Things not to miss

updated 12/19/2019
fb tw mail_outline

Costa Rica is one of Central America’s finest destinations with many attractions to visit. Unlike some of its neighbours, Costa Rica’s draw is not ancient Mesoamerican ruins or Spanish colonial history, but nature.

Stunning national parks, brooding volcanoes, untouched beaches: Costa Rica brims with natural wonders and sights. Curious critters abound in lush rainforests, and a network of rushing rivers and wildlife reserves beckons adventure seekers. Though it’s not possible to see everything in one trip, here are 23 things not to miss in Costa Rica.

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. A haven for wildlife, the reserve shelters scarlet macaws, tapirs, squirrel monkeys and the famously elusive jaguar.

Corcovado National Park, Costa Rica © Malgorzata Drewniak/Shutterstock


View some of the thousands of turtles – leatherback, hawksbill, olive ridley and green – that come ashore to lay their eggs each year. If you’re lucky, you’ll catch their hatchlings’ perilous journeys back to sea – one of the must-see sights in Costa Rica for wildlife enthusiasts.

© Heiko Kiera/Shutterstock

Volcán Arenal

The lava may have stopped spewing, but Arenal is still a magnificent sight. The surrounding area is one giant adventure playground; you can soak in volcanic hot springs, zipwire through the forest canopy or sign up for any number of other outdoor activities.

© NancyS/Shutterstock

Indigenous Costa Rica

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

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

continued below

Parque Nacional Manuel Antonio

This perennially popular park boasts untouched white-sand beaches , lush tropical forests full of sloths and monkeys, and stunning coastal scenery peppered with striking rock formations.

Manuel Antonio National Park, Costa Rica © PAUL ATKINSON/Shutterstock

Refugio Nacional de Vida Silvestre Caño Negro

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.

Kingfisher (Chloroceryle amazona), Cano Negro in Costa Rica © Salparadis/Shutterstock

Reserva Rara Avis

Costa Rica’s premier ecotourism destination flourishes with primitive ferns and has more kinds of plants, birds and butterflies than the whole of Europe.

Hummingbird (Klais guimeti) in Rara Avis Reserve, Cost Rica © Salparadis/Shutterstock

Staying in an ecolodge

Staying in an ecolodge is one of the top experiences 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’ best sustainable lodges. Try Lapa Ríos in the Osa Peninsula.

© ronnybas frimages/Shutterstock

Playa Cocles

Playa Cocles is one of the most appealing beaches on the entire Caribbean coast. A long stretch of fine sand is backed by swaying palms and sprayed by barrelling waves. You’ll find this gem just a couple of kilometres from the laidback backpackers’ haunt of Puerto Viejo de Talamanca.

© Simon Dannhauer/Shutterstock

Jaguar Rescue Center

This wildlife rehab centre provides close encounters with howler monkeys, sloths, snakes and other injured animals before they’re released back into the wild.

© Shutterstock

Whitewater rafting

Whitewater rafting is one of the top activities in Costa Rica for adrenaline junkies, whether you’re meandering down the Peñas Blancas or riding Class-V rapids on the Pacuare.

Pacuare river rafting in Costa Rica © Dartamonov/Shutterstock

El Día de la Raza, Puerto Limón

Young bloods and grandparents alike take to the streets during Costa Rica’s most exuberant carnival. The national holiday is celebrated in many countries of the Americas in honour of Christopher Columbus's arrival to its shores on 12 October 1492.

Independence Day celebration parade in Costa Rica © Rebeca Bolanos/Shutterstock

Walk among the clouds in Monteverde

The lush Monteverde cloudforest is among the ultimate must-see sights in Costa Rica; walk across a suspended bridge to experience the bird’s-eye view – and a touch of vertigo.

Monteverde cloudforest Costa Rica © Simon Dannhauer/Shutterstock

Volcán Poás

Poás is one of the world’s more easily accessible active volcanoes, with a history of eruptions that goes back eleven million years.

© Michal Sarauer/Shutterstock

Eat in a soda

Basic, cheap and unfailingly friendly, Costa Rica’s ubiquitous sodas are a great place to tuck into a plate of gallo pinto or a traditional casado. Try La Casona Típica in San José , Soda Luz in Orosí or Johanna in Golfito.

Gallo pinto Costa Rica © Bryce Jackson/Shutterstock

Parque Nacional Rincón de la Vieja

Volcán Rincón de la Vieja is one of the country’s most thermally active areas. Expect clouds of sulphurous smoke and steaming mud pots dotting the desiccated slopes.

La Cangreja waterfall in Rincon de La Vieja National Park © Nicholas Courtney/Shutterstock

Exploring the Tortuguero Canal

Take a slow boat north from Puerto Limón along the Tortuguero Canal, past luxuriant vegetation and colourful wooden houses on stilts.

Tortuguero Canals in Costa Rica © Shutterstock

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.

Basilica en Cartago, Costa Rica © Gianfranco Vivi/Shutterstock

Time with the 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. You’ll quickly see why their guides are rated some of the best in the country.

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

Off-the-beaten-track reserves

The most famous national parks can get crowded in peak season. Avoid the crowds by heading off 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.

Quetzal in Costa Rica © Ondrej Prosicky/Shutterstock

Coffee in a traditional café

San José’s traditional cafés are wonderfully atmospheric places for people-watching and sampling Costa Rican coffee. Try the elegant Alma de Café inside the Teatro Nacional or rustic Café Rojo.

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

Spot great green macaws

Go birdwatching at Refugío Nacional de Vida Silvestre Mixto Maquenque. This protected rainforest sits on the border with Nicaragua, and is the country’s last refuge for the great green macaw.

Great green macaw in Costa Rica © Martin Mecnarowski/Shutterstock

Scale Chirripó

Climb up through cloudforest and alpine paramo as you tackle the country’s highest mountain, Cerro Chirripó. This is one of the top activities in Costa Rica for hikers, taking in incredible scenery from crestones to glacial lakes.

Volcan Turrialba erupts in the distance as the sun rises, as seen from the summit of Cerro Chirripó, the highest point in Costa Rica © Kevin Wells Photography/Shutterstock

Top image © Salparadis/Shutterstock

Travel advice for Costa Rica

author photo
updated 12/19/2019
fb tw mail_outline

Planning on your own? Prepare for your trip

Use Rough Guides' trusted partners for great rates

Find even more inspiration for Costa Rica here

Ready to travel and discover Costa Rica?
Get support from our local experts for
stress-free planning & worry-free travels