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Costa Rica is a marvelous country with some of the largest concentrations of the Earth’s biodiversity. When you visit Costa Rica, you are in for national parks, lush rainforests, cloud forests, gorgeous beaches, and active volcanoes. You will find it is a place you cannot visit just once because you’ll fall too hard in love, never to see it again.
Even more than that, you’ll experience delicious food, experience Costa Rican art, and learn to appreciate pura vida — the pure life. Costa Rica is one of the places I’ve ever had the pleasure of visiting. It’s obvious why it is frequently one of the happiest countries in the world.
Beyond any other advice here, I implore you to see more of the country than just a city or the countryside. Seeing both gives you a much more balanced perspective of life in this magnificent place.
Regardless of which coast you visit (or even if you go to both), you will find paradise among Costa Rica’s natural wonders. Throughout this Costa Rica travel guide, you’ll uncover hidden gems and old standbys to make the most of your time in Costa Rica.
- Best Things to Do in Costa Rica
- 1. Explore Tortuguero National Park
- 2. Visit San José
- 3. Arenal Volcano National Park
- 4. Corcovado National Park
- 5. Manuel Antonio National Park
- 6. La Paz Waterfall Gardens
- 7. Doka Estate Coffee Plantation
- 8. Indulge the senses in La Fortuna
- 9. Selvatura Park
- 10. Relax on the Nicoya Peninsula
- Where to stay in Costa Rica
- How to Get Around in Costa Rica
- Travel Tips for Visiting Costa Rica
- Seasons matter in Costa Rica
- Spanish may be necessary
- Currency is flexible
- Eat local
- Mold your itinerary around the road less-traveled
Best Things to Do in Costa Rica
1. Explore Tortuguero National Park
This is a must-stop for any nature or animal lover visiting Costa Rica. Tortuguero National Park serves a vital purpose on the Caribbean coast in the Giant Green Sea Turtle world.
From June to October each year, these precious creatures return to the beaches to nest. Night tours offer visitors the unique opportunity to see the turtles nesting and maybe even see some hatchlings make their oceanic journeys.
The park houses one of Central America’s largest remaining rainforest areas, making it an important protected space. After all, the endangered Giant Green Sea Turtles lay between 80-100 eggs on these beaches each year.
Keep in mind that even visiting outside of the rainy season, the park is one of the wettest places in Costa Rica. Expect plenty of tropical rain if you visit.
2. Visit San José
Costa Rica’s capital city, San José, is where you’ll find many of the country’s cultural attractions. Some of the country’s most incredible museums can be found here.
From the free Children’s Museum to the Jade Museum, the Pre-Columbian Gold Museum, and the National Museum of Costa Rica. You can experience much Costa Rican culture from Costa Rica’s largest city.
You’ll find all of your San José shopping adventures at Avenida Central. Whether you’re hunting for souvenirs, local art, or street food, you can find it all here.
Not far from the San José shopping district, you’ll also have access to Plaza de la Cultura, the cultural plaza. Besides the National Theater, this architectural public plaza is an excellent central point for folks looking to spend their days in area museums
3. Arenal Volcano National Park
Its star attraction is Arenal Volcano, the 5300-foot active volcano. Arenal is Costa Rica’s most active volcano, with consistent lava flows for decades. Sibling volcano Chato Volcano is also here, though it’s been inactive for over 3,000 years. You can see a dreamy lagoon in its collapsed crater if the weather is clear enough.
All kinds of wild and plant life live within the national park. Some wildlife includes Tapir, Howler Monkeys, and snakes, while the flora includes orchids, ferns, and bromeliads.
4. Corcovado National Park
Another of Costa Rica’s incredible national parks, Corcovado National Park, is over 103,000 acres of protected land. Many ecosystems thrive here, including cloud forests, mangroves, and lagoons.
Hiking trails abound in the park for guests to see the wide range of animals and plants that live here. More than 360 species of birds, 140 mammals, 117 amphibians, and reptiles, as well as 40 fish, call this park home. That isn’t accounting for the 500 tree varieties or 6,000 insect species either.
The National Geographic Society named Corcovado the most biologically intense place on Earth. That’s no surprise, as 3% of the world’s biodiversity. Given the distance to nearby cities (one to several hours by car), you may want to consider camping here. Camping in the park will maximize your time here and reduce the commuting you’ll have to do.
5. Manuel Antonio National Park
Don’t let the fact that this is the smallest national park in Costa Rica fool you. Manuel Antonio National Park is a place you will never forget with its vast protected wildlife.
Trails throughout this park provide glimpses of unparalleled greenery and animals that call Central America home. You will fall in love with Manuel Antonio if you spot squirrel monkeys hopping from tree to tree or some iguanas sunning themselves.
This national park is incredible because it is home to two spectacular beaches. Head to Playa Espadilla Sur or Playa Manuel Antonio for much-needed relaxation after hiking through the park.
The best way to experience Manuel Antonio is through a group tour. Tours often include an environmentalist guide, so they will help you spot things you’d never seen. How else would you spot a rare dragonfly high above you in a tree or see a sloth hanging near the canopy?
6. La Paz Waterfall Gardens
You may be surprised that La Paz Waterfall Gardens, in all its luscious natural beauty, is less than an hour from the San José airport. As the largest animal sanctuary in Costa Rica, as well as home to five waterfalls, it’s almost like stepping into another world.
Over 100 species of animals live in safety at La Paz. You can wander through an aviary for an up-close experience with their resident toucans, fly away in the butterfly house among the winged beauties, or spend time with the big cats. There is no wrong way to enjoy La Paz’s wildlife friends.
But nothing will prepare you for the immense beauty of the waterfall trails. Over two miles of trails zig-zag up and down the landscape to showcase the tremendous beauty of the waterfalls. Be sure to give yourself plenty of time to walk the trails; the over 600 steps each way are no joke.
For those who can’t bear to part with the aesthetic of La Paz, the on-site five-star Peace Lodge is available to stay. This 18-room boutique hotel has some of the best room views you could ever imagine, with the site’s abundant natural beauty to keep you company.
7. Doka Estate Coffee Plantation
The largest of Costa Rica’a coffee plantations, Doka Estate, is an incredible piece of Costa Rican culture. A tour of the plantation will give you a deeper appreciation for a simple cup of Joe and an understanding of the complicated process.
Doka has been part of the Vargas family tradition since it opened in 1940. Their coffee has even twice been named the best in the world and is considered the best plantation in Latin America.
From harvesting the coffee cherries, putting them through various baths, sunning the beans in the sun, and eventually transforming them into your favorite morning beverage — you’ll learn it all. Doka is the largest coffee plantation in Costa Rica and the country’s oldest wet mill.
Tasting the range of coffee at Doka at the end of the tour is an incredible way to taste the land. Costa Rican coffee might not be as name-dropped in pop culture as Colombian, but you’ll never forget it.
8. Indulge the senses in La Fortuna
Widely known as the neighbor of Arenal Volcano, this area of Costa Rica is not called Arenal. The small town of La Fortuna is a name to remember for one thing: hot springs. While there’s much more to this town than its hot springs, it certainly is a highlight.
A dozen thermal pools in La Fortuna means plenty of pools to choose from. However, the most popular one by far is Baldi Hot Springs and Spa. Baldi is the world’s largest hot spring, home to 25 pools. You can even stay at the resort or visit with a day pass.
La Fortuna is one of Costa Rica’s most popular destinations to visit. What it lacks in beaches, it more than makes up for hanging bridges, whitewater rafting, zip-lining, and all the hot springs relaxation you could imagine. Travelers flock to La Fortuna because it’s one of the country’s best places to indulge the senses.
Místico Arenal Hanging Bridges elevates your views of the stunning forests around you. From the point of view of the canopies, you can see eye-to-eye with the tropical birds. There’s a reason why these bridges are so beloved.
9. Selvatura Park
One of the best places to visit for eco-minded travelers, Selvatura Park is a nature-adventure park near Monteverde. Over 850 acres of biodiverse forest are along the country’s protected cloud forests.
Among the activities, you can go zip-lining, take tours along the park’s suspension bridges, visit the butterfly or hummingbird gardens, and so much more. There is even an on-site sloth sanctuary, which is a must for a trip to Costa Rica.
Selvatura Park offers a wide range of activity packages that aren’t just cost-effective and cater to different kinds of travelers. Whether you’d like to spend the day adventuring the canopies or staying close to the ground, there’s a way to enjoy this stunning natural park.
Don’t forget to check out Selvatura’s insect museum,, one of the world’s largest insect collections. They have over a million insect specimens in their collection. Whether you’re a bug nerd or not, getting to know some of the smallest rainforest dwellers is a great way to understand nature better.
10. Relax on the Nicoya Peninsula
A peninsula along the rich coast of Costa Rica, the Nicoya Peninsula is an almost unbelievable place to see. Given its proximity to the ocean, it should be no surprise that the fantastic beaches are the main attraction here.
When you visit Costa Rica, you should expect some incredible beachside adventures. That couldn’t be more true than a visit to the Nicoya Peninsula. It should come as no surprise that this luscious, green paradise is known as a Blue Zone (one of five worldwide), where people are known for living longer.
Two of the best beaches on the Nicoya Peninsula are Playa Samara and Playa Carrillo. Generally, the Gulf of Nicoya water is safe for swimming, mainly because coral reefs keep the waves at a minimum. That makes beach time especially great for the youngest travelers up to the oldest.
While the Nicoya Peninsula is famous for tourists visiting Costa Rica, it hasn’t become a significant destination. Because of that, travelers can still get a more authentic Costa Rican experience here, though it will take a bit of planning. There are also fewer hotel options here, but don’t let that spook you from experiencing this magnificent part of the country.
Where to stay in Costa Rica
Where you stay in Costa Rica depends on what kind of adventure you seek. Costa Rica has it from the northern plains’ volcanic exploration to the Caribbean coast’s dreamy views and everything in between. Here are some of our favorite Costa Rican hotels:
- Hotel Arenal Springs Resort & Spa – La Fortuna, Costa Rica
- Croc’s Resort & Casino – Jacó, Costa Rica
- The Springs Resort & Spa at Arenal – La Fortuna, Costa Rica
- W Costa Rica – Playa Conchal – Playa Conchal, Costa Rica
- Punta Islita, Autograph Collection – Punta Islita, Costa Rica
- Dreams Las Mareas (All Inclusive) – El Jobo, Costa Rica
- Oxygen Jungle Villas & Spa – Uvita, Costa Rica
- Makanda by the Sea Hotel (Adults Only) – Manuel Antonio, Costa Rica
- Occidental Papagayo (All Inclusive/Adults Only) – Guanacaste, Costa Rica
- The Royal Corin Thermal Water Spa & Resort (Adults Only) – La Fortuna, Costa Rica
How to Get Around in Costa Rica
The easiest way to get around Costa Rica is to rent a car or take direct group tours around the country. If you want to take yourself around, you can get a rental car ahead of time with RentalCars.com, though keep in mind that the official language of Costa Rica is Spanish. While going, you can drive in the country if you have your passport and driver’s license.
If you’d rather not drive yourself, public transportation is excellent in Costa Rica. Buses, in particular, can take you all over. Remember that Costa Rica generally has two types of public buses: colectivo and director.
Colectivo buses make more stops than direct buses, and neither have bathrooms. Remember that petty theft is also quite common, so watch yourself and your stuff on the bus — and be sure to get some SafetyWing travel insurance ahead of time.
If you plan on traveling by public transport, you’ll want to fly into San José and go from there. The capital city has the most transportation options. That said, if you don’t speak the country’s official language, have some language apps handy in case you need them. The last thing you want is to get on the wrong bus headed the wrong way.
Travel Tips for Visiting Costa Rica
Not only is Costa Rica a budget-friendly destination, but it is also one of the most beautiful countries you’ll ever visit.
Not to mention that the Ticos (Costa Ricans) are some of the kindest people you’ll meet! Still, a first-time trip to this country could have a learning curve. So here are some tips to help ensure your Costa Rica travel is smooth.
Seasons matter in Costa Rica
Costa Rica’s seasons are what keeps its landscape so lush and healthy. The rainy season from May to November and the dry season from December to April differ wildly. Costa Rica’s rainforests and local farmers rely on the heavy rain seasons to keep the country alive and well.
It may surprise some, but the early part of the rainy season is a great time to visit the country. A trip in those early months might have some rain interruptions. However, the rain storms get heavier as the season goes on. So, there will still be plenty of sunshine early in the season.
On the flip side, the dry season is the most popular time of year to see Costa Rica. Wildlife refugees will have more active animals, and tours will have more availability because of the incredible weather. Even so, the dry season is also going to be more popular with other tourists as well.
A trip to Costa Rica can be amazing year-round. Pura Vida, or the pure life, will not stop just because the rains come. After all, the country is known for its rainforests.
Spanish may be necessary
Spanish will be the most spoken language in Costa Rica, especially if you plan on seeing more remote places. Folks in larger cities are more likely to know some English; however, if you aren’t going to be in San José, Jacó on the Caribbean side, or other highly touristed areas, you may want to know some of the languages.
It’s also good advice if you’re considering year-round rather than tourist season travel to Costa Rica. During the dry season, there will be more tourists,, meaning more folks who speak English working at the various resorts.
Just over 11% of Ticos speak another language, most of which speak English. And they will be so lovely even if you don’t speak Spanish much. Still, you’ll have a much better time if you can talk a little of the local language.
That’s especially true if you want to save money and not rely on group tours to overcome language barriers. Wi-fi isn’t always accessible to use online dictionaries or language apps. Consider writing down or saving phrases for offline use on your phone.
Currency is flexible
If you’re going to be in a more touristy place like San José, you don’t necessarily have to worry about getting colones or Costa Rican currency. USD is widely accepted in a variety of locations around the country.
Don’t expect everyone to take USD, but businesses will let you know if they can take them or not. If not, you’ll pay an exchange rate to use your card. To pay fewer exchange rate fees, select the local currency when paying by card. It’s true anywhere in the world that doesn’t use USD as a default so it’s a matter of making it a habit.
Another rule of thumb is to assume that stores that take cash only would prefer colones over USD. You can still ask the shopkeeper if it’s okay to pay in USD, but be prepared for them to say no. Especially if you are in a small town or visiting a roadside soda or diner.
Anytime you travel abroad, local food is usually significantly cheaper than buying Americanized food. That is especially true in Costa Rica.
Some of the best food you’ll have on a trip to Costa Rica will be local dishes like gallo pinto (Costa Rican rice and beans) or casado (traditional plated comfort food). Not only will these options save you money, but you’ll also gain an appreciation for the country’s cuisine.
It’s also worth recognizing where you are in the country. For example, seafood in a coastal town like Puerto Viejo will probably be cheaper than in land-locked San José. Conversely, Americanized food will probably be cheaper in a city than in a small town like Puerto Viejo. So eating local is often the way to go for budget travel.
Mold your itinerary around the road less-traveled
You can discover various contemporary art, culture, and museums in San José. You can party it up in Jacó or spend a week beach hopping along the North Pacific Gold Coast region.
While much of natural Costa Rica is gorgeous, Osa Peninsula doesn’t get as much love as some of the national parks. Osa Peninsula is home to some of the most biodiverse life on Earth, with some plant life you can’t find anywhere else.
Meanwhile, Rio Celeste in Tenorio Volcano National Park is almost as pretty as a picture. With a deep turquoise hue, the river looks virtually unnatural along the forested edges of the volcano.
Costa Rica is one of those places that can’t be summarized in just a few stops. However, opting for some of the lesser talked about areas in addition to hot spots will give you a much more incredible adventure.
- About the Author
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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, Huffington Post, and Yahoo, as well as the November 2022 book, “Chicago Like a Local” and other travel journals available on Amazon. Amanda’s favorite destinations include Costa Rica, Prague, Dublin, Hong Kong, and every Disney park she’s visited.