Costa Rica is a treasure chest of wildlife and a tropical paradise. Its laid-back vibes draw crowds of beach bums, its rich biodiversity attracts nature lovers, and its rainforest canopies and misty volcanic peaks entice outdoor adventurers. Spend your days in Costa Rica tanning on the sandy beaches, hiking to dramatic waterfalls, or zipping across treetops. Here, there is something for everyone. From world-class surfing to watching sea turtles hatch, here are 15 of our favorite things to do in Costa Rica.
1. Stay at La Paz Waterfalls Gardens Peace Lodge
Tucked away in the mountains between Poas and Barva Volcanoes in the peaceful village of Vara Blanca is La Paz Waterfalls Gardens Peace Lodge, an ultra-luxurious resort surrounded by nothing but the lush and magical rainforest. La Paz Waterfall Gardens Nature Park, which the property sits on, is a privately owned park that showcases 2 miles of hiking trails, 5 waterfalls, and over 100 different species of animals.
When you get tired from exploring the property on foot, retreat to your cozy upscale room and enjoy rainforest views from the comfort of your hammock or jacuzzi on the balcony. If you’re on honeymoon in Costa Rica this is the perfect place to spend a night or two. Less than an hour from the San Jose airport, an escape from reality to La Paz Waterfalls Gardens Peace Lodge is one of the most romantic things to do in Costa Rica and is the perfect way to either begin or end your time in the country.
2) Learn to Surf in Tamarindo
Ask any local in Costa Rica for the best surf town in Costa Rica and they will likely point you to Tamarindo, where Tamarindo Beach hosts several surfing competitions each year. This boomtown on the north Pacific coast was once a quiet fishing village, but these days it has become a surfing paradise with a whole range of accommodation options, art galleries, and boutiques.
Popular daytime activities include all sorts of watersports, and when the sun goes down, Tamarindo’s bars and restaurants buzz with activity. The gentle waves of Tamarindo Beach make this a suitable spot for beginner surfers. For more experienced surfers looking for bigger breaks, head to the Tamarindo River Mouth. We took surf lessons at Witch’s Surf Camp which is owned by the famous surfer Robert August.
3) Go Wildlife Spotting in Manuel Antonio
Two and a half hours south from San Jose International Airport on Costa Rica’s central Pacific coast is the vibrant town of Manuel Antonio, known for its national park of the same name. As one of Costa Rica’s most biodiverse regions, it offers nature lovers plenty of opportunity for wildlife spotting, bird watching, and hiking to study the region’s flora and fauna. Playa Espadilla sits right by the entrance of the park, and this beach makes for a good spot to relax in after a day of exploring. For one of the most luxurious things to do in Costa Rica, take in the scenic views of Manuel Antonio’s shoreline on a catamaran cruise for only $75 while lazing under the sun on the deck and indulging in the open bar.
4) Put Your Head Up in the Clouds at Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve
Ever wonder what it’s like to have your head up in the clouds? The town of Monteverde up in the mountains of northwestern Costa Rica is renowned for its cloud forests, where conditions allow cloud levels to be at a constant low. These thick clouds provide a high level of moisture, which is responsible for the area’s rich biodiversity and four different ecosystems in the Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve.
If you’re a serious nature lover looking to maximize your experience in the cloud forest, then hire a guide to walk you through the 3000 plant species, 500 different kinds of birds and the more than 100 animals that can be found there. Because wildlife is often hidden under the canopies, guides know exactly where to look. For a sighting of the endangered bright blue feathered and red-bellied Quetzal, plan a visit in March or April during their mating season for your best chances.
There is no need to join a tour. If you are renting a car in Costa Rica you can just park and pay the entrance fee. This is what we did, go early so you can have the suspension bridge all to yourself before the tours arrive. We stayed in this really cute Airbnb for $100 a night, there are tons of others in the area. Click here for $40 off your Airbnb booking.
5) Trek to La Fortuna Waterfall
Set about 6 KM from the small town of La Fortuna is a mighty waterfall of the same name. Its roaring waters drop 65 meters down into a clear blue pool and is arguably the most visited waterfall in all of Costa Rica. Before trekking to the foot of the falls, stop by the observation platform right by the ticket desk to get a panoramic view of La Fortuna and its lush surroundings. Then prepare to descend nearly 500 steep steps to the bottom of La Fortuna. Those who are eager for a chilly dip in the pool below the falls are welcome to bring their swimwear. When it’s time for the tiring hike back up, turn your focus to the trees above for sightings of toucans and sloths. With a waterfall and surrounding area so photogenic, be sure to get there early, as the trail gets crowded by mid-morning.
6) Zipline Arenal
In northern Costa Rica is Arenal, the country’s most recognized volcano. Up until 2010, it was extremely active, regularly spewing lava and ash, but it has since slipped into a resting phase. Still, we couldn’t pass up a trip to the volcano and decided to join a ziplining tour so we could also see the surrounding rainforest from above. The tour began on the Sky Aerial Tram which took us to the Miguel Angel Observatory platform for panoramic views of the volcano and Arenal Lake. Keep your eyes peeled for colorful birds and playful monkeys on the way up in the tram. From the platform 4000 feet up in the air, we zipped across treetops and through the rainforest for an adrenaline-fuelled adventure. Ziplining Arenal is one of the most thrilling things to do in Costa Rica.
There are several zipline companies in Arenal but this is the best zip line in Costa Rica and the one we went on. Book here for $90 in advance.
7) Chill out in Puerto Viejo
For beach bums looking to sunbathe all day and party all night, Puerto Viejo on Costa Rica’s Caribbean coast is paradise for the young and hip. This small beach town is all about laid-back vibes, and though it has become touristy in recent years, it’s still possible to feel the sleepy charm of this place once you stray away from the main path. For chill things to do in Costa Rica, spend your day’s beach hopping, going from beaches with sparkling golden sands and turquoise waters, to sunbathing on the glistening black sands of Playa Negra.
Don’t miss Jaguar Rescue Center, an animal sanctuary that welcomes injured wildlife looks after them until healthy again, and releases them into their natural habitat. Listen to success stories of this sanctuary and about the animals they’re currently treating. And if you’re looking for an up-close encounter with sloths, this is the place.
8) Hang Ten in Dominical
We’ve discovered that there’s no shortage of popular beach towns in Costa Rica, and Dominical is another one of them, in the province of South Puntarenas. While some beaches are known as the best place to swim, tan, or play watersports, Playa Dominical is best known for its surfing. Here, the waves can get as tall as 10 feet with strong riptides, so this beach is definitely for hardcore surfers only. If you don’t want to miss a minute of surfing, then consider camping on this 2.5-mile long strip of beach. Surrounded by nature, plan a hike to Nauyaca Waterfalls during your stay in Dominical, Costa Rica’s two-tiered falls.
9) Be Enchanted by Rio Celeste
The enchanting sky blue river of Rio Celeste is tucked in the mountains of northwestern Costa Rica, in the Tenorio Volcano National Park. Though many myths and legends over the years have tried to explain the origin of the river’s unique color, it is generally believed that when God painted the sky blue, he dipped his paintbrush in Rio Celeste to wash it, unintentionally dying the river the color of the sky. The trail that leads to Rio Celeste is moderate and often gets muddy, so bring appropriate footwear if you don’t plan on renting any there. Because the surrounding area of Tenorio Volcano National Park is full of farmland, green pastures, and grazing cattle, spend a few nights in the nearby sleepy towns for a slice of authentic rural Costa Rican life.
10) See Costa Rica on Horseback
Explore Costa Rica the same way locals have explored their land for centuries by joining a horseback riding tour to the peaceful countryside, sandy beaches, mighty mountains and volcanoes of this country. Tour operators ensure their horses are exceptionally well taken care of and professionally trained for the smoothest experiences, and offer a number of different tours that are suitable for riders of all skill levels. Choose to discover the country on horseback for a few hours or a few days, and through tours are offered all over the country, the areas of Arenal, Monteverde and Manuel Antonio make the top of the list.
11) Dig Deep in San Jose
Surrounded by a tropical paradise, Costa Rica’s capital and largest city is almost never a visitor’s first choice of destination in the country. Many just land in the city and use it as a jumping point to reach the nearby volcanoes and rainforests. But stay long enough in San Jose to push past the chaotic traffic, and you could just let yourself be pleasantly surprised. Locals refer to Costa Rica’s most cosmopolitan city as Chepe, and its contemporary art galleries and budding craft beer scene are a testament to its modern culture. But wander the historic neighborhoods, seek out the Spanish colonial buildings, and spend some time in the Museo Nacional to learn the country’s history, and you will experience both the past and present of Costa Rica’s cultural capital.
12) Rent a Car for the Week and Explore
Forget the constraints of bus and shuttle times by renting a car in Costa Rica and getting off the beaten path in Costa Rica to explore the lesser known regions of this country. Stopping wherever you want and whenever you want, the day is solely up to you. In renting a car, we were able to experience the country’s unique geography of soaring mountains and volcanoes to the low valleys and plains, all in one day. Because driving in tourist hotspots and rural areas can sometimes be challenging, it is highly recommended that you learn the traffic rules and read up on road conditions before you get behind the wheel.
13) Join a Coffee Tour
Other than their rainforests and abundance of wildlife, Costa Rica is also known for the fine flavors of its coffee, making their beans some of the world’s most outstanding. Though coffee beans are grown throughout the country, the most optimal conditions are in the Central Highlands and southern mountain range, where a number of plantations offer guided tours through their properties, and educate visitors on the processes of growing, harvesting, drying and roasting beans.
If you time your visit for harvesting season between October and January, then you could even be offered the chance to pick coffee beans. Listen to how coffee beans have impacted Costa Rica socially and economically from past to present, and learn the journey from bean to cup in this day of culture and history. Joining a coffee tour is just one of many ecologically sustainable things to do in Costa Rica.
14) Go to Doggy Paradise
This no-kill shelter of Territorio De Zaguates was founded by Lya Battle and Alvaro Samut a decade ago, now housing over 1,000 stray and abandoned dogs from all over the country. What began from their home just outside San Jose in 2005 is now a 378-acre dog sanctuary in the Santa Bárbara mountains, where they had to move to in 2008 because they took in so many dogs. The shelter is run by a handful of permanent staff and a number of eager volunteers. Territorio De Zaguates welcomes visitors on specific dates to frolic in the fields and nearby rainforest with a thousand furry friends.
15) See Sea Turtles Hatch
Four types of sea turtles visit the Caribbean and Pacific shores of Costa Rica throughout the year. Of the leatherback, olive ridley, hawksbill and green sea turtles, all but the olive ridley species are endangered, and an encounter with any one of those three are considered rare. Each year, thousands of sea turtles come back to the beaches of Costa Rica to lay their eggs in an event known as arribada. To keep turtles and their nesting sites safe, a visit to almost any nesting grounds in the country requires you to be with a guide.
The most popular nesting site to view the endangered green turtles is Tortuguero Beach on the North Caribbean Coast. Time your visit for August and September, their peak nesting season. This natural spectacle is unlike any other, and watching sea turtles hatch is one of the most magical things to do in Costa Rica.
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