From smoldering volcanoes to dense cloud forests to pristine beaches, Costa Rica’s tropical landscapes are postcard-perfect.
National Parks are Costa Rica’s main draw, allowing visitors on both the Caribbean and Pacific coasts to explore one of the most biodiverse regions in the world. Whether you’re here to spot rare birds, learn to surf, or simply unplug at a remote eco-lodge, Costa Rica delivers some of Central America’s best vacation experiences. There’s enough to see and do in Costa Rica to keep you interested for years, but these top experiences are the best place to start. And when you need a place to stay, we’ve got lots of hotel recommendations.
Explore the Origins of Coffee
During the 19th century, the coffee industry brought wealth and prosperity that made the country the envy of its neighbors. A drive through the Central Valley late in the year lets you see mountains filled with coffee plants. A handful of coffee estates—Britt, Doka, Don Juan, and Monteverde—offer informative half-day tours and let you see it all, from picking to roasting to brewing.
INSIDER TIPAlthough some of the world’s best coffee comes from Costa Rica, most of the premium product is exported, leaving a mediocre bean behind for the local market. However, tourist-oriented shops sell bags of export-quality coffee that fit nicely into your carry-on.
Zip-line Through the Forest Canopy
Costa Rica gave the world the zip-line canopy tour, a contraption that lets you glide from tree to tree, courtesy of a series of cables, a helmet, and a secure harness. While such operations are found around the world these days, they remain, arguably, Costa Rica’s signature tourist activity, with about 100 zipline tours around the country. The tours are billed as a means to view wildlife in the rainforest canopy, but truthfully, with your screams of delight, you’ll likely scare away the birds and monkeys. If you’re apprehensive of this thrill ride, Rainforest Adventures, with operations near both coasts, provides you with an easier, quieter option as it glides you slowly in a six-seater gondola car through the canopy.
Float Like a Butterfly
Costa Rica is home to 1,500 butterfly species. Most famous is the blue morpho, with its neon blue wingspan. Several enclosed, netted gardens around the country offer you the opportunity to commune with these insects. Some such facilities are simply exhibits; others are working farms that export butterflies in chrysalis form.
INSIDER TIPSunny days bring out the most butterfly activity. For the best photo opportunities, try to visit during the morning, especially if you’re here during the rainy season.
Peer Into a Smoldering Volcano
The Poás volcano, about an hour outside San José, lets visitors gaze into a seething cauldron and sulfurous lake. The drive up here takes you through a verdant cloud forest, so the desolate view at the top is jarring in its contrast. This is one of Costa Rica’s best national parks, with a visitor’s center and restaurant. Don’t dawdle getting up here in the morning, especially during the rainy season when the summit begins to cloud over by late morning.
INSIDER TIPAfter 10-15 minutes on the viewing platform, give yourself a break from the sulfuric fumes.
Get Wet and Wild in Corcovado National Park
National Geographic magazine once dubbed this park “the most biologically intense place on earth.” Costa Rica’s largest—it covers one-third of the Osa Peninsula—and one of its most famous National Parks is also one of its most remote. In fact, it’s so hard to get to that most Costa Ricans have never been anywhere near the place. Corcovado is home to tapirs, sloths, jaguars, peccaries, and all four of the country’s monkey species. Lodging and dining in Corcovado are handled by ADICorcovado, a private consortium of area lodges with options for spending the night in comfy platform tents. Day trips in the company of a guide are also an option if you’re not quite so adventurous.
Want to stay with sloths? The wild animals luxuriate alongside guests at this Costa Rican resort.
Discover the Mysteries of the Deep
Two oceans and 910 miles of coastline make Costa Rica a popular stop for divers and snorkelers. The north Pacific’s Gulf of Papagayo, with its manta rays, hammerhead sharks, and moray eels has the country’s highest concentration of dive shops. You’ll see smaller, less spectacular marine life on the south Caribbean coast.
Let the calendar be your guide in deciding where to dive in Costa Rica. The Caribbean side offers calmer waters in September and October (and not-too-bad waters in April and May), but choppy, cloudy seas the rest of the year. The north Pacific coast serves up the best conditions from May through July. January through April provides the best diving off the southern Osa Peninsula.
Gobble Some Gallo Pinto
Take yesterday’s leftover rice, add some black beans, onion, and chopped red pepper. Top with a dollop of sour cream, and you have gallo pinto, whose name translates as “spotted rooster.” Costa Ricans eat huge amounts of the stuff, and even the local McDonald’s all have McPinto on their breakfast menus. Neighboring Nicaragua also claims to invented the dish, and the two countries have engaged in a friendly “gallo pinto war” for inclusion in the Guinness Book of World Records for preparing the largest amount in one sitting. Costa Rica holds the current record with 3,300 pounds of rice and 2,500 pounds of beans on an occasion that fed 50,000 people.
INSIDER TIPInstead of sour cream, top your gallo pinto with Salsa Lizano, a tangy locally-made product that resembles a thick Worcestershire sauce. No self-respecting mom-and-pop restaurant is without it.
We’re always suspicious of any Costa Rican restaurant that bills itself as serving comida internacional (international cuisine). That often translates into a bland menu of steak and spaghetti. Fortunately, chefs around the country are doing amazing things with cuisine and show that Costa Rica is more than its gallo pinto. Your best bet for a variety of non-local food is a locale with a large visitor population. Some of our favorite gourmet dining experiences can be found at Tin-Jo (pan-Asian in San José), La Pecora Nera (Italian in Puerto Viejo de Talamanca), La Luna (eclectic in Manuel Antonio), Seasons (Mediterranean in Tamarindo), and Citrus (Middle Eastern and eclectic in Ojochal).
INSIDER TIPBy law, restaurants in Costa Rica are required to list menu prices in colones, the local currency, with tax (13%) and service (10%) included. In practice, some tourist-oriented restaurants list prices in dollars and don’t show you that extra 23% until you get your bill. Ask before you order if you’re unsure.
Frolic With Monkeys at Manuel Antonio National Park
One of Costa Rica’s most famous National Parks is also its smallest, logging in at a scant three square miles on the central Pacific coast. Three of Costa Rica’s four monkey species—capuchin, howler, and squirrel—call Manuel Antonio’s humid tropical forest home. Deferring to the monkeys’ needs and acknowledging the tininess of the park, hanging ropes and bridges serve as corridors for animals to come and go between Manuel Antonio and surrounding areas. The presence of the park has given rise to several miles of tourism development between it and its “metropolis” of Quepos. None of it is overpowering, and, most important, none of it intrudes on the park itself. You’ll find some of the country’s best beaches here, as well as lodgings of all shapes and sizes and terrific dining.
INSIDER TIPThe park is closed on Mondays for weekly upkeep and maintenance. Plan accordingly.
Go off the Grid at an Ecolodge
The “eco” prefix gets bandied about quite loosely in Costa Rica. No one has ever patented the term or clearly defined standards for its application. While anyone can set up a cabin out in the wilderness and take in visitors, a handful of lodgings really do walk the walk in addition to talking the talk. Cabo Matapalo’s Lapa Ríos is, arguably, Costa Rica’s premier eco-lodge. It offers secluded comfort in its own private nature reserve. Rancho Naturalista, near Turrialba, has become one of Costa Rica’s preeminent birding destinations. Ecolodges aren’t only in the middle of nowhere, though. Finca Rosa Blanca anchors a working coffee plantation in the Central Valley and incorporates stringent environmental practices into its operations. “Sustainable tourism” has become the watchword these days, expanding on the traditional ecotourism model. Will the product conserve resources—natural, financial, and human—rather than depleting them? We like the Costa Rica Tourist Board’s Certification for Sustainable Tourism. The Spanish/English/French/German website rates tourism businesses with one to five leaves and is regarded as the authority in the field.
Ascend the Green Mountains of Monteverde
In 1951, 11 families of Quakers from Alabama settled in Costa Rica. Their conscientious-objector status caused them problems in America and a nation that had abolished its military two years earlier offered promise. They settled in a secluded cloud forest they named “Monteverde,” where they engaged in dairy farming. Environmentalists, educators, and artisans followed. The result is a magical, remote place with an astonishingly international population that has become one of the country’s top tourist destinations.
A trip here and back lets you experience Costa Rica’s legendary backroads. Brace yourself for 15 miles of rock and gravel and make sure you rent a 4WD vehicle with high clearance. Otherwise, take the twice-daily public bus or private shuttle vans that make the journey up here. Most folks here revel in the difficult access and are happy to keep Monteverde as remote as it is.
Celebrate Carnaval in Limón
It’s not Rio. It’s not New Orleans. It’s not even a pre-Lenten celebration. But the Caribbean port city of Limón does its own Carnaval in the week bracketing Columbus Day (October 12). The Afro-Caribbean city is awash in colorful parades and dances all week long. While Columbus Day has taken on political overtones in much of Latin America, Costa Rica has designated the day as the Día de las Culturas, an occasion to mark the meeting of Old and New Worlds and to celebrate the country’s cultural diversity. Limón has no real acceptable lodgings. If you plan to attend the celebrations, base yourself 45 minutes south in Cahuita or Puerto Viejo de Talamanca on the south Caribbean coast and come up to Limón for the day. Plan on lots of traffic, though.
Master the Merengue
One of the best souvenirs from Costa Rica takes up no room in your suitcase. With advance notice, the Merecumbé dance studio can give you a private dance lesson in English that’ll let you wow the folks back home. Concentrate on the march-like merengue and the smoother rhumba—Costa Ricans call the latter the “bolero.” Both work well with music with a 4/4 tempo. Salsa gets more complicated and cumbia is trickier still. (Costa Ricans call cumbia the “swing.” It’s mesmerizingly flashy, but nothing a beginner can master in an hour.) Arm yourself with a few basic steps and everyone will want to dance with you at the next wedding reception you attend. Your opportunities to get out and strut your stuff here are, unfortunately, limited in San José. The city’s discos—yes, Spanish still uses that 1970s term—will make you feel positively ancient if you are over 25.
Stand in Awe of the Perfect Cone at Volcán Arenal National Park
The Arenal volcano looms ominously over northern Costa Rica. Local seismologists refer to Arenal as “resting,” but it remains one of the country’s five active volcanoes. Its last major eruption took place in 2010. These days, you’ll see a plume of ash rising from the summit and may hear a rumble or two. For safety’s sake, you are allowed nowhere near the slopes of the volcano, but Arenal has given rise to a booming regional tourism industry. You’ll find zip-lines, hanging bridges, rappelling, hot springs, horseback riding, fine dining, and a great selection of lodgings for all budgets, both in the nearby town of La Fortuna and along the road that runs near the base of the mountain.
INSIDER TIPIf you’re looking for a great photograph, visit La Fortuna’s Church of San Juan Bosco, which gives the volcano in the background a sense of perspective.
Support Animal Rescue Efforts
The world gives Costa Rica high marks for its environmental consciousness. While deserved, that masks the reality of segments of animal populations that are in trouble, as a result of neglect or abuse, human or natural, active or passive. A small army of good-hearted souls around the country works in the field of animal rescue and rehabilitation. (Rehabilitation is not always possible; the condition of some animals remains too fragile for them to return to the wild.) Proyecto Asis in La Fortuna, Tree of Life in Cahuita, and the Jaguar Rescue Center—despite the name, no jaguars here—in Puerto Viejo de Talamanca all work toward these goals.Inquire in advance about short- or long-term volunteer work at any of the facilities engaged in animal rescue. Your admission goes to support these worthwhile projects, and further financial donations are always welcome too.
Take in the Topiary at Costa Rica’s Weirdest Park
Costa Ricans are fond of referring to their peace-loving, politically neutral country as la Suiza Centroamericana, the Central American Switzerland. And a visit to the tin mountain town of y Zarcero in the northern Central Valley just might make you think you’re in Switzerland. Zarcero’s claim to fame in the outside world is the whimsical topiary adorning its Central Park. You’ll think you’ve stumbled into a world of Dr. Seuss characters in foliage. The creations are the product of local sculptor Evangelisto Blanco, who has been caring for his creations since the 1960s. An NPR report on Zarcero referred to Blanco, who will turn 80 later this year, as “Señor Scissorhands.” Zarcero anchors a prosperous dairy region, another Swiss-like quality to the town. Stores on the main street fronting the park all sell Zarcero cheese, which makes a great road trip snack.
Attend a Theater Performance in San José
Little architecture of note survives in Costa Rica, where earthquakes are common. But one late-19th century gem proudly lives on the center of San José. In 1897, Coffee barons constructed the Teatro Nacional, and with it, earned Costa Rica a spot on the international opera circuit. The ornate theater offers tours several times a day, but stop by the box office just off the lobby to see what’s playing. You’ll find performances a couple of nights a week for a fraction of the ticket price you’d pay at a comparable venue in the United States. Left your evening gown or tux back in your bedroom closet? No worries. As long as you don’t show up in shorts or a t-shirt, no one will look askance.
INSIDER TIPChristmas and school vacations mean the theater goes dark from mid-December through late January. Unfortunately, that coincides with some of the busiest weeks of the high season.
Shake, Rattle, and Roll at Cartago
Costa Rica sits on the so-called “Ring of Fire” that encircles the Pacific Rim and forms one of the world’s most active seismic zones. The chances are infinitesimally small that an actual earthquake will befall you during your visit to Costa Rica, and on the rare chance that it does, stringent building codes here mitigate the damage. Magmática, a small museum in the eastern Central Valley city of Cartago, teaches you the science of this phenomenon and documents the history of earthquakes in Costa Rica. Of course, everyone makes a beeline for the simulador that simulates an earthquake of 6.4 magnitude that destroyed the city in 1910.
INSIDER TIPStop by Magmática’s restaurant for a yummy lunch of típico Costa Rican food. We recommend eating after you take in the earthquake simulator.
Some 900 resident and migratory bird species make Costa Rica one of the world’s premier birding destinations. The country counts hummingbirds, toucans, tanagers, macaws, and motmots among its population. The birdwatchers Holy Grail is the brightly plumed, elusive resplendent quetzal. Consider yourself fortunate if you spot one. You’ll have no trouble spotting the national bird, the much-more-subdued clay-colored thrush, known here as the yigüirro. You need not travel to some remote national park to engage in bird-watching. Occasionally, even a glance out your urban hotel window lets you add to your list.
INSIDER TIPThe knowledgeable folks at La Selva Biological Station in northern Costa Rica offer a day-long Bird Watching 101 course geared toward total beginners in the field.
Find the Right Beach for Your Vacation Style
With 910 miles of Pacific and Caribbean coastline, Costa Rica has no shortage of beaches. Nothing tops the Nicoya peninsula on the north Pacific coast for pure concentrations of strands of sand. Most of that sand is darker and grayer, rather than the white-sand beaches of postcard fame. Surfers and partiers flock to Tamarindo, but the coast’s largest beach town also offers upscale, grown-up lodgings too. Ocotal has carved out a niche for itself as a diving and snorkeling destination, while the Gulf of Papagayo has seen an explosion of all-inclusive resorts, an accommodation option uncommon in Costa Rica. A few beaches have their own expat imprint too: Sámara has a large Italian population; Nosara hosts many Swiss and Germans; Canadians call Potrero home; and Flamingo is red-white-and-blue American. (All are welcome anywhere, of course.)
INSIDER TIPIf you’re visiting this part of the country exclusively, forget about flying into San José at all. Opt instead for Daniel Oduber Quirós International Airport outside the northwestern hub city of Liberia. (The airport code is LIR.) Fares to Liberia run a bit higher than those to San José, but you’ll save precious time and miles overland. Regarding transportation, no single road traces the perimeter of the coast up here. Bopping from beach to beach often means jaunts a few miles back inland.
Shop ’til You Drop
Let’s make one thing clear: Costa Rica is not Peru or Mexico—the country lacks a long-standing crafts tradition. However, Costa Rica still provides the answer to the “What did you get me?” question you’re sure to hear when you return home. Large souvenirs include oxcarts—large and small—rocking chairs, and indigenous ceremonial masks. On the small side, you’ll find coffee and chorreadores—small stands that hand brew coffee by the cup, Costa Rican style—are always crowd pleasers. Tropical stationery (paper made of bananas or mangoes)makes great conversation pieces.
INSIDER TIPOkay. Let’s say you’ve really let the souvenir shopping go until that last minute. San José’s Juan Santamaria International Airport has a terrific selection of shops beyond security that manage to assemble most of Costa Rica’s noteworthy (small) souvenirs for purchase right before you board. Prices skew higher here. Procrastination comes at a cost.
Ponder the Life Cycle of Sea Turtles
Remote, roadless Tortuguero, on the north Caribbean coast, is Costa Rica’s most famous spot to engage in turtle watching—the name translates as “place of the turtles,” after all—but sites on both coasts offer opportunities to take in the amazing spectacle of turtle nesting. The nighttime sights of a mother turtle ferociously digging through the sand to bury her eggs and of dozens of hatchlings scurrying across to sand to reach the ocean will mesmerize even the most jaded visitor to Costa Rica. Turtle-nesting locales give rise to a ton of amateur guides who don’t know what they’re doing and cause more harm than good. Ask around and go only with a licensed guide who takes the utmost care to be as unobtrusive as possible.
Ride the Rapids
One upside to Costa Rica’s long, May-November rainy season is an abundance of free-flowing rivers that make it one of the world’s premier whitewater destinations. Every region of the country has something to offer the rafter and kayaker. Easy access to the Pacuare and Reventazón rivers in the Central Valley means you can do these trips from San José. Outfitters pick you up at your city hotel and bring your back at the end of the day. Many organize overnight or multi-day trips, and a few even operate their own river lodges. Not feeling quite so adventurous? Tame sectors of the Corobicí, Peñas Blancas, and Savegre rivers lend themselves to tubing and floats your whole family can enjoy.
INSIDER TIPBe brutally honest with yourself about your fears and capabilities. Any stretch of river above Class II can be a struggle for the novice. (Most river sectors in Costa Rica are Class III and above.) As with zip-lining, there’s no turning back once you start out on your rafting trip. Give the pre-put-in safety talk your undivided attention.
Soak in Thermal Baths
Costa Rica has a collection of hot-springs complexes dotting the area around La Fortuna, thanks to the presence of the Arenal volcano. Does anything feel better after a day of horseback riding, zip-lining, hiking, or rappelling than taking a soak? Tabacón—Costa Rica’s most famous (and priciest) such facility—and The Springs have morphed into full-fledged resort complexes. Both places allow day visitors; if you stay overnight at either, you’ll have access to a wider range of areas services. Eco Termales, Titokú, and Termales del Bosque make do happily with just the springs, and you can too.
Strike a Yoga Pose
A niche tourism sector here melds an ancient Indian discipline with that most Costa Rican of sayings, “¡Pura vida!”—literally “pure life,” but loosely translated as “Everything’s great!” A handful of yoga retreats dot the country, and you’ll find them at the beach, in the jungle, and on the mountaintops. The Harmony Hotel and Pranamar on the north Pacific coast and Samasati in the south Caribbean set themselves apart for that holistic dine-right, stretch-yourself-into-Nirvana experience. You’ll find yoga instructors, sans lodging, in any community with a large foreign population—think Dominical, Monteverde, or Tamarindo.