Today: Top 10 best things to see & do in Costa Rica
Of all the Central American countries, Costa Rica is generally regarded as being the most stable, safest and tourist-friendly country. And unlike most of its neighboring countries, Costa Rica does not lure tourists with Mayan ruins or colonial history, but presents itself as one of the world’s most biodiverse areas, home to pristine rainforests, steaming volcanoes and stunning beaches that support an incredible variety of wildlife, from sloths and toucans to pumas and jaguars. Tourists have been flocking to the country for decades, and it’s also becoming a hot spot for (American) retirees and expats due to its cheap living, great weather, gorgeous scenery, and friendly locals. Here’s my top 10 list of the best things to see & do in the beautiful country of Costa Rica.
There is more information below the slide show. Think I missed one? Share your favorite spot in Costa Rica in the comments section.
Cloud forests are found in tropical regions where the clouds intersect the mountain ranges. The Monteverde Cloud Forest is located on the Tilarán mountain range in northern Costa Rica at an elevation of 1500 m (5000 ft) above sea level on the continental divide. Cloud immersion during extended periods of time shaped the architecture and species composition of this magnificent cloud forest, which is characterized by having lush evergreen vegetation and rich biodiversity. It is estimated that about 50% of Costa Rica’s biodiversity may be found within this area, an impressive 2.5% of the total world’s biodiversity. Monteverde is home to 425 species of birds, 120 species of mammals, 60 species of amphibians, 101 species of reptiles, and more than 3200 species of plants (this is almost as many plants as in the entire country of Canada). More than 13 km (8 mi) of well-maintained trails with access to observation platforms are available to visitors.
Active volcanoes are the most exciting features of Costa Rica’s geological composition. There are five in the tiny country, and the most popular one – Poas Volcano – is within easy driving distance of the capital San José. The volcano has one of the largest active craters in the world, measuring 4330 feet (1320 m) in width and 1049 feet (320 m) in depth. It boasts a hot and acidic water lagoon with temperatures between 68 Fahrenheit (20° C) and 122 Fahrenheit (50 ° C). One of the best aspects of Poas is its accessibility. The National Park features a paved road that goes all the way to the crater’s edge and is also one of the few National Parks in Costa Rica that is wheelchair friendly. The Poas volcano has erupted 40 times since 1828, including April 2017 when visitors and residents were evacuated. Following the 2017 eruption, the National Park has re-opened with limited access and revised regulations. Visitors are required to make an online reservation to enter the park and the number of visitors and time allowed at the crater is limited.
Costa Rica is well-known as a premiere destination for canyoning. Canyoning is an adventure sport which involves scrambling through natural obstacles in a canyon and rappelling down waterfalls. This truly is a thrilling experience in the rainforest and one you will never forget! There are several operators in Costa Rica that offer canyoning tours, and one of the best is Pure Trek, La Fortuna’s most popular canyoning & waterfall rappelling operator. Since 2001, these professional and certified guides have lead thousands of travelers of all ages through a well maintained canyon to experience a series of waterfall rappels, and activities like rock climbing and the “Monkey Drop” – you will get wet! Keep your eyes open for a chance to see toucans, sloths, monkeys and other exotic wildlife. Canyoning can also be combined with ziplining at Arenal Mundo Aventura: you will fly along 7 cables, stretching from mountain to mountain, crossing canyons, going into the forests, and even sometimes in between clouds.
Sometimes dubbed Costa Rica’s “Gold Coast”, the province of Guanacaste on the North Pacific Coast offers the best beaches in the country. The area is also home to Santa Rosa National Park, not only a Costa Rican historic site but also an important ecosystem with 10 different habitats including mangroves, swamps and evergreen and dry forests. Another gem is Rincon de la Vieja Volcano National Park, a refuge for birds and wildlife, featuring impressive vegetation, bubbling mud holes, refreshing river pools and waterfalls. Guanacasta’s jewell though is the exclusive Papagayo Peninsula, Central America’s most exclusive five-star resort destination. Part sophisticated resort community, part primitive playground, the peninsula possesses one of the most extraordinary landscapes on the planet: a dreamlike 1,400-acre canvas of coastal dry tropical forest surrounded by miles of uncrowded beaches teeming with rare and magical wildlife. The Peninsula Papagayo features an Arnold Palmer designed golf course as well as two 5-star resorts, the Four Seasons Resort Costa Rica and the Andaz Costa Rica Resort (a third resort, a Ritz-Carlton Reserve, is currently under construction).
One of Costa Rica’s most popular ecotourism destinations, the canals, rivers, beaches and lagoons of Tortuguero National Park are home to abundant wildlife, including 57 species of amphibians, 111 species of reptiles, and 60 species of mammals. Tortuguero is also a birdwatchers’ paradise, with keel-billed toucans, slaty tailed trogons, Montezuma oropendulas and a variety of parrots commonly spotted. Birds common along the canals include green and great blue herons, egrets, belted kingfishers, anhingas, jacanas, sun grebes and several species of hawks and kites. One of the most amazing natural spectacles that happens in Tortuguero is the arrival of the sea turtles, which find a haven in the National Park’s beaches. The Green Sea and Hawksbill turtles comes and lays eggs, which then later hatch and hundreds of thousands of small sea turtles leave their nests to go into the ocean and continue the cycle. The turtle’s nesting season runs from July to October with the peak in August. The park and small town of Tortuguero are accessible by boat or small aircraft.
Positioned within Costa Rica’s fertile northern lowlands, the Arenal Volcano is an unavoidable presence while traveling within this part of the country. It is tall and imposing and has a reputation that precedes itself. Arenal’s perfectly symmetrical shape makes it a sightseer’s dream, while its abundance of outdoor activities makes it an easy place to check things off your “must-do in Costa Rica” list. Until 2010, Arenal spewed enormous amounts of lava, gas and ash on a regular basis. That eruptive cycle – which began with an infamous eruption of 1968 – ended in October 2010, when Arenal entered into an indeterminate resting phase. For the time being, visitors will be unable to watch the much-loved explosions, although that could change within a matter of months or years. Travelers to Arenal will still enjoy its bountiful sights, sounds and activities — there are hot springs, mountains to be hiked, lakes to be fished and rivers to be floated. As one of the country’s most scenic and accessible areas, it is a requisite stop on any tour of Costa Rica.
With the establishment of Manuel Antonio National Park in 1972, the people of Costa Rica decided to preserve, for future generations, one of the most beautiful and bio-diverse areas in the world. Although it is the country’s smallest (and most visited) national park, the stunning beauty and diversity of wildlife in its 683 hectares is stunning. Manuel Antonio boasts a combination of the rain forest, beaches, and coral reefs. Its most famous beach is Playa Manuel Antonio, is a picturesque half-mile long, white sand crescent bisecting deep green foliage to one side and a private, secluded cove to the other. This beach is considered the most beautiful in the country and the snorkeling is excellent, too. The forest is home to sloths, iguanas, the rare and adorable squirrel monkeys, white-faced monkeys, and millions of colorful little crabs. The trail that winds around Punta Catedral features some spectacular views. The park is easy to reach, south of the town of Quepos, and is near a good selection of hotels and restaurants.
Besides the magnificent rainforest, dreamy beaches and tropical wildlife, Costa Rica also offers the opportunity for world-class rafting in a gorgeous scenery. The country has 14 major river systems that begin in the volcanic mountain ranges and flow out towards the Caribbean Sea, the Pacific Ocean, the San Juan River, or Lake Nicaragua — with plenty of waterfalls along the way. These rivers produce white-water rapids, as well as beautiful scenery along the banks. One of the country’s best companies for a rafting tour is Arenal Rafting, which organizes half day rafting trips on the Rio Balsa. The Balsa River comes from the cloud forest mountains of San Ramon & Zarcero, and offers one of the most continuous sections of rapids in Central America. There are more than 30 big rapids in less than 8 miles (13 km), some of then with big splashing waves, small drops, and different types of obstacles. The river is surrounded by tropical rain forest, which allows observing a great diversity of wildlife such as; monkeys, sloths, iguanas, toucans, river birds, poro trees, colorful frogs, among many others.
Costa Rica is home to some very luxurious resorts, such as the Andaz Costa Rica Resort and the Four Seasons Resort Costa Rica, both located on the Peninsula Papagayo and catering to tourists who prefer a relaxing holiday on the beach (with the possibility of some day trip to nearby National Parks). However, when it comes to choosing your accommodation in Costa Rica, make sure to book a stay an eco-lodge in the rainforest, since that will be far more memorable than the rather generic resorts on the coast. Costa Rica is home to plenty of eco-lodges, allowing guests to be immersed in the fascinating world of the jungle. The best lodge is Lapa Rios, a 17 villa property at the tip of the Osa Peninsula. Here, guests awaken to the mesmerizing sounds of the jungle, watch scarlet macaws glide by from their private outdoor shower, and set off into the trees to explore with local guides whose knowledge of the area’s ecosystems runs deep. And yet the experience is relaxing too – there’s a secluded beach, delightful meals served al fresco, and a luxurious bungalow awaiting you at the end of the day.
Corcovado National Park is located on the western side of the world-famous Osa Peninsula, Costa Rica’s most magnificent and remote rainforest destination. The National Park covers nearly half of the entire peninsula and encompasses 13 major ecosystems including lowland rain forest, highland cloud forest, jolillo palm forest, and mangrove swamps, as well as coastal marine and beach habitats. The park has one of the largest populations of scarlet macaws, monkeys and sloths in Costa Rica (and they are frequently spotted). Other wildlife adventures include encounters with tapirs on the beach, watching herds of peccaries (sainos) in the jungle, and observing the fins of bull sharks in the river mouths. Less commonly seen species of the park include the endangered jaguar and the puma. Nearly all of the lodges in the region offer day tours to the park, but I highly recommend a multi-day hiking tour to allow more time for wildlife spotting. Overnight tours are organized by companies like Osa Wild and include a stay at the Serena Ranger Station.