Biodiversity and beachfront Costa Rica has to be one of the most exciting places globally. The country stretches throughout Central America, from the emerald lagoons of the Caribbean Sea to the frothy waves of the Pacific Ocean. Continue reading to see my picks for the finest locations to visit in Costa Rica.
There is something here for yogis, hikers, surfers, wildlife lovers, and more, with soaring volcanoes that sprout through the clouds, primaeval rainforests inhabited by howler monkeys and golden frogs, and roaring waterfalls that look like something plucked from Shangri La.
This list of the top 15 places to visit in Costa Rica merely scratches the surface of this fascinating country. It travels from the magnificent cloud forests of Monteverde to the wave-washed coastlines of Guanacaste province. It includes the busy capital of San José and long-lost island groups accessible only by boat.
Costa Rica is best visited between mid-November and April. It's not just the driest time of year but also quite warm - temperatures hover around 28 degrees, with up to twelve hours of sunshine per day.
Manuel Antonio, located halfway down Costa Rica's Pacific coast, is one of the country's most popular eco-tourism destinations. Manuel Antonio is most known for what's right outside its door: the Manuel Antonio National Park. Manuel Antonio National Park is the country's smallest reserve, measuring only 1,983 hectares. But man, does it pack a punch... Come to observe howler monkeys swinging, red-backed squirrel monkeys scurrying, basilisks, capuchins, and, of course, the famously sluggish two-toed sloth.
The settlement of Manuel Antonio is located close to the north of the park's main entrance. It's now a thriving community with sport-fishing outfitters (elusive sailfish inhabit these seas, after all), zip-line courses, and hiking guides. Hotels at Manuel Antonio are not permitted along the coast due to conservation restrictions. However, this is a blessing in disguise because they adorn the cliff tops instead, providing sweeping views of the wave-smashed shoreline.
When it comes to waves, lots of them roll into the beach at Espadilla Sur to the south of the village. Indeed, there are peaks for novices and advanced surfers, with lefts and rights on the menu. There's also snorkelling along Playa Biesanz's craggy coves and sunset lookout places at the end of the uphill one-mile (1.6-kilometre) hike to Punta Catedral.
The small town of Puerto Viejo de Talamanca transports you to the Costa Rican Caribbean. It also shows. The town here would look well at home on Jamaica's north coast. It's packed with paint-peeling cantinas and run-down cafes where the aromas of coconut curries twist and swirl to the rhythms of reggaeton in the air. There are also lively bars sloshed with rum drinks and icy beers, so you will have more nightlife.
Puerto Viejo was once just an unknown fishing village. Then the surfers arrived. The prospect of the thundering left-hand barrels that rip over the reefs of Salsa Brava and the hollow beach peaks of Playa Cocles drew them in. Those are now two of Costa Rica's most iconic surf spots, providing a place to score tubes throughout the dry season months of November to April when the Pacific coast usually is less consistent.
Nevertheless, Puerto Viejo is more than simply waves. The village is ideally situated for treks into the Gandoca-Manzanillo Wildlife Reserve, a beautiful place teeming with eyelash vipers and green parakeets. It also houses the renowned Jaguar Rescue Center, where you can learn about Costa Rica's frontline conservation efforts.
Some say Monteverde was the catalyst for ecotourism in Costa Rica, and it ranks high on our list of the Best Places to Visit in Costa Rica. True or not, this is the spot to go if you want to get out and about in this incredibly wild land's tropical wilds. It is perched high in the hazy centre of the Cordillera de Tilarán and encompasses an area of about 53 square kilometres. Numerous nature reserves and protected forest areas are within, attracting a steady stream of hikers, wildlife spotters, and adventurers.
The spectacular Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve is an absolute must-see. Visitors can explore some of the most biodiverse sections of ancient jungles globally. It's all connected by well-kept trails culminating in a 492-foot-long (150-meter) suspension bridge that passes directly through the canopy. While hiking there, look out for the proud resplendent quetzal (the multicoloured national bird of Guatemala) and the highly uncommon golden toad!
Hotels in these areas are typically exceptionally eco-friendly. We're talking about locations like the Monteverde Cloud Forest Resort, a collection of timber-built cabanas with patios overlooking strangler trees and flowerbeds near the backpacker hub of Santa Elena. From there, you can also book adrenaline-pumping excursions in the surrounding area, such as whitewater rafting, canyoneering, and horseback riding.
Little Tortuguero is surrounded by national parks to the north, south, east, and west. That's the allure of this distant and isolated place on the Caribbean Sea's edge in northern Costa Rica. It is well renowned for its resident population of sea turtles, as the name implies...
They are still the most popular attraction. Between July and October, thousands of visitors flock to observe green sea turtles, leatherbacks, and hawksbill turtles crawl from the ocean to build their nests (August is the best of the lot). It's an experience you're likely to remember quickly. Turtle safaris to local beaches are usually held late at night, with the stars blazing overhead and the moon glinting on the Caribbean Sea. The earliest young hatchlings will return from the sand to the ocean for lucky groups.
Aside from the turtles, Tortuguero is an excellent starting point for exploring the wetlands and waterways of Tortuguero National Park. It stretches nearly 10 miles (16 kilometres) into the hills and jungles behind the town, revealing a wild patchwork of caiman-infested waterways where you may canoe and kayak through genuinely pristine landscapes.
If you only have time to visit one national park in Costa Rica, the Corcovado National Park is a strong contender. It was constructed to conserve some of the last remaining old-growth wet forests on the Central American Pacific, and it was draped across vast areas of the Osa Peninsula in the country's far south. Just in time, too, because the loggers and miners had already set their sights on the location!
It is now an enticingly difficult-to-reach section of the country. Arriving by boat via Drake Bay or Puerto Jimenez is the best option. Then it's time to tackle the trails. A few examples stand out. The longest journey is from Los Patos to Sierna, which takes you through gorgeous cloud forests and cascading waterfalls.
Botanists may prefer the 1.9-mile San Pedrillo Trail, which winds through forests of massive purple heart and mahogany trees teeming with ferns and orchids. Conversely, Corcovado may be an authentic Costa Rican safari, with animal spotting most fantastic on the well-trafficked Sirena Trail, where coatis, pumas, wild pigs, and toucans can be seen.
To put it mildly, the place where the Corcovado rainforests crash into the Pacific Ocean is breathtaking. There, you may go whale watching (August-November) or channel your inner Robinson Crusoe on the black-tinged sands of Carate Beach, which is always uninhabited. In any case, prepare to enter a country of mist-haloed coast peaks and wave-splattered coastlines.
The saline airs that roll off the Pacific Ocean near the tip of the Nicoya Peninsula drench Santa Teresa. It's one of the last of a long line of surf villages in the area, and it might just be the best of the best…
Yes, a trio of fantastic beach breaks come together here. They stretch for more than six miles (nine kilometres), beginning with the beginner-friendly Beach Hermosa in the north and ending with the hollow point breakers of Mal Pais in the south. Santa Teresa has waves for all levels, but it's a genuine intermediate destination in the summer, with consistent, rippable A-frame waves of five feet or more.
But you do not have to wax down the board to enjoy Santa Teresa. Santa Teresa's town has also become a popular nightlife destination. International DJs are frequently seen around New Year's and Christmas, and there are pulsating disco clubs like La Lora for those post-surf afterparties. The jungles quickly take over behind town. If you've avoided a hangover, explore the trails around the Montezuma Waterfall to see the plunge pools and cascading waterfalls.
Arenal Volcano is the centrepiece of Costa Rica's self-proclaimed adventure capital. The Arenal Volcano, which rises 5,436 feet (1,656 metres) above sea level in the centre of the northern cordillera, is a perfectly cone-shaped peak that formerly erupted more than 41 times every day! Don't be concerned... It is dormant; however, you cannot trek to the rise due to the geothermal activity. Instead, explore the beautiful lands surrounding the Arenal Volcano National Park - you won't get bored!
Could you start with a walk to the raging La Fortuna Waterfall? The waterfalls are more than 240 feet (73 metres) from a black-rock mountain into a turquoise lake tucked away in the rainforests. There's also whitewater rafting on the Peas Blancas River and spelunking in the subterranean Venado Caves, which pierce a startling 8,850 feet (2,697 metres) below ground!
Lake Arenal is located on the outskirts of Arenal. Costa Rica's largest lake has become a refuge for outdoor activities. Ziplines can be found in the peaks above them. To the north, at Tabacon, there are hot springs. Meanwhile, SUP boarding, kayaking, and wild swimming are popular on the water.
Guanacaste should be on your radar if you want a more private beach spot on the Pacific coast. It's a province that stretches from the Costa Rica-Nicaragua border to the Gulf of Nicoya like a curled thumb. The action lies on its western side, particularly the 40-mile (64-kilometre) stretch of pristine sands, lagoons, and palm-threaded beaches between Tamarindo (a popular novice surf area) and Samara.
The Santa Rosa National Park is located in the northern section of Guanacaste. Explore empty swaths of golden sand, mangrove woods, and broadleaf woodlands teeming with rare capuchin monkeys. There are many more adventures inland, especially since Guanacaste has established itself as a ziplining paradise - kids will love the Monkey Jungle Zip Line near Tamarindo. Still, there are plenty more hardcore ones to boot.
Back to the shore, and there's so much to do. At cool Playa Hermosa, hammock swinging days meet snorkelling and sunset sailing trips. On Playa Grande, you may witness the turtle hatching season. And there's more surfing than you can toss an ecotourism handbook at - the most incredible spots are Nosara, Tamarindo, and Playa Guiones.
Tortuga has an air of the Thai islands around it. It draws hordes of city slickers from huge San José with the promise of pristine white beaches flanked by jungle-topped cliffs that surge right out of the Pacific. It lies fragmented off the south side of the Nicoya Peninsula, a 90-minute boat voyage out of Puntarenas. The word for today is idyllic.
Tortuga is bordered by some spectacular maritime scenery. Scuba divers and snorkelers will have plenty of options. The El Aquario reef is teeming with rainbowfish, angelfish, stingrays, and odd underwater corals. With its massive submerged volcanic boulders, the Bye Bye Reef is a favourite hangout for sea turtles and manta rays. Then there's the Caroline Star shipwreck, where you can swim with white-tipped reef sharks.
Head back to the forested hills for more fun when you're done exploring the waters and soaking up the sun on the sand. Tortuga has its own zipline route, as well as some challenging jungle, walks with vantage points over the tops of the canopies. Tapirs and weird iguanas, among other things, can be found up there.
Jaco is the closest thing to a full-fledged beach resort in Costa Rica. It's unlike the rest of the country, with its large hotels, beer-sloshing backpacker bars, and fast-food joints. Between the shabby hostels and salt-washed beach bars beside the Ocean, these grimy alleyways have some charm.
Surfing in Jaco is what first put it on the map. Because the two-mile (three-kilometre) beach here features forgiving and steady shoulder-height waves that break over soft sand, it's ideal for total novices. Playa Hermosa, Central America's first designated World Surfing Reserve, caters to more advanced surfers. It's close south of town and has glassy left-handers and A-frames, but watch out for the rips.
Near Jaco, there are numerous beautiful beaches. Beach Blanca is a rare white sand on this side of Costa Rica, surrounded by sea grape clusters and stooping coconut palms. Another standout is Playa Herradura. It opens into a vast horseshoe harbour with a shallow bottom and azure waves that lap over cinnamon-tinged sand, just over 10 minutes drive north of Jaco town. When is it time to get your adrenaline fixed? Treks to the Nauyaca Waterfalls and high-octane ATV trips through the coastal forests are among the options.
Playa Tamarindo, encircled by two rocky headlands and a long slice of sparkling sand midway down the Guanacaste shoreline, has risen and become probably Costa Rica’s most famous surf town, one of the Best Places to Visit in Costa Rica. It was discovered by board riders in the 1970s and has grown in popularity recently. There are now raucous restaurants, pubs, and sleek hotels set among the seaside palms.
Yet, the surf remains spectacular. There’s also something for everyone, from the undulating sandbars of the Estero River to the mellow point break at Capitan Suizo. Of course, Tamarindo boasts an abundance of surf hostels, surf camps, surf schools, and so on. It’s Central America’s equivalent of Kuta, Bali.
When the waves aren’t breaking (which isn’t frequent), the focus will shift to Tamarindo’s other attractions. The most notable is the Marino las Baulas National Park, which exists in portions to the north, south, and east of the city. It features Playa Grande, home to thousands of nesting leatherback sea turtles from October to March. The Catalina Islands archipelago has super-clear waters and resident manta rays 10 miles (16 kilometres) offshore - perfect for scuba divers!
The Islas Murciélagos are on this list of the Best Places to Visit in Costa Rica for one reason: diving. Well, scuba diving here is among the best in the country, if not the world! When the currents and weather cooperate, visibility can reach 98 feet (30 metres), and there are so many bucket-list dive sites that even the most seasoned PADI master won’t grow bored.
These include the ominously titled Big Scare, where you can reasonably go under in the presence of bull sharks. Rugged Bajo Negro, a submerged lava stone wedge teeming with spadefish, moray eels, and gigantic octopi, is another excellent alternative. The marine safari, however, begins the moment you board the boat in Playa del Coco because spinner dolphins and whales inhabit the straits between the mainland and the islands.
The Bat Islands, or Islas Murciélagos, are part of the more fabulous Santa Rosa National Park. A line of lonely isles that protrude into the Pacific Ocean from Costa Rica’s northwestern edge can be challenging to reach, yet reward water babies with nearly empty coral gardens and volcano reef systems. Most visitors will keep to the ocean; however, you can trek a single trail on the largest of the islands, Isla San José. A ranger station and lookout point are only a two-mile (three-kilometre) walk away.
After stepping off the airport in Costa Rica, San José is likely the first place you see. Most visitors will not stay long. For example, the smoking Poas Volcano and its blue crater lake are just on the doorstep, as are the paradisiacal La Paz waterfall gardens. Yet even if you only stay for a few days, this buzzy and lively town will leave an impression.
The beating heart of it all is Avenida Central. That lengthy boulevard cuts across the city, connecting all of the essential areas, from the busy Central Market (go there on Saturday mornings to shop for unusual tropical fruits and delicious coffee beans) to the Cultural Plaza (the proud home of the Pre-Columbian Gold Museum and its glimmering relics from ages long gone).
Making your way to the beautiful hills of Escazu district and its surroundings is one of the most remarkable things to do in the vast metropolis. They immediately climb the cloud-topped peaks that mark the beginning of the Costa Rican backcountry to the west of the centre. Ram Luna and Tiquicia are two beautiful restaurants in those sections that provide authentic Tican cookery, which includes gallo pinto and tamales with a view of the city stretching to the horizon.
Cahuita was similar to Puerto Viejo de Talamanca before the big-name surfers and backpacker partygoers arrived. The village is a few streets across and wide, about six miles (9.7 kilometres) north of its larger brother on Costa Rica’s Caribbean Coast. It comprises tin-roofed shacks and colourful homestays clustered between two long, scything bays, one with pure black sand and the other with Caribbean sugar white sand.
Surfing is becoming increasingly popular in the area, owing to the availability of beginner-friendly waves during the winter months when the Pacific side of the country is more diminutive. Expect a slew more top-rated surf schools and surf camps to follow.
Then there’s the ace in the hole: Cahuita National Park. It’s a wonderland for hikers and snorkelers, with enormous swaths of coral gardens out at sea and a little pocket of the coastal jungle on the headland to the south of town. Plunge deep to encounter sea cucumbers and manta rays. Remain dry, and you’ll be able to walk along paths filled with howler monkey calls.
Chirripo National Park
Mount Chirripó is the highest point in mountain-carved, volcano-dotted Costa Rica. The summit rises 12,536 feet (3,821 metres) above sea level in the Cordillera de Salamanca range, immediately south of San José. It is now the focal point of its eponymous national park, known for its tremendous richness and diversity of medium- and high-altitude habitats.
The walk to the summit is undoubtedly the reserve’s piece de resistance. Transportation from the capital, this usually takes two or three full days. It’s a 23-mile (37-kilometre) loop path that begins on a difficult trail through primaeval rainforests. It enters the odd realm of the Talamanca paramo, a peculiar climatic zone with tussock ridges and resilient flora that appear to have been taken from another planet.
A visit to the Chirripo National Park includes sightings of magnificent quetzal birds and endangered monkey species. Potential views of the Pacific Ocean to the west and the Caribbean Sea to the east are also possible, though they are contingent on clear weather and a successful summit attempt on Mount Chirripó.
When’s the best time to visit Costa Rica?
There’s no real “best time” to visit Costa Rica. It all really depends on what you’re after. The locals divide the year into two seasons: The dry season and the wet season. The first runs roughly in line with North America’s wintertime, from December to April. The second takes up the rest of the year, starting in May and ending around November.
The dry season receives significantly less rainfall than the wet season. Consider, for example, Tamarindo, a quiet, surf-washed village on the Nicoya Peninsula. Precipitation falls to a millimetre in January, then jumps to over 14 inches (358 millimetres) in September, the wettest month. As a result, winter is the busiest season for beachgoers and sunbathers.
Yet, don’t dismiss the green season due to the rain. It’s worth noting that the season is referred to as “green” rather than “wet.” That’s because it’s the time of year when Costa Rica’s jungles turn 10,000 colours of emerald. It’s time to go hunting for all the strange and fascinating species of the woodlands, from lethargic sloths to large-beaked toucans. Also, the green season heralds the best surf and whale-watching in the Pacific.