In Costa Rica, you’ll experience pura vida, which is roughly “pure life” or “simple life.” More than just a saying, it’s a way of life to be thankful and connect back to the cycles of nature. And you’ll feel grateful too after experiencing pristine beaches, mighty rivers and waterfalls, lush rainforests, and rejuvenating hot springs.
Costa Rica keeps many of its wilderness areas undeveloped with protections. Up to 30% of the land is protected, so you can experience the vast biodiversity of flora and fauna and have incredible outdoor adventures. From tasting coffee and chocolate to hiking, canyoneering, white water rafting, and surfing, Costa Rica truly has something for everyone.
If you are wondering about the best time of year to visit Costa Rica, it probably depends on your choice of activities! Most activities can be done throughout the year, but a couple have an ideal season. Keep reading for an introduction to the things to do in Costa Rica, and head over to this blog post where we break down the best time to visit Costa Rica.
Take a Chocolate Tour
Eating local takes on a wonderful new meaning in Costa Rica because it includes chocolate! Not just beloved today, chocolate in Costa Rica has a rich history. Like the Aztecs and Mayans, ancient civilizations used the sacred crop as currency, ceremonial drinks, and dessert. A Chocolate Tour is great for all ages - the ideal activity when on a Costa Rica Family Vacation - where you can learn more about the process that takes the bitter cacao beans to a delicious chocolate bar.
- Where to take a chocolate tour: The cacao plant is native to Costa Rica and is grown in many regions, including the provinces of Guanacaste, Alajuela, Talamanca, Cartago, and Puntarenas. In the late-1970s, a fungus wiped out 80 – 95% of cacao production until the Tropical Agricultural Research and Higher Education Center (CATIE) developed trees immune to the fungus. Chocolate production has now made a resurgence in Costa Rica, and new farms have sprouted on the Caribbean Coast and the Osa Peninsula.
- When to take a chocolate tour: Chocolate farms and production centers are open throughout the year, except on holidays. Many locations offer indoor tours to learn the history and process of making chocolate, so the weather is not necessarily a factor.
Learn About Costa Rican Coffee
Coffee lovers rejoice! You can tour and taste Costa Rican coffee from the source by visiting coffee farms. More than just an economic boost, coffee in Costa Rica has won international awards and become integral to the local culture. The best way to experience Costa Rican coffee is by taking a guided tour of a family-run farm, where you can learn how they use the natural climate and traditional methods to make each high-quality cup.
- Where to learn about Costa Rican coffee: You can find coffee farms throughout the country. However, the ideal conditions for coffee growing are in the central highlands, from Monteverde down to San Jose. In this region, the higher altitude, fertile volcanic soil, cool climate, and steady rainfall make for some of the best coffee in the world. Go directly to the source by joining a tour and tasting on coffee farms.
- When to learn about Costa Rican coffee: Is there any wrong time to have a cup of coffee? We think not! Coffee farms are open throughout the year, so you can learn the coffee-growing cycle from seed to cup at any time. However, there may be more farm activity during harvest season, which lasts from October to March in Costa Rica. Red cherries are hand-picked from the bushes during harvest season, cleaned, fermented, and dried before being bagged up for storage.
According to the World Bird Database, Avibase, there are a whopping 900+ bird species found in Costa Rica, including 9 birds that are endemic to the country. With one of the highest levels of biodiversity in the world and 27% of the land officially protected, Costa Rica is a haven for birds and their natural habitat. And it’s home to the Resplendent Quetzal. With “resplendent” in the name, some birders say this is the most beautiful bird in the world with a vibrant red breast, emerald head, and iridescent green feathers.
Where to go birdwatching: Luckily, birds are highly accessible to visitors due to the six birding ecozones and micro-ecosystems, including the cloud forest, humid lowlands, mountain peaks, dry forest, mangroves, and shore. You’ll have the best chance of spotting the famous Resplendent Quetzal in the cloud forests and surrounding lowlands. Head to the national parks, wildlife reserves, or lodges that specialize in bird watching for your chance to see a variety of species.
When to go birdwatching: January to April is the dry season and winter in North America. Migratory birds like the Chestnut-sided Warbler and Golden-winged Warbler escape the cold in Costa Rica, along with many humans. If you’re looking for a lesser-traveled time, the rainy season can be just as good for birdwatching when some birds prefer to breed among the food-abundant greenery.
See the Sea Turtles
One of the most adorable sea creatures to spot in Costa Rica is the sea turtle. Luckily, four main sea turtle species adore Costa Rica and return each year to lay eggs on the protected beaches. When there is a mass nesting event, it is called an arribadas, which is timed with the tide and the moon cycle. Witnessing the laying or hatching of sea turtle eggs is both fantastic and emotional. Be sure to go with a guide to ensure the protection of nests and learn more about sea turtles.
Where and when to see the four main Sea Turtle species:
- Leatherback Sea Turtles: They nest from March to May on the Caribbean coast. On the Pacific coast, they nest from September to March.
- Green Sea Turtles: Primarily found on the North Caribbean coast, they nest from mid-July to October. As an endangered species, Tortuguero National Park is one of the most important green sea turtle nesting sites globally.
- Olive Ridley Sea Turtles: They nest throughout the year on the Pacific coast, though the best possible months to witness an arribada are in September and October.
- Hawksbill Sea Turtles: Nest in Cahuita National Park on the Caribbean coast from May to October and can be found feeding on the Pacific coast in the Golfo Dulce.
Go White Water Rafting
With 14 river systems in Costa Rica, and 12 of them suitable for whitewater rafting, you will find the right level of rapids and excitement to fit your group. The difficulty of rapids is rated in classes from I to V, with I being the easiest, most gentle, and great for families. You’ll find these in lower altitude areas and surrounded by lush vegetation, making them ideal for wildlife spotting. Each river can be incredibly scenic, like the Pacuare River, which National Geographic selected as one of the best river trips in the world. Our sister brand, Active Adventures, paddles the Pacuare River on their Costa Rica Tortuguero National Park Tour, where you can see why this river was selected!
- Where to go white water rafting: Here are the different rivers and their class, organized by geographic area:
- Guanacaste – Tenorio River: Class III & IV, Corobicí River: Class I & II, Colorado River: Class II & III
- Arenal & Sarapiquí – Balsa River: Class II & III, Toro River: Class III & IV, Sarapiquí River: Class II, III & IV, Peñas Blancas River: Class I & II
- Central Valley & Caribbean Coast – Pacuare River: Class III & IV, Reventazón River: Class II & III
- Central Pacific – Naranjo River: Class III & IV, Savegre River: Class II, III & IV
- South Pacific – Coto Brus River: Class II & III
- When to go white water rafting: During the rainy season (May through November), rivers swell, and rapids become fast and furious. In the drier months of December through April, the rapids are a bit tamer.
Check out Canyoneering
Never tried canyoneering before? Consider trying it out in Costa Rica, where you’ll have the opportunity to rappel down waterfalls. Canyoneering (often referred to as canyoning) is the exploration of a canyon by using a range of techniques that include hiking, scrambling, climbing, swimming or wading, and rappelling. What makes Costa Rica an ideal location for canyoneering is the rainforest-covered mountains. Streams and small rivers generated from the rains have cut into the mountains over the centuries and created hundreds of canyons and waterfalls. It is essential to go with a guide or well-rated tour operator to ensure safety and create a route that is suitable for the ages in your group.
- Where to go canyoneering: The best Costa Rica canyoning tours are located in the mountainous areas of the country, including Arenal Volcano, Manuel Antonio, Monteverde, and the South Pacific.
- When to go canyoneering: Canyoneering tours run throughout the year, with routes adjusted by the tour operator based on water levels to ensure safety. Canyoneering is a phenomenal way to immerse yourself in rainforest surroundings.
Take a Guided Hike
With mountains, cloud forests, rainforests, waterfalls galore, endless beaches, and wildlife spotting, the best way to experience the protected nature areas of Costa Rica is to find yourself on one of the marked trails. You can visit the Arenal area for incredible views of Arenal Volcano. Or check out the hanging bridges through the cloud forests, which tend to be easier and fun for all ages. Head north to the Guanacaste region, where you can explore the vibrant blue Rio Celeste waterfall or the Llanes De Cortes waterfall. And in the south, the double-layered Nauyaca Waterfall is stunning.
Whether you are looking to explore the national parks, reserves, or somewhere in between, a guide can make your hike rich with information about the flora and fauna you encounter. Not to mention, they will keep you safe from anything dangerous like snakes. We break down the reasons to get a guide in Costa Rica in this blog post.
Soak in the Hot Springs
Where there are volcanoes, there are hot springs. And with over 200 volcanic formations and five active volcanoes, Costa Rica has your source of beautifully designed hot springs resorts surrounded by rainforest. At the base of Arenal Volcano, the town of Arenal boasts just-right hot pools thanks to the heat from the volcano mixing with the cool river temps. Hot springs are a fantastic thing to do in Costa Rica on a family vacation.
Some resorts pump the hot water from underground water sources, while others divert water from above ground. One resort that utilizes water from the Tabacon River is the well-known Tabacon Thermal and Hot Springs Resort. It is one of the original hot spring resorts in the Arenal area and incorporates rainforests with natural-looking waterfalls. Another resort that features views of the Arenal volcano while you enjoy the hot tubs is the Springs Resort.
Even if you are not staying at a hot spring resort, most properties offer a day pass where you can enjoy the amenities and pools for the day.
Go Paddle Boarding
Enjoy a peaceful moment in Costa Rica nature by paddle boarding on calm waters. Generally easy to learn at any age, paddle boarding only requires a bit of balance and core strength. Before you know it, you could be gently paddling across a bay, lake, or slow-moving river.
- Where to go paddle boarding: On the oceans, look for enclosed bays that shelter from the wild ways of the open ocean. You can find mild conditions in Tamarindo, located on Costa Rica’s northern Pacific coast, and Playa Herradura in the city of Jaco. Beginners can also head to Lake Arenal, where they can learn to stand-up paddle board with a view of the Arenal Volcano.
- When to go paddle boarding: The dry season (December through April) tends to have warmer temperatures, which can be helpful if you fall into the water. However, there is the opportunity to paddle board on Rio Nosara, south of Tamarindo, in the rainy season. Any time of year is good, as long as you have calm waters.
Costa Rica has ideal surfing conditions with consistent year-round surf, the water temperature averages in the low 80s, natural beauty, and friendly people. There are also a variety of waves, so you will have the opportunity to shred whether you’re a newbie or an advanced surfer. Plus, demand in surf tourism has allowed for the development of a variety of surf-focused accommodations from low-budget hotels, all-inclusive surf camps, or luxury surf villas. You have the option to take a beginner’s surfing lesson from a professional on Active Adventure’s Costa Rica Guanacaste Tour.
- Where to go surfing: The Pacific coasts provide size and consistency, while the Gulf of Mexico features wind swell and occasional hurricanes. You will find the most consistent year-round surf in the northern region – between Tamarindo and Santa Teresa. It is relatively easy to get around, so you can explore different breaks.
- When to go surfing: On the Pacific Coast, southwest swells from the South Pacific create reliable epic waves throughout the year, particularly from March to November. And whenever Costa Rica’s Pacific coast goes flat, which is not very often, head to the Caribbean coast for more possibilities. Sizeable and powerful waves lash the Caribbean side of Costa Rica from December to April.
Seek Out Wildlife
In addition to the birds and sea turtles, biodiversity in Costa Rica also includes mammals, reptiles, amphibians, and insects. If you can believe it, there are about 1,251 species of butterflies and at least 8,000 species of moths in the country. Keep an eye out in freshwater areas, as there are 23 species of crocodiles in Costa Rica. Popular mammals to spot include four monkey species, five sloth species, white-nose coati, and the tapir. The best time to spot wildlife is in the early morning (as nocturnal animals make their way to sleep) and zones around water have a better chance of being frequented by mammals. And for the best opportunity for seeing wildlife, be sure to have a guide.
Plan Your Costa Rica Adventure
If you read this entire list, you must be thinking about a lush and tropical yet adventurous getaway to Costa Rica. With so many incredible things to do in Costa Rica’s different national parks, wildlife preserves, and private reserves, it can be overwhelming in the best way possible. There’s no wrong way to vacation, and if you need a little help deciding what to do, be sure to chat with one of our knowledgeable Adventure Travel Consultants to see if one of Austin or Active Adventure’s getaways is right for you.