Have you always wanted to visit Costa Rica but weren’t sure it was for you? Having seen hundreds of photos of the pristine national parks, hot springs, and unmissable wildlife, I knew it was a place I had to visit someday. I was surprised that so many Costa Rica activities made this country completely unforgettable.
This small (but epic) country will open your eyes to a diverse experience of culture, food, and good times. In Costa Rica, you learn immediately that the Pura Vida, or pure life, lifestyle is not easily abandoned once you head home.
Costa Rica’s sparkling beaches invite travelers to relax and unwind as the tropical beauty enraptures photographers at every turn. While you’ll struggle to dwindle your itinerary of Costa Rica activities, this place has earned quite the reputation for its once-in-a-lifetime eco-adventures.
From days lounging along the Carribean Coast or sightseeing around Arenal Volcano, easy-going fun abounds here. While snorkeling, zip-lining, hiking, and whitewater rafting give a slightly more adventurous bent to any adventure. Wherever you land on that activity spectrum, you will undoubtedly find a life-changing experience in Costa Rica–I know I did.
With all of that comes the need for protection when visiting. For starters, you’ll want to be medically protected and lock in your trip from any unforeseen circumstances with travel insurance. We recommend using TravelInsurance.com to get a custom-tailored plan to suit your needs, and if you’re younger or a digital nomad, use SafetyWing.
Show Table of Contents
- TL;DR Best Activities in Costa Rica
- TL;DR Best Costa Rica Tours
- Best Activities in Costa Rica
- 1. Explore the Pacific Coast and/or Caribbean Coast
- 2. Marvel at the Magnificent Arenal Volcano
- 3. Gawk at Costa Rica’s Extraordinary Rio Celeste
- 4. Traipse along Naucaya Waterfalls
- 5. Get Your Adrenaline Pumping
- 6. Experience in the Wildlife
- 7. Turtle Spot at Tortuguero
- 8. Go on a Culture Trip in San José
- 9. Indulge in Chocolate and Coffee
- 10. Visit As Many National Parks as Possible
- 11. Spend Time On the North Pacific Coast
- 12. Try Sport Fishing
- What are common activities in Costa Rica?
- What are the best activities for first-time visitors to Costa Rica?
- How can I experience Costa Rica’s rainforests and wildlife?
- What are the top destinations and must-see attractions in Costa Rica?
TL;DR Best Activities in Costa Rica
|Best Activity for Ocean Lovers||Explore the Catalina Islands|
|Best Activity for Adventure Seekers||Arenal Volcano National Park|
|Best Activity for Thrill Seekers||Whitewater Rafting and Ziplining|
|Best Activity for Nature Lovers||Tortuguero National Park|
TL;DR Best Costa Rica Tours
|White Water Rafting||Pacuare River||Full day|
|Zip Lining||Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve||Half day|
|Surfing Lessons||Tamarindo Beach||Half day|
|Hiking||Arenal Volcano National Park||Full day|
|Snorkeling||Isla del Caño Biological Reserve||Full day|
|Coffee Plantation Tour||Monteverde||Half day|
Best Activities in Costa Rica
1. Explore the Pacific Coast and/or Caribbean Coast
No matter which of Costa Rica’s coasts you find yourself on, you’ll be surrounded by many activities. Your Costa Rica vacation will not be complete without exploring the underwater wonders, particularly off of the Pacific of the Caribbean Coast. The clear, blue tropical waters surrounding Costa Rica are ideal for diving and snorkeling.
Snorkelers flock to the Gandoca Manzanillo Wildlife Refuge along the Caribbean Coast to see manatees, dolphins, and vibrant fish. These fish are abundant in the coral reefs, inlets, and islands. Back on land in the refuge, you can see all kinds of wildlife, like aquatic birds, pacas, and tapirs.
Meanwhile, the Catalina Islands offer rare diving and snorkeling experiences. Formed from volcanic rock, the waters around the Catalina Islands are filled with turtles, reef sharks, moray eels, octopi, and an array of tropical fish.
You will want a selfie with some of these creatures, so an underwater camera is necessary. With pre-planning, you can say goodbye to cliché snorkeling guide pictures. Check with your snorkeling company before you book and ask if they rent underwater cameras. They will also give you a quick tutorial on how to get the best underwater pics using their camera.
The Caribbean and Pacific Coasts are incredible places to spend time in Costa Rica. Depending on how long you spend in the country, you could even travel to both.
While both have their positives, you will find a lot more to do on the Pacific Coast over the Caribbean Coast. The Pacific Coast side of Costa Rica is generally more developed, though the Caribbean side is excellent if you’re looking for peaceful solitude.
See Related: Best Beaches in Costa Rica
2. Marvel at the Magnificent Arenal Volcano
Mistakingly referred to as Arenal, the fortitudinous lands around La Fortuna are home to Arenal Volcano National Park and a host of natural hot springs. La Fortuna is a place for all kinds of outdoor adventures. Hiking trails wind their way through rainforests, beaches, jungles, and mountains, giving hikers a chance to see the lush plant life and the wildlife up close making it a must-visit in your Guanacaste trip itinerary.
The Arenal Volcano is one of the country’s most popular locations, and viewing it is one of the best activities in Costa Rica. You can’t hike the active Arenal Volcano or its dormant sibling Cerro Chato Volcano, but picturesque trails around them lead to spectacular viewing decks. These views alone are well worth the journey.
Near Chato, you’ll find La Fortuna Waterfall or Catarata Fortuna. Its 230-foot cascade is a marvel to behold, and its pool is a popular swimming spot. Although walking down to the waterfall from the lookout only takes 15-20 minutes, you must ascend 500 stairs back up. So keep that in mind if you want to swim.
Whether traversing the orchid-studded Heliconia Trail or climbing through the Los Miradores rainforest, you’re guaranteed breathtaking views that showcase the best of Costa Rica’s thriving flora and fauna. But don’t forget to spend some time enjoying the hot springs in the area. Particularly the hot springs at Tabacón Thermal Resort & Spa which is only a 15-minute drive from the Arenal Volcano National Park.
Thanks to Costa Rica’s gorgeous scenery, you’ll be able to get unbelievable photos. Whether those photos are taken with your iPhone, GoPro, Drone, or DSRL, remember that you are in the tropics, and it could start raining anytime. Be sure to have a waterproof case or a watertight bag to store your equipment in if you get caught in a downpour.
See Related: Best Travel Clothing for Warm Climates
3. Gawk at Costa Rica’s Extraordinary Rio Celeste
Costa Rica boasts some of the most breathtaking waterfalls on the planet. Some of these waterfalls are easily accessible, making them more popular among tourists.
One of the most popular and crowded waterfalls you’ll find in Costa Rica is the La Paz Waterfall Gardens. No shade to La Paz, it’s a stunning stop, but a lesser-visited waterfall may serve you better.
You can see the Rio Celeste Waterfall from the Tenorio Volcano National Park by following a jungle trail that leads to a staircase. The hike to the waterfall isn’t especially difficult, though it is challenging at points. It’s about 3.5 miles each way, so keep that in mind. Plus, you’ll have to climb about 150 steps once you’re finished at the waterfall.
Once you descend the staircase, you will reach a viewing platform where you will see the unnaturally blue water of the cascading waterfall. According to Costa Rican legends, the dazzling blue water was created when God, who had just finished painting the sky, washed out his paintbrushes in the waterfall, forever staining its waters a brilliant blue.
It is a lovely story, but, in actuality, the color results from chemical reactions in the volcanic soil. Swimming is prohibited at Rio Celeste because those chemicals may be hazardous, so you must settle for snapping pics of the waterfall. That said, the nearby Rio Celeste Free Pool is always available for a swim.
See Related: Best Travel Insurance for Pre-Existing Conditions
4. Traipse along Naucaya Waterfalls
If you are looking to get wet in a Costa Rican waterfall and don’t mind a more treacherous hike, a visit to Nauyaca Waterfalls on the Southern Pacific Coast should be near the top of your list. This spot is special because the falls are split: the 140-foot Upper Falls and the 60-foot Lower Falls. Nauyaca Waterfalls are secluded about two and a half miles into the rainforest, but tourists can reach it on foot, on horseback, or via an off-road vehicle.
You can enjoy all the lush greenery Costa Rica offers along the way. Take in up-close-and-personal views of the surrounding rainforest while keeping your eyes out for darting hummingbirds, swinging monkeys, and vivacious butterflies.
As you approach the falls, the trail splits. From that fork, you can stop first at the Upper Falls, the bigger and more impressive of the two.
You can cool off in the blowing mist of the water or take artsy, misty photos. You can also shoot the falls from flat, smooth, rocky outcroppings for a unique angle and perspective. Keep in mind that Upper Falls has a pool too rocky for swimming.
The Lower Falls, however, is an adventure lover’s paradise. These falls stream from the upper pool in a watery veil to the natural swimming pool below, which beckons swimmers.
You can change into your swimsuit at a nearby building to be ready to hit the water or let the waterfall crash down on you. You can even jump into the pool from the cliffs if brave enough.
Whichever of the falls you decide to visit, consider getting some travelers insurance from SafetyWing before you depart. SafetyWing is an excellent insurer for travelers in part because it protects you so well in the event of an accident, illness, or unexpected medical emergency. Any adventurer heading to Costa Rica really should have insurance ahead of time.
See Related: Essential Travel Tips for Visiting Costa Rica
5. Get Your Adrenaline Pumping
For some, paddle boarding, surf camp, and scuba diving are enough to pump the heart. At the same time, others need something a bit more extreme to get that exhilaration.
But one thing’s for sure. You won’t run out of high-octane outdoor activities in Costa Rica.
If you had told me that whitewater rafting was something I did once, let alone that I wanted to do it again, I wouldn’t have believed you. That was before Costa Rica’s spell came over me. When it comes to whitewater rafting, the best place to do it in Costa Rica is along the Pacuare River.
This is a class III-IV rafting river near Costa Rica’s Caribbean Coast, so it’s ideal for beginners while still posing a small challenge for repeat rafters. It’s also the perfect location for a day trip from San José.
Should you prefer to stay dry on your adventure day, consider going to one of the many adventure parks in Costa Rica. You can enjoy canopy tours, zip-lining, horseback riding, ropes courses, and more! Even for heights-averse travelers, I can’t recommend canopy tours any higher.
They’re an incredible experience. One of the country’s largest adventure tour companies is Diamante Eco Adventure Park on the Central Pacific Coast side of Costa Rica. In addition to its adventurous offerings, Diamante houses a jaguar rescue center.
For those with their heads in the clouds, head back towards Monteverde. Here at Sky Adventures Monteverde Park, you can experience canopy tours of the cloud forest.
A cloud forest environment isn’t found elsewhere in Central America–only in Costa Rica. Not only will these canopy tours get your blood pumping, but they’ll also give you a phenomenal experience you may not find anywhere else.
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6. Experience in the Wildlife
Though the cloud forest we mentioned above is full of flora and fauna, there is a park I cannot resist talking about. Along the Pacific Coast, Manuel Antonio National Park is an incredible place to see nearly all types of wildlife in Costa Rica.
Although Costa Rica’s smallest national park, it is a biodiverse haven. From spotting sloths high up in the trees to seeing silly monkeys swinging through the forest, this rainforest will immediately capture your heart.
Besides its lush rainforests, Manuel Antonio also has several gorgeous beaches to explore. This national park is truly a tropical paradise.
Over 1500 acres are sprawling with some of the most gorgeous scenery Costa Rica offers. There are also a dozen protected islands in the park’s keeping.
For the optimal park day, I highly recommend hiring one of the numerous tour companies in advance. People will be soliciting tours outside the park, so find a reputable guide ahead of time.
Ensure your guide is skilled in ecology with a telescope to help you spot creatures high up in the canopies. Think of the walk through the forest as one of your on-the-ground canopy tours.
Consider another cloud forest excursion if you can’t get enough wildlife on this adventure through Costa Rica. This time, make your way to Bajos del Toro.
This cozy town is a lesser ventured location in the central valley. You can explore the Tesoro Escondido Waterfall from here or make it a day trip from San José.
See Related: Where to Stay in Costa Rica on the Beach
7. Turtle Spot at Tortuguero
Famous for being an endangered sea turtle nesting ground, Tortuguero National Park is a protected enclave of beautiful beaches in the Limón Province. This incredible and important place is speckled with freshwater canals where visitors can explore via watercraft to see the many other creatures who live here.
With some luck, you might be able to spy on any of its four endangered sea turtles: the Hawksbill, Green sea turtle, Loggerhead, or the Giant Leatherback. Each of these turtles nests at specific seasons, so research beforehand.
Still, your best bet for seeing turtles at Tortuguero is to visit between July and August. This wildlife conservation area may only be accessed by domestic flight or boat.
It can be difficult to visit Tortuguero alone, so we advise independent travelers to sign up for a tour instead of making their arrangements, particularly during the rainy season. Building your itinerary may be costly and ruin your plans due to rules and regulations. For example, Tortuguero limits the number of night-time visitors when the sea turtles are most active.
Please note that it rains in this province frequently, even outside of the rainy season. Tortuguero is one of the rainiest destinations in Costa Rica.
Should you visit during the dry seasons, expect some showers here and there too. Rain may impact your ability to see wildlife in the park if it’s too heavy, so keep that in mind.
See Related: Best Costa Rica Excursions to Book Today
8. Go on a Culture Trip in San José
Maybe San José was not at the top of your list when looking for the best place in Costa Rica for activities, but we encourage you to give it a chance. While it is true that San José, endearingly called Chepe by Ticos (Costa Rican people), isn’t going to win over adrenaline junkies, the capital city should be worth more than just a vacation day trip.
What Costa Rica’s largest city lacks for adventurous types, San José has plenty for culture vultures: historic architecture, lots of art, and rich Costa Rican culture. Besides having tons to do in the city proper, it’s also the best home base to take a day trip elsewhere.
If you want to unwind, hop on a pub crawl across any of San José’s bars. Sooner than later, the hustle and bustle of city life will creep in, so take a respite from the noise and head to the Spirogyra Butterfly Garden and marvel at colorful butterflies and vibrant tropical plants. Include the Teatro Nacional, Barrio Amón, Jade Museum, and the Pre-Colombian Gold Museum in your itinerary.
While in the city, befriend some Costa Ricans. They are among the kindest, most fun people I have ever met.
Maybe you will try homemade Costa Rican cuisine if you play your cards right. I still dream about eating casado, a traditional meal in Costa Rica featuring protein, rice, beans, plantains, and salad.
See Related: Things to Do in San Jose, Costa Rica
9. Indulge in Chocolate and Coffee
Chocolate was integral to Costa Rica’s history, and the prized cacao bean was currency for the Chorotega and Bribri people. The Chorotega people even used this currency up until the 1930s. Today, the delicious confection takes center stage in a dizzying array of scrumptious locally-made desserts and drinks.
If you are up for a sweet treat, participate in a chocolate farm tour. This is a great way to learn about Costa Rica’s chocolate-making process, which starts from roasting the cacao beans to grinding them into a smooth, mouth-watering slurry, and finally molding them into bite-sized bars.
You may even get to try some unprocessed cacao. You’ll be pleasantly surprised at the bitter taste.
On top of being a chocolate haven, Costa Rica is also known for producing 1% of the world’s coffee. Although a small country, Costa Rica has an ideal climate for growing coffee beans.
The country’s rich volcanic soil, particularly in the central part of the country, makes Costa Rica a unique coffee bearer. But once coffeeholic sample coffee here, they’ll be forever changed.
The most popular coffee tour is the 90-minute excursion at the Doka Estate. During this tour, you can harvest a coffee bean and see how the beans are processed, dried, and eventually turned into the daily elixir of life.
You even get a sample of a delicious cocoa frappe made from Doka beans. If you are like me, this drink will become your new favorite coffee beverage.
See Related: Best Group Vacation Ideas
10. Visit As Many National Parks as Possible
If you haven’t noticed, Costa Rica is full of national parks. There are 28 in the country which has dedicated 1/4 of its land mass to preservation.
One of the reasons Costa Rica remains one of the most beautiful countries in the world is because they gave so much time, energy, and resources to protecting the biodiverse nature that dwells here. So you would be remiss not to see as much of it as humanly possible.
One of the Southernmost parks in Costa Rica, Corcovado National Park, is on the Osa Peninsula on the Pacific Coast. This park houses one of the most biodiverse regions on Earth and is the largest in Costa Rica.
Making up 1/3 of the Osa Peninsula, Corcovado is home to all kinds of wildlife such as jaguars, scarlet macaws, and adorable squirrel monkeys. Because of its size, you can see a range of ecosystems like mangroves, rainforests, and beaches.
Further North, another Pacific Coast park is Marino Ballena, National Park. The word ballena, or whale, refers to the park’s status as a stop along the humpback whale migration. If you want to see these whales on the move, visit Marino Ballena from December to April for the breeding season or June to November for Northern migration.
On the other side of Costa Rica, not far from Puerto Viejo, Cahuita National Park beckons visitors for entirely different scenes. Cahuita’s shimmering white sand beaches, surrounded by stunning coral reefs, are perfect for snorkeling, scuba diving, paddle boarding, and swimming. Over 500 fish species thrive in this reef system.
11. Spend Time On the North Pacific Coast
Costa Rica’s North Pacific Coast, or the Guanacaste Province, has gorgeous parks and beaches. You can visit the Papagayo Peninsula for luxury relaxation, spend time on some of the most beautiful beaches in Costa Rica, or visit a rare dry tropical forest at Santa Rosa National Park.
Although Guanacaste has the driest climate in Costa Rica, it still has plenty of precipitation during the rainy season. Given how much rainy season weather can impact your trip, the best time to visit Guanacaste in Costa Rica is from May to July or November to December. Especially for folks like me who are susceptible to humidity, Guanacaste has the lowest humidity in Costa Rica.
Guanacaste’s Playa Hermosa has a fitting name. Its gray sand beach is ideal for lounging the day away, though the calm waters are also perfect for a range of water sports.
The nearby Playa Grande or Salinas is known as a nesting site for leatherback turtles. This beach can be found inside Las Baulas National Park. Lastly, Playa Tamarindo, another surprise, is beloved by surfers and water sports enthusiasts for its strong surf.
See Related: Most Stunning, Unique Costa Rica Animals
12. Try Sport Fishing
Like elsewhere, fishing in Costa Rica has its seasons. That said, you can enjoy sport fishing off the Central Pacific Coast all year. Some fish you’re likely to catch off of the Central Pacific Coast are sailfish, tuna, grouper, snapper, dorado, and marlin.
Deep sea fishermen want to head to places like Flamingo, Herradura, Quepos, Golfo Dulce/Golfito, Drake Bay, or the Gulf of Papagayo for their best catches. The best times of year to go deep-sea fishing in Costa Rica are from June to October.
You must obtain a fishing license from the country to fish in Costa Rica. Your whole group does not need them, just the folks who plan on doing the fishing. Licenses can be purchased online ahead of time on the Inco Pesca website.
Remember that they must be frozen if you plan on bringing fish back to the United States from Costa Rica. Fish must be frozen and in your checked baggage but cannot be packed with ice or any other foreign freezing bodies.
See Related: Costa Rica Packing List
What are common activities in Costa Rica?
Costa Rica is renowned for its diverse outdoor activities within its lush rainforests, national parks, and world-class beaches. Most outdoor activities involve adventurous excursions such as visiting waterfalls, ziplining, whitewater rafting, and scuba diving. Wildlife spotting, particularly for exotic birds and monkeys, is a popular pastime, given Costa Rica’s rich biodiversity.
What are the best activities for first-time visitors to Costa Rica?
When visiting Costa Rica for the first time, you must experience the spectacular nature. Visit Manuel Antonio for wildlife viewing, lounge across the various beaches, and savor the delicious food. I also highly recommend doing a coffee or chocolate tour to appreciate the agriculture of Costa Rica.
How can I experience Costa Rica’s rainforests and wildlife?
Costa Rica has 28 national parks, and over 25% of the land is preserved. Everywhere you turn, there is a place to appreciate the nature of Costa Rica. For the best experience, book a guide who will explain the flora and fauna you see and hopefully bring a telescope to see it better.
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Amanda is a Chicago-based queer travel, arts, and lifestyle writer who is passionate about exploring the world. Her work has been featured in Newcity Stage, The Chicago Reader, HuffPo, and Yahoo, as well as the November 2022 book, “Chicago Like a Local.” Amanda’s favorite destinations include Costa Rica, Prague, Dublin, Hong Kong, and every Disney park she’s visited.