There are many fabulous things to do in Costa Rica. This is a country packed with natural beauty, where travelers are guaranteed a lot of adventure, fabulous beaches, and lots of wildlife. What some don’t realize, though, is that the culture and food of Costa Rica are also worth knowing, and so are the lovely local people.
The country of Pura Vida offers an incredible selection of outdoor activities and you should make sure to add them to your itinerary for when you finally decide to visit. This post is a selection of all the things you should do in the country – but mind you, there are many more!
38 Things To Do In Costa Rica That Can’t Be Missed
Go hiking in Corcovado National Park
With so much nature and so many volcanoes, hiking is a must when in Costa Rica. There are many places to do that, but one of the best is Corcovado National Park. Hard to reach and expensive to visit, once there you will definitely think that this natural park is worth the effort.
Located in the Osa Peninsula, on the Pacific coast, this is one of the most diverse places on earth in terms of flora and fauna, and a paradise for anyone who loves hiking and wildlife.
Many people go on day hikes in Corcovado, but to fully enjoy the local nature and wildlife opt for a long distance hike.
If you intend to hike around Corcovado (or anywhere in Costa Rica, really) make sure to wear the appropriate gear. Things to keep in mind when setting to hike are the high humidity levels, and the bugs that will feast on you unless you wear long sleeves and pants, and apply bug repellent. I suggest reading my post on what to pack for the jungle to have an idea of what to wear and pack for an adventure trip to Corcovado.
The entrance fee to Corcovado National Park is $15 USD. Permits are required and limited so as to keep the number of visitors down. You may want to book in advance.
Visit Manuel Antonio National Park
This is one of the most popular national parks in Costa Rica, and for a good reason. It’s a bit more accessible than Corcovado and there is a great amount of wildlife, beaches and viewpoints. It may get crowded, but if you are smart enough you will manage to avoid the crowds as the park is actually huge.
Hike to Punta Cathedral for stunning views!
Manuel Antonio National Park admission fee is $18. You can get tickets directly at the park. You can book a guided tour of Manuel Antonio here or here. For a tour that is more focussed on wildlife, click here.
Go kayaking in Tortuguero National Park
One of the nicest places to visit in Costa Rica is Tortuguero National Park, which is famous for turtle nesting. Both the park and Tortuguero village can only be accessed via boat – getting there is an incredible ride but it requires a bit of planning.
Once in Tortuguero, going on a boat tour is a great way to explore the area. If you are up for the workout, you may want to go kayaking to explore the area – it’s one of the nicest things to do in Costa Rica, especially in Tortuguero.
There is an admission fee of $15 to visit the park. You can go around independently but a guide may be able to point at all the local wildlife. For a guided tour of Tortuguero National Park click here. For a canoe tour, click here.
Check out my post A Complete Guide To Tortuguero, Costa Rica.
Pay a night visit to the National Parks
For more wildlife, consider going on a guided night tour. Most animals are night creatures, and go out of their nests after sunset. This is a great time to spot frogs, snakes and – for the lucky ones – even jaguars. Night walks are offered in Tortuguero Natioanal Park, in Arenal, in Osa Peninsula, in Manuel Antonio and in Corcovado. Needless to say, you will need a guide for this – first so that you don’t get lost, and secondly because unless you are an expert, you’ll need someone pointing the animals to you, and following their tracks.
For a guided night walk of Tortuguero, click here.
For a guided night walk in Manuel Antonio, click here.
For a night walk in Corcovado, click here.
Visit Marino Ballena National Park
One of the coolest places to visit in Costa Rica is Marino Ballena National Park – a great place to admire whales! But there’s more. There is a section in the park where two beaches are joined together in what from above and during low tide looks like a whale tail. The name obviously also refers to the fact that this is one of the best places in the country to spot whales.
The admission fee for this park is $12.
Visit Drake Bay
Located in the northern part of the Osa Peninsula of Costa Rica (the same area where Corcovado is), this is 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 trip around the globe.
Drake Bay, and particularly the nearby Caño Island which sits around 13 miles off the coast, is wonderland for nature lovers, explorers, and adventurers. Tucked away between beaches, rainforests, and rocky cliffs, the destination is perfect if you are looking for a place to get away from the crowds.
The area is surrounded by numerous national parks (including the well-known already mentioned Corcovado National Park) and there are dozens of hiking trails. 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.
Go on a mangrove tour
The best mangrove tours in Costa Rica are in the Osa Wildlife Sanctuary, seen by National Geographic as one of the most “biologically intense” places on Earth. Alternatively, check out the San Pedrillo or La Llorona Waterfalls.
Costa Rica is a great diving destination.
Drake Bay 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. Another benefit of diving in this untouched area is that there are lots of spectacular archways and tunnels to swim through, and it is not necessary to go deep to see marine life.
Caño 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.
Other places to go diving in Costa Rica are Tortuga Islands for shipwrecks; Cocos Islands for hammerhead sharks; Manuel Antonio for ease of access and dives accessible for all levels of expertise; Catalina Islands for cave diving.
For best visibility, have a go at diving in June or September.
Go humpback whale watching
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.
The good news is that the humpback whale watching season in Costa Rica is really long (the best months are January, February, July, August and September), so if you plan your trip carefully you’ll have great chances to see them. Other than Drake Bay, Marino Ballena and the Osa Peninsula, places to see whales in Costa Rica are Uvita and the Gulf of Papagayo.
Whale watching tours in Costa Rica are in the range of $100 USD.
Spend a day at the beach
Costa Rica is packed with gorgeous beaches, many so close to each other that you can move from one beach to the other on the same day, either on foot or by boat. There are beaches for any taste and needs. All beaches are public – so extremely budget friendly, and in most of them you will be able to find some sort of equipment for an even better day. The most popular ones are Dominical, not far from Uvita; and Tamarindo, which is a surfers’ hub.
Getting a massage on the beach is a quite common thing to do – you can get it in the area of Manuel Antonio or Conchal for around $35 USD for a one hour session.
Another thing to do while at the beach is enjoying a pipa fria – a fresh coconut. You won’t have a hard time finding someone that sells coconuts and cuts them for you!
If you drink coconut, it’ll be impossible to avoid using a plastic straw. Don’t throw it at the beach! Make sure to take it home and dispose of it properly.
Enjoy the privacy of Caribbean beaches
You’d imagine otherwise, but in Costa Rica it is the Pacific Coast beaches that get more crowded – I guess it’s because they are easier to access and get perfect waves. If you want a bit more of a private experience, head to the Caribbean Coast, where beaches such as Manzanillo (not far from Puerto Viejo) and Uva (a large beach also close to Puerto Viejo) will be perfect for a relaxing day.
Learn how to surf
Surfing is one of the most popular things to do in Costa Rica – this country gets some of the best waves in the world! My friends that regularly go surfing in Sardinia will tell you that nothing beats the waves of Pavones, Playa Tamarindo, Playa Negra and Playa Hermosa. If you are keen to learn have plenty of choice for surf camps. You can even book a surf holiday.
If surfing is not your thing, but you still like being in the water, try stand up paddle boarding. It’s quite the thing in Costa Rica lately. Many people sign up for classes, but if you are just in for the fun of it, you can rent the board and go on your own. It’s a nice way to get a good work out (it’s much harder than it looks) and explore the coast, the rivers and the lakes of Costa Rica. Most hotels and beaches rent out boards. It’s also possible to rent boards or sign up for classes online.
Book your SUP lesson in Manuel Antonio here.
Go on a boat tour in the Gulf of Nicoya
Boat tours are popular in Costa Rica. This is the best way to admire the beaches and the islands of the Pacific Coast. I recommend opting for a private tour as opposed to a public boat, as these may only take you to specific places, whereas a private tour will follow your requests and stop wherever you like, for however long you want.
For a more romantic experience, opt for a sunset boat or sailing cruise. You can do this in many places in the country. The most popular places for a sunset cruise are on the Pacific Coast, for obvious reasons: Playa Tamarindo, Playa Flamingo and Playas del Coco are all excellent places for that.
One of the nicest places for a cruise is La Tortuga island, in the Gulf of Nicoya. If you don’t have your own boat, you can join a guided tour departing from either San Jose or Jaco.
Try ziplining in Arenal
Among the best ziplines 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 Arenal Volcano – a place that can’t be missed even if visiting Costa Rica in a week.
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 you 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 you are not keen to do the zipline adventure afterwards.
From the tall viewing platform, you will 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. It’s definitely one of the most fun things to do in Costa Rica.
Another good place to try ziplining is Monteverde.
Sky walk in Arenal
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.
If you want to spend more time in the Arenal area, Sky Adventures also operates a Sky Walk. This experience involves walking across a series of suspension bridges and trails, and allows you 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 all ages and abilities – no wonder this is one of the top things to do in Costa Rica.
These are some of the best tours of Arenal that include activities such as hiking, ziplining and hanging bridges:
- Arenal Volcano, La Fortuna waterfall and hot springs tour
- Arenal National Park hanging bridges tour
- Arenal volcano canopy zipline tour
- Chato and Arenal volcanoes extreme hiking tour
- Arenal volcano raft and canopy tour adventure
- San Jose to Arenal full day tour
Enjoy the hot springs
There are more reasons to visit Arenal, one of them being the hot springs. These occur because of the geothermal activity beneath the volcano. Many of these springs serve up fantastic, unobstructed views of the sleeping giant too.
Among the places to bathe and enjoy the thermal waters there are Tabacon, Baldi, Tikoku, Paraiso and Ecotermales.
You can book your tour of Arenal and La Fortuna including a stop at the hot springs here.
Visit more volcanoes
Arenal obviously isn’t the only volcano in Costa Rica. If you are looking for something a bit closer to San Jose, you may want to plan a visit to Irazu Volcano, which is only a half hour out of town. You can drive pretty much all the way to the top. The flip side of the coin is that it can get quite crowded.
To book your guided tour of Irazu Volcano from San Jose, click here.
Canyoning – that is, going down waterfalls on a rappel – is at its best in Costa Rica. This literally is a once in a lifetime adventure, and a great way to appreciate all the incredible nature Costa Rica has to offer. The best places to visit in Costa Rica for canyoning are La Fortuna and Arenal, but this activity is now offered in Jaco too.
Go whitewater rafting
Few things are as fun as whitewater rafting. I have done it in many places – the last time was in Nepal. There are several places to go rafting in Costa Rica. Arenal is obviously a popular option for that, but the best one is Rio Pacuare, where there are class 3 and 4 rapids.
While many companies now offer one-day rafting tours, you should consider going on a multi-day rafting expedition. You can book your rafting expedition here.
Take a tram across the Rainforest
If hiking is not your thing or you just don’t feel like it for whatever reason, a tram will allow you to get through the jungle and admire lots of wildlife, including birds and monkeys. Make sure to also have a guide, whose trained eyes will point to all there is to see!
You can book your aerial tram in Jaco here.
Walk the suspended bridges of Monteverde
To better appreciate nature and wildlife, walk the hanging bridges of Monteverde, where you can admire the fantastic cloud forest.
You can book your hanging bridges of Monteverde tour here.
Go on a road trip around the Central Valley
Most people who visit Costa Rica head straight to the coast – either the Pacific or the Caribbean. Yet, one of the nicest things to do in Costa Rica is exploring the Central Valley. I recommend doing it on a road trip – so pick up a car from San Jose and head out! There are many nice places to visit, most of them completely off the beaten path. I truly enjoyed Sarchi – where I must have been the only tourist the locals had seen in a while, and Tucurrique.
Admire local wildlife
If you love spotting animals in their natural environment, you will be in for a treat. Many beautiful species can be seen in various regions. First and foremost, Costa Rica is famous for its sloths. These can be seen in Tortuguero, but I was lucky enough to see them as I walked around in the proximity of Puerto Viejo.
Sloths are also found in Manuel Antonio National Park, which is also great for monkeys. Crocodiles can be seen in Tortuguero, but the best place for them is Rio Tarcoles.
Finally, Costa Rica is a great place for seeing turtles – nesting and hatching. The best place to see them is Tortuguero National Park. Another good place to admire turtles in their natural environment is Ostional Wildlife Refuge, which is a place known for the mass arrival of Olive Ridley sea turtles.
The best time to see turtles is between July and December.
Regardless of the place, make sure that watching the turtles has no impact on them. Things such as intense light and touching are extremely bad for these animals – if you opt for a guided tour to see turtles, make sure this is 100% responsible!
Birdwatching in Carara National Park
It is well known that one of the best things to do in Costa Rica is birdwatching. 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.
One of the best places for birdwatching is Carara National Park, approximately 10 miles north of Jaco. The park 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.
Carara extends for close to 13,000 acres and 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. You can book yours here.
There are hundreds of amazing falls around the country, many of which can be reached via a hike or horseback riding.
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, don’t 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.
If you have enough time and are quite fit can hike to the waterfall. Otherwise you can go on horseback. Either way, it’s best to leave early in the morning to make the most of it.
Another popular waterfall 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.
Finally, Nauyaca waterfall, which can be reached from Dominical, is another amazing sight. You can get there via a 45 minutes walk – or alternatively get a horse (but walking is much cheaper!). You can swim under the waterfall, which will come as a welcome break on a hot day.
You can also do a tour of Poas Volcano which includes La Paz waterfall, or visit Del Toro waterfall on your way from San Jose to La Fortuna.
Visit the Caves of Barra Honda National Park
Costa Rica has some fantastic caves in Barra Honda National Park, in the Nicoya Peninsula. You will need a local guide to explore them, but this is definitely one of the most unique things to do in Costa Rica.
Go Horseback Riding
One of the nicest things to do in Costa Rica to get closer to nature is going horseback riding, and it can be pretty much done anywhere in the country. You can easily rent a horse from any of the local farms in the area where you are staying.
Visit a coffee plantation
To be fair, Costa Rica isn’t the most famous country for coffee. Yet, if you are a coffee fan as much as I am, one of the coolest things to do in Costa Rica is a tour of a coffee plantation. You will basically learn all the secrets of growing coffee, picking it and then toasting the beans and grounding it. And needless to say, you can taste a cup of freshly brewed one and even buy some of it to make it at home.
Coffee plantation tours are offered in various areas in Costa Rica. I did mine in Turrialba, in the central highlands, but another good place to do it is Heredia. Coffee tours are best done between October and March. you can book your coffee plantation tour here.
Do a chocolate tour
Wherever there is coffee, more often than not there also is chocolate. Cacao is a plant that grows well in tropical climates and you will find it in Costa Rica too. So you definitely need to go on a chocolate tour! The best chocolate tours are in the area of Puerto Viejo and in La Fortuna.
Hang out in Puerto Viejo
Puerto Viejo is one of the must-see of Costa Rica. This small, laidback town on the Caribbean Coast is a great place to hang out thanks to the many beautiful beaches and small coves, and surfing and diving opportunities (though surfing is not nearly as exciting as it is on the Pacific Coast). You will be able to access chocolate plantations, visit nature reserves and animal rescue centers, and just enjoy a relaxed life – it’s Pura Vida!
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. 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 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 killed by farmers). Yet, the sanctuary does have wildcats, anteaters, owls, marsupials, sloths, monkeys, deer, parrots, toucans, snakes, and frogs, which make it worth supporting, and visiting is one of the nicest things to do in Costa Rica.
Visit San Jose
Most will tell you that San Jose isn’t worth visiting, and in all honesty this is not going to be the most beautiful place you ever visit, and definitely not the best one in Costa Rica. But if you are landing in the afternoon or evening, you may as well spend a night there and explore for a few hours before heading to your next destination.
Just make sure you head to the center of town to walk around the parks, visit the main musuems, the market and get a feel for the local vibe.
Make sure to read my post 16 Actually Cool Things To Do In San Jose Costa Rica.
Get a taste of local food
Who said food in Costa Rica is boring? Here are a few basic things to know about local food.
You can expect to have gallo pinto for about each and every meal. Casado – a large plate with a selection of beef, pork, chicken or even fish, accompanied by rice, beans, a small salad – is the most complete meal you can get. The best place to eat a casado is a soda – it’s a local eatery that is also very budget friendly.
On the Caribbean Coast, the use of coconut oil or coconut milk in the cooking is more common and food is in general more flavorful. If you are on this side of the country, make sure to try rice and beans – you’d think it’s the same thing as gallo pinto, but it actually has coconut milk in it so it’s more flavorful. Make sure to try rondon, a soup with all sorts of fish and seafood, beautifully spicy and just delicious.
If you want to sample something very local, try chifrio. Served in a bowl you will have a mix of pico de gallo, rice, beans and chicharrones (pork scratchings. It’s served with tortilla chips. Best tried with a beer!
Discover the indigenous cultures of Costa Rica
Since I focused most of my research on the rights of minorities and indigenous peoples during my PhD, I find that learning about the indigenous peoples that still live in Costa Rica is a must-do.
Despite the arrival of many tourists from North America and Europe, there still are some groups that have managed to retain their culture. The BriBri, an indigenous group that lives on the Caribbean Coast, can be visited on interactive experiences where you will learn about their traditional way of life and activities – they make their own chocolate!
Make sure that you plan your visit carefully and with a really responsible local operator so that the experience is as insightful for you as it it is for the indigenous community. The whole point should be to learn about them in a way that helps them to preserve their identity without turning the experience into a circus.
Costa Rica is a great place to practice your Spanish. Keep in mind that with so many tourists from North America and Europe, you will find many locals that speak English. Those who don’t will really go above and beyond to communicate with you, so make at least a small effort to try some words and use them. I promise you that will go a long way!
Check out my post 20 Useful Tips For Learning A New Language.
Make friends with locals
Speaking of locals, they are so friendly that you really should never miss an opportunity of befriending them. I have had several really pleasant encounters, especially when I went off the beaten path where tourists aren’t a common sight. Locals will always want to know about you, what you do and where you are from, and they will be happy to share a few words (and at times more) about their lives. I still remember a nice chat I had with a local girl in Sarchi!
Go to a local party
Fiestas Civicas (local parties) are usually organized whenever there is a national holiday in Costa Rica, and since there are 9, you are bound to be able to experience one during your visit. This is the equivalent of a village festival and you will see that this is a really cool way to learn a bit more about the local culture and way of life. You can expect games, lots of food (and just as much beer), and for some obscure reason (I never understood why, at least!) bull riding is also a very popular thing to do during these celebrations.
Guided Tours Of Costa Rica
Want to go to Costa Rica but have no idea where to start planning? Leave it to the experts! These are some fantastic guided tours to Costa Rica:
- Costa Rica Adventure – a 16 days G Adventures tours that will reward you with some incredible experiences;
- Costa Rica Active Adventure – a 14 days G Adventures tour perfect for adrenaline seekers;
- Costa Rica Family Journey – a 9 days G Adventures trip perfect if you are traveling with kids.
Have you ever been to Costa Rica? What are the things to do in Costa Rica that you enjoyed the most?