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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
Poás is one of the world’s more easily accessible active volcanoes, with a history of eruptions that goes back eleven million years.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
© Bilal Kocabas/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.
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.
Top image © Salparadis/Shutterstock