The best things to do in Costa Rica in 2023

written by
Rough Guides Editors

updated 15.09.2022

Stunning national parks, brooding volcanoes, and untouched beaches: Costa Rica offers many natural wonders and sights. Curious critters abound in lush rainforests. Network of rushing rivers and wildlife reserves beckons adventure seekers. Though it’s not possible to see everything in one trip, here is our pick of the best things to do in Costa Rica.

#1 Trekking in Parque Nacional Corcovado

Straddling the Osa Peninsula in the far south of the country, this biologically rich reserve is among Costa Rica’s finest destinations for walking. Corcovado is one of the country’s most biodiverse regions, with pacific beaches giving way to mangrove swamps and tropical rainforest. This park is being known as one of the most beautiful national parks in Costa Rica.

A haven for wildlife, the reserve shelters five hundred species of trees – one-quarter of all the species in Costa Rica. This national park is home to many of the world's most endangered and spectacular mammals, including tapirs and jaguars. Visit the area by boat for an unforgettable day trip, or find accommodation at luxury eco-lodges.

Dreaming of Costa Rica? Why don't start your holiday today and check our our Dream of Costa Rica trip.


Corcovado National Park, Costa Rica © Malgorzata Drewniak/Shutterstock

#2 Turtle-watching – one of the best things to do in Costa Rica

Make a trip to Costa Rica during turtle nesting season, and you may see one of the most amazing spectacles in the animal kingdom: the arribada, or arrival. In September and October, female sea turtles, in some cases in groups as large as 100,000, climb out of the waves and return to the shores where they were born to lay their eggs.

Wildlife enthusiasts will find that turtle watching is one of the most memorable things to do in Costa Rica. The country is home to five species of sea turtle: the green, hawksbill, Olive Ridley, leatherback, and loggerhead. These reptiles are more easily viewed here than anywhere, and nest at several well-known beaches on both the Caribbean and Pacific shores.

Want some help? Let our local experts plan your next trip. Check out their itineraries.


The arribada — an unforgettable spectacle and one of the best things to do in Costa Rica © Heiko Kiera/Shutterstock

#3 Volcán Arenal

The Arenal volcano is one of Costa Rica's most active and is a majestic site not to be missed. The volcano towers above the nearby village La Fortuna, adjacent to Lake Arenal, and offers a spectacular show of clouds of gas and steam spewing out of the top.

Although temporarily dormant on the outside, its interior supplies geothermal power to heat ever-popular hot springs. To observe the Arenal volcano in true luxury, pamper yourself at the Tabacón Grand Spa Thermal Resort. This holiday destination is built on the site of a hot avalanche deposit that provides the source of heat for perfect thermal waters.

Check out booking and availability at Tabacón Thermal Resort & Spa.


The majestic Arenal Volcano, Arenal Volcano National Park, Costa Rica © NancyS/Shutterstock

#4 Indigenous Costa Rica

Learn how the Maleku uses medicinal plants, shop for crafts at a women’s co-operative in the Gulf of Nicoya, or take a walking tour with the Bribrí. There are many ways of gaining a better insight into Costa Rica’s remaining indigenous communities.

Try Galería Namu, in San José — which has an impressive selection of indigenous crafts, including ceramics and colourful masks, with an emphasis on fair trade practices.

Horse riding on beach, Montezuma, Nicoya beaches, NW Costa Rica

Horse riding on the beach, Nicoya beaches Costa Rica © Corrie Wingate/APA

#5 Discovering Parque Nacional Manuel Antonio

This popular park encompasses three untouched and magnificent white sand beaches, surrounded by lush tropical forests. Above, tall cliffs are covered in thick jungle vegetation. Manuel Antonio National Park is one of Costa Rica's most famous parks, and its beaches on the central Pacific coast provide child-friendly snorkelling and swimming.

Discover the the most exciting trails with our guide to the best hikes in Costa Rica.

Manuel Antonio, Costa Rica © PAUL ATKINSON/Shutterstock

Visiting beaches is one of the most important things to do in Costa Rica © PAUL ATKINSON/Shutterstock

#6 Take a boat through Refugio Nacional de Vida Silvestre Caño Negro

Crammed with sun-basking caimans and home to hundreds of species of birds, this isolated reserve near the Nicaraguan border is one of the most important wetlands in the world.

Go during the wet season to discover the huge, shallow and temporary lake. This beautiful phenomenon stretches over 800 hectares (2,000 acres) in size and is created when the nearby Río Frío overflows — only to dry up completely during the dry season. Explore the area via boat and see if you can catch a glimpse of the Jabirú storks, an extremely rare bird and the largest in the region.


Going to one of the national parks is a must when visiting Costa Rica © Salparadis/Shutterstock

#7 Find wildlife at Reserva Rara Avis

Costa Rica’s premier ecotourism destination is a pristine, 600-hectare (1,500-acre) rainforest reserve that flourishes with primitive ferns. Within the reserve, there are more kinds of plants, birds and butterflies than in the whole of Europe. Whether exploring the area by horseback, or tractor-drawn cart, a trip to the Rara Avis Reserve is one of the many unforgettable things to do in Costa Rica.

Discover the Rara Avis Reserve and more, without any of the stress or hassle of planning. Our tailor-made trips take care of booking and are designed by local travel experts. Completely personalized and customizable, find out more about taking an eco-adventure with Rough Guides.


Ghost glass frog — Rara Avis Nature Reserve, Costa Rica © Salparadis/Shutterstock

#8 Staying in an eco-lodge

Staying in an eco-lodge is one of the top things to do in Costa Rica for immersing yourself in the natural world. From rustic simplicity to luxury in the jungle, the country has some of the Americas’ most breathtaking and sustainable lodges.

  • Try Tiskita Jungle Lodge. With comfortable rustic cabins, this eco-lodge has spectacular views and many private trails leading to waterfalls and idyllic swimming holes.
  • Laguna del Lagarto Lodge is another great option. This remote eco-lodge has rustic rooms and serves buffet-style meals. The main attraction is the setting, in 505 hectares (1,250 acres) of rainforest
  • Maquenque Eco-Lodge is a newer, more luxurious lodge, with high-roofed cabins, a swimming pool, and an excellent restaurant set around lakes in the Maquenque National Wildlife Refuge.
Eco lodge rainforest, Puerto Viejo de Talamanca, Costa Rica © Shutterstock

Staying in an eco-lodge: one of the best things to do in Costa Rica © ronnybas frimages/Shutterstock

#9 Relax at Playa Cocles

Playa Cocles is one of the most gorgeous beaches on the entire Caribbean coast. A long stretch of fine sand is backed by swaying palms and sprayed by barrelling waves. This beach is famous in surfing circles for the hot, fast, and explosive waves that break over the reef from December through April and again in June and July. It attracts surfers from all over the world.

At other times of the year the sea is quiet, particularly inside the reef, and good for snorkelling. You’ll find this gem just a couple of kilometres from the laidback backpackers’ haunt of Puerto Viejo de Talamanca.

Interested to see what other gorgeous beaches Costa Rica has to offer? Don't miss our guide to Costa Rica's best beaches.


Playa Cocles of Costa Rica's Caribbean coast © Simon Dannhauer/Shutterstock

#10 Get up close and personal at The Jaguar Rescue Center

Dreaming of a truly up-close experience with nature? The Jaguar Rescue Center is a wildlife rehab that when visited can provide unprecedented close encounters with howler monkeys, sloths, snakes and other animals. This non-profit provides food, shelter, and veterinary services before releasing them back into the wild. Visiting this centre is one of the most unforgettable things to do in Costa Rica for any animal lover.

A spider monkey climbs high trees of the rainforest in the Corcovado © Kit Korzun/Shutterstock

Wildlife tours are one of the most popular things to do in Costa Rica © Shutterstock

#11 Whitewater rafting

Whitewater rafting, also known as river running, offers anyone who craves adrenaline an exhilarating way to observe scenery and wildlife and is one of the best things to do in Costa Rica. Meander down the Peñas Blancas or ride Class-V rapids on the Pacuare. This county's geography makes for more accessible whitewater rivers and rapids than any other place in the world.


Explore Costa Rica by white water river rafting © Dartamonov/Shutterstock

#12 Dance in Puerto Limón on Día de la Raza

For many people, visiting Puerto Limón during the annual Carnaval (Carnival) is one of the most fun things to do in Costa Rica. This week-long jubilant event is held every October (rather than in the traditional February) and coincides with the El Día de la Raza, ‘The Day of the People', recently renamed Día de las Culturas (Day of the Cultures).

The highlight of course of this festive week is the parade — where thousands of locals and visitors alike take to the streets to revel in a glorious music and dance spectacle. The rhythms of steel drums fill the air as parade floats, bright colourful costumes, and dancers of all ages fill the streets.


Carnaval — an example of Costa Rica fun © Rebeca Bolanos/Shutterstock

#13 Walk among the clouds in Monteverde

Walking through the misty Monteverde cloud forest reserve is one of the most impressive things to do in Costa Rica. This reserve is a series of lush trails that take you across hanging bridges suspended from platforms in the rainforest canopy. Walk across to experience the distinctive bird’s-eye view – and a touch of vertigo.

Want some help? Our tailor-made trips take the hassle out of planning and booking your dream trip, and are completely customizable. See our 'From the Cloud Forest to the Beaches' trip to Costa Rica, created by local travel experts.

Monteverde cloudforest, Costa Rica © Simon Dannhauer/Shutterstock

Monteverde Cloud Forest Costa Rica © Simon Dannhauer/Shutterstock

#14 Experience the ancient Volcán Poás

The Poás Volcano (located in Poas Volcano National Park) is one of the world’s most easily accessible active volcanoes. With a history of eruptions that goes back eleven million years, visiting this opening in the earth's crust is easily one of the most exciting things to do in Costa Rica. Visit nearby La Paz Waterfall Gardens to hike trails that pass orchid gardens, a huge butterfly observatory, aviaries and animal exhibits. Or take a hike to one of the five unbeatable waterfalls.

Dreaming of witnessing the bewildering site of a volcano in person? Try our guide to the world's top 20 volcanoes.


Poas Volcano National Park in northern Costa Rica © Michal Sarauer/Shutterstock

#15 Eat in a soda

Small and unfailingly friendly, Costa Rica’s ubiquitous sodas are a great place to tuck into a plate of gallo pinto, a traditional casado or another Costa Rican cuisine. Sodas are usually cost-effective, family-run, and frequented by locals. Most sodas are open for breakfast through dinner. Try La Casona Típica in San José, Soda Luz in Orosí or Johanna in Golfito.


Grab a plate of gallo pinto when visiting San José, or any city in Costa Rica © Bryce Jackson/Shutterstock

#16 Experience the waterfalls of Parque Nacional Rincón de la Vieja

Rincón de la Vieja National Park contains two towering volcanoes and four complete ecosystems. It is one of the country’s most thermally active areas. Expect clouds of sulphurous smoke and steaming mud pots dotting the desiccated slopes.

Or visit the tumbling waters framed by forest canopy at La Cangreja Waterfall — one of the park's most frequented hiking destinations. This waterfall is 40 meters (132 ft) high and cascades down to form a blue pool — a perfect place for a refreshing dip.

You will find more information about popular waterfalls in our guide about the best waterfalls in Costa Rica.

Rincon de La Vieja National Park, Costa Rica

Rincon de La Vieja National Park — our pick for one of the best things to do in Costa Rica © Nicholas Courtney/Shutterstock

#17 Exploring the Tortuguero Canal

Tortuguero National Park, located in northern Costa Rica, contains a maze of beautiful waterways. Take a slow boat north from Puerto Limón along the Tortuguero Canal, past luxuriant vegetation and colourful wooden houses on stilts.

One of the most wonderfully lyrical trips to be taken anywhere in the world — the fragrance of white ginger blossoms, lavender water hyacinths, and the ylang-ylang flower, wafts throughout. It is best to tour these waterways by canoe, kayak, or by electric motorboat. Tours guided by expert naturalists can give new insights into the area.

See Tortuguero National park and other amazing sites on our Tropical Costa Rica Trip. Our tailor-made trip service takes the hassle out of planning your dream trip and can be completely customized.

Tortuguero Canal, Costa Rica © Kenneth Vargas Torres/Shutterstock

Visiting the Tortuguero Canals in is one of many remarkable things to do in Costa Rica © Shutterstock

#18 See the stained glass of Basílica de Nuestra Señora de Los Ángeles

In a country not necessarily known for its architectural heritage, Cartago’s showpiece church is a stunner, with a gilded interior to match. Classic Byzantine features include fine stained-glass windows, hand-painted interiors and ornate side chapels with carved-wood altars.

A visit to the Basílica de Nuestra Señora de Los Ángeles is one of the best things to do in Costa Rica for achitechture enthusiasts. The multi-domed church is dedicated to the country's patron saint. Visit in August to see the thousands of pilgrims who come to honour her.


Basílica de Nuestra Señora de Los Ángeles, Cartago, Costa Rica © Gianfranco Vivi/Shutterstock

#19 Spend time with the renowned OTS

One of the top experiences in Costa Rica for nature enthusiasts is to spend a few days with the Organization of Tropical Studies at their biological stations in La Selvaor Palo Verde. La Selva has become one of the most important sites in the world for tropical rainforest research, and today most of the world’s tropical biologists have spent time here either as students, teachers, or scientists.

The reserve is primarily a research and educational facility, but it offers excellent wildlife tours that are rated some of the best in the country. A trip to this establishment is one of the best things to do in Costa Rica for people who want to learn more about the rainforest.


Waterfall in Juan Castro Blanco, Costa Rica © Ivalin/Shutterstock

#20 Off-the-beaten-track reserves

The most famous national parks can get crowded in peak season. Avoid the crowds by heading off the grid to Parque Nacional Juan Castro Blanco or taking a multiday hike in the Bosque Eterno de los Niños. Another option is to visit the lesser-trodden Parque Nacional Los Quetzales, home of the iconic quetzal. If you're planning a trip to experience the extraordinary hikes of Costa Rica you won't want to miss our guide toCosta Rica's best hikes.


Quetzal in Costa Rica © Ondrej Prosicky/Shutterstock

#21 Coffee in a traditional café

Costa Rica is overflowing with places to try local coffee. However, we recommend sampling Costa Rican coffee in one of San José’s traditional cafés — they are wonderfully atmospheric places for people-watching. Try the elegant Alma de Café inside the Teatro Nacional or rustic Café Rojo.

Plan your trip to San José and beyond — with our tailor-made trips service. We can help create and book a perfect personalized itinerary made by local travel experts.


Coffee plantation in Naranjo region, Costa Rica © Errki & Hanna/Shutterstock

#22 Spot great green macaws

Go birdwatching at Refugío Nacional de Vida Silvestre Mixto Maquenque. This protected massive Costa Rican rainforest sits on the border with Nicaragua, and is the country's last refuge for the great green macaw. These enormous lime green birds are iconic, and unfortunately, endangered.

While in the area, try hiking on one of the rails, horseback riding, or canoeing. You will need a four-wheel-drive vehicle, and be sure to bring stout rubber boots for walking the trails.


Great green macaw in Costa Rica © Martin Mecnarowski/Shutterstock

#23 Scale Chirripó

Climb up through cloud forest and alpine paramo as you tackle the highest mountain in Central America, Cerro Chirripó, south of San Jose. The opportunity to take in incredible scenery from crestones to glacial lakes is one of the top reasons for hikers to visit Costa Rica.

The area around the mountain is also well worth visiting, even if you do not attempt to summit. Shorter hikes are very satisfying, with beautiful lush scenery, waterfalls, and natural hot springs where you can relax.

Cerro Chirripo, Costa Rica

The summit of Cerro Chirripó, the highest point in Costa Rica © Kevin Wells Photography/Shutterstock

With so many remarkable places in Costa Rica, how can any traveller not dream of going there?

If you are interested in heading towards Central America, also read our guide to the best things to do in Nicaragua which long stayed off the tourist radar but is definitely worth visiting.

Read more about the best time to go, the best places to visit, and the best things to do in Costa Rica. For inspiration, use the Costa Rica itineraries from our local Rough Guide travel experts. A bit more hands-on, learn about getting there, getting around the country and where to stay once you are there.

If you prefer to plan and book your trip to Costa Rica without any effort and hassle, use the expertise of our local travel experts to make sure your trip will be just like you dream it to be.

We may earn a commission when you click on links in this article, but this doesn’t influence our editorial standards. We only recommend services that we genuinely believe will enhance your travel experiences.

Top image © Salparadis/Shutterstock

Rough Guides Editors

written by
Rough Guides Editors

updated 15.09.2022

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