The old cliché, “So many places, so little time,” rings especially true when considering where to visit, and what to see, in a new country. For the casual traveler who is visiting Costa Rica for one week to 10 days, there are boundless options.
It’s important to narrow down your options to only those that interest you most. Here are a few initial questions that you should answer to help determine where to go in Costa Rica and which direction you should take your family vacation, honeymoon or adventure trip.
- Have you been to Costa Rica before? If so, we suggest visiting areas that you haven’t yet experienced.
- Who are you traveling with? This determines the style of trip that we suggest for you. In most cases, we recommend a different itinerary for families (with children) than we do if you are traveling with your significant other on a romantic getaway.
- Do you want adventure or relaxation? Be prepared to categorize the style of your desired trip as either adventurous, relaxing, or a combination of both.
Knowing these answers will help you understand which regions are a good fit for your desired travel experience. We discuss the various regions further down on this page, but let’s get straight to some quick recommendations.
Exploring the Provinces, Regions & Towns of Costa Rica
As is the case with virtually anywhere in the world, to truly experience the real Costa Rica and its myriad of biological treasures, one needs to take years of travel and exploration. For those lucky enough to have the time and ability to travel, we’ll explore the provinces, regions, and towns of Costa Rica in-depth.
Travelers visiting Costa Rica are often faced with a multitude of decisions as they plan their trip to this exquisite Central American country. Costa Rica offers an incredible amount of biodiversity within 14 distinct climatic zones situated in a very small area.
Costa Rica’s 7 Provinces
With so much to see, deciding where to go is often the hardest part of the trip planning and itinerary-design processes. After all, the best area to vacation in Costa Rica depends on what you and your loved ones would like to experience!
To simplify the geography and layout of Costa Rica, it’s best to acquaint yourself with the provinces.
Costa Rica is composed of seven provinces, shown in the map above, which in turn are divided into 82 cantons. These cantons are further divided into districts. But as a traveler, it’s most important to be familiar with the provinces (as a starting point):
- Alajuela – Referred to as the Northern Highlands and is the home of Arenal Volcano, La Fortuna, Alajuela City, Volcan Poás, and other destinations.
- Cartago – The old capital and gateway to the Caribbean Coast is home to Turrialba, Irazú Volcano, and other destinations.
- Guanacaste – Includes the capital of Liberia, Playa Negra, Playas del Coco, Playa Flamingo, Punta Islita, Nicoya Peninsula and overall is a dry tropical forest region.
- Heredia – The Northern Zone, which encompasses Sarapiquí.
- Limón – This province runs along the Caribbean Coast and includes destinations such as Puerto Viejo, Cahuita, Tortuguero, Manzanillo, Punta Uva, and other destinations.
- Puntarenas – Includes some of the best beaches in the country (like Manuel Antonio), Monteverde Cloud Forest and stretches from the Nicoya Peninsula to Panama. Find additional destinations like Drake Bay, Osa Peninsula, Uvita (for whale watching) and Montezuma (offering incredible waterfalls and beaches).
- San José – The population epicenter, including the capital city of San José and known as the Central Valley. Popular destinations include Chirripó and Santa Ana, among others.
Explore the provinces above to become acquainted with specific towns, cities, and points of interest. We help you dive into each of these areas in detail from the perspective of a traveler.
What Side of Costa Rica Has the Best Beaches?
With 800 miles of coastline, Costa Rica has more than enough beaches for everyone.
The Pacific and Caribbean coasts of Costa Rica both have fantastic beaches. Due to its easier access from San José, the Pacific coast traditionally has more popular beaches — though there are plenty of excellent options on both sides. You can swim at the majority of Costa Rica’s beaches, though some have swells that are better suited for surfing.
Some of the most popular beaches on Costa Rica’s Pacific Coast include:
- Manuel Antonio, Puntarenas: An expansive white-sand beach within a national park by the same name.
- Santa Teresa, Puntarenas: Known for its consistent waves for surfing.
- Conchal, Guanacaste: A white-sand beach with excellent snorkeling. Conchal and many Guanacaste beaches have gentle waves that are ideal for families with young children.
- Playa Flamingo: Known for its beautiful white beaches and sunsets.
Some of the most popular beaches on Costa Rica’s Caribbean Coast include:
- Cahuita, Limón: An expansive white-sand beach within a national park by the same name. Snorkeling opportunities abound in the nearby coral.
- Manzanillo, Limón: A secluded white-sand beach known for its calm waters.
- Punta Uva, Limón: Golden sand, clear water, coral, palm trees, and wildlife — you can’t ask for much more!
We categorized dozens of Costa Rica beaches as best for surfing, snorkeling, or swimming on this page.
With the exception of National Parks, the majority of Costa Rica’s beaches are not staffed by lifeguards. Thousands of people enjoy Costa Rica’s waters safely every day, but ocean currents can be dangerous, so use common sense and don’t swim alone.
Ask locals for the safest place to swim in the ocean and also the best tide to do so. If you can’t communicate with locals, only go into the water when and where they do.
What is the Best Time of Year to Go to Each Area of Costa Rica?
Visitors often ask us about the weather. Temperatures in Costa Rica remain relatively steady throughout the country’s two seasons. Costa Rica’s Rainy or “Green” season generally goes from April through November, while the Dry or “High” Season goes from December through April. Both seasons have great things to offer, depending on what you want to do and where you want to go, so it’s hard to definitively say when is the best time to visit Costa Rica.
On the contrary, the Caribbean Coast typically experiences gorgeous, sunny weather during the months of February, March, September, and October. That’s not to say the rainy season is better or worse than the dry season. Of course, you might want sunshine for a day at the beach, but the natural beauty of Costa Rica’s lush tropical forests is really accentuated when it rains.
Remember that with so many microclimates, different weather in Costa Rica is often just a short drive away!
Is it Dangerous to Visit Certain Parts of Costa Rica?
As with anywhere in the world, some parts of Costa Rica can be more dangerous than others. In general, though, Costa Rica as a country relies heavily on the tourism industry, so most places and people are welcoming of foreign visitors.
The U.S. State Department says visitors to Costa Rica should “exercise increased caution” due to crime. Petty crime is the biggest threat to tourists in Costa Rica, so travel smart, particularly in towns that are popular with foreign visitors. Remember to look after your belongings, use the hotel safe, and avoid carrying large quantities of cash or expensive electronics.
Overall, Costa Rica is safer than Mexico. The U.S. State Department notes violent crime in Mexico — including homicide and kidnapping — is widespread. Of course, some areas are more dangerous than others.
The U.S. Embassy in Costa Rica has highlighted the following areas in which visitors should be particularly cautious:
- Central neighborhood in Limón
- Liberia City
- Desamparados neighborhood in San Rafael
- Pavas and hospital neighborhoods in San José
What are the Best Areas to Stay in Costa Rica?
It all depends on what your preferences are. If you are into hiking in the Cloud Forest, consider Monteverde, where not only you can enjoy an incredible amount of trails in different reserves and private protected areas, but you can also see the Cloud Forest from above on a canopy tour, visit butterfly gardens or enjoy amazing cheese at the Monteverde Cheese Factory.
Now, if you’re looking for a warmer forest, you have to hike in the rainforest, and we suggest you visit Sarapiquí, a more rural area, and slightly off the beaten path but still has terrific accommodations for you to choose from and many activities.
Another famous attraction in Costa Rica is the volcanoes, and to enjoy one in all of its appearances you have to visit Arenal. This is one of Costa Rica’s most developed tourist areas, especially La Fortuna. It has volcano-view ecolodges such as Arenal Observatory Lodge and activities that will fit all kinds of budgets and interests.
Different Traveler Types: Where to Visit in Costa Rica
We recommend destinations in Costa Rica based on the type of visit you’re taking. Families often want attractions and experiences that are very different than what honeymooners are looking for, and even more different than what adventure/thrill-seekers want in their trip. For these reasons, we’ve broken down our recommendations of where to go for various types of Costa Rica travel experiences.
Where Should Families Go in Costa Rica?
View our Costa Rica Family Vacation Itineraries.
Two of our favorite places for families to visit in Costa Rica are Arenal and Manuel Antonio because they offer something for every member of your family, including a great selection of accommodations for all tastes and budgets.
If you are traveling as a family with children or teenagers and this is your first time going to Costa Rica, we strongly recommend visiting: Arenal > Monteverde > Manuel Antonio. This path is outlined in our Costa Rica Collection itinerary and is a wonderful blend of cloud forest, rainforest, and beach. It allows for a multitude of both extreme and light adventure options in the mountains and volcanoes before arriving at the beach to continue the adventure or just slow down and relax.
Where Should Couples Go in Costa Rica?
When it comes to planning a Costa Rica honeymoon with your loved one you want privacy, romance, and just the perfect amount of adventure. If you look at the itineraries we have specially designed at Costa Rica Escapes for couples, you will see that we use areas that we have suggested several times in this article like Arenal and Manuel Antonio, but the secret is to find the perfect lodging for couples.
Another great area for couples is Drake Bay and one of its secluded and private luxury lodges such as the couples-only Tranquilo Lodge and all-inclusive La Paloma Lodge. These lodges will make your trip feel even more like an adventure without sacrificing comfort.
If you are looking to experience both high adventure and relaxation, we suggest visiting: Turrialba > Puerto Viejo de Talamanca, as indicated in our Secluded Caribbean itinerary. This itinerary includes various visits to National Parks and reserves to see wildlife, and it also includes a heart-pounding and unforgettable overnight rafting trip on the Pacuare River.
Where Should Adventure Seekers Go in Costa Rica?
For those who want the ultimate Costa Rican adventure — and aren’t afraid to visit slightly off-the-beaten-path destinations — we recommend our favorite trip, the Remote Adventure itinerary. This itinerary explores the magnificent rainforest and volcanoes in the Talamanca Mountains on a white-water rafting experience that will provide you with idyllic scenes of waterfalls tumbling into the river and canyons engulfed in jungle and rainforest. All of this is an appetizer for Costa Rica’s wildest location, in the Southwest Pacific: the Osa Peninsula and Corcovado National Park, among the world’s most biodiverse areas.
Planning Where to Visit in Costa Rica
Due to the large number of high-quality destinations to choose from in Costa Rica, visitors are often faced with tough decisions and look to travel experts to help them determine which one will work best for their specific trip. Logistics through Costa Rica are a very important element of trip planning and ought to be considered very early in the process. This is especially true for those with a limited amount of time in Costa Rica. There are numerous means by which to travel, and a combination of these typically proves to be the most efficient from both a timing and value perspective. Travel times can vary greatly in Costa Rica, and it’s important to consult an expert so you can maximize your experience.
For the typical family or traveler who has 7-10 days in Costa Rica, the best way to begin the trip-design process is to choose one or two specific destinations or areas to visit. Any more will mean you’re spending too much time commuting, and not enough time exploring!
The most beautiful place in Costa Rica is highly subjective, but a well-balanced itinerary will include a visit to the mountainous rainforest to see volcanoes and experience the jungle and rivers, before moving to a coastal location to soak in the beauty and serenity of the beaches. Creating an experience that includes high-adventure, adrenaline-filled activities is just as easy as coordinating a spa-laden, sit-on-the-beach-with-a-book-and-just-relax (whew!) experience, yet they complement each other so well.
Stats & Facts of Costa Rica’s Geography
Costa Rica is situated on the Central American Isthmus, bordering the Caribbean Sea to the east and the Pacific Ocean to the west. To the north, Costa Rica’s neighbor is Nicaragua, while its southern neighbor is Panama. In total, Costa Rica makes up 51,100 square kilometers / 19,700 sq mi plus 589 square kilometers / 227 sq mi of territorial waters. Costa Rica’s size is often compared to that of the state of West Virginia, which oftentimes is surprising to people.
Costa Rica has an incredible total of 1,290 kilometers / 800 mi of coastline. There are 212 km / 132 mi on the Caribbean coast and 1,016 km / 631 mi on the Pacific side, offering travelers and nationals alike a plethora of gorgeous beaches for swimming, surfing or lounging.
Costa Rica offers something for everyone, and it’s easy for U.S. and Canadian citizens to visit with many direct flights and very few time zone changes. Costa Rica is best known for being a peaceful, democratic, and generally safe country that offers travelers the chance to experience firsthand an ecological treasure — with a huge range of habitats from cloud forests to jungle and rainforests, as well as volcanoes to beaches and mangroves. These well-protected habitats play home to an incredible variety of wildlife and especially birds.
Costa Rica’s peaceful reputation has been a vital factor in the impressive growth of its tourism industry. Three million people visit the country annually from across the world, with the majority coming from North America — and the United States in particular.
“Ticos,” as Costa Ricans call themselves, have the highest rate of literacy, health care, education, and life expectancy in Central America; however, there is a significant percentage of people living below the poverty line. Costa Rica is modernizing quickly, and while the “authenticity” seems to be minimizing, much of the country’s character continues to be rooted in distinct local cultures, from the Afro-Caribbean province of Limón to traditional values embodied by the “sabanero” (cowboy) of Guanacaste.
Costa Rica has the highest rural population density in Latin America, and society continues to revolve around family. Wherever one goes in Costa Rica, he or she is sure to be left with mental snapshots of rural life, whether it be ox-drawn carts slowly meandering by on dirt roads or coffee-plantation workers with baskets setting off to work in the dawn mists of the volcanic highlands.
Ultimately, it’s Costa Rica’s exceptional natural splendor that has made it one of the world’s top ecotourism destinations. Whether you are planning a trip to hike trails through primary rainforest, visit an active volcano and soak in natural hot springs, explore the high-altitude cloud forest, or catch a few waves on some of the excellent surfing beaches in the country, there is truly something for everyone.
Costa Rica, which translates to “Rich Coast,” got its name because Christopher Columbus and Spanish settlers thought they’d find large quantities of gold here. Ultimately, they didn’t — but the name still suits the country due to its vast biodiversity and natural splendors.
Now that you’ve read about what you can do in Costa Rica, you should have a better idea of where you’d like to go. Maybe you’re an adventurer and want to go off the beaten path in the Osa Peninsula. Maybe you and your partner want utter relaxation at beaches and hot springs. Or perhaps you and your family would like to try a little bit of everything.
Want Help Determining Where to Go in Costa Rica?
We’re happy to help you determine where you should go in Costa Rica on your vacation. That’s what we do! Just email us below and we’ll be in touch quickly.