Comparative in size to the state of West Virginia, Costa Rica is a small country—but it packs a big punch when it comes to the variety of things to do. Specifically, things that nature lovers and adventure seekers go ecstatic for.
Many people are astounded to learn that for a country of its size, Costa Rica has 12 different micro-climates, and while the country only accounts for .03% of the earth’s surface, it contains nearly 6% of the world’s biodiversity. Let that sink in.
As you might imagine, with that level of diversity in both climate and wildlife, you can find pretty much any desired landscape in Costa Rica as well…from sandy beaches to mountain peaks that poke the clouds, and everything in between.
So, what is there to do in a country that has such diversity in natural settings you may ask?
Here are my top 10 of the best things to do in Costa Rica:
1. Break in your hiking shoes
With such beautiful nature abounding and a wide variety of elevations and terrain, for those who enjoy hiking and taking in the fresh air and scenery along the way, Costa Rica is second to none.
Any one of the country’s 27 national parks would be a great place to start if you’re looking for well-maintained, easy-to-follow hiking trails. Barra Honda National Park, in the Guanacaste region could easily be one of the country’s most underrated parks, particularly for hiking, with its Pre-Colombian limestone caves.
If hiking a volcano is on your bucket list, then the Arenal region should be on your radar. Hiking the Volcan Cerro Chato is another option worth checking out for those who are looking for something at an intermediate level. The dormant volcano sits just beside the Volcan Arenal in all her glory, and boasts an emerald green crater lake at the top.
Higher elevations for mountain hiking can be found both in the country’s Central Valley region and in the Southern Zone.
2. Snap some of your best nature and bird photos
I’ve already touched on the biodiversity of the country as well as the expansive list of coveted national parks in Costa Rica, so naturally, if you want to spot wildlife, as you may have guessed this is a great destination for you.
While tropical wildlife can be spotted pretty much throughout the country, including parrots and monkeys, if catching more than a glimpse of some of the other beauties that call this country home is your number one prerogative, there are some spots you should bump up to the top of your list.
For example, Costa Rica’s unofficial mascot, is the sloth. While they’re prevalent in many areas, visiting Manuel Antonio National Park on the Pacific Coast or the country’s southern Caribbean Coast (think Puerto Viejo) are going to be two of your best bets.
The “winner takes all“ option in terms of the best chances of seeing the largest variety of wildlife is probably Corcovado National Park in the Southern Zone. If you remember, Costa Rica contains nearly 6% of the world’s biodiversity, and the region surrounding Corcovado is the one with the highest percentage of that biodiversity in the country.
3. Experience the magic of waterfalls
There is something quite special and majestic about the rushing sound of a waterfall and being able not only to see it with your own eyes, but get close enough to feel its power. Costa Rica has many that fall into the “photos don’t do it justice” category.
Many of the waterfalls in Costa Rica can be accessed for free, or for a very minimal entrance fee. And some (though not all) allow you to swim underneath, or in some cases even jump from the top for the adrenaline junkies. Certain ones will require a hike, and some are practically accessible from the road, so it’s important to read up beforehand and just know what you’re in for ahead of time. Fortunately, visiting waterfalls in Costa Rica will often involve combining numbers one and two on this list as well.
Some must-visit waterfalls include Llanos de Cortez just outside of Liberia, the La Paz Waterfall Gardens about an hour outside San Jose along the northeastern edge of Volcán Poás in Costa Rica's Northern Plains, and the Nauyaca Waterfalls in Dominical.
4. Explore volcanoes and take a dip in nearby hot springs
Part of what’s affectionately known as the ‘Pacific Ring of Fire,’ Costa Rica boasts some 200 volcanic formations you can visit for epic hiking, incredible photo opportunities, and some first-hand observations for science buffs. Among the most popular to visit are the five active volcanoes: Turrialba, Poas, Rincon de la Vieja, Arenal, Orosi, and Irazu.
Arenal, the largest volcano in the country, sits beside the country’s largest lake and that combination draws visitors from near and far. From Irazu’s summit on a clear day you can see both the Atlantic and Pacific oceans.
The heated earth surrounding these active volcanoes also provides the opportunity to take a dip in natural hot springs, a truly unique and even sometimes therapeutic experience…a sort of natural hot tub in the middle of the Costa Rican jungle. What could be more exotic and relaxing?
5. Learn to surf
Surfers of all levels flock to Costa Rica’s Pacific coast, dotted with beaches and surf breaks that don’t compare with one another, but each have their own unique draw. And if you’ve never tried, it is a perfect destination to come and learn.
Arguably, the Tamarindo area is your best bet if surfing is on your bucket list, and you plan to try it for the first time. Between the ample number of surf shops and instructors and the variety of surf breaks both in Tamarindo and at surrounding area beaches, you’ll be riding the waves in no time, while a photographer on the beach snaps your photo for proof.
6. Snorkel in the Caribbean Sea
Costa Rica’s Caribbean coast is the less developed coast, where the jungle meets the sea and you won’t find major hotels or resorts. But, for those who can’t get enough of the perfect turquoise color of the Caribbean and fabulous snorkeling conditions, this part of Costa Rica should be on your must-visit list.
The Gandoca Manzanillo Wildlife Refuge and Cahuita National Park, both located on the southern Caribbean coast are hailed as two of the best spots in the country by snorkeling aficionados. Not to mention, visiting the Caribbean coast also drastically increases your chances of coming across one of those famous Costa Rican sloths.
7. Go zip-lining
A trip to Costa Rica is hardly complete without going zip-lining. With impressive canopies throughout the country, it’s one of the most popular things for visitors to do. You will get your adrenaline pumping, learn what it feels like to fly, and have a chance to check out the rainforest, or some of the country’s most impressive waterfalls, all with a bird’s eye view.
You can find zip-lining tours pretty much anywhere, but if you’re a “go big or go home“ person there are three options that should be bumped up your list: Monteverde’s Extremo Canopy Tour, El Santuario Canopy Adventure Tour in Manuel Antonio, or Sky Trek in Arenal.
8. Take on the rapids white water rafting
Throughout Costa Rica there are several rivers perfect for white-water rafting that also provide a unique way to see the stunning nature up close and personal. Rapids of all levels can be found and if you’re traveling with your family or a small group this can be so much fun, not to mention a great bonding experience.
The Arenal area is very popular for white-water rafting, and for those who may never have been before, or have only been once or twice, yet still want an action-packed adventure, the Tenorio river white-water rafting tours in Guanacaste are hard to beat.
Pro-tip: for truly raging rapids, visit during the rainy season. If you want a tamer experience, stick to the dry season when rivers are at their lowest level.
9. See marine life you’ve never seen before, or reel in your best catch yet
Beautiful beaches are one of Costa Rica’s number one attractions, and there’s just as much to see and do out on the water as there is on shore.
For fishermen, sport fishing is prevalent with a variety of tour providers, guides, and packages available for visitors. A few hot spots for sport fishing include Playas del Coco, Tamarindo, and Jaco. From mahi mahi and yellowfin tuna to marlin and roosterfish, Costa Rica could be the spot for your most impressive catch yet. Just be sure though, to do a little research and make sure you’re going out with a guide who is aware and respectful of laws in place in the country, to protect marine life and maintain a healthy marine ecosystem.
And if you just want to catch a glimpse of sea creatures you’ve never seen before—think sea turtles, dolphins and whales to name a few—beach towns up and down the coast have many catamaran and sailing options to take you out on the open sea to see these magnificent creatures. For whales, while they can be spotted up and down the Pacific coast, visiting the Southern Zone between August and November is your best bet.
10. Relax with a cup of the world’s most underrated coffee
In the land of Pura Vida, there is an overall sense of peace and relaxation, making it possible for anyone to truly unwind, enjoy the beautiful scenery and recharge. You can source a hotel room or vacation rental with a stunning view, bring a few books, and let the birds and monkeys provide your ambient sound while you sit back and enjoy time away.
And while you relax, don’t forget to try some of the world’s most delicious coffee. In the mainstream, people rave about Colombian coffee...which begs the question, have they tried Costa Rican coffee? Truly, it’s one of the best products grown and produced in Costa Rica and something the people are very proud of.
As you may have already gleaned from this list; whether you’re seeking tranquility and to reconnect with nature or action-packed adventure…Costa Rica has something for you.