Perhaps you’re pining for the misty jungles, acclaimed eco lodges and cloud forests of Monteverde? Maybe you’re eager to spy out rare three-toed sloths and howler monkeys in the silk tree canopies, moving as slow as the time ticks over amidst the Rasta shacks of Puerto Viejo? Or, is it the world-class surf swells that have you aching for the tropics of Costa Rica: the rollers of Tamarindo; the legendary barrels of Salsa Brava? Perhaps it’s those steaming volcanos that have piqued the interest?
Whatever it is, there’s no question that this jewel of Central America has plenty of treats up its sleeve. It ranges from the mist-topped highlands and coffee haciendas of the Central Valley to the sunny coastlines of the Caribbean Sea and the boulder-spattered sands of the Pacific, drawing in hikers, wave riders, wildlife lovers, culture vultures and more to its wealth of colonial cities and natural parks.
Lets explore the best places to visit in Costa Rica:
Soaring more than 1,600 meters above the jungles of Alajuela north out of San Jose, the Arenal Volcano remains arguably Costa Rica’s biggest draw.
A mecca for outdoorsy types, the whole area around the colossal mount is dotted with roaring waterfalls (not least of all the wonderful La Fortuna falls), crisscrossed by countless hiking trails and bridle paths, cut through by frothing river rapids ripe for whitewater rafting, and home to swinging wire bridges that offer close-up encounters with the toucans and sloths of the rainforest canopies. Careful though – Arenal is still one of the most active calderas in all of Central America!
The domain of the revered cloud forests is an absolute must for any first-time travelers making their way through Costa Rica.
Perched high atop the plateaus and peaks of the Cordillera de Tilarán, little Monteverde makes its home right in the midst of the misty montane woods. Stalking jaguars, elusive pumas, elegant ocelots, colourful toucans, sloths, spider monkeys and countless critters in the undergrowth all inhabit the trunks and canopies here, making intrepid excursions in the orchid-dotted, primeval wilds all the more enthralling.
Zip lining and night safaris are also on the menu, while nearby Santa Elena offers most all of the backpacker infrastructure.
Sun-splashed Tamarindo draws big crowds with its line-up of sparkling Pacific beaches and palpable Tico charm.
Located on the northern edge of the Nicoya Peninsula, the town boasts its very own three-kilometer stretch of sand. Leatherback turtles creep and crawl the coastline along the shore too (Playa Grande is best known for this), while a medley of marlin and giant tuna pull sports fishermen, and the surf swells entice board riders right throughout the year.
Add to that a smattering of great hotels and backpacker guesthouses, laid-back beach bars, and access to pretty much all of the breathtaking national parks of Guanacaste – Palo Verde, Rincon de la Vieja et al – and it’s easy to see why this one’s a must!
4. Corcovado National Park
Unquestionably one of the most coveted natural landscapes for travelers making their way through the backcountry of Costa Rica, the Corcovado National Park is the jewel in the crown of the salt-sprayed, jungle-clad Osa Peninsula.
Nestled deep in the south of the country, away from the trodden surfer swells and beach resorts, this land of tapirs and anteaters, sloths and squirrel monkeys, coloured macaws and majestic margay cats has a clutch of wild camp grounds and ranger shelters for intrepid visitors.
Trails like the popular El Tigre offer some of the top wildlife spotting, while the waters between the shore and rugged Isla del Caño in the Pacific promise sightings of killer whales and dolphins!
5. Puerto Viejo de Talamanca
Now set to a backing track of Bob Marley and the Wailers, Puerto Viejo de Talamanca is a totally transformed fishing village that hosts everyone from snowbirds to surfers amidst its beach shacks and seaside cocktail bars.
The nearby waves of Salsa Brava are hailed as some of the most gnarly barrels on the eastern coast of Costa Rica as a whole, bringing in professional wave riders for the competitions and wide-eyed onlookers to the cliffs by the bucket load.
There’s a charming Carib-Creole character to the town too, as Ticos brew up bubbling jambalaya on the street sides and the smells of coffee and cocoa drift down from the nearby jungles.
6. San Jose
A great many travelers making their way to Costa Rica will pass through or even touch down in the capital of San Jose.
And while many gloss over the 260,000-strong metropolis, making a beeline straight for the Pacific or Carib coasts, those who stay are in for a real treat. Nestled deep in the verdant hills of the Central Valley, San Jose has only reigned as first city since the early 19th century.
Still, it’s got its fair share of pretty colonial churches and Baroque facades thanks to its Spanish roots and onetime coffee tycoons (check out the beautiful Plaza España and nearby Barrio Amón), not to mention leafy parks where yogis gather in the morning, museums packed with the exquisite golden artifacts of South America’s pre-Columbian peoples, and a lively student-led nightlife in San Pedro after dark!
Oddly left untrodden by many travelers touching down on the nearby runways of San Jose, Alajuela is a fascinating colonial city (the second largest in all of Costa Rica in fact) that makes its home amidst the verdant rising peaks of the impossibly beautiful Central Valley.
Steeped in history and with a proud political past, the center rose to fame as a staunch hotpot for revolutionary and patriotic sentiment (just check out the much-loved local hero, Juan Santamaría, who almost singlehandedly caused the retreat of the maverick filibusterer William Walker in 1856).
The middle of the city is a sleepy medley of elegant Baroque facades (be sure to see the beautiful La Agonía church), while the mighty peaks of the Poas Volcano dominate the horizon – one of the top spots for crater viewing in the world!
8. Manuel Antonio National Park
Parakeets and parrots chirp and sing over the turquoise-blue waters of Espadilla Sur and Teloro – two of the most gorgeous beaches in all of Costa Rica.
These are found set deep within the protected enclave of the Manuel Antonio National Park, backed by thick groves of silk cotton trees and bay cedars, the distinct silhouettes of howler monkeys and white-headed capuchins swinging from bough to bough within.
Couple those gorgeous Pacific vistas and the booming biodiversity with some of the most accessible trails of all Costa Rica’s protected areas, and it’s easy to see why this humble section of coastal Puntarenas is the country’s second most-visited national park!
As the condominiums continue to rise and the perfectly-formed rollers of the Pacific continue to magnetise more long-haired surfers looking to tick off the fabled beach breaks and rocky left-turners of Roca Loca and Playa Jacó, it’s hardly surprising that this erstwhile fishing village, nestled just over the peaks of the Cordillera de Tilarán from San Jose, remains one of Costa Rica’s most visited spots.
Granted the late-night discos and perpetual talk of shredding the swells isn’t for everyone, but there’s still real beauty to be found amidst the rugged mountain-backed coves and beaches around town.
And if it’s a classic Pacific beach holiday you’re after, rounded off with hedonistic discos and oodles of guaro sour cocktail bars, Jacó is just the spot!
10. Santa Teresa
Coconut palms explode like grass-green Jigglypuffs over the blanket-white sands of Mal País. Meanwhile, Playa Carmen is a wind-buffeted picture of tropical perfection, the tendrils of ocean vines clambering over the sand to the perfectly-formed beach breaks of the shore.
Then there’s the fish shacks and romantic sunsets of Playa Hermosa just to the north, not to mention beautiful Santa Teresa itself, a hub for all things surfer and sea.
Welcome to Costa Rica’s Pacific beach town par excellence. Today, this entire stretch of the Nicoya Peninsula is famed for its chilled-out vibes and gorgeous coastline, which gel perfectly well with all the yogis, Rasta types and New Age organicos occupying the health resorts in the hills nearby!
11. Tortuguero National Park
Tortuguero National Park is the top spot to see Costa Rica’s endangered sea turtles, with everything from hawksbill to leatherbacks to uber-rare green sea turtles creeping up onto the sands that line its shores in the spring.
And while most visitors come to see this nesting or hatching phenomenon, Tortuguero has other big pulls. Set over a series of wild volcanic islands and marshes, washed over by the Caribbean Sea and dressed in dense mangroves, the protected swathes here also host tropical gar, peacocks, howlers, three-toed sloths and jaguars.
Forget hiking though – there’s simply no substitute for exploring the endless rivers and brackish lagoons by boat or canoe.
12. Chirripó National Park
Ranging from the tropical rainforests of the Chirripó lowlands to the montane cloud forests of the Cartago highlands, this 50,000-hectare national park is one of the least-trodden in the country.
Sprawled over three different provinces, its center is spiked by the soaring peak of Cerro Chirripó – the highest mountain in Costa Rica at 3,820 meters above sea level.
Climbers who aim to conquer this great monolith hit hiking trails that weave through alpine tundra and primeval woods to the summit, where sweeping panoramas of the countless volcanos, both the Pacific and Caribbean coasts and the endless jungle canopies are the reward.
Others come to camp in the company of primates and roaring cataracts, secluded mountain lakes and sloths.
Where once the grand facades of the Spanish crown loomed large, it’s now the serrated tips of the mighty jungle-dressed Cordillera Central that dominate Cartago.
Set high on the volcanic ridges in the very heart of the country, this city is hailed as the first ever in Costa Rica, and even reigned as capital for almost three centuries, until San Jose claimed the mantle in 1824.
Remnants of this age of glory can still be traced amidst the all-new concrete rows that make up the downtown (a product of major rebuilding after an earthquake in the early 1900s): the crumbling walls of the Santiago Apóstol in the Plaza Mayor; the snow-white domes of the Basilica of Our Lady of the Angels.
Volcanos are never too far away in these parts either – be sure to see the brooding caldera of Irazú, and sample the potent coffees of the Orosi Valley too!
14. Rincon de la Vieja National Park
The multi-cratered mass of volcanic rock that is the eponymous Rincon de la Vieja Volcano is the piece de resistance of this sprawling national park amidst the wilds of Guanacaste.
Accessed from the city of Liberia, the tectonic zone here is considered one of the most active in Costa Rica – smoke and plumes of sulphur regularly issue from the Von Seebach caldera up top!
There are also fields of bubbling mud pools and smoking fumaroles peppering the landscape, while primeval forestry erupts on the fertile plains, awash with squawking bellbirds and cougars.
A cocktail of the artistic and the outdoorsy, the wild and the luxurious, Montezuma has risen and risen on Costa Rica’s touristic line-up since the days when it was just a sleepy fishing town issuing bobbing timber boats out to catch whitefish in the swells of the Puntarenas Pacific.
Today, yoga retreats and eco lodges hide in the hills, surf shacks and surf schools cling like limpets to the rocks around the popular swells at Sunset Reef and Montezuma Bay, cocktail bars masquerade as salt-washed beach shacks and refined eateries appear in the guise of street-side holes-in-the-wall.
Few cars and little infrastructure mean Montezuma retains its rustic edge too, making it a fine place for some R&R on the west coast!