Things to Do and See While Traveling in Costa Rica
When you travel in Costa Rica, you’ll know you’ve found paradise, and so have an incredible variety of plants and animals. In fact, even though Costa Rica is only about the size of West Virginia (only 0.05% of the world’s landmass) about 6% of the known species of plants and animals in the world can be found there. It’s due in part to its many micro-climates. There’s tropical Pacific coast, the slightly cooler Caribbean coast, the year-round temperate Central Valley, the plateau regions, and forest-covered mountains. Luckily, the government and private landowners have recognized the unique nature of Costa Rica, designating nearly 25% of the land in the country as national park or private reserve.
The country has a rainy season from May to November. For most of the season there is sun in the morning and showers in the afternoon, followed by clear evenings. During September and October, considered the height of the rainy season, you can see all day showers. The dry season runs from December to April and usually you won’t see any rain at all during this period.
Costa Rica’s incredible geographical and natural variety has made it a pioneer in ecotourism, and Costa Rica is the perfect destination for windsurfing, board surfing, snorkeling, deep sea fishing, reef diving, cycling, ziplining, spelunking, and more.
If urban life is more your scene, Costa Rica’s big cities, especially San José, the capital, and its suburbs, have all the fun and culture you’d expect in a modern city, from theaters, art galleries, and national and international performers to excellent shopping and dining to exciting and varied nightlife.
Activities for the Adventurous Costa Rica Traveler
Cycling & Hiking: Costa Rica has a number of bike and hiking trails that crisscross the country. Whether you’re into slow treks, leisure cycling or rugged biking, the country’s trails will treat you to breathtaking sights that include rivers, volcanoes, plantations, waterfalls, hot springs, and more.
Surfing: It was this sport that first put Costa Rica on the map for adventure travelers. You’ll find consistently good waves all up and down the Pacific coast, with a few good spots on the Caribbean too. There are expert level waves but also good areas for beginners. Surf schools are in just about every seaside town popular with visitors.
Sport Fishing: Ready for a Hemingway-style battle with a swordfish or marlin? You can get it on Costa Rica’s Pacific coast, which is a mecca for fisherman. Several marinas (Quepos, Golfito, and Playa Herradura, among others) provide the perfect home-base for offshore adventures to catch billfish, tuna, mahi mahi, snapper, and more.
Horseback Riding: Horseback riding is a favorite tourism pastime in Costa Rica, giving you quiet access to some of the country’s most stunning natural beauty. Both day and overnight trips are available in several regions of the country, depending on whether you feel like a beach, mountain, or forest ride.
One tour takes you from the town of La Fortuna to the Fortuna waterfalls in the rainforest overlooking the town. You’ll get a wonderful view of Arenal Volcano, leave the horses on a hill and descend on foot along a forest path to the falls plummeting 200 feet into a deep pool, where you can take a cool dip.
Canopy Tours: One of the most popular activities in Costa Rica is the cloud forest canopy tour, also known as ziplining. You can take a traditional ride, the kind you’ve seen on TV where you’re strapped in a harness and zoom along a cable at high speed from one treetop platform to the next, or you can try the aerial gondola rides, which are much slower and allow you to sit comfortably. Either way, keep your eyes peeled for forest wildlife, which you’ll be able to see in their natural habitat. There’s been a proliferation of canopy tour companies in the country, so be sure to choose a well-established one with good safety practices. Some of the best canopy tours in the country can be found in the Lake Arenal region and the Monteverde cloud forest.
Tourism in San Jose
Located in the country’s central valley, the nation’s capital and surrounding suburbs are home to just over a million people. There’s plenty to do in this thriving modern city. You can see what’s happening at the University of Costa Rica, take in the architectural beauty of the National Theatre, or museum-hop among the Gold, Jade, Costa Rican Art, National, and other art and natural history museums. Enjoy the fine dining, and stick around for the city’s exciting nightlife.
Shopping is more like treasure-hunting at the Central Market, a busy open-air market where you’ll find fresh produce and unique local crafts. The city’s shops feature all your favorite amenities and brands.
The Melía Cariari Golf Course, a designer championship course at the Melía Cariari Hotel, offers exceptional golfing and hosts pro and amateur events regularly.
Traveling to Other Costa Rican Destinations
This interior province includes the Reventazón River valley and its surrounding mountains to the north and south. The historic city of Cartago was established in 1563 by the Spanish conquistador Juan Vásquez de Coronado. The original settlement, a little distance southwest of the city, flooded so often that it was known as the “City of Mud” and was moved in 1572.
The first church in Costa Rica was built during the 1560s in the Valley of Ujarrás near the Reventazón River. Although the church was abandoned after damage from an earthquake in the early 1900s, its ruins have been declared a national monument.
The Basilica of Our Lady of the Angels is a national religious shrine, to which thousands of pilgrims travel to on foot each year. This pilgrimage coincides with the feast day of the Virgin of the Angels on August 2, which marks the miraculous appearance of a small carved image of the virgin mother to a local girl in 1635. The church was built on the actual site, and the rock on which the statue appeared can be seen in a crypt near the church’s altar.
A short drive from San José is this north central region, a nature lover’s must-see. It includes one of the last intact dry tropical forests of Central America, alternating with open savannah backed by a volcanic mountain range, including Arenal–an amazing 5,000-foot cone volcano. To the east of the volcano is the pristine 33-square-mile Lake Arenal, which is not marred by development. The lakeshore road features many eco-lodges and boutique hotels, art galleries, and lake-view restaurants. The area is also home to the incredible Monteverde Cloud Forest Biological Reserve, where tourists can experience unique wildlife first-hand. Bird watchers especially flock to this region for the variety of tropical species.
For a more active commune with nature, there’s horseback riding, white water rafting, or mountain lake windsurfing, and on the province’s eastern edge, you can hike through the lush forest to a volcanic summit in the Rincon de la Vieja area for a breathtaking view of the alluvial plain below.
When you’re done with your bird watching or forest hike in Alajuela, you can make your way west to the north Pacific region of Guanacaste, one of the country’s hottest spots for expats who have moved or retired to Costa Rica. Some of the country’s best beaches are here, and many expats have built beach houses and retirement homes here. The area is so popular that the country’s second international airport, in the provincial capital Liberia, offers daily direct flights from North America.
In spite of the area’s popularity, you can still find long stretches of untouched sandy coastline to explore. If you don’t want a permanent home here, you can settle in at one of the region’s beachfront resorts such as the Four Seasons Resort Costa Rica at Peninsula Papagayo. The resort’s buildings are designed by a local architect influenced by the wildlife in the area, and the golf course was designed by Arnold Palmer. You can also explore the bustling beach towns like Tamarindo or Playas del Coco, which feature beach bars, international restaurants, and accommodations for every budget.
The Guanacaste region is one of the driest in the country, often compared to west Texas. Like Texas, this area is home to cattle ranches, so you may get to see hump-backed savannah cattle roaming the region or looking for shade under the umbrella-shaped Guanacaste trees, for which the region is named.
The Pan-American Highway (Highway 1), quite a scenic drive itself, cutting northwest through Guanacaste to the Nicaraguan border, is a major route for travel through these regions.
Monteverde Cloud Forest Biological Preserve:
Originally settled by Quakers from the U.S. looking for a utopian paradise after the Korean War, most of Guanacaste province is tropical forest with constant mist or cloud cover at the forest’s canopy, making it a perfect lush, humid environment for wildlife of all kinds, including some that can’t be found anywhere else on the planet. The best place to see them is the Biological Preserve.
The Preserve is arguably one of the country’s most renowned destinations, where you can trek through the forest on a number of easy, well-maintained trails. Watch for some of the forest’s 400 bird species (30 kinds of hummingbirds), 490 butterfly species, 100 species of mammals, tens of thousands of insect species, and 2,500 plant species (420 orchid species alone) as you marvel at the glittering light filtering through the canopy.
Explore the cloud forest on your own, take one of the many guided day tours, or backpack in and stay-you’ll need more than one day to take it all in-in one of the preserve’s huts for about $3.50 per night per person (plus daily park entrance fees, plus $20 per group for a required guide).
Located in the country’s northeastern Caribbean region, this area includes the Barra del Colorado National Wildlife Refuge and Tortuguero National Park. It’s a floodplain of amazing, interconnected canals, waterways and lagoons. One of the rainiest areas in the country, you can travel through the region by boat, canoe, or kayak, visiting such beautiful spots as Cano Palma and Penitencia Lagoon. The region’s lush cloud forest makes it a favorite spot for canopy tours, as well. On the coast is a large national park that protects the beaches favored by nesting sea turtles. Lodges in the tiny town of Tortuguero (reachable by plane or boat only) offer guided tours, meals, and accommodations as package deals.
If it’s your first time visiting Costa Rica, a can’t-miss spot is Manuel Antonio. The town is made up of buildings found on either side of a two-lane road that snakes along cliffs and through the jungle. Many hotels, bars, and restaurants are perched on the hillside, offering panoramic views of the rainforest and Pacific Ocean. Don’t miss sunset!
A major attraction to this area is the Manuel Antonio National Park, the most visited in Costa Rica. It’s a rainforest set on the water, with pristine white-sand beaches (don’t forget your swimsuit). You’ll see four different species of monkeys, toucans, three- and two-toed sloths, and much more wildlife.