I have lived in Costa Rica for over a year and am exploring more for several reasons.
One, I don’t have a beach cruiser anymore as my transportation; I finally bought an SUV. (That is a story in itself!) Second, I love my little town of Samara, but I know how beautiful this country is, and there are many more places to explore, from the many beaches to the Volcanos, waterfalls, and cloud forests.
As I explore more, this only helps you, our travelers, because you get to learn from a local expert. Now, I will be completely transparent: I have not gone to some places I am talking about today, BUT I am planning on it, such as hiking Chirripo in May, but I also want to travel to Uvita and see the “Whale Tail.”
So I am excited to share hidden gems and the non-touristy things to do in Costa Rica from a USA girl who moved down with a couple of suitcases, wondering what would happen.
Exploring Costa Rica and seeing the popular places, such as Tamarindo, Monteverde, and Arenal Volcano, are incredible. Still, some fantastic smaller towns have such a lovely vibe you may not want to leave.
Well, here is one of those smaller towns, Samara, where I live, and I haven’t left. Yes, it is a hidden gem, BUT it is getting more popular today, especially during busy holidays like Christmas, New Year, and Samana Santa (Holy Week).
Why do people gravitate to Playa Samara?
There are a couple of reasons. First, I love that the beach has a town center, plenty of restaurants, and even a couple of grocery stores, so you can take a picnic instead of eating out, but remember to bring your trash with you. The ocean and beach like to stay clean as possible.
Speaking of the beach, the beach is big, about a 10k round trip, so you can stay closer to the center of town or head down to either side of the beach.
One side of Samara is called Cangrejal, with plenty of palm trees and shade for you and the family. There is also a fun playground for the kids if they get “bored” with the ocean. There is a fantastic Soda shop there too!
The other side of Samara is still Samara, but it is an excellent 30-minute walk on the beach from town. So if you go, take plenty of water, sunscreen, and snacks, as there are few restaurants or soda shops that way.
I shouldn’t share so much about Playa Samara because it is a hidden gem that has grown in my heart.
Playa San Juanillo, Guanacaste
This little beach town is truly a beautiful gem. I have only been two times and have loved it each time but getting there is super challenging.
First, ensure you have a 4×4 SUV or talk to one of our drivers to help you. Getting to Playa San Juanillo is challenging, whether driving from Nosara, Ositonal, or Tamarindo. There are few concrete roads, as most are dirt roads.
Second, make a day trip out of it, from having a picnic at lunchtime or buying something from the local vendors on the beach (Make sure you have colones, though) to staying for sunset because you will NOT want to miss these gorgeous sunsets. There are a few restaurants and soda shops to get food and drinks.
It is considered one of OUR breathtaking beaches!
Non-Touristy Things to Do
When people come to Costa Rica, most people want to do the “norm” because maybe you don’t come down to Costa Rica often so you will head to a volcano, a beach, and a cloud forest. It is very common, and there is nothing wrong with that. However, we also know that some people don’t want to see the “norm” and figure out what non-touristy things there are to do.
Connect with The Culture, Learn the Language, and Meet a Tico Family
So maybe this one is a little “non-touristy” thing to do because I live here, but honestly, it has been one of the best things I have done. I have emersed myself in the culture. I didn’t come to Costa Rica to hang with my friends from the States, only when they came to visit me. I came to enjoy EVERYTHING about Costa Rica.
Let’s talk about the food. Yes, I love food, and it is one of the most expensive things I spend my money on, but when the family invites you over, you go! The “Beans and Rice” have not missed me. There is an excellent article about families living in the Blue Zone, where they talk about the healthy eating of the Ticos and other Blue Zone members. Click HERE for that article.
Another great opportunity to hang with a local family is to see what they do during the holidays, how they celebrate and help learn the language if you have yet to learn Spanish.
Truthfully, I have loved this part of being in Costa Rica.
Chirripó National Park is close to San Jose, Limon, and Cartago, and this is the highest mountain in Costa Rica. Therefore, many hikers and adventures will take the trip to Chirripo to truly see Costa Rica.
The one thing about Chirripo is that you do have to plan for this and hire a guide to help you. These hikes can fill up very fast within a year.
Why is the 12-mile hike so special? On a clear day, you can see the Pacific and Caribbean oceans. The view is magical, and the exercise can fulfill the soul. Being in Costa Rica with a warmer climate for most of the time, occasionally having a little bit of cooler weather is so good.
Other Hidden Gems
There are a ton of hidden gems around Costa Rica, and we wish we could name them all, but here are a couple more for you that I want to visit as well, and when I do, I will be writing an article about them.
Traveling to Manzanillo is on my list to do while living in Costa Rica, but it is also a 9 – 10 hour drive because this is on the Carribean side of Costa Rica. It is located in Limon Province, so it may be best to take a domestic flight over to that area. It is also closer to Panama, as it is one of the southern parts of Costa Rica.
Why is this a hidden gem? Here are some reasons I have read about and genuinely look forward to experiencing.
The Gandoca-Manzanillo Wildlife Refuge is 15km (9.3 miles) of beach, with beautiful reefs and white sand. If you want to do that, there are many opportunities to explore with your scuba mask and snorkel. We suggest you find a guide to help you, especially if the tides are too high or dangerous.
If you love animal life, there are leatherback turtle nesting tours from February to May.
Another reason for heading to the Carribean side of Costa Rica is the food, as it is more Carribean-style than Costa Rican food. However, its Carribean flare can be vibrant if you have been to other Carribean places. The restaurants will have spicy, bold, and flavorful food but don’t worry; rice and beans are still there.
Enjoy the blog that we wrote about Manzanillo to learn more details.
Uvita & the Whale’s Tail
One of the best-hidden gems is Uvita, as we shared a blog about Uvita. Let’s break it down; it would be a great place to see if you genuinely want to experience Costa Rica.
First, we want to share the beautiful park, Marino Ballena National Park. If you go to any map, you will see what it looks like and why everyone calls it the “Whale Tail.” It has been called “Marino Ballena,” also known as “Marine Whale,” because humpback whales are well known to visit for their migration from December to April. You will not be disappointed seeing these beauties.
The next hidden gem in Uvita, the most well-known and popular Instagram photo, is Nauyaca Waterfall. It is considered one of the most beautiful waterfalls in Costa Rica. There are two waterfalls there that are extremely powerful and highly recommended. It is about 1.5 hours from Uvita but well worth it.
Come Visit these Hidden Gems in Costa Rica!
Some pretty incredible places to search around Costa Rica are off the beaten path. Of course, if you come to Costa Rica once, you will want to visit the Arenal Volcano, Monteverde Cloud Forest, and a beach. But if you have done all that, we are here to help you explore Costa Rica beyond the norm and get outside your comfort zone!
Contact us if we can help you plan a trip.
Jen Rulon is an avid traveler and writer for Costa Rica Escapes. She is also a triathlon coach and author. You can find her knowledge as an author and speaker ranging from Triathlete Magazine, Runners World, on the TEDx Stage, the Health and Wellness Expo in San Antonio, TX, Men’s Journal Online New York Times.
As she has retired from the triathlon space, Jen’s love of Costa Rica began. She realized that she loves the beaches, and the coffee of Costa Rica and now wants to share through the eyes of what she sees with Costa Rica Escapes. Read Jen’s stories and advice for travelers who wish to see the authentic side of Costa Rica on their vacation.