanied by a certified guide.
The capital city of Costa Rica, San José is likely to be the entry and exit point for most tourists. But contrary to what many believe, it’s much more than that. It is very different from what you imagine when you think of Costa Rica, and far from the kind of scenery you will get in the coastal regions. But don’t let that detract from what is there.
Restaurants and bars are plentiful and varied, you can learn a little about a lot of Costa Rica’s history at the National Museum and the National Theatre is hiding some secrets that you can discover on an hourly guided tour. Shops and markets are popular and an ideal place to grab that souvenir for someone back home, or purchase a local delicacy and step into the warm culture of the country.
If you are visiting around Christmas time, San José transforms from the place people dip in and out of to the place everyone wants to be, with many festivals and Costa Rican Christmas traditions on show at this time.
Manzanillo Wildlife Refuge
Situated on the Caribbean coast, beautiful, hidden beaches are the ideal location for snorkelling in turquoise waters. The typically Caribbean beaches are ideal for surfers, while the surrounding areas are home to some of the most sought-after sights in Costa Rica: sloths, howler monkeys and jaguars.
Isla del Coco
Surrounded by waters teeming with exotic marine life and several varieties of shark, Isla del Coco is an uninhabited island to the south of mainland Costa Rica. Many animals roam the island and it has been a popular place with visitors in the past.
Considered by some the most beautiful setting in Costa Rica (a claim for which there are many, many applicants), you can find caves with etchings from previous travellers and bask in glorious weather in a surreal location.
Poás Volcano National Park
Though not as famous as Arenal, Poás Volcano is arguably one of the most breathtaking spots in the country. The summit is over 2,700 metres and in good conditions, visitors can walk to the edge of the main crater, which has a blue-green lake at its centre.
The park is resplendent with plant life and wild creatures and the surrounding areas are dense with rainforest. On the clearest of days, it is possible to see both the Pacific and Caribbean coasts from the top of the volcano.
Found in the southern part of Costa Rica’s Nicoya Peninsula, Montezuma is a small town bursting with character and fun. It still has an off-the-beaten-path feel to it, holding on to tradition where other areas of the country have had to modernise. It is a very laid-back town known for its long, sandy beaches and surrounding jungles.
The town hosts a wildlife reserve, turtle sanctuary and a waterfall with multiple cascades and pools. Snorkelling, swimming and surfing in the choppy waters are common and enjoyed by both tourists and locals, while your evenings can be taken up by visiting some of the many great restaurants where food from around the world is served.
Named after the billions of shells that wash up on the shore and are gradually crushed to form the sand, Playa Conchal is among the most beautiful beaches you will find in Costa Rica and indeed the world.
Consistent, near-perfect weather year-round makes this a destination to stand out above rivals. It is an ideal snorkelling spot with some of the clearest waters around. For the more ambitious, fishing and diving activities are available, and it is also possible to find a spot for camping out under the stars. National parks and nature reserves can be found in the area and an assortment of restaurants cover all needs and wishes.
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