There are so many things to do in Costa Rica, and so many of them have to do with its amazing culture and food, and with its gorgeous beaches and friendly people. However, there is little doubt among the top Costa Rica attractions is its natural beauty.
I could go on and on about how many things to do in Costa Rica there are and about the number of outdoor activities that should be added to the perfect itinerary when one is in this part of the world, but the following is a selection of my favorites things to do in Costa Rica.
Drake Bay is for sure one of the places to visit in Costa Rica – photo courtesy of Danicho (flickr)
Five Incredible Things To Do In Costa Rica For Nature Lovers
Scuba Dive in and around Drake Bay
Many travelers who enjoy nature vacations have scuba-diving experiences at the top of their list. Among the coolest places to visit in Costa Rica there are lots of amazing spots to explore under the water. One of the top picks is Drake Bay. Located in the northern part of the Osa Peninsula of Costa Rica, one of the most remote regions of the country, Bahia Drake, as it’s called in Spanish, was named after Sir Francis Drake. He discovered it in the 16th century, during his voyage around the globe.
Drake Bay, and particularly the nearby Cano Island which sits around 13 miles off the coast, is a wonderland for nature lovers, explorers, and adventurers. Tucked away between beaches, rainforests, and rocky cliffs, the destination is perfect for those looking for a place to get away from the crowds. Going to Drake Bay is definitely what to do in Costa Rica when searching for a quieter place.
One of the best things to do in Costa Rica is visiting Cano Island – photo courtesy of Jason Barnes (flickr)
If diving is one of the best things to do in Costa Rica, then Drake Bay is one of the places to visit in Costa Rica. The area has some of the best diving in the country, because seasonal rains don’t affect visibility like they do in other locations, plus there is also a lack of development.
Cano Island is a protected marine park, with fishing prohibited for three miles around it. The harvesting of marine life and collection of shells is also against the law. As such, the waters are full of coral, fish, and other sea creatures such as reef sharks, sting rays, turtles, and eels, making it one of Costa Rica points of interest for marine life.
I wasn’t there at the right time unfortunately, but I highly recommend arranging a trip to Costa Rica to coincide with the migration seasons for humpback and pilot whales, so that there is a chance to see these creatures passing through (after all admiring wildlife is one of the things to do in Costa Rica).
Another benefit of diving in the untouched Drake Bay area is that there are lots of spectacular archways and tunnels to swim through, and it is not necessary to go deep to see a plethora of memorable sights. Easy to see why this is one of Costa Rica attractions.
Easy to see why Corcovado is one of Costa Rica attractions – photo courtesy of Peter Glenday (flickr)
What makes this area one of the places to visit in Costa Rica is the fact that it is possible to get a good nature fix in other ways. The area is surrounded by numerous national parks (including the well-known Corcovado National Park) and dozens of hiking trails (hiking and visiting national parks are among the coolest things to do in Costa Rica).
There are also miles of quiet coastline and pristine beaches to explore (some of them are among the best beaches in Costa Rica), plus activities like mountain bike riding, swimming, kayaking, snorkeling, and horseback riding. Birdwatchers can find much of interest in this part of the country too. Easy to see why this part of the country is among Costa Rica attractions.
Furthermore, it is possible to take mangrove tours (one of the most fun things to do in Costa Rica), head to the Osa Wildlife Sanctuary, or check out the San Pedrillo or La Llorona Waterfalls. It’s no wonder then that, with all of this to look at, National Geographic sees the Osa peninsula as one of the most “biologically intense” places on Earth.
Ziplining with Sky Adventures in Arenal
I love zip lining. I have tried it in many countries, including Argentina and Cambodia. I know that I will never be able to sprout wings and fly, but the next best thing might just be ziplining above the rainforest tree canopy in Costa Rica. This is definitely one of the most adrenaline filled things to do in Costa Rica.
Among the best zip lining in the country, there is the Sky Trek tour operated by Sky Adventures in Arenal, in the northern part of Costa Rica, which is also home to one of Costa Rica attractions, the Arenal Volcano – a place that can’t be missed even if visiting Costa Rica in a week. I suppose my obsession with volcanoes is clear by now, with all the volcano hikes I did in Sicily last month. So it’s easy to see why I love Costa Rica.
To find out more about my volcano adventures in Sicily, check my post “Why Stromboli Is The Best Volcano Hike.”
Volcano Arenal is one of Costa Rica attractions – photo courtesy of Klaus M (flickr)
Sky Trek’s zipline tour, which is said to be the most thrilling in Costa Rica, starts with an open-air gondola ride that takes visitors up to an observation area. Here it is possible to take in the amazing views, since it is sitting at around 4100 ft. high. Note, too, that this Sky Tram can be taken by itself if one is not keen to do the zipline adventure afterwards. Still, I think ziplining is one of the coolest things to do in Costa Rica.
From the tall viewing platform, zipliners then start riding down on a track that stretches across canyons, sits in between treetops, and heads down mountainsides. There are seven zip lines in total, which can get up to around half a mile long, and the duration of the experience is two and a half hours all together. To me, it is one of the most incredible things to do in Costa Rica.
Apart from checking out the rainforest and surrounding lake and other lands while zipping along, not to mention spotting wildlife, the zipline tour gives a prime view of the Arenal Volcano. (Up until 2010 this volcano was one of the most active in the whole world, but its eruptive cycle has paused and it’s currently in a resting phase.) Arenal Volcano looms large over the hillsides surrounding it, and reaches close to 5,500 feet high.
For those who want to spend more time in the Arenal area – one of the nicest places to visit in Costa Rica – Sky Adventures also operates a Sky Walk. This experience involves walking across a series of suspension bridges and trails, and allows travelers to be introduced to the flora and fauna of the forest canopy in a more relaxed way, and from a fresh perspective.
The walks are led by naturalist guides so it’s easy to learn all about local animal species and native plants while checking out the upper levels of the rainforest canopy, where around 90 percent of forest organisms are located. The trails are generally flat and clear, so are suitable for walkers of many ages and abilities – no wonder this is one of the top things to do in Costa Rica.
But there are more reasons why the Arenal region is one of the top places to visit in Costa Rica. Indeed, elsewhere in the region, it is possible to pay a visit to some of the hot springs that occur because of the geothermal activity beneath the volcano. Many of these springs serve up fantastic, unobstructed views of the sleeping giant too. In addition, Arenal is a good area to go canyoneering, white-water rafting, or hiking.
Easy to see why Carara National Park is one of the places to visit in Costa Rica – photo courtesy of Takashi Muramatsu (flickr)
Birdwatching in Carara National Park
Due to the diverse ecosystems and geography in Costa Rica, the country is home to a wide variety of avian life, including endangered and elusive birds like the scarlet macaw, quetzal, warbling cuckoos, jewel-toned tanagers, and more. It is well known that one of the best things to do in Costa Rica is birdwatching.
One of the top Costa Rica attractions for birdwatching is Carara National Park, approximately 10 miles north of Jaco. Those who visit can easily see it is so high on the list for many birding enthusiasts around the world.
The park, one of the best places to visit in Costa Rica, is a crucial sanctuary for wildlife and serves as a bridge between the Northwest’s dry, tropical forest, and the wet rainforest of the southern Pacific. As such, it supports a wide variety of waterfowl and other species, including woodpeckers, toucans, manakins, jacamars, and hundreds of other birds. Even the scarlet macaw can be found here, with an estimated 450 birds living within the park. This makes it the only area in the north Pacific to be home to a significant population of the endangered bird.
What makes Carara one of Costa Rica attractions is the fact that, covering close to 13,000 acres, apart from so many bird species, it is also home to a diverse array of other wildlife to keep an eye out for. This list includes sloths, monkeys, deer, armadillos, peccaries and even big cats and crocodiles. The park also has various interpretative trails to explore, even for those who are less active. Many tour companies operate tours (including hiking, river boating, and birding excursions) in Carara, so it is easy to find guides to help see this part of Costa Rica in depth.
Visiting beautiful waterfalls such as those of Rio Celeste is one of the nicest things to do in Costa Rica – photo courtesy of John Pieko (flickr)
Admire a Waterfall
I love waterfalls, and admiring a waterfall is what to do in Costa Rica when wanting to really be awed by nature’s splendor and power. There are hundreds of amazing falls around the nation, many of which can be reached via a hike, horseback riding or even rappeling to.
El Chorro Waterfall is one of Costa Rica’s most famous tumbling water attractions, and is just a few miles from Montezuma. While it’s located near Playa Cocolito’s gorgeous white sand beach, which can be a distraction in itself, one should not miss out on watching El Chorro tumble into the Pacific Ocean (it’s one of a select number of waterfalls around the world that drops into the ocean): it definitely is one of the greatest things to do in Costa Rica.
Those who have enough time and are quite fit can hike to the waterfall. Otherwise it is possible to go on horseback. Either way, it’s best to leave early in the morning to fully enjoy what is one of Costa Rica attractions.
Another popular waterfall in the country and one of the top places to visit in Costa Rica is the otherworldly Rio Celeste Waterfall. It’s situated in Tenorio Volcano National Park, in the northern region of Alajuela. The waterfall occurs where the Celeste River spills over a cliff and down into a waiting pool below. The freshwater river is an amazing blue color because of a chemical combination of sulfur and calcium carbonate, and as a result, sometimes the waterfall actually glows blue too as it tumbles down. It is a decent hike to get to the waterfall but well worth it for the stunning sight at the end. Tours of Rio Celeste can be booked online.
One of the nicest things to do in Costa Rica is admiring its wildlife – but strictly in a responsible manner – photo courtesy of NH53 (flickr)
Visit an Animal Sanctuary
With so many amazing creatures being found in Costa Rica, no visit to the nation is complete without some time spent at one or more animal sanctuaries. Visiting an animal sanctuary is one of the things to do in Costa Rica, and the Jaguar Rescue Center, in Puerto Viejo on the Caribbean Coast, is among the best.
While I do not support the use of animals in tourist attractions and will always advocate for responsible tourism, I am all in favor of sanctuaries that rescue ill-treated animals with a view to rehabilitating them. The Jaguar Rescue Centre is one of the places to visit in Costa Rica for that reason. It was created by a biological and herpetologist couple who decided it was time to make a difference after witnessing years of others mistreating and killing native wildlife.
The name is a bit misleading: I don’t thinK anybody ever saw any jaguars there (the center’s name is a dedication to the memory of an abandoned baby jaguar whose mother was murdered by farmers). Yet, the sanctuary does have wildcats, anteaters, owls, marsupials, sloths, monkeys, deer, parrots, toucans, snakes, and frogs, which make it worth supporting, a visiting is one of the nicest things to do in Costa Rica.
Have you ever been to Costa Rica? What did you like the most about it?
This article was written in partnership with Anywhere.com
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Travelling to Costa Rica without seeing Tortuguero would mean leaving out one of the best things to do in Costa Rica. The name of the place is a direct reference to the turtles nesting here in July and August, when the area is at its best and when everything is fully booked. Nevertheless, it is one of the interesting places to visit in Costa Rica during other seasons too, because of its nature and wildlife. Yet, as this is one of the wealthiest (and most expensive) countries in Central America, the costs of visiting the region and taking part in an organised tour may be a deterrent to many travellers on a budget. Worry no more: with a few, simple rules, you may be able to enjoy Tortuguero without spending a fortune. Here is a list of what you should and should not do.
It wouldn’t be Tortuguero without turtles
Do go in July or August if you care to see the turtles.
Do travel by public transport: the village is completely isolated and can only be reached by boat, via Cariari (the most common way) or Moin (less common and more expensive, but the scenery is beautiful). There are regular buses connecting San Jose Gran Terminal de Caribe to Cariari. The trip takes about 3 hours. Once in Cariari, you can get a Clic Clic or Coopetraca bus to the dock, and then a boat (bus + boat should cost around 5$).
Do travel during the day: the boat trip to reach the village is possibly among the best (and cheapest) Costa Rica attractions. Lush nature, crocodiles, sloths, monkeys, various species of birds. Keep your eyes open and camera ready, because this is your “free” visit to Tortuguero national park and chances are you will get to see more animals here than on any of the tours.
Do withdraw cash before getting to the village: there are no cars and no banks, and few places accept credit cards.
Do appreciate the simplicity of Tortuguero: one main dirt road; the side streets all connect to the beach.
Do enjoy the artesania shops on the main street.
Do be prepared for the weather: this is the rain forest. It rains year round. On any regular day there will be short but strong showers.
Do encounter the locals: the 2000 inhabitants are mostly of Jamaican descent, speaking a funny variety of Creole English mixed with Spanish lovely to listen to. They are very friendly and relaxed (too relaxed at times).
A beautiful sunset in Tortuguero
Do remember that this is a tourist destination: the village lives off tourism, so there is a lot of competition among local businesses.
Do go the information centre: once in Tortuguero, it is right on the dock. This is the best place to ask for organised tours of the park.
Do keep in mind that there are many agencies in the village that attract tourists by offering “free” information. This is just a way to attract paying customers.
Do be aware that, should you opt for a guided tour, there are day or night ones, kayak or boat tours. For extra adventure, there are canopy tours (zip lines). Should you opt for a walking tour with a guide, this will cost 20$ per person, including the entrance fee. A good guide can point out animals and plants, but you won’t necessarily get to see all (or any!). Some animals are night creatures – the jaguar, of which the guide can point footprints, has been spotted 4 times in the last few years – or the various species of frogs that live in the park (which by the way can also be spotted in the village).
Do realise that sloths and monkeys live high up in the trees and with that thick vegetation they are hard to see. Snakes hide so well that sometimes not even guides can recognise them.
Do remember that the park can be seen independently, without a guide but just paying the entrance fee (10$): the best and even the most reasonable option if you are travelling to Costa Rica on a budget.
Do make sure to rent wellies, as the paths are extremely muddy and they will protect you should you have an unfortunate encounter with a snake.
Do carry insect repellent or mosquitoes will feast on you.
Do go for a walk at the beach: it is a pleasant way to cool off in the late afternoon and this is one of the best beaches in Costa Rica.
The beach in Tortuguero – nobody swims. It is too dangerous!
Do not make hostels reservations: the village offers many options, for almost any budget. The average price for a double room with a private bathroom is 15$ per person, but if you take your time to walk around you will be able to find something for 9$ per person. Be a real backpacker and sweat under the sun (or the rain) to get a cheap hostel.
Do not eat at trendy restaurants: they are expensive (think 20$ for a pizza). Instead, eat at the sodas: they are basic eateries that tend to close earlier than most restaurants.
Do not miss local specialties such as seafood and the local version of “gallo pinto” – rice and beans – a national staple and accompaniment to any meal, here made with coconut milk/oil.
Do not forget to try some freshly made juice and fruits which are abundant and delicious in the area.
Do not swim in the sea: swimming is not recommended due to the presence of sharks and strong currents.
For more of Costa Rica attractions, or for more of the best things to do in Costa Rica, do check my other posts here.
There are many places to visit in Costa Rica, but a trip to this amazing country would not be complete without a visit to Tortuguero. The name of the place is a direct reference to the turtles, which nest in the area between July and August. That’s when the park is at its best, and when the village is fully booked. Nevertheless, it is one of the best places to visit in Costa Rica year round and it is possible to travel cheap if following my advice.
Costa Rica attractions: Tortuguero National Park
Reaching Tortuguero is in and of itself one of the top Costa Rica attractions. The village is completely isolated and can only be reached by boat, via Cariari (which is the most common way) or Moin. There are regular buses connecting San Jose and Cariari. All leave from the Gran Terminal de Caribe, and the trip takes roughly 3 hours. Once in Cariari, go to the estaciòn vieja, where most travellers get a Clic Clic or Coopetraca bus to the dock, and then a boat. A combination of bus and boat should cost around 5$.
The boat trip to reach the village is possibly the best (and cheapest) attraction: imagine lush nature, crocodiles, sloths, monkeys, various species of birds… My recommendation would then be to leave as early as possible from San Jose, in order to catch the boat well early in the day and have full view of the surroundings. Keep the eyes open and camera ready, because this is a “free” visit to the national park and it is possible to see more animals here than on any of the Tortuguero tours.
A gorgeous cayman in Tortuguero
The village is far off from pretty much anything, there are no cars and no banks in the village, and not many shops will accept credit cards. So, make sure to withdraw cash before getting there. There is one main dirt road and various side streets, all connecting to the beach, which is one of the best beaches in Costa Rica. The main road is home to a number of artesania shops. Tortuguero is surrounded by luxurious nature – think palm trees along the coast, rain forest and thick vegetation, and wildlife is rich. The fact that it is right in the rain forest means that it rains year round. Almost any unbearably hot, humid day will have some downpours.
The 2000 inhabitants are mostly of Jamaican descent, and speak a funny variety of Creole English, mixed with Spanish, that is really lovely to listen to. They are very friendly and relaxed (too relaxed at times, as seen in certain local businesses), but keep in mind that this is a tourist destination, that the village lives off tourism, so the locals will often engage in an open battle with other villagers to offer their services to tourists.
It wouldn’t be Tortuguero without turtles
Costa Rica attractions:
Once in Tortuguero, right on the dock there is the main information office and tourist agency, where it is possible to ask for organised tours of the park. Visiting Tortuguero National Park is one of the best things to do in Costa Rica. Keep in mind that there are many agencies in the village that attract tourists by offering “free” information, as signs hanging outside would say. This is just a way to attract paying customers. There are day or night tours, kayak or boat tours. For extra adventure, there are canopy tours (zip lines).
By all means, the park can be seen independently, without a guide but just paying the entrance fee (10$), which is the best and even the most reasonable option for those travelling to Costa Rica on a budget. Whichever mode one picks to visit the park, make sure to rent rain boots, as the paths are extremely muddy and boots protect in case to be unfortunate enough to be bitten by a snake. Also bring insect repellent. Needless to say, in such humid weather, mosquitoes will attempt to feast on any living creature.
A walking tour of the park with a guide costs around 20$ per person, including the entrance fee. A guide can point out animals and plants, but remember that this doesn’t necessarily mean seeing all (or any!) of them. Some are night creatures – so is the jaguar (of which the guide can point footprints, at most, and which has been spotted 4 times in the last few years) or the various species of frogs that live in the park (which by the way can also be spotted in the village by an expert eye). Sloths and monkeys live high up in the trees and with that thick vegetation they are hard to spot. Snakes hide in the vegetation and sometimes not even guides can recognise them.
The beach can be a pleasant place to cool off in the evening, but keep in mind that it is highly recommended NOT to swim in the sea, although it is considered one of the best beaches in Costa Rica. Shark attacks have been reported and the currents are very strong.
The beach in Tortuguero – nobody swims. It is too dangerous!
Where to stay and where to eat:
The village offers many options to sleep and eat, for almost any budget. The average price for a double room with a private bathroom is 15$ per person, but take some time to walk around the village to be able to find similar options for as little as 9$ per person. Arriving early is a good way to have sufficient daylight time to walk around and the cheapest accommodation. The most convenient places to eat are called “sodas”, basic eateries that tend to close quite earlier than most restaurants. Local specialties include seafood. Try the local “gallo pinto” – rice and beans – a national staple and accompaniment to any meal, that in Tortuguero is made with coconut milk/oil. Freshly made juices and fruit are abundant and delicious.
For more information on places to visit in Costa Rica, click here!
A beautiful sunset in Tortuguero
Puerto Viejo is the perfect place to be a beach bum or to practice one’s surfing abilities in the pristine Caribbean waters of Costa Rica. It has some of the best beaches in Costa Rica. The lush nature around town, its dusty streets, artesania shops, good bars and seafood restaurants and its relaxed rastafarian community (be prepared to listen to reggae music all day long, see the typical colours of rastafarians all around town and being served by a waitress who will laughingly admit to having smoked marjiuana) make this place charming and therefore one of Costa Rica attractions. The good news is that there are plenty of cheap accommodation, eating options and activities not to blow anyone’s travel budget.
Waves and wildlife are among Costa Rica attractions
Things to do in Costa Rica:
Surf and snorkel
Salsa Brava is thought to have the best waves of the country and is among the best beaches of Costa Rica for surfing. The coral reef almost emerges from the waters, so make sure to catch that wave unless willing to crash on the reef: in other words, it is only good for experts. Playa Cocles, about 2 km east of Puerto Viejo, has great but less dangerous waves, usually in the first hours of day. To catch the best ones, go between December and March. Not a surfer but willing to give it a try? Enroll in one of the surf camps.
Playa Negra is a great beach for swimming and body board. Snorkelling is best enjoyed in the areas between Cahuita and Manzanillo – for better visibility go when there are no waves. For scuba diving, there are over 20 good sites in the area where it is possible admire various species of fish. For information, the best option is Reef Runner Divers – it is even possible dive with a temporary permission for those who do not have a patent.
Sand, coral reef and forest in one of the best beaches in Costa Rica
Hike and bike
Puerto Viejo is a great starting point for other things to do in Costa Rica, such as a hike in the rain forest, kayaking, walking. And then go back to town to enjoy a delicious rondon soup (a traditional fish soup with vegetables and spices typical of the area). There are organised tours of the parks, but it is easy to hike around (and for free) independently in the Parque Nacional Cahuita and in the Refugio Nacional de Vida Silvestre Gandoca-Manzanillo where toucans and sloths can be spotted. South-east of town the jungle meets the sea, contoured by palm trees and inhabited by toucans, sloths and monkeys: it all gives this a special aura. Carry lunch and plenty of water.
For those who want to be extra lazy, the best option is to just walk around, browse the artesania shops, enjoy the relaxed atmosphere and mingle with the local artists.
Biking around? One of the many things to do in Costa Rica
Where to stay and eat:
Backpackers looking for cheap accommodation in Puerto Viejo will find Hostel Pagalù a great quality option: comfortable beds (dorms are 12 US dollars), rooms and bathrooms are spotless, there is a cozy common area with books, wifi and computers, a well equipped kitchen to prepare meals. No reservations are accepted but those lucky enough to find a bed, will never be kicked out unless they decide to leave!
There are good supermarkets to buy and prepare meals. Those too lazy to cook who would rather eat out shoudl go to Soda Mirna, in the main street, as it is the best budget option with its set meals and large portions. Bread and Chocolate is perfect for a very filling breakfast, and everything is organic and prepared from scratch, not to mention delicious.
Various bars have live music at night.
Getting to Puerto Viejo and away:
It is possible to get here by catching a bus from the Gran Terminal de Caribe in San Jose. From Tortuguero, catch a bus from Cariari to Guapiles and then hop on another bus to Puerto Viejo.
To reach Panama get a direct bus to Sixaola (they leave several times a day) and then cross the border in Guabito.
For more things to do in Costa Rica click here.