From kayaking through the lagoons of the northern Caribbean Coast to spot wildlife hanging in the trees, walking through a cloud forest on a hanging bridge with the call of a bird in the distance, or getting a cold drip on your shoulder while easing into hot springs, Costa Rica has no shortage of pristine biologically diverse places to visit. With 30 national parks in the country, you will run into one no matter which direction you head. With so many options, it can be hard to decide which direction to go, so we are here to give you an overview of the incredible places to visit in Costa Rica.
And the best time of year to visit Costa Rica depends on where you are headed! Most of the country follows a wet and dry season, but there are a few exceptions. Keep reading for an introduction to the places to visit in Costa Rica, and head over to this blog post where we break down the best time to visit Costa Rica.
In northern Costa Rica, Arenal Volcano stands proud and attracts guests from all over the world. Until 2010, this was Costa Rica’s most active volcano, with up to 41 small eruptions throughout the day, views of lava in the distance, and rumbling. Although the volcano is now in a rest period, the Arenal Volcano is still an imposing and beautiful sight with various adventures. Use the colorful town of La Fortuna as a base to see all that the area has to offer.
Explore old lava flows and spot wildlife while hiking the trails throughout the area. You cannot hike on the volcano, but you can still explore the rainforest treetops by walking across hanging bridges or speeding through the canopy on a zipline. If water activities are more your speed, consider whitewater or paddle boarding on the calm waters of Lake Arenal. No matter what you do, you’ll always have a backdrop of the Arenal Volcano.
After a day filled with adventure, give your feet a rest by relaxing at a hot springs resort in the area. Hot spring resorts utilize rainwater and volcanic activity in natural pools as an excellent way for the entire family to unwind while directly connecting back to the Arenal Volcano. Austin Adventures visits the Arenal area and one of these hot springs in our Costa Rica family vacation; check out the itinerary to see if it’s a good fit for your family.
LA FORTUNA WATERFALL
The town and the waterfall of La Fortuna share their name, which means “the fortune.” Those that named the area were likely referring to the fertile volcanic soil, but we’d like to think it’s for Costa Rica’s most famous waterfall. Near the Arenal Volcano, The La Fortuna Waterfall drops a massive 200 feet into a pool of clear blue water. Surrounded by jungle and only accessible by foot (only a 15-minute hike down a series of stairs) or horseback, getting to the waterfall is an adventure. Once you arrive, you can cool off in the mist or wade into the vibrant blue pool.
The Guanacaste region sits on the northwest corner and is known to be Costa Rica’s “Gold Coast” for having over 400 miles of coastline and forested environments. Unlike the lush rainforests you might associate with Costa Rica, the relatively dry plain in the north meets up with tropical forests close to the Pacific for a savanna-like environment where you can find cacti and the national tree of Costa Rica, the Guanacaste Tree, from which the area is named.
To the west, the endless coastline provides endless activities. Try your hand (or should we say feet?) at surfing some of Costa Rica’s most reliable breaks, kayak to small islands off the coast, or try to catch a glimpse of sea turtles nesting at night. And further north, there are waterfalls, ziplines, volcanoes, national parks, and rivers to float. You can do many activities and explore this northern region in our sister brand, Active Adventure’s Costa Rica Guanacaste tour.
CORCOVADO NATIONAL PARK
You know an area is special when National Geographic called it “the most biologically intense place on Earth.” Located on the southern Oso Peninsula, Corcovado National Park encompasses and protects one of the last remaining old-growth wet rainforests on the Pacific Coast of Central America and boasts over 250,000 species. For a little more tangible breakdown, you might be able to spot all four of the monkey species (including the highly endangered red-backed squirrel monkey) and all six of the feline species found in Costa Rica. Also, all four of the sea turtle species that nest in Costa Rica visit the beaches of Corcovado.
Not for the faint of heart, Corcovado National Park is remote, rugged, and wet, with camping being the primary accommodation option within the park. All visitors must go with an accredited guide, which we always recommend – guides keep you safe, ensure the protection of the environment, and point out plants, insects, and wildlife that you might have missed. Although challenging, Corcovado National Park may be the most rewarding destination for outdoor enthusiasts.
MONTEVERDE CLOUD FOREST
There is something about a foggy mist that makes everything more mysterious. In the Monteverde Cloud Forest, you can walk through the ever-present fog as you look out for rare plants and listen to the exotic calls of tropical birds. The mist is formed by rare tropical conditions, where low-hanging clouds hover around the upper canopy before condensing onto the leaves of trees and dripping onto the plants below. Constant moisture creates a thriving environment for plant life and, in turn, wildlife.
For an unexpected view of the cloud forest canopy, walk across hanging bridges originally built for scientists to study the area. For a speedier exploration, try out a zipline through the clouds. Either way, keep an eye out for birds like the Resplendent Quetzal or a slow-moving sloth. Whichever way you decide to experience the Monteverde Cloud Forest, bring an extra layer or two because it can be chilly in the clouds!
TORTUGUERO NATIONAL PARK
Named after the turtles that come to nest in the area, Tortuguero National Park is a unique environment where freshwater meets saltwater. It is also one of the rainiest places in Costa Rica, making it rich in biodiversity and one of the most important nesting sites for the Green Sea Turtle. The National Park is only accessible by boat and features interlocking lagoons, canals, beaches, and rainforests where you can spot wildlife from the water. In Active Adventure’s Tortuguero Tour, we head straight to Tortuguero National park to kayak the canals to a soundtrack of exotic birdsong, watching for manatees, caimans, crocodiles, and turtles. Slowing down to explore Tortuguero National Park is a worthy addition to any itinerary.
THE CARIBBEAN COAST
To see the quieter side of Costa Rica, head to the fishing villages of the Caribbean Coast of Costa Rica. In the north, head to Tortuguero National Park for wildlife spotting. On the southern coast, palm trees mixed with tropical forests border clear blue waters. This area is ideal for snorkeling, swimming, and sunbathing with protected coral reefs and warm temperatures. Also culturally distinct from the rest of Costa Rica, the east coast has Afro-Caribbean influence blended with Spanish and Indigenous Bribri people. The Caribbean Coast offers a contrast to the more typical routes.
THE PACIFIC COAST
Although there are differences between the different zones, you can expect pleasant temperatures, beaches, surfing, and turtle nesting sites all along the Pacific Coast. We have broken it down into distinct zones to explore to better describe the Pacific Coast:
The Guanacaste area begins at the border of Nicaragua and goes down to Samara and Nosara. As mentioned in the section above, this area has excellent surfing, fishing, and scuba diving.
The Nicoya Peninsula consists of the Santa Teresa, Mal Pais, Montezuma, Paquera and Tambor. These are more remote towns with endless sunshine and are best for travelers looking to relax or do water sports.
The Central Pacific coast is mostly Jaco and Manuel Antonio, two popular destinations. Hotels built into the cliff provide sweeping views. Just don’t leave your bag open while looking around, or social Capuchin, Howler, and Squirrel Monkeys may snatch your snacks.
The South Pacific coast is the “Costa Ballena” and includes Dominical, Uvita, and Ojocha, which feature pristine beaches and untouched rainforest. There are laws here to prevent the development of coastlines and protect the natural environment.
The Osa Peninsula is home to Corcovado National Park, covering much of the peninsula. Be sure to refer to the section above.
San Jose sits at the center of Costa Rica and is often overlooked by travelers looking for eco-adventure. However, with an eternal spring-like climate and increasing focus on culture and food, we wouldn’t skip spending an extra night in the country’s capital city. Check out the National Theater of Costa Rica and Museum of Pre-Columbian Gold in the downtown historical center before shopping at Plaza de la Democracia for its lively open-air markets. If you have worked up an appetite, you are in the right place. From luxury hotels, fine dining, farm-to-table, cafes, and family eateries, the gastronomic options in San Jose go well beyond Gallo Pinto.
There is nothing quite feeling the intensity of a waterfall as the water hits the pool below or spotting a sloth in the trees for the first time. With natural beauty and endless adventure activities, Costa Rica is a dream destination for outdoor enthusiasts while being welcoming to families. With so many extraordinary places to visit in Costa Rica, you could easily spend a week at any of the destinations above. We recommend choosing a few geographically close to each other for a mixture of environments, as we did in each of our tours.
Take a look at all our Costa Rica adventure tours for inspiration or book. Our expert guides would love you show you the “pura vida” or “pure life” found in the country.