The following itineraries will give you a taste of everything that’s addictive about Costa Rica. From the wildlife-rich wetlands of the north to the remote rainforests of the south, from surf-lashed Pacific beaches to nesting turtles on the Atlantic coast, there is something for everyone, whether you’re stringing together a hit-list of the country’s must-see sights or looking to get back to Mother Nature for a week or two.
Diverse and abundant, Costa Rica’s wildlife is the country’s single biggest attraction. Allow a minimum of three weeks for the below, longer if you want to go deeper into Corcovado.
1 Parque Nacional Tortuguero
Green, hawksbill and giant leatherback turtles, plus howler monkeys, sloths and caimans – not a bad way to start any trip.
2 Reserva Rara Avis
Remote jungle lodge in the heart of the Sarapiquí region, with an impressive birdlist and a bounty of unusual reptiles and amphibians.
3 Refugío Nacional de Vida Silvestre Mixto Maquenque
This important wedge of protected rainforest on the border with Nicaragua represents the country’s last refuge of the stunning, great green macaw.
4 Refugío Nacional de Vida Silvestre Caño Negro
Wily caimans basking on the riverbanks during the dry season; migratory birds swell the resident populations during the wet.
5 Refugio Nacional de Vida Silvestre Ostional
At certain times of the year, thousands of olive ridley turtles storm the beaches at Ostional in one of nature’s most spectacular sights.
6 Parque Nacional Carara
The hot northern lowlands meet the humid southern Pacific at Carara, meaning even greater varieties of wildlife, from armadillos and agoutis to both types of toucan.
7 Parque Nacional Corcovado
The one place in the country where you have a realistic chance of seeing a tapir, an ocelot or even the famously elusive jaguar.
All the big hitters, from volcanoes to beaches via wildlife-rich national parks, can be ticked off on a simple, fairly central two-week circuit.
1 San José
The oft-overlooked capital has Costa Rica’s best museums and its widest range of restaurants, and is worth at least a night at the beginning or end of your trip.
2 Poás or Irazú
Two active volcanoes lie a short hop from San José: choose Volcán Poás for its boiling acid pools, Volcán Irazú for its milky-green crater lake and views of both oceans.
3 Parque Nacional Tortuguero
Even if you’re not here for the turtle-nesting seasons, you’ll see plenty of other jungle wildlife as you paddle around the network of forest-fringed canals.
4 The Arenal region
Volcán Arenal itself may be quiet, but the bustling town of La Fortuna is still an essential stop for walks in the national park and all manner of other outdoor activities.
Arguably the most famous reserve in Costa Rica, where you can hike through the cloudforest in search of resplendent quetzals.
6 Parque Nacional Manuel Antonio
Further south along the coast, Manuel Antonio is Costa Rica’s smallest national park (but also its most popular). Finish your trip spotting sloths and squirrel monkeys.
Costa Rica is one giant natural playground. You could spend months just surfing the waves at Santa Teresa and Mal País, but three weeks should be enough to cover the below.
1 Raft the Río Pacuaré
Start by tackling one of the wildest rivers in Central America and some-time host of the World Whitewater Rafting Championships.
Hike the old lava-flow trails of Parque Nacional Volcán Arenal and take a dip in volcano-fed hot springs: the pricey Balneario Tabacón is the most popular, the smaller Ecotermales Fortuna the most relaxed.
Birdwatching tours and guided night walks, of course, but also hanging bridges and zip lines – the canopy-tour craze that has swept the country (and the world) started in Monteverde.
4 Santa Teresa and Mal País
Popular surfer hangouts on the southern tip of the Nicoya Peninsula, offering a variety of beginner-friendly and much more challenging beach and reef breaks.
5 Isla del Coco
It’s a long way to go and expensive to get there, but Isla del Coco, 535km off mainland Costa Rica (and some 36hr in a boat from Puntarenas), is simply the best scuba-diving destination in the country.
6 Parque Nacional Chirripó
Climb up through cloudforest and alpine paramo, and past crestones and glacial lakes as you tackle Cerro Chirripó, Costa Rica’s highest point.