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, honeymoon or adventure vacation.
- Have you been to Costa Rica before? If so, we suggest visiting other areas that you have not yet experienced.
- Who are you traveling with? This determines the style of trip that we suggest for you. In most cases, we suggest 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.
Quick Recommendations of Where to Visit
We recommend destinations in Costa Rica depending on the type of visit you are 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 your particular type of Costa Rica travel experience.
Where Families Should Go in Costa Rica
View our Costa Rica Family Vacation Itineraries.
If you are traveling as a family with children or teenagers and this is your first time to Costa Rica, we strongly recommend visiting: Arenal -> Monteverde -> Manuel Antonio. This itinerary is outlined in our Costa Rica Collection itinerary. This itinerary 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 Couples Should Go in Costa Rica
If you are traveling with a significant other (or group of friends) and looking to experience some high adventure and relaxation we suggest visiting: Turrialba -> Puerto Viejo de Talamanca, as indicated in our Secluded Caribbean itinerary. This itinerary will include various visits to National Parks and reserves to see wildlife, it also includes a heart-pounding and unforgettable overnight rafting trip on the Pacuare River.
Where Adventure Seekers Should Go in Costa Rica
For those who have been to Costa Rica and search for the ultimate, adventure, which visits 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 views/scenes of waterfalls tumbling into the river and canyons coming together engulfed in jungle and rainforest. All of this before you visit Costa Rica’s wildest location, in the Southwest Pacific: the Osa Peninsula and Corcovado National Park.
For those looking to get to the point, those are our short & sweet answers for travelers seeking insight on where to go in Costa Rica.
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 in the following articles.
Travelers visiting the Central American country of Costa Rica are often faced with a multitude of decisions as they plan their trip to this exquisite country. Costa Rica offers an incredible amount of biodiversity within 14 distinct, climatic zones situated a very small area. As one sits down and digs into the planning process, often times the most difficult (sometimes overwhelming) part is choosing where to go and how to get there.
Due to the large number of high-quality destinations to choose from in Costa Rica, travelers are oftentimes 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 to travel through Costa Rica. There are numerous means by which to travel, and a combination of these means typically proves to be the most efficient from both a timing and value perspective. Travel times and transportation can be quite different in Costa Rica, and ought to be researched before organized and implemented into any travel itinerary.
How to Begin Planning Where to Go
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. A well-balanced itinerary, which includes a visit 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, is strongly recommended. 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 experience, yet they complement each other so well.
Based on travel duration, personal interests, proximity, budget and other possible travel goals, complimentary destinations can be added to an itinerary and fit into your trip accordingly. This is where an in-country, itinerary-design expert can be of great value to the traveler. There are many different philosophies to visiting and traveling through Costa Rica and it is always a great idea to ensure that your desires and goals for the trip are being considered and heard should you seek advice and local expertise.
Our philosophy of traveling through Costa Rica is one that strives for quality time in each location, as opposed to constant movement and traveling from one place to another. One of the reasons Costa Rica is such an exciting country to visit is that it gives travelers the opportunity to see multiple locations and environments in a single vacation. In order to effectively do this, it is important to be able to distinguish these locations upon reflection. In our opinion, two nights minimum in each location is often a good rule of thumb for this.
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. Most often times the size of Costa Rica is compared to that of the state of West Virginia, which often times is surprising to people. Costa Rica has an incredible total of 1,290 kilometers / 800 mi of coastline. There is 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 to enjoy.
Costa Rica offers something for everyone. Not only is it easy for its North American neighbors to visit with many direct flights and very little time zone changes, Costa Rica is a peaceful, democratic country that offers travelers the chance to experience first-hand, 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.
The peaceful reputation of Costa Rica has been a vital factor in the impressive growth of Costa Rica’s tourism. Two million people visit the country annually from all over the world, while the majority comes from North America.
Ultimately it is Costa Rica’s exceptional natural splendor that has made it one of the world’s best eco-tourism destinations. Whether you are planning a trip to hike trails through primary rainforest, visit an active volcano and soak in natural hot springs or explore the high-altitude cloud forest or catch a few waves on some of the best surfing beaches in the country there is something for everyone.
Tourism is a huge part of the Costa Rican economy. “Ticos”, as they 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. The country of Costa Rica is modernizing quickly. While the “authenticity” seems to be minimizing, much of its character continues to be rooted in distinct local cultures, from the Afro-Caribbean province of Limón to the 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 Rice, (s)he is sure to be left with mental snapshots of rural life, whether it be ox-drawn carts slowly meandering by on dirt roads, coffee-plantation workers with baskets setting off to work in the dawn mists of the volcanic highlands.
Costa Rica’s 7 Provinces
With so much to see, deciding where to go is often be the hardest part of the trip planning and itinerary-design processes. 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 81 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, Irazu Volcano, and other destinations.
- Guanacaste – Includes the capital of Liberia, Playa Negra, Playas del Coco, Punta Islita, Nicoya Peninsula and overall is a dry tropical forest region.
- Heredia – The Northern Zone, which encompasses Sarapiqui.
- 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), the 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 Jose and known as the Central Valley. Popular destinations include Chirripó and Santa Ana amongst others.
Explore the provinces above to become acquainted with specific towns, cities, and points of interest that may interest you. We help you explore each of these areas in detail from the perspective of a traveler. Since we focus many of our itineraries on unique and special locations within Costa Rica, you might be surprised not to find all of the major destinations covered in this section. In most cases, we have decided to omit these locations due to the over-development of the area.
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.