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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Crammed with sun-basking caimans and home to hundreds of species of bird, 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 other 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 to Costa Rica's best hikes.
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.
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.
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.
Top image © Salparadis/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.
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