An exuberant flora and fauna, dreamlike Caribbean beaches in the east, long Pacific beaches in the west, pleasant climate and lots of sun: Costa Rica is a tropical paradise between Panama and Nicaragua. More than a quarter of the country is protected by national parks. Since the 1970s, Costa Rica has been focusing on soft tourism and the preservation of its natural treasures.
The legendary coconut islands off the coast of Costa Rica invite for diving, the mysterious Arenal National Park wants to be hiked, the fantastic beaches are pure bathing pleasure, wild rivers attract canoeists – almost every sport can be practiced in Costa Rica.
In addition, Costa Rica is a comparatively safe – and also inexpensive – travel destination. The political situation of the country is stable, the “Ticos” are friendly and accommodating people, who are characterized by a relaxed way of life. Let’s explore the 18 best places to visit in Costa Rica.
Majestically rises the Arenal at Lake Arenal, located only about 90 kilometers north of San José and represents a special natural spectacle. Not for nothing is the Arenal considered one of the most active volcanoes in the world – however, the volcano has calmed down a bit and since 2010 no longer shows so often the glowing lava that shoots into the sky and used to be seen at the Arenal.
In addition to the magnificent view of Arenal, the surrounding national park is also a tropical experience of a special kind: rivers, waterfalls, a lively flora and fauna in the midst of tropical rainforest and cloud forest enchants next to the volcano with its perfect cone shape. Visit the Arenal in the north of Costa Rica, because the volcano is not only the most active, but certainly the most beautiful in the entire region.
The famous Reserva Biólogica Bosque Nuboso Monteverde offers shelter to countless wildlife species, including the jaguar, the ocelot and the colorful feathered quetzal, which can be easily observed here. Orchids, ferns, moss-covered lianas and fici make up the scenery, which is always surrounded by clouds of mist: dense, deep green from which comes a single buzz, peep and rustle. The Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve is influenced by both Pacific weather and a humid climate.
Accordingly, the habitat that has developed here is unique, producing an impressive array of flora and fauna. Almost ten percent of the species that live here are endemic. In order to protect this biodiversity, a maximum of 160 people are allowed to be in the area at any one time A well-signposted network of trails runs through the thicket, passing swamps, streams, giant trees and waterfalls along 13 kilometers. The special feature: Large sections of the trail run over high suspension bridges at eye level with the forest canopy.
Tamarindo, once a small fishing village, is now a top surf and party destination right on the coast of the Pacific Ocean in the province of Guanacaste. Scenically, the town is surrounded by mountains and is part of the Marino Las Baulas National Park. Its central location makes it an ideal starting point for exploring the northern peninsula.
The Tamarindo beach is wide with light fine sand and especially suitable for surfing as well as other sporting water activities. For swimming, the southernmost end of the beach is more recommended due to the currents than the beach on the busier part of town, which is more reserved for surfers. Grande beach and Lagosta beach are also popular beaches near Tamarindo.
The bays are a well-known surfing area, both for beginners and advanced surfers. Courses can be booked at the surf schools and the nearby estuary is perfect for experienced surfers. The best time for surfing is from December to May. International surfing competitions are held here every year.
15. Corcovado National Park
Corcovado National Park is located on the southern Pacific coast of Costa Rica on the Osa Peninsula. The park has been called “the most biologically intense place on earth” by National Geographic, because there is hardly any other place in the world where the biodiversity is so high.
Corcovado is still a destination secret due to its poor accessibility and offers the most pristine jungle nature of any nature park in Costa Rica! It is home to a variety of wildlife and exotic fauna, for example, over 220 species of butterflies and about 150 species of orchids.
Corcovado is home to a large population of animals, including many endangered species, various species of monkeys, jaguars, ocelots, tapirs, anteaters, an abundance of birds including the quetzal and red macaw, amphibians such as the red-eyed tree frog, and of course many reptiles and insects.
Corcovado is also close to Marino Ballena National Park – the best place to see whales and dolphins. Humpback whales use these waters as a mating and breeding ground. The national park acts as a marine reserve for coral reefs, lagoons and rivers.
14. Puerto Viejo de Talamanca
Due to its volcanic origin, Costa Rica does not always offer white sand beaches. Puerto Viejo, on the other hand, does, which makes this place a dream destination for all those who are relaxed and not looking for luxury deluxe XXL, but still want to have a bit of white sand under their feet.
Puerto Viejo is located on the Caribbean coast in Costa Rica, just next to the border with Panama, about an hour south of Puerto Limón. If you make it here, you’ve clearly made the right choice when it comes to laid-back locals, freaky hostels and reggae beach bars. “Pura Vida” is written very – very – big in Puerto Viejo, no one is rushed, everyone is happy, the sun is shining and the palm trees are growing.
Situated directly on the beach, a small village has been created here, through which you can stroll with great background music while eating probably the best nachos in the world in one of the many bars and small restaurants. Here no one has watches around their wrist, they go by the sun. When you’ve feasted enough, you can enjoy the ocean on the beach.
But we’ll tell you right away: the luxury here is the people with their guitars and the nature of the Caribbean. Life is simple, and the locals are all the happier for it. So, if you go to Puerto Viejo, you’ll be embracing its philosophy of harmony with life and nature.
13. San Jose
Nestled among majestic volcanoes, cloud-capped mountains and rolling greenery lies Costa Rica’s capital, San José. Here, where red cabs wind through checkered alleys, you can experience the urban character of the country.
The city is certainly not one of the most beautiful or cleanest on the continent, yet it has a charm all its own. The true beauty lies somewhat hidden. But if you let yourself be drawn to the city and its charms, a stroll through the colonial neighborhoods or along the Avenida Central will immerse you in the lovely aspects of the capital.
Although San José was founded only in the middle of the 18th century, the cultural offer is quite impressive. Whether museums, theaters, galleries or parks – there are several hotspots to discover right in the city center. One of the best-known institutions in the city of 340,000 inhabitants is the National Theater, often a meeting place for excursions into the surrounding countryside and the pride of the Costa Ricans.
A stay in San José directly after arrival in the country is a perfect start to get to know Costa Rica and find your way around, especially for those interested in culture.
With a population of around 50,000, Alajuela is one of the largest cities in Costa Rica and is located in the interior of the country, about 20 kilometers from the capital San José. Alajuela is the capital of the province of the same name and is located at the foot of the 2,700 meter high Poás volcano, which today is one of the most important tourist attractions in Costa Rica.
The center of the city is characterized by several parks, for example the Parque Central with its beautiful, bright white cathedral and the many shady mango trees – which is why Alajuela is also called the “City of Mangos”. In the city center, open-air markets with juicy fruits and fresh vegetables invite you to stroll around, and numerous small restaurants and cafes offer typical local delicacies. The climate is pleasant all year round, with temperatures usually around 28 degrees Celsius.
A must for visitors to Alajuela is a tour of the 2700-meter active Poás Volcano, which is easily accessible thanks to good roads. The volcano is located in the national park of the same name and is home to two crater lakes: since the pH value of the northern crater lake is less than 1, however, you should refrain from swimming in the very acidic water. East of the main crater is the turquoise blue Laguna Botos – an extinct crater, filled with water and now green again.
11. Manuel Antonio National Park
Although Manuel Antonio is one of the smallest parks in Costa Rica with 7 km², it is also one of the most famous destinations for both tourists and locals. The park is located a few kilometers south of the town of Quepos on the central Pacific coast. It protects a good 16 km² of rainforest area and some of its beautiful palm-fringed adjacent sandy beaches.
On the trails inside the park you can observe birds and other animals. Here and there you will probably also meet a squirrel monkey, which is highly endangered. Don’t be tempted by the howler and capuchin monkeys, some of which are unusually trusting here and some even aggressive, to feed them or other animals – anyone caught doing so by the rangers must leave the protected area immediately.
The park is easy to traverse without much effort, as the trails are well developed. After the jungle walk it is recommended to plan enough free time for the beautiful beaches inside and outside the park. If you want to spend the night there, you will find accommodations along the main road (618) between Quepos and the park entrance.
Jacó is a rather untypical coastal town for Costa Rica and is especially known for its colorful nightlife. In Jacó you will find numerous high-rise buildings, which are located directly on the beach. If you are looking for action and party, Jacó is the place to be! But also for nature fans there are some spots and activities in the area: surfing, white water rafting and paragliding.
The popular city is located in the province of Puntarenas, in the canton of Garabito, 100 km away from San José. From San José you can easily reach Jacó by car or bus within 1.5 hours. About 17 kilometers north of Jacó is the Carara National Park and about 60 kilometers south is the Manuel Antonio National Park, both known for their biodiversity.
9. Santa Teresa
Santa Teresa is located in the west of Costa Rica on the Nicoya Peninsula in the province of Puntarenas. The fishing village on the Pacific coast has developed into a popular vacation and emigration destination since the 1990s.
Due to the mild climate and the high waves, Santa Teresa has long since ceased to be an insider tip among surfers: at the beaches Playa Hermose, Playa Santa Teresa and Playa Carmen, which are a total of five kilometers long, athletes ride the waves at any time of day and enjoy the Pura Vida lifestyle of Costa Rica. The beaches around Santa Teresa are natural and quiet, here it is wonderful to relax with a book or meditate in peace. It is not for nothing that various yoga studios and hostels in Santa Teresa offer yoga retreats.
After a sporty or relaxing day, in the evening the beach becomes a meeting place for all residents and vacationers: everyone comes together to admire the beautiful sunset of red, orange and yellow clouds.
The village is relatively tranquil and consists of only one street with many small stores, great cafes, restaurants and bars. If you’re staying longer, it’s also worth taking a trip to the neighboring hippie village of Montezuma or to Cabo Blanco National Park, home to monkeys, sloths and toucans.
8. Tortuguero National Park
Tortuguero National Park is approximately 20,000 hectares in size and is located in northeastern Costa Rica on the Caribbean coast. Its canal and lagoon landscape surrounded by dense rainforest makes this place uniquely beautiful.
Because here is a variety of plants and animals like you have no other spot in Costa Rica. About half of Costa Rica’s bird and reptile species live here. Sloths, iguanas, caimans, toucans, parrots, several species of monkeys, crocodiles, manatees and over 300 species of birds can be found here.
Due to this number of animals and plants and the high amount of rainfall, this region is often called the “Amazon of Costa Rica”.
The village of Tortuguero is located on a narrow strip of land between the Caribbean Sea and a wide jungle river only 40 km from the border with Nicaragua. The village and the lodges can only be reached by boat or plane. About 700 villagers live here mainly from fishing and the ever growing tourism.
The name Tortuguero translates as “place where the turtles come” and comes from the Spanish word for “turtle”, “tortuga”.
7. Chirripó National Park
Together with La Amistad, Chirripó National Park is the jewel of Costa Rica: both protected areas were declared World Heritage Sites by UNESCO in 1983. In the middle of the park are some of the highest mountains in Costa Rica, they are part of the Cordillera de Talamanca.
The Cerro Chirripó of the same name, which at 3,819 meters is the highest elevation in Costa Rica, is also located in the middle of the protected zone. All those who make it to the top are richly rewarded: on a clear day, you can see two oceans at once – the Caribbean Sea and the Pacific Ocean. The national park covers a total of about 50,000 hectares.
The timberline is at about 2,400 meters, up to which tropical mountain rainforests grow. Typical plants are various tree ferns, epiphytes, evergreen oaks and many small bamboo species. Above the timberline lies the páramo, a form of vegetation typical of the South American Andes. Ferns, perennial herbs, low bushes, low bamboo and composite plants cover the landscape.
Flora and fauna have been able to develop undisturbed in the park, numerous mammals, birds and reptiles live here undisturbed. The rare mythical bird Quetzal can be observed there – with a little luck – as well as the largest tapir population of the country and numerous monkeys, jaguars and pumas.
Founded in 1563 as the first Spanish settlement in Costa Rica, Cartago was the country’s capital for a long time. In 1823, San José – at that time still an insignificant village – was named the new capital. Located about 25 km southeast of San José, Cartago is very easy to reach via an expressway. The bus connection is also well developed.
Cartago is located at an altitude of about 1400 meters. Thus, the climate is somewhat cooler and due to the proximity to the mountains also foggier.
Cartago is a good starting point for a visit to the Irazu and Turrialba volcanoes and the Orosi Valley.
Located directly at the foot of the highest volcano in the country, Irazu, the city has experienced many and also severe earthquakes and eruptions several times in its history.
Cartago is an important place of pilgrimage in Costa Rica. Thus, in the Basílica de Nuestra Señora de Los Ángeles there is a statue of the black Madonna (“La Negrita” or “Queen of Cartago”), which is said to have healing powers. Every year on August 2, countless pilgrims flock to the basilica, the most important church in the country.
5. Rincon de la Vieja National Park
Rincon de la Vieja is located in the north of Costa Rica in the midst of a lush tropical landscape. On the one hand this means the active and fascinating volcano, on the other hand Rincon de la Vieja also refers to the national park of the same name, which is very diverse. Hot springs, crystal clear waterfalls, colorful birds and numerous plants and mammals are located in the national park and make every stay on site an unforgettable experience.
Immerse yourself in the beautiful landscape around Rincon de la Vieja and enjoy the lush flora and fauna – one or the other overnight stay in a typical jungle lodge in the national park is particularly authentic. Small hikes, bird watching or the one or other photo session will enrich your time in the region and transport you into the lush nature that makes Costa Rica such an extraordinary destination in Central America.
Montezuma, the former fishing village on the Nicoya Peninsula in northwestern Costa Rica, is not only an alternative Eldorado for hippies, artists, yogis and surfers, but above all an oasis of joie de vivre nestled between the Pacific Ocean and the tropical rainforest. Pura Vida, as they say here, is spread in a serene, heartfelt way. And it is contagious.
In Montezuma, people live in harmony with flora and fauna with a touching naturalness. It is not uncommon for iguanas to climb on the roofs of bungalows at night and rob you of your sleep, or for monkeys to plunder the veranda and roar loudly. Of course, they prefer to do this in the early morning hours. Also raccoons, squirrels, deer or horses are met with mutual composure. No wonder that hunting is forbidden in Costa Rica. Dogs and cats are also part of life.
Montezuma’s most famous natural phenomenon are his waterfalls. Here the one or the other celebrity is sighted again and again, but far away from glitter and glamour. Except for experienced local flip-flop wearers, sneakers are a must. Walking over hill and dale, in and around water or up and down slopes makes you feel a bit like Spiderman. But the scramble is rewarded by a refreshing swim and if especially man wants, with rock jumps into the depths.
Caribbean accents: turquoise blue sea, 15 kilometers of white sandy beaches with coconut palms leaning towards the sea and rainforest! The Cahuita National Park at the southern end of the Caribbean coast is particularly attractive because of the interplay of rainforest and palm-fringed sandy beaches. Species richness is not as pronounced here because of the lack of fresh water.
Nevertheless, the Caribbean coastal landscape offers fantastic hiking trails as well as a 6 km² coral reef area, where you can observe all kinds of sea urchins and colorful schools of fish while snorkeling, and with a lot of luck even a dolphin.
In the nearby tourist resorts, shuffling reggae easily outshines occasional salsa sounds. Locals, whose ancestors immigrated from Jamaica or China in the course of railroad construction, have preserved Caribbean “easy going” here.
Here, with a little luck, you can observe howler and capuchin monkeys, sloths, coatis, toucans, herons and iguanas in the wild.
Starting point to discover the national park is the small town of Cahuita with Caribbean flair. A breathtaking hiking trail leads directly along the sea, moreover from Puerto Vargas to the town of Cahuita. Near the sea, however, you have to expect wet feet in case of flooding. The interior of the national park is dominated by mixed forest.
2. Poas Volcano
Poás last spewed lava half a century ago and has remained active ever since. As recently as April 2017, it catapulted a cloud of ash, gas and sulfur vapors into the sky, throwing the immediate area into turmoil. In this case, the national park will be closed in time…. Its dimensions are one of the largest in the world, as the main crater lake measures almost 1.3 km in average.
The viewing platform at the crater rim of the active stratified volcano Poás is a real crowd puller. At an altitude of 2574 meters, it offers visitors to the national park of the same name an impressive, weather-dependent view into the 300-meter-deep main vent, which was not formed until 1952 and still emits sulfurous vapors, making it the second largest geyser in the world.
There is no life in the immediate vicinity because of the toxic sulfur vapors. However, in Poás National Park you can hike along trails surrounded by lush vegetation to a secondary crater with a lagoon (duration about 2 hours).
1. Cocos Island
A highlight for experienced divers! The uninhabited island was declared a National Park in 1978 and included in the UNESCO World Heritage List in 1997. It is located in the province of Puntarenas, in the Pacific region of Costa Rica and is known for its exceptional biodiversity.
The uninhabited Cocos Island is located in the province of Puntarenas, in the Pacific region of Costa Rica, it is known for its exceptional biodiversity and is a highlight for experienced divers.
Numerous publications reported about treasures said to have been hidden on the island by pirates such as William Dampier, Benito Bonito or Henry Morgan. So far, however, several expeditions carried out were unsuccessful, and further treasure hunting was prohibited.