Come to Costa Rica to discover magnificent landscapes, endless outdoor activities and creatures great and small. This smallish Central American country offers a world of adventure, from water sports to mountain hikes, from rainforest wildlife watching to cloud-forest birding.
And when you’re ready to take a break from the rugged activities, there are treehouses to sleep in, meals to indulge in and cities to explore. Here are the 16 best things to do in Costa Rica.
1. Ride the waves
Surfers in the know plan their entire vacation around the wild and wonderful waves on the Costa Rica coastlines. If you aren't in the know (yet) this is a fantastic place to find out what it’s all about, thanks to inviting warm waters, long and luscious waves and non-stop good vibes.
The most popular surf destinations include Tamarindo, Nosara and Santa Teresa on the Nicoya Peninsula; Jacó, Dominical and Pavones on the central and south Pacific; and Puerto Viejo de Talamanca on the Caribbean side. Note that any given destination has a few different surf spots, some of which are better for beginners and others that offer more challenging waves. They all enjoy a bit of a party scene, though Nosara and Santa Teresa are more laidback.
Planning tip: Find the biggest waves on the Pacific coast from May to October (though the dry season is better for beginners). The waves are biggest on the Caribbean side from November to May.
2. Fly through the clouds in Santa Elena
There are zipline courses all around the country – some higher or faster or longer than others – but the Santa Elena canopy tours are special. The Costa Rica canopy craze started here, but more importantly, there’s something fantastic about soaring over the treetops with the clouds swirling all around you. Take in the misty magic of the cloud forest, supercharged with an adrenaline rush.
Planning tip: While ziplining is on many people's Costa Rica travel list, make sure you check your operator's safety procedures before committing. It's also okay to change your mind when you're there. Ziplining is not for everyone.
3. Raft into the Pacuare Lodge
The Pacuare Lodge is a gorgeous, luxurious facility surrounded by dense rainforest and little else. The only road in is not a road at all, but rather a river: the namesake Río Pacuare. Here is a case where the journey rivals the destination, as you travel to the lodge by whitewater rafting over Class III-IV rapids on this world-famous river.
The roar of the rapids, the spectacular scenery and the thrill of the ride make for a fantastic adventure – and you’re just getting started. Once at the lodge, you’ll enjoy sumptuous accommodations, incredibly satisfying meals, super-attentive service and a roster of activities before rafting back out again.
Planning tip: Pacuare Lodge packages include transportation to and from San José, but you can also have them deliver you anywhere on the Caribbean Coast.
4. Commune with the creatures
For would-be wildlife watchers, there’s no better place to commune with the creatures than the trails around Sirena station in Parque Nacional Corcovado, the area National Geographic called “the most biologically intense place on the planet."
Here, visitors have a good chance of seeing animals (some endangered) that are rare in other parts of the country, including peccaries, tapirs, crocodiles, tiny squirrel monkeys and more. Note that the best wildlife watching happens at dawn and dusk, which necessitates an overnight stay in the park. Easier to reach and rich with life, the regions of Río Celeste and Sarapiquí have many eco-lodges and private reserves that are also fantastic for wildlife watching.
5. Hike, swim and climb to La Leona Waterfall
This outing is more than a hike or a waterfall swim – it’s a canyoneering adventure. That’s the only way to describe this excursion down the Río Blanco in Curubandé de Liberia, which involves swimming, scrambling, spelunking, climbing and cliff jumping. You’ll ogle three different waterfalls on the way, including a final celestial-blue beauty that's hidden inside a cave. It’s a stunner.
Detour: This adventure takes place just outside of Parque Nacional Volcán Rincón de la Vieja, a great destination to see volcanic activity (more on that below) and soak in hot springs.
6. Spy on nesting sea turtles
Every few years, female sea turtles perform an ancient ritual, returning to their natal beach to lay their eggs beneath the moonlight before returning to the welcoming waters of the sea. Elsewhere on the same beach, tortuguita hatchlings dig out of their nests and scurry to the sea. It’s an incredible and intimate episode to witness.
Planning tip: The timing varies, depending on the location and turtle species, but you can see this spectacle of nature in Tortuguero in the north Caribbean and at Playa Grande and Playa Ostional on the Nicoya Peninsula.
7. Splurge on a multicourse meal in the sky
San Lucas is not just a restaurant; it's a "dining experience" – that is, a surprise nine-course menu that's also a lesson in Costa Rican history and culture. The food presentations are innovative, interesting and excellent overall, but the highlight is the fantastic setting in the sky. Each table occupies a private glass cube high atop a mountainside, overlooking the cloud forest and the village of Santa Elena below.
Planning tip: The San Lucas Treetop Dining Experience offers two seatings per night. If you reserve for the early one, your first course comes with a spectacular sunset.
8. Explore an active volcano
The mountains of northern and central Costa Rica are lined up in a row of hissing, steaming, sputtering volcanoes, some of which are open for exploration. Wander among boiling mud pots and steaming fumaroles of Volcán Rincón de la Vieja; hike the lava flows and soak in volcanic-heated pools at Volcán Arenal; peer into the steaming crater at Poás and leave footprints in the lava fields of Irazú. Each experience is a little different, but all will leave you awestruck at the earth’s unbridled power.
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9. Kayak through sea caves
Along the Costa Ballena on the southern Pacific coast, Playa Ventanas is a small but spectacular palm-backed beach that has a special feature: intriguing caves in the cliffs at its north end. At low tide, you can investigate the two caves that open onto the beach (taking care to retreat if the water starts to rise). But if you’re up for a challenge, you can paddle a kayak along the gorgeous coastline and explore the cliffs and sea caves along the way.
Planning tip: The sea caves are only accessible in certain weather conditions, and they are often impassable during the rainy season. Book tours in Uvita.
10. See some magnificent birds
Even if you’re not a bird nerd, it’s easy to geek out about the avian life in Costa Rica. Of course, there are myriad multicolored beauties that you’ll see flitting about pretty much everywhere; then there are a few showstoppers – rare in other parts of the world but relatively easy to see in Costa Rica (if you know where to look).
Most famously, the scarlet macaw has made an incredible comeback along the Pacific coast, with sightings practically guaranteed in Parque Nacional Carara and on the Osa Peninsula. The aptly named resplendent quetzal makes seasonal appearances in the cloud forests of Monteverde and the Dota region. And the great green macaw – still critically endangered – is sometimes spotted in Sarapiquí and Boca Tapada. Getting a glimpse of these gorgeous creatures in the wild is an awesome and inspiring experience that might just turn you into a bona fide birder.
11. Sleep in a treehouse
In the wilds of northern Costa Rica, surrounded by lush forestlands, you can indulge your inner monkey and spend the night in the treetops. On the edge of its eponymous wildlife refuge, Maquenque Eco Lodge has a collection of fantastic treehouses – each constructed amid the leafy canopy, 12m (39ft) off the ground and surrounded by trees.
With wide balconies, outdoor showers and screen walls, the treehouses offer complete rainforest immersion with a touch of luxury. It’s a 10-minute walk to the main lodge (or a quick buzz on the walkie-talkie, in case of emergency).
Detour: On your way to or from Boca Tapada, stop at Centro Familiar Cuyito to try to glimpse a pair of great green macaws nesting in a wild avocado tree on the grounds.
12. Cool off under a waterfall
There’s no more exhilarating plunge than one beneath the downpour of a wild waterfall. And Costa Rica has no shortage of glorious cascades – many of which are swimmable. One fan favorite is Montezuma Waterfalls, on the outskirts of the eponymous village. It requires a rugged hike, but the reward is a triple-tiered catarata, with a thrilling (and chilling) cliff jump from the top.
Detour: If you can’t get enough, El Chorro Waterfall is another highlight in Montezuma. It’s a long hot hike, but the cascade – which falls from a high cliff directly into the ocean – is worth the effort.
13. Discover what happens after dark
Some 70% of animals are most active at night. Take a "night hike" with a nature guide to find out who they are and what they’re doing in the dark. Night tours are popular in the main rainforest destinations in Costa Rica, including La Fortuna, Sarapiquí, Río Celeste and Manuel Antonio. You’re bound to see plenty of bugs and bats, frogs and snakes. But you might also catch a glimpse of a nocturnal mammal, such as a kinkajou or a tree possum.
14. Cruise a jungle lagoon
One of the most rewarding ways to see wildlife in Costa Rica is to take a cruise through the jungly canals of Tortuguero or the wild wetlands of Caño Negro. From the comfort of your boat, you’re likely to see several species of monkeys, two- and three-toed sloths, green iguanas, striped basilisks, caimans and crocs, not to mention incredible birdlife.
15. Swim in a bioluminescent bay
Some aquatic organisms contain luciferin, which reacts with oxygen to produce a sparkly light. This magical glow in the water is called bioluminescence, and it lights up the coves of Ballena Bay, near Tambor on the Nicoya Peninsula. Bioluminescent tours depart from Santa Teresa, Montezuma or Tambor itself, giving you a chance to kayak or swim through ethereal illuminated waters.
Planning tip: Save some cash by driving yourself to Playa Pochote and booking a bioluminescence tour at Don Trino campground, where tours are far less expensive than in the larger towns.
16. Take a city break in San José
You probably came to Costa Rica for wild animals and outdoor adventure. But guess what? San José is a cool, creative capital, packed with historic architecture, unique museums and trendy cafes and clubs.
Don’t miss the Museo del Jade for its insightful exhibits about pre-Columbian cultures and the Teatro Nacional for its artistic misrepresentations of Costa Rican culture. Best of all, Barrio Escalante has the best dining scene in the city – if not the country – so here’s your chance to dig in before heading out to the land of rice and beans.