Spanning two coastlines – the Pacific and Caribbean – and filled with tropical cloud forest, waterfalls, volcanoes and peculiar, cute critters in between, Costa Rica is a seriously desirable destination. Naturally, however, with so much to do come some difficult decisions; to make the most of your time in this thrilling country. Which are the best places to visit in Costa Rica? There's enough to do in the country that you could easily return to Costa Rica time and time again (highly recommended, it's not a hard country to fall in love with!), but we've whittled down the top places to head so you can plan your first trip without worrying that you've missed out.

Monteverde Cloud Forest

When you think of Costa Rica, you probably conjure up images of rainforest shrouded in mist with a chorus of chanting monkeys and squawking birds erupting from the depths of its greenery – that's pretty much Monteverde, and why it's one of the best places to visit in Costa Rica. The northwestern town of Monteverde is the gateway to the Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve, where a cacophony of wildlife lives, from jaguars and ocelots to howler monkeys, sloths, hummingbirds and macaws.

It's here and in neighbouring Santa Elena that you have the best chance to view the rare quetzal, an incredibly colourful bird that looks like it's been plucked out of a painting. If you don't see one (and most people don't), fear not: it's not uncommon to witness a group of monkeys rustling loudly through the trees, notice a lazy sloth trundling along or get taken aback by a hummingbird darting in front of your face.

Thinking of visiting Costa Rica? From accommodation to activities, get all the details taken care of on a Rough Guides tailor-made trip.

 

Monteverde-Costa-Rica-best-placesMonteverde's hanging suspension bridges © Juhku / Shutterstock

Manuel Antonio

Only two and half hours from San José International Airport on the central Pacific coast lies Manuel Antonio National Park. It may be the country's smallest national park, but it's not to be underestimated. White sandy beaches are fringed by lapping turquoise waves on one side and thick, forested hills on the other, catapulting it to become, in our estimation, one of the best places to visit in Costa Rica. There's plenty of wildlife to seek out (anywhere there's a chance of finding a sloth is a firm mark in the 'pros' column), but be sure to carve out some time on the picturesque beaches, like Playa Manuel Antonio and Playa Espadilla.

There's an array of activities you can choose from here – horse ride through forests and on beaches, kayak through the mangroves and take a night tour through the jungle (or during the day, if you never quite got over your fear of the dark). For the more hardcore adventure junkies, there's also 4X4 tours, waterfall rappelling and zip lining.

Sloth-best-places-to-visit-Costa-RicaThree-toed sloth reaching for a branch © ChisholmJA / Shutterstock

Arenal Volcano National Park

Arenal Volcano National Park, made up of forest and the namesake volcano's lava fields, is a varied landscape and a wonderland for nature lovers. Because of its geothermal activity, visiting the natural hot springs is a must, though it might be difficult to tear yourself away from their rejuvenating qualities. Similar to Manuel Antonio and Monteverde, the park showcases just how prevalent wildlife is throughout Costa Rica, and it's a great place to track down jaguars, bright green tree frogs and more. The town of La Fortuna is the most convenient base. Staying here places you within easy access to the hot springs and the short hike to La Fortuna waterfall.

Arenal-Volcano-Costa-Rica-best-placesArenal Volcano © robert cicchetti / Shutterstock

Rio Celeste

Rio Celeste is a bright turquoise river that flows through Tenorio National Park. There are a few stories about how the river got its distinctive colour: locals will tell you that the gods dipped their paintbrushes in the river when painting the sky. As for the less poetic, more scientific explanation, it's due to two rivers converging, creating a mineral combination that reflects the sunlight to create this mesmerising shade.

The vibrancy of the water will depend on what time of year you travel: the more rainfall there is, the more sediment and run-off dulls the colour. With that in mind, (but acknowledging you can never really control the weather) the best time to see the Rio Celeste is in the dry season, from December to April. La Fortuna is relatively close, so use the town as a base – otherwise, there's accommodation next to Tenorio National Park itself.

Rio-Celeste-Costa-Rica-best-placesThe Rio Celeste waterfall, about an hour's hike from Tenorio National Park's entrance © Dudarev Mikhail / Shutterstock

Tamarindo

Known for its strong surf, Tamarindo is one of the best places to visit in Costa Rica for the pura vida lifestyle. Visitors come armed with a surfboard to forget their worries. It's ideal for beginners and advanced surfers alike with plenty of options for lessons and a lively party atmosphere once the sun goes down. But surfing and drinking isn't all it has to offer: Tamarindo is great for families looking for a relaxing beach trip or to dine out at excellent restaurants. Forming part of the Las Baulas National Marine Park, Playa Grande is a major nesting site for endangered leatherback turtles, and you can watch them hauling their huge bodies on shore to lay eggs from October to March.

Alternatively, if you want a little bit more of a laid back, surfer town atmosphere, head to Santa Teresa in the Puntarenas province, just 150km west of San José.

Tamarindo-surfer-Costa-Rica-best-placesSurfer on Playa Tamarindo at sunset © Colin D. Young / Shutterstock

Tortuguero

Tortuguero National Park is predominantly an eco-tourism destination, so if your interest is in the preservation of the abundance of wildlife this country offers, the park is definitely one of the best places to visit in Costa Rica. It's located on the less-visited Caribbean side of the island, although if you're looking for crystal clear water to float aimlessly in, you'd be better off elsewhere. As the name suggests, this is a prime area in which to watch turtles (leatherback, green and hawksbill) nesting, from March to October.

On foot might be the easiest way to see the turtles, but for the rest of Tortuguero, take to the water. Boat tours (or rent a kayak or canoe if you want a workout) guide you down the freshwater creeks and lagoons where you can spot caiman, otters, monkeys and birds in the surrounding trees.

Turtle-nesting-Tortuguero-best-places-to-visit-in-Costa-RicaTurtle on the beach in Tortuguero National Park © Jarno Gonzalez Zarraonandia / Shutterstock

Thinking of visiting Costa Rica? From accommodation to activities, get all the details taken care of on a Rough Guides tailor-made trip.

Header image: Corcovado National Park © SL-Photography / Shutterstock

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