Costa Rica is a pretty small country, but there is such a variety of things to do and places to go that it is always hard to choose where to go. We will give you here a series of suggestions in each one of the five regions of the country.
What is the best thing to do in Costa Rica?
The best thing to do in Costa Rica is to find your own personal happy place. This depends on whether you are most content basking on a white-sand beach, hiking to the top of one of Costa Rica’s thrilling volcanos or mountains, seeing sloths and monkeys at a wildlife preserve, or soaking in natural hot springs in the middle of the tropical rainforest.
What should you not miss in Costa Rica?
While in Costa Rica you should not miss the rainforest and beach. These are two “must-see” environments to experience the quintessential natural beauty of Costa Rica.
What are the main attractions in Costa Rica?
The main attractions in Costa Rica are its stunning natural wonders including many different types of volcanoes, biodiverse tropical forests, gorgeous beaches, national parks, wildlife preserves, and adventure activities.
What are the best activities in Costa Rica?
The best activities in Costa Rica are going whitewater rafting on a tropical river surrounded by verdant views and blue morpho butterflies, taking a guided night walk in the cloud forest to spot owls, kinkajous, and bats, doing a zipline canopy tour through a tropical forest, sailing on either the pacific or Caribbean ocean, and snorkeling in warm tropical waters.
What are the Top 10 Things to Do Costa Rica?
- Zipline Canopy Tour in the Rainforest – Snap into your harness and fly through the forest canopy on a series of cables from platform to platform and even try bonus feats such as the aptly named “Superman” and “Tarzan swing”.
- Whitewater Rafting – Enjoy the exhilaration of riding the rapids on tropical rivers that wind through lush ecosystems.
- Natural Hot Springs – Soak your troubles away in geothermal mineral springs surrounded by nature.
- Snorkeling – Take a plunge into the underwater worlds of the coral reef to see colorful species including tropical fish, crabs, octopus, and urchins.
- Waterfall – Enjoy a spectacular view and perhaps even a refreshing dip in one of Costa Rica’s majestic waterfalls.
- Guided Day Hike in a National Park – Allow a professional to lead and teach you about the biological wonders in one of Costa Rica’s world-renowned National Parks.
- Cloudforest Night Walk – Watch and listen as the forest comes alive with the sights and sounds of nocturnal creatures, glowing mushrooms, and night-blooming plants.
- Sunset Catamaran Sail – Enjoy the pacific breeze and watch the sun go down over the ocean on a wind-powered boat.
- Horseback Tour – Taking a horseback riding tour is a fun and relaxing way to get off of the beaten path and take in the scenery at a slower pace.
- River or Sea Kayaking – Paddle your way over coastal reefs, mangroves, or rainforest on smooth or exciting waterways.
What is the most beautiful place in Costa Rica?
Although it is impossible to pin down just one place as the most beautiful location in Costa Rica, the postcard-perfect Pacific beach in Manuel Antonio National Park, the shimmering lake and impressive volcano of Arenal, and the mystical Cloud Forest of Monteverde have drawn international fame for their unique appeal and often top the list of most beautiful places in Costa Rica. Also in the running are the exquisite beaches of Guanacaste on the northern Pacific coast and the majestic Pacuare River.
Costa Rica by Region
We will give you here a series of suggestions in each one of the five regions of the country.
Besides looking at this list, remember to consider Costa’ Rica’s weather conditions at different times of the year. Also, make sure to carefully read our page on the best time to visit Costa Rica where we share a lot of information about seasons, seasonal activities, crowds and costs, and much more.
Now, if you are traveling with your family, we share our knowledge and experience about things to do in Costa Rica with kids, and also about how to visit Costa Rica with toddlers. You can also find what we think are the best places to stay in Costa Rica with kids and the best beaches in Costa Rica for families. We share advice and specific destinations (in those links) that you should consider when looking at lodging and destination options for your family.
Many first-time Costa Rica travelers have questions or want help, so we highly recommend that you look at our Costa Rica itineraries or fill out the form at the bottom of the page to start getting expert hands-on help to plan your perfect Costa Rica trip.
Costa Rica’s Provinces
So much, with 7 provinces that are very different from one another, and even within themselves! For reference, here are the 7 provinces of Costa Rica:
To make it a little easier, we will use the economic division of the country, which means looking at five different regions and listing the best Costa Rican attractions in each one of them. Also, if you don’t have much travel time, especially time for driving in Costa Rica, it might make sense to pick one region and explore it in-depth.
What to do in Guanacaste, Costa Rica?
The Guanacaste region is known as Chorotega, in honor of the indigenous group that once reigned this land. This is the part of Costa Rica that host the dry forest, and it actually has the only standing first-growth forest in Central America and Mexico. Guanacaste is also known for its impressive long beaches, some with world-renowned surfing waves. Here are a few attractions and activities to consider if you visit this region:
In Tamarindo, Playa Negra, Playa Grande, Playa Langosta, Playa Sámara, Playa Avellana, Playa Junquillal, Playa Nosara, and we can keep on naming them one after the other. The entire coast of Guanacaste has excellent waves, some world-famous, for surfers of all experience levels. You can take surfing lessons with local professionals, who can provide you with the safety, equipment, and knowledge of conditions and the best spots for beginners.
Santa Rosa National Park
Santa Rosa National Park is the best way to see, experience and be amazed by tropical dry forest with an important touch of Costa Rican history. This national park is very easy to access and it even has an interpretive trail for the little ones and people with disabilities. It is an excellent educational opportunity, both due to its historical significance in Costa Rica’s past as well as its unique ecosystem.
Rincón de la Vieja National Park
In Rincón de la Vieja National Park, you’ll not only see an active volcano, but you can enjoy it by visiting the mud baths and hot springs in lodges and resorts located nearby. The National Park has several trails for varying abilities and interests, the most popular being a circular trail in La Pailas area that leads you from one geological attraction to the next, including steaming fumaroles, a mini-volcano, and lakes of bubbling mud.
Liberia, the capital of Guanacaste
The town of Liberia combines modernization with cattle ranch culture and an international vibe. Liberia hosts the second Costa Rican international airport, making it possible for visitors to land very close to all of Guanacaste’s amazing beaches.
Sea turtle nesting and hatching
Every new moon at Ostional Beach, hundreds, sometimes thousands, of Olive Ridley turtles come to the beach to nest, one of mother nature’s most spectacular displays that one can see. Playa Grande is also known as a sea turtle nesting site for Leatherback turtles, the biggest sea turtle in the world.
The best way to experience this unique experience is with an official guide who can help you to safely observe these amazing creatures without disturbing their natural behaviors or habitat. Depending on the season you may be able to do a night tour to be able to see the female turtles laying the eggs, or an early-morning tour to see the baby turtles emerge from their nests and heroically make their way towards the ocean.
It is very important to respect nature and protect, rather than interfere with this vulnerable species. Important precautions include not touching the turtles, maintaining a respectful distance, not taking flash photography or selfies, speaking quietly, and wearing dark-colored clothing if you are viewing the turtles at night.
Yoga and spa retreat
The place to go for being healthy and pampered is Nosara where not only you can be in some of the best yoga resorts of the world, but you can enjoy an absolutely amazing beach and even try some surfing.
Nosara has earned a reputation as the “Yoga capital of Costa Rica” thanks to the proliferation of yoga retreats, teacher training, classes, and high-end yoga lodges in this small beach village. The vibe extends to the restaurants offering vegetarian, vegan and healthy fare, as well as plenty of local and international options.
Nosara’s Guiones beach is known as a great place to learn how to surf due to its sandy bottom and gentle to moderate waves.
If you are more for the pampering and relaxing, try Tamarindo, where luxurious resorts can give you just what you are looking for. You might enjoy a spa package featuring Costa Rican-themed treatments such as natural volcanic mud mask, papaya body wraps, and raindrop massage with essential oils.
What to do in the Central Pacific of Costa Rica?
This is the smallest region of Costa Rica, but one of the most visited by locals and tourists, mostly because it offers a great variety of wildlife, landscapes, and activities, but also because its beaches are the closest to the central valley. The landscape and biodiversity of the Central Pacific (Puntarenas) are very special because it is the border between dry landscape and the rainforest. Here are a few attractions and activities you must consider if you visit this region:
Monteverde is the perfect place to see the cloud forest and rural Costa Rica with an international twist. Founded by Quakers from the United States that migrated to Costa Rica in the 1950s, the people from Monteverde have two passions, dairy cattle farming and protecting the cloud forest and its biodiversity.
Monteverde is home to world-famous nature reserves such as the Children’s Eternal Rainforest, the Santa Elena Reserve, and the Monteverde Reserve that together form a biological corridor connecting vital forest habitats and allowing species to move and migrate freely.
Manuel Antonio National Park
Manuel Antonio National Park is the second most visited national park in Costa Rica after Poas Volcano. This oasis of wildlife and breathtaking white-sand beaches is surrounded by all kinds of attractions and activities like canopy tours, white water rafting, catamaran trips, and more. The town of Quepos is the hub from where you can travel to the national park and other local attractions.
The National Park contains several trails that lead to lookout points, beaches, and even a waterfall, depending on the season. The most exciting aspect of this national park is that visitors have an excellent chance of seeing wildlife such as three-toed sloths, howler and white-faced capuchin monkeys, iguanas, butterflies, deer, and raccoons.
Carara National Park
This is the place where dry and wet climates meet. The Carara National Park, located right next to the Tarcoles River, has five short trails where you can learn and enjoy a very unique ecosystem, one of them has been designed for small children and people with disabilities. During the rainy season, you will need rubber boots to walk Laguna Meándrica trail, a favorite for birders and wildlife lovers.
Watching crocodiles in the Tarcoles River
Want to see the biggest American Crocodiles in the Americas, as documented and validated by National Geographic? We have you covered! To see these prehistoric monsters you have two options. One involves getting out of your car and carefully walking across the bridge over the river and looking down at these incredible creatures. The other involves getting off the Coastal Highway into the Tarcoles town and booking a birding and wildlife tour, where you’ll not only see these reptiles much closer, but you will also see an incredible number of different bird species.
The town of Puntarenas and the San Lucas Island
Puntarenas is literally a giant sandbar that extends out into the Pacific ocean, right at the end of the Nicoya Gulf. This charming town offers a great coastal-life vibe with Costa Rica’s own flavor. Make sure to walk the Paseo de los Turistas pedestrian road along the beach and enjoy a Churchill (a traditional Puntarenas’ desert with ice, syrup, condensed milk, ice cream and more!). Before that, visit the Central Market and enjoy a local ceviche. Also, book a trip to the San Lucas Island, Costa Rica’s own Alcatraz, where not only you can learn a bit of Costa Rican history but also enjoy a very special small island in the gulf.
From North to South the surfing spots of this region are Santa Teresa and Mal Pais located in the Nicoya Península, Boca Barranca in Caldera, Playa Jacó, Playa Hermosa, Playa Esterillos. These are the biggest and more known surfing spots in the Central Pacific, but in between, you can find many other little beaches with fun surfing waves. It is always important to check the local conditions and be aware of rip currents and swells as most beaches do not have lifeguards.
What to do in the South Pacific of Costa Rica?
Starting at the town of Dominical, right after the Barú River, and all the way south to the Panama border is one of the most biodiverse places in the world. In this part of Costa Rica, you can experience the only rainforest in the Pacific Coast of Central America and México. This region, known as the South Pacific, is not as developed as its sister regions to the north, which makes it even more special for many visitors. Here are a few attractions and activities you must consider if you visit this region:
Corcovado National Park
According to National Geographic, Corcovado National Park is one of the most biodiverse places on earth. The national park covers most of the Osa Peninsula and connects to several wildlife refuges and private reserves. You can access the park via Drake Bay, a charming small town known for pirate stories and wildlife treasures, or via Puerto Jimenez, another small town, but one that looks towards the inside of the Dulce Gulf.
Just like the rest of the Pacific coast of Costa Rica, the southern part also has amazing surfing spots (and very famous ones to boot!). Pavones, in Punta Burica, is internationally known for its long left wave. Cabo Matapalo, located between Puerto Jimenez and Corcovado National Park, has a series of small beaches with waves for all level surfers.
Coto Brus and the Mountains
The south pacific is much more than amazing beaches. The Talamanca Mountain Range and the Coastal Mountain Range sit in the back of the Pacific coast and have amazing places to visit. The valley of Coto Brus hides in between both ranges and has little towns like San Vito where you can enjoy a Costa Rican rural life like no other in the country…and visit amazing destinations like Wilson Botanical Gardens.
Hiking Chirripó National Park
Mount Chirripó, in Chirippó National Park, is the tallest mountain of Costa Rica, 3820m high, and is roughly a 12.5 mile (20km) hike with over 6,562ft (2000m) change in elevation. A little challenge, with a necessary overnight at 11,155ft (3400m) of altitude, but with an amazing reward, since you will see a landscape and flora like no other in Costa Rica. Summiting this peak requires advanced reservations and thorough preparation. You will need to be in good physical condition and have the right gear to be able to enjoy the colder temperatures and challenging terrain.
What to do in the Northern plains of Costa Rica?
This is rainforest! The northern plains of Costa Rica are all about water and heat, the perfect combination for an amazing forest to grow and thrive. Except for the Arenal area, most of the places you can visit in this part of Costa Rica are off the beaten path.
Here are a few attractions and activities you must consider if you visit this region:
It all started after a funny looking hill, The Arenal Hill, showed the world that it was a volcano! Since then, the Arenal area has been taken to by nature lovers and those who want to be amazed by the active cone and all that comes out of it. There is so much to do in this part of the northern plains, from hiking the Arenal Volcano National Park to windsurfing in the Arenal lake or zooming down some of the largest canopy tours in the country.
The area is home to the majestic La Fortuna Waterfall, which is accessible inside of a private reserve run by the non-profit organization called ADIFORT, the Integral Development Association of La Fortuna which provides well-maintained trails, lifeguard, gift shop and restaurant within the park. Not to be missed are the relaxing thermal hot springs, fed by springs and rivers heated by the volcano itself.
Sarapiquí and the rainforest
Sarapiquí is the name of the biggest county of Heredia Province. It starts at the north edge of the Central Volcanic Mountain Range and it ends at the border with Nicaragua. There is a lot happening in this area, but the reasons why people visit are mostly the great birdwatching, the incredible hikes in the rainforest, the fun whitewater rafting in the Sarapiquí River, and some other crazy adventures like night time canopy tours.
Bijagua and the blue river
Bijagua is one of those secret places that the small roads can unravel. Tucked between Tenorio and Miravalles volcanos, and just a short drive from Liberia and Fortuna, this small town still depends on dairy and vegetable farming, but new generations of local tourism entrepreneurs are now offering visitors the opportunity to experience the special rural town life in an environment filled with good service and unique experiences. The main attraction of the area is the famous Celeste river, a turquoise-blue water river that springs at the Tenorio National Park.
What to do in the Caribbean of Costa Rica?
The Caribbean region of Costa Rica basically corresponds to the province of Limón, where you will find incredible wildlife, beautiful beaches, and opportunities for tropical adventures.
Here are a few attractions and activities you must consider if you visit this region:
Town of Puerto Limón
Puerto Limón is a port city has seen it all, from the first encounter between native indigenous groups and Spaniards to Jamaican and Chinese migrants that came to build the railroad, to the massive exports of Costa Rican bananas and pineapples that are still a very important element of the country’s economy. Charming in its own way, everybody that comes to the Caribbean coast of Costa Rica should stop here.
Whitewater rafting in the Pacuare River
There is no question about it, if you like adventure and wildlife, a whitewater rafting trip on the Pacuare River is for you! And if you have extra time in your travel itinerary, spend a night on the river and have a two-day tour of this amazing corner of Costa Rica. The river flows through various landscapes including virgin rainforest, Indigenous land, and impressive stone canyons on its way towards the Caribbean ocean.
South Caribbean Beaches
The way ocean and forest meet at the Caribbean beaches of Costa Rica has no comparison. From Cahuita National Park to Manzanillo, every single beach and corner is just spectacular and unique, and there are a few that are just perfect for surfing. And in Puerto Viejo, you will find some of the best restaurants in the country and the most laid-back atmosphere you can wish for.
Sea turtle nesting and wildlife spotting at Tortuguero
Tortuguero is a town with no cars, where the only way to move around is by foot, bike or, mostly, boat. Surrounded by tropical rainforest, the river and canals that connect ocean with the city of Puerto Limón are home not only to people that choose to live simply but amazing wildlife like green turtles and jaguars. An excellent way to experience the mangroves and observe wildlife is on a river kayak or boat tour.
What to do in the Central Region of Costa Rica?
Also called Central Valley or Great Metropolitan Area, the Central Region of Costa Rica consists of the head towns of four provinces, Alajuela, Heredia, Cartago and San José. There is so much to do in this area, from active volcanoes to museums to coffee plantations tours. Spending time in the Central Valley means learning and understanding Costa Rica.
Here are a few attractions and activities you must consider if you visit this region:
San José, the Capital
Small, crowded, noisy, and maybe a little dirty, but the charm and importance of the city of San José can’t be denied and must be visited. You can enjoy great food, super interesting museums, incredible architecture like the National Theater and a lot of people watching.
The central valley is surrounded by impressive and beautiful mountains, but the Central Volcanic Mountain Range is just too special. Here you can visit the active Poas Volcano and see one of the biggest craters in the world. You can drive to the Irazú Volcano National Park and be at 11,155ft (3400m) of elevation right next to a crater filled with turquoise water. Hike among lush and breathtaking cloud forest at the dormant Barva Volcano, part of the incredible Braulio Carrillo National Park.
Coffee plantation tours
Costa Rica produces the best coffee in the world… or at least one of the best. Many crops have won international awards and have been sold for incredible amounts of money. And what makes it even more special is that the country’s characteristic microclimates have generated remarkable differences in the flavor of coffee coming from different parts of the country, all with the same level of quality. In the central valley, a lot of that coffee is cultivated, which means while in there you must find at least one coffee tour to learn about this incredible fruit. Consider taking a coffee plantation tour!
Sarchí and the woodcraft of Costa Rica
Take a short and charming road trip to Sarchí and find high quality, curious and classic wooden souvenirs from Costa Rica. Here is where you can also get to know the traditional Oxcart, Costa Rica’s National Symbol of Work and UNESCO’s Masterpiece of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity.
Overwhelmed? We’re Here to Help!
Many first-time visitors to Costa Rica are better off having an experienced itinerary provider create their trip for them, based their interests. If that’s you, we are here to help! We can ensure that your trip is magical, safe, and that you’ll want to come again. Contact us below to set up a free consultation. Pura Vida!
John Rabenau has been working in the eco-tourism & adventure travel industry in Costa Rica since 2002. He has worked in a variety of capacities from Outdoor Educator & Principle Guide to Itinerary Design Manager & Business Owner for numerous organizations. He has grown Costa Rica Escapes into one of the most reputable Costa Rica travel agencies since its creation in 2006, hosting more than 5,000 people with custom vacation itineraries.