Whether it’s exploring the lush cloud forests in Monte Verde or the secluded beaches of Tortuguero National Park, nature and wildlife are at the top of everyone’s list of the best places to visit in Costa Rica.
Costa Rica is well known as a sustainable or eco-friendly holiday destination. Depending on when you visit, you'll be able to take advantage of different activities.
Throughout history, Costa Rica has been ruled by a number of different countries, including Spain, Portugal, and Mexico. It is now one of the few countries around the world not to have an army, and to produce its energy solely through renewable sources.
The country is also a pioneer of ecotourism with its friendly wildlife, tropical beaches, and lush rainforests. Even the busy capital, San Jose, has an animal rescue center and a strong emphasis on the importance of biodiversity.
It's hard to find a reason not to spend time in Costa Rica. There are plenty of options for hiking, surfing, relaxing, dancing and shopping. From arriving in the capital of San Jose, to wherever you end up in this amazing country, you are sure to fall in love with the locals (Ticos) and learn the pura vida way of life. You might just love it so much you decide to apply for their freelance visa and take your remote work with you to Central America.
Manuel Antonio National Park
Manuel Antonio National Park is located on the Pacific coast, just south of San Jose. The huge, coastal rainforest nature reserve sustains rich wildlife and marine species and is a must when visiting Costa Rica. The park was named after President Manuel A. Figueres Ferrer when it opened in 1972.
There are so many things to do here that the list is almost endless. Go surfing, diving, or dolphin and whale watching in the Pacific Ocean.
Go whitewater rafting on the Savegre River, or hike the Puerto Escondido trail for a chance to see capuchin monkeys.
When you're finished with all of the adventure, you can just relax on the beach in nearby Quepos. For a fun lunch stop, head to El Avion, a highly rated restaurant housed in an old cargo plane.
Don’t miss the Nauyaca Waterfalls nearby, and the country's largest mountain (at an elevation of 3,821 meters) Cerro Chirripó, located in Chirripó National Park.
Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve
Surrounded by lush rainforest, Monteverde is the place to stay for nature lovers in Costa Rica.
It’s home to jaguars, pumas, ocelots, toucans, sloths, and spider monkeys. But the resident that attracts over 250,000 visitors each year is the elusive quetzal bird. Bird watching tours can be arranged for around $60.
Do a night safari to get a good chance of seeing orange kneed tarantulas, tiny frogs, sloths, and maybe the odd sleeping toucan.
It’s not a place for the squeamish though, as there are plenty of spiders and snakes lurking amongst the trees.
There’s also zip lining and a tree top canopy walk. Stay in the nearby Santa Elena and you can also check out the Monteverde Butterfly Gardens to see some of the creepy crawlies up close.
Tamarindo Beach in the Guanacaste region of Costa Rica is the perfect place to get to know the laid-back locals. Head to the Night Market, Langosta Beach Club, and Pico Bistro Tamarindo to sample some of the best local delights.
Tamarindo is best known for its world-class surfing conditions, but the surf town is also the perfect place to just relax. There are plenty of great restaurants and bars to spend evenings in, and days are best spent chilling at Playa Tamarindo.
Other things to do in the Guanacaste region include:
- Playa Grande to visit nesting leatherback turtles between October and March
- Catalina Islands archipelago with its resident manta rays
- Horseback riding on the Rincon de la Vieja Volcano.
- Scuba diving off of Islas Murcielagos or “Bat Islands”. With visibility of up to 30 meters, it’s possibly the best place to dive in Costa Rica. Whales and dolphins are commonplace here, plus there’s a chance to see bull sharks up close at “Big Scare." Because it’s not that easy to get to, only true ocean lovers make the journey out here so the coral and volcanic reef systems are in fantastic condition.
Puerto Viejo de Talamanca
Puerto Viejo has a different vibe from the rest of the country. It’s located at the southeastern tip of the country on the Caribbean coast, close to the home of the Afro-Costa Rican community in Puerto Limón. It’s a lively and young beach town with something going on every night and plenty of great resorts to choose from.
Be sure to visit one of the many cantinas and eateries for some of the best food in Central America. Puerto Viejo is also one of the best places in Costa Rica for nature lovers. The Jaguar Rescue Center rehabilitates wild cats and other animals from the nearby Gandoca-Manzanillo National Wildlife Refuge.
To the north, Cahuita National Park is a great spot for snorkeling and diving, with a large coral reef and a shipwreck dive site.
Santa Teresa is the Tulum of Costa Rica. The beautiful beaches look out over uninterrupted views of the Pacific coast and some of the best sunsets anywhere.
There’s really only one main street lined with restaurants and bars, but it’s easy to spend a lot more time here than you originally intended. Think health retreats, white sand, organic surf cafes, and strong yoga vibes. Santa Teresa is a great place to get lost for a while.
To the east, on the other side of the Nicoya Peninsula, you will find Tortuga Island. A paradise island where you can spend all day snorkeling in the crystal clear waters.
Also worth a visit is Cabo Blanco, a 3,140-acre forest, with hiking trails and a rugged beach with a remote feel. The popular tourist destination Montezuma is also just up the road.
Jaco Beach Town
On the opposite side of the Gulf of Nicoya is Jaco. Unquestionably one of the best beach towns to go to in Costa Rica for the party lifestyle.
It’s about as close to a beach resort as Costa Rica gets, with high-rise hotels, backpacker bars, fast food outlets and all-night discos. Find a Guaro Sour cocktail bar and scope out a beach hammock for tomorrow's hangover.
For more high-octane adventures there’s sport fishing, ATV tours, ziplining at Rainforest Adventures and much more.
Playa Herradura is another, less busy beach located just over a 10 minutes drive north. The huge horseshoe bay and shallow waters make it a great spot for swimming. It’s also known as the fishing capital of Costa Rica.
Tortuguero National Park
Costa Rica’s alternative to the Amazon Jungle, Tortuguero National Park is the part of the country best known for nesting sea turtles along the Caribbean coast.
Thousands of visitors come each year to watch green sea turtles, leatherbacks and hawksbill turtles crawl from the ocean to build their nests between July and October. If you visit at the right time you may be able to watch hatchlings emerge and make their first steps out into the ocean under the cover of darkness.
Conservation is the top priority here and tours can get canceled if the conditions aren’t right. You can also take a canoe or boat trip through the jungle rivers to spot sloths, howler monkeys and crocodiles.
Head to the outdoor adventure capital of Costa Rica, La Fortuna, to see Arenal Volcano. One of Costa Rica's biggest tourism draws, the still active volcano stands at a mighty 5,437 feet (1,657 meters). Take a boat trip on Lake Arenal to see the volcano in all of its glory.
But that's not the only reason to visit La Fortuna. Go white-water rafting with Desafio Tours, try canyoneering with Lost Canyon Adventures, or take a trip to La Fortuna falls (or Catarata Río Fortuna), an impressive 70m waterfall and swim spot.
Corcovado National Park
Established in 1975, Corcovado National Park is situated on the remote Osa Peninsula in southwestern Costa Rica. It’s one of the best off-the-beaten path places to visit in Costa Rica, and at 424 square kilometers, also the largest national park in the country.
It’s not easy to get to, so you can leave the crowds behind on a visit to Corcovado. Think long stretches of deserted beach, wildlife spotting hikes, and remote camping spots.
Hike the El Tigre trail for a chance to spot tapirs, squirrel monkeys, and colored macaws. Then head to Isla del Caño, just off the Pacific Coast, for sightings of dolphins, humpbacks, and other whale species.
Where Should I Stay My First Time in Costa Rica?
If you're eager to start planning you trip to these best places to visit in Costa Rica, it might be hard which place to check out first, especially if you have limited time on your vacation.
You can’t go wrong with Arenal, Monte Verde, and Manuel Antonio National Park. They have a bit of everything and have great links to San Jose, where most will enter/exit the country by plane.
Where should you not stay in Costa Rica?
Some parts of San Jose and Limon are best avoided due to drugs, gangs, and social-economic problems.
Everywhere on the tourist route is safe in Costa Rica, but for digital nomads looking to stay a bit longer, some care needs to be taken in choosing the right spot.
Costa Rica is known as one of the safest countries in Central America. A lot of locals speak English and have a friendly welcoming attitude to tourists. The tourist trail is well trodden here, but there are plenty of off-the-beaten-path places in Costa Rica to be found too. So give yourself some time to explore and see where the path takes you.
Hero photo by William Warby.