The 13 Best Places to Visit in Costa Rica in 2021
Biodiverse and beach-fringed Costa Rica has to be one of the most adventure-rich locations on the planet. Spanning a whole cut-out of Central America, the country ranges from the aquamarine lagoons of the Caribbean Sea to the frothing waves of the Pacific Ocean. Read on to see my choices for some of the best places to visit in Costa Rica.
From soaring volcanoes that sprout through the clouds, primeval rainforests inhabited by howler monkeys and golden frogs, and roaring waterfalls that look like something plucked out of Shangri La, there is something here for yogis, for hikers, for surfers, for wildlife lovers and more.
This guide to the 13 Best Places to Visit in Costa Rica will only scratch the surface of this enthralling nation. It hops from the lush Monteverde cloud forests to the wave-washed shores of Guanacaste province, and includes the buzzing capital of San Jose along with long-lost island groups that you can only get to by boat. Enjoy…
1. Manuel Antonio
Huddled between the lush rainforests roughly midway down the Costa Rican Pacific coast, Manuel Antonio is one of the leading eco-tourism hotspots in the country (and that’s saying something – this is Costa Rica, remember?). Manuel Antonio is mainly famed for what’s right on the doorstep: The Manuel Antonio National Park. At just 1,983 hectares, Manuel Antonio National Park is the smallest reserve in the country. But boy does it pack a punch…Come to see swinging howler monkeys, scurrying red-backed squirrel monkeys, basilisks, capuchins, and – who could forget – the famously lazy two-toed sloth.
The village of Manuel Antonio sits just to the north of the main entrance to the park. It’s now a bustling and vibrant place, complete with sport-fishing outfitters (elusive sailfish inhabit these waters, you know), zip-line courses, and hiking guides. The hotels in Manuel Antonio aren’t allowed near the coast due to conservation regulations, but that’s a gift in disguise – they stud the cliff tops instead, offering sweeping panoramas of the wave-smashed shoreline.
Talking of waves, plenty of good-quality breaks roll into the beach at Espadilla Sur to the south of the village. In fact, you’ll find peaks for beginners and advanced surfers alike, with both lefts and rights on the menu. There’s also snorkeling offer around the rugged coves of Playa Biesanz, and sunset lookout points at the end of the steep one-mile trek to Punta Catedral.
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2. Puerto Viejo
Little Puerto Viejo de Talamanca whisks you over to the Costa Rican Caribbean. It shows, too. The town here would look right at home somewhere on the Jamaican north coast. It’s filled with paint-peeling cantinas and ramshackle eateries where the scents of coconut curries twist and turn with the rhythms of reggaeton in the air. Oh, and there are buzzing bars that slosh with rum cocktails and cold beers, meaning you won’t be short on nightlife.
Once upon a time, Puerto Viejo was just an unknown fishing village. Then the surfers came. They were drawn by the promise of the thundering left-hand barrels that peel over the reefs of Salsa Brava, and the hollow beach peaks at Playa Cocles. Those are now two of the most legendary surf spots in Costa Rica as a whole, offering a place to score tubes in the dry season months between November and April, when the Pacific coast is usually a little less reliable.
Puerto Viejo isn’t just about waves, though. The town is perfectly located for launching expeditions into the Gandoca-Manzanillo Wildlife Refuge, a lush land of eyelash vipers and emerald parakeets. It’s also the home of the acclaimed Jaguar Rescue Center, where you can go to learn all about frontline conservation efforts in Costa Rica.
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Some say that Monteverde single handedly brought ecotourism to Costa Rica, and is high on the list of our Best Places to Visit in Costa Rica. True or not, this is the place to go to get out and about in the tropical wilds of this very wild land. Perched on high in the misty midst of the Cordillera de Tilarán, it covers a vast swathe of over 53 square kilometers in all. Within are countless nature reserves and protected forest areas, which draw a continual stream of hikers, wildlife spotters, and adventurers.
The place that 100% cannot be missed is the epic Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve. Visitors there get to delve into some of the most biodiverse patches of primeval jungle left on the planet. It’s all linked up by well-maintained trails that hit a zenith with that 150-meter-long suspension bridge that cuts straight through the canopy. Keep your eyes peeled for glimpses of the proud resplendent quetzal (the multicolored national bird of Guatemala) and the uber-rare golden toad as you hike there!
Accommodations in these parts are usually eco-friendly in the extreme. We’re talking places like the Monteverde Cloud Forest Lodge, a series of timber-built cabanas with decks that gaze out over the strangler trees and flowerbeds close to the backpacker hub of Santa Elena. From there, you can also plan adrenaline-filled jaunts through the greater region, from whitewater rafting to canyoneering to horseback outings.
North, south, east, west – wherever you look around little Tortuguero is a national park. That’s the beauty of this remote and isolated spot on the edge of the Caribbean Sea in northern Costa Rica. Just as the name implies, it’s mainly known for its resident population of sea turtles…
They’re still the top draw attraction. Thousands of visitors come to watch green sea turtles, leatherbacks, and hawksbill turtles crawl from the ocean to build their nests between July and October (August is the best of the lot). It’s an experience you’re not likely to forget in a hurry. Turtle safaris to the nearby beaches typically take place in the thick of the night, with the stars blazing overhead and the moon glinting on the Caribbean Sea. Lucky groups will even get to see the first baby hatchlings make their way back from the beach into the water.
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Aside from the turtles, Tortuguero is also a perfect gateway to the wetlands and creeks of the Tortuguero National Park. It extends nearly 10 miles into the hills and rainforests behind the town itself, unfolding in a feral patchwork of caiman-filled waterways where you can canoe and kayak through truly untouched landscapes.
If you only have time to visit one national park in Costa Rica, there’s a good argument to make it the Corcovado National Park. Draped over large parts of the Osa Peninsula in the far south of the country, it was established to protect some of the last remaining old-growth wet forests on the Central American Pacific. Just in time, too – the loggers and the miners already had their eyes on the place!
Today, it’s an enticingly hard-to-reach part of the country. The best way is to arrive is by boat via Drake Bay or Puerto Jimenez. Then, get ready to hit the trails. There are a few that stand out. The Los Patos to Sierna trek is the longest, whisking you through lush cloud forests and gushing waterfalls. Budding botanists
might prefer the 1.9-mile San Pedrillo Trail, a loop that delves into groves of huge purple heart and mahogany trees with ferns and orchids by the bucket load. However, Corcovado can also be a real Costa Rican safari, and wildlife spotting is probably best on the well-trafficked Sirena Trail, where coatis, pumas, wild pigs, and toucans can make an appearance.
The point where the Corcovado jungles tumble into the Pacific Ocean is jaw-dropping to put it lightly. There, you could take to the seas to do some whale watching (August-November) or channel your inner Robinson Crusoe on the black-tinged sands of forever-deserted Carate Beach. Either way, get ready for a land of mist-haloed coast peaks and wave-splattered shores.
6. Santa Teresa
Santa Teresa is bathed in the salty airs that roll off the Pacific Ocean at the tail end of the Nicoya Peninsula. One of the last of a whole string of surf towns in the region, it might just be the cream of the crop…
Yep, a trio of fantastic beach breaks join up here. In total, they roll for over six miles, starting with beginner-friendly Playa Hermosa in the north and ending with the hollow point breaks of Mal Pais down south. There’s surfing for all levels in Santa Teresa, but it’s a true intermediate mecca, with regular, rippable A-frame waves of five-plus foot throughout the summer months.
You don’t have to wax down the board to enjoy Santa Teresa, though. The town in Santa Teresa has also risen to become something of a buzzy nightlife spot. International DJs can often be spotted around New Year and at Christmas, and there are pumping disco clubs like La Lora for those post-surf après sessions. Behind town, the jungles take over pretty quick. If you’ve managed to dodge a hangover, head up into the trails there to discover the plunge pools and gushing cataracts around the Montezuma Waterfall.
Arenal Volcano is the centerpiece of Arenal, the self-proclaimed adventure capital of Costa Rica. Soaring to a whopping 5,436 feet (1,656 meters) above sea level in the heart of the northern cordillera, the Arenal Volcano is a perfectly cone-shaped mountain that once erupted more than 41 times each day! Don’t worry…It’s now dormant, but you still can’t hike to the peak because of all the geothermal activity. Instead, delve into the verdant lands of the Arenal Volcano National Park that surround the mountain – you won’t be bored!
Perhaps you could begin with a hike to the crashing La Fortuna Waterfall? There, the H2O plummets more than 240 feet (73 meters) from a black-rock mountain into a turquoise pool hidden in the jungles. Alternatively, there’s gnarly whitewater rafting to be had on the Peñas Blancas River, or spelunking in the deep Venado Caves (they pierce a disconcerting 8,850 feet below ground!).
On the far side of Arenal itself is vast Lake Arenal. It’s the largest lake in Costa Rica and now a haven for outdoorsy activities. Ziplines lurk in the peaks above it. There are hot springs near Tabacon just to the north. Meanwhile, SUP boarding and kayaking and wild swimming are all popular on the water itself.
If you’re after something of a more secluded beach destination on the Pacific coast, Guanacaste should be on the radar. It’s actually a whole province, bending like a curled thumb from the Costa Rica-Nicaragua border over the Gulf of Nicoya. Its western side is where the action is, especially in the 40-mile (64 kilometer) run of sparkling sands and lagoons and palm-threaded beaches between Tamarindo (a major beginner surf spot) and Samara.
The northern part of Guanacaste is home to the Santa Rosa National Park. Go there to explore empty wisps of golden sand, mangrove forests, and broadleaf woodlands that swing with rare capuchin monkeys. Adventures await inland, too, especially as Guanacaste has established itself as something of a ziplining mecca – kids will love the Monkey Jungle Zip Line near Tamarindo, but there are plenty more hardcore ones to boot.
Back on the coast and there’s so much to get through. Hammock-swinging days meet snorkeling and sunset sailing expeditions in chilled Playa Hermosa. You can watch the turtle hatching season on Playa Grande. And there’s more surfing than you can shake an ecotourism handbook at – check out Nosara, Tamarindo, and Playa Guiones for the best.
9. Tortuga Island
There’s an air of the Thai islands about little Tortuga. Fragmented off the south side of the Nicoya Peninsula, a 90-minute boat trip out of Puntarenas, it draws thousands of city slickers from big San Jose with the promise of powdery white beaches framed by jungle-topped rocks that lurch straight out of the Pacific. Idyllic is the keyword.
Tortuga is surrounded by some seriously immersive ocean territory. Scuba aficionados and snorkelers will have loads to chose from. There’s the El Aquario reef, which teems with rainbowfish and angelfish and stingrays and all manner of strange underwater corals. You’ve got the Bye Bye Reef and its colossal submerged volcanic rocks, a favorite hangout for sea turtles and manta rays. Then there’s the Caroline Star shipwreck, where you can go to encounter formidable, white-tipped reef sharks.
When you’re done exploring the seas and soaking up the rays on the sand, there’s more fun to be had in the forested hills behind. Tortuga boasts its very own zipline course, along with some challenging jungle hikes that have lookout points over the tops of the canopies. Up there, it’s possible to meet tapirs and strange iguanas and much, much more.
10. Jaco Beach
Jaco is probably about as close as it’s possible to get to a full-on beach resort in Costa Rica. Bursting with big hotels, beer-sloshing backpacker bars, and fast-food outlets, it’s not at all like the rest of the country. But there’s some charm in these gritty streets, between the ramshackle hostels and salt-washed beach bars by the Pacific.
What really put Jaco on the map to begin with is its surfing. It’s great for complete beginners, because the two-mile beach here has forgiving and consistent shoulder-height waves that break over soft sand. Playa Hermosa – the first official World Surfing Reserve in Central America – takes care of more advanced riders. It’s just to the south of town and comes replete with glassy left-handers and A-frames, but you’ll need to watch out for the rips.
Fantastic beaches abound close to Jaco. Playa Blanca offers a rare stretch of white sand on this side of Costa Rica, backed by clusters of sea grapes and stooping coconut palms. Playa Herradura is another standout. Located just over 10 minutes’ drive north of Jaco proper, it opens into a huge horseshoe bay with a shallow bottom and azure waters that lap against cinnamon-tinged powder. And when it’s time for that adrenaline fix? Treks to the Nauyaca Waterfalls or high-octane ATV tours through the coast forests can be added to the menu too.
11. Tamarindo Beach
Enfolded by two rocky headlands and a long sliver of shimmering sand midway down the Guanacaste shoreline, Playa Tamarindo has risen and risen to become arguably the most famous surf town in Costa Rica, making it one of the Best Places to Visit in Costa Rica. It was first found by board riders in the 1970s but has boomed in recent years. Now, you get rollicking bars and pubs and all sorts of slick hotels nestled between the coast palms.
The surf is still epic, though. There’s something for all levels, too, from the shifting sandbars of the Estero River to the mellow point break for starters at Capitan Suizo. Of course, Tamarindo also has a seemingly endless supply of surf hostels, surf camps, surf schools – you name it. It’s like Central America’s answer to Kuta, Bali.
When the waves are off (not often), the focus will shift to Tamarindo’s other draws. The main one is the Marino las Baulas National Park, which exists in patches to the north, south, and east of the center. It includes the likes of Playa Grande, which hosts thousands of nesting leatherback sea turtles between October and March. There’s also the Catalina Islands archipelago, with super-clear waters and resident manta rays some 10 miles offshore – one for the scuba folk!
12. Islas Murcielagos
There’s one main reason that the Islas Murciélagos make it onto this list of Best Places to Visit in Costa Rica: Diving. Yep, the scuba here is some of the best in the country – nay, the world! Visibility can extend up to a whopping 30 meters when the currents and the weather align, and there’s such a plethora of bucket-list dive sites that even the most seasoned PADI maestro won’t get bored.
They include the ominously named Big Scare, where there’s a fantastic chance that you’ll be going under in the company of bull sharks. Rugged Bajo Negro, a submerged wedge of lava stone that’s usually replete with spadefish, moray eels, and massive octopi, is also a wonderful option. However, the marine safari really starts from the moment you hop on the boat at Playa del Coco, because spinner dolphins and whales occupy the straits between the mainland and the islands.
The Islas Murciélagos, or the Bat Islands, are actually a part of the larger Santa Rosa National Park. A string of remote isles that poke out into the Pacific Ocean from the north-western tip of Costa Rica, they can be tricky to get to but reward water babies with virtually empty coral gardens and volcanic reef systems. Most people will stick to the ocean, but you can hike a single trail on the largest of the islands – Isla San Jose. It’s a short two-mile back and forth to a ranger station and lookout point.
13. San Jose
It’s very likely that San Jose will be the first place you encounter in Costa Rica after stepping off the plane. Most travelers won’t linger too long. Myriad eco draws are on the doorstep, you see, from the smoking Poas Volcano and its turquoise caldera lake to the paradisiacal La Paz waterfall gardens. But choose to stay put just a few days and this buzzy and energetic town can really leave a mark.
Avenida Central is the beating heart of it all. That long boulevard bisects the city, connecting up all the key neighborhoods, from vibrant Central Market (go there on Saturday mornings to shop for strange tropical fruits and aromatic coffee beans) to the Cultural Plaza (the proud home of the Pre-Columbian Gold Museum and its glimmering relics from ages long gone).
One of the best things to do in the sprawling capital is to make for the lush hills of Escazu district and its surroundings. They rise immediately to the west of the center, scrambling up the cloud-topped peaks that mark the start of the Costa Rican backcountry. A couple of fantastic restaurants – Ram Luna, Tiquicia – offer traditional Tican cooking in those parts, which means gallo pinto and tamales with a view of the capital unfolding to the horizon.
We hope you enjoyed this guide on the 13 Best Places to Visit in Costa Rica. We know that there are even so many more extraordinary places to visit in this country. Explore our Adventures HERE.
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I look forward to seeing you in Costa Rica!
Founder & CEO
The Explorer’s Passage
About Jeff Bonaldi
Jeff Bonaldi is the Founder and CEO of The Explorer’s Passage, an adventure travel company. His mission is to provide travelers with the opportunity to transform their lives and the planet through the power of adventure.