Roughly the size of the state of West Virginia or the European country of Denmark, Costa Rica appears small on the map but in reality, it’s big on adventure, ecotourism, and "pura vida" (pure life).
True to its name meaning “rich coast,” this Central American country offers a wealth of adventure, cultural, culinary, and wellness options including rainforest hikes, wildlife, year-round waves, white and black sand beaches, eco-lodges, picture-perfect volcanos, and locally grown chocolate, coffee, and other tropical treats.
Roads can be a bit precarious, making drives longer than they might appear, so choose wisely when planning your trip, and be sure to include extra time for travel. Here are the top 10 destinations to get you started.
The Central Valley
Located at the heart of the country and home to Costa Rica’s main international airport, four volcanoes, and nearly 75 percent of its residents, the Central Valley is a great place to start your trip. Start your exploration in the capital city of San José with a stroll along Avenida Central. Pop into museums, shops, parks, eateries, and markets, including the Mercado Central (Central Market) where you can sample "comida típica" (typical local food). Take a hike to Barva Volcano or spend time marveling at Poas Volcano—20 minutes to be exact. Poas is an active volcano so visits are by reservation only and limited to 20-minute slots. The Central Valley produces some of the best coffee in Costa Rica, and you can get the full bean-to-brew experience with a guided coffee tour and “cupping” at Finca Rosa Blanca coffee plantation resort.
Time Commitment: Two days will do if you’d like to combine some city exploration with coffee-sipping and volcano viewing.
Costa Rica is known for its rich biodiversity, lush rainforests, and outdoor adventures. You’ll find all of that in Sarapiquí. With Chilamate Rainforest Eco-Retreat, a family-run eco-lodge located in a nature reserve near the Sarapiquí River, as your home base, you can wake to the call of howler monkeys, birdwatch from the breakfast table (macaws and toucans frequently fly by here), raft the rapids, take a chocolate tour, or even learn to dance salsa and cook Costa Rican cuisine from a local. In the evening, trek into the forest with a naturalist guide to spot nocturnal creatures like the iconic red-eyed tree frog. If you’re coming from Juan Santamaría International Airport in San José, make a stop at Mi Cafecito for a local coffee experience en route.
Time commitment: At least two to three days to relax into the "pura vida" pace and take advantage of all of the outdoor adventures available here.
If you didn’t soak in the hot springs near Arenal Volcano, did you even come to Costa Rica? The Arenal area attracts a large number of visitors for good reason: in addition to healing thermal hot springs and views of the perfectly conical volcano, options for hiking, adventure, and wellness are endless. Soar through the treetops along a zipline and rappel down waterfalls in the Lost Canyon. Search for wildlife, including sloths and snakes, on a guided tour across the hanging bridges. Stay at Rancho Margot sustainable farm for a chance to connect with the land, take a tortilla-making class, and get to know local chef Doña Maria in her own kitchen (can be arranged through GreenSpot Travel), or take some time to tune into your inner world with a yoga and meditation retreat at Living Forest on Lake Arenal.
Time commitment: Two to three days to soak in the magical energy and activities of this special place.
The Caribbean Coast
While the white sand beaches of the Pacific side get a great deal of attention, Costa Rica’s Caribbean coast has an appeal of its own. You’ll hear and taste the Caribbean influence in the distinct accent and cuisine (ceviche and coconut rice and beans are a must!). Sunbathe on Playa Negra’s black sand beach, surf Salsa Brava (for experienced and fearless surfers only), and snorkel in the sea near Punta Uva or Cahuita National Park. Time your trip right for a chance to observe sea turtles laying eggs or hatching from them in Tortuguero.
Time commitment: It’s quite a trek to reach the Caribbean coast, so it’s worth at least a three- to four-day stay.
Keep an eye and ear to the sky while wandering the Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve, a birdwatching "paraíso" (paradise). The colorful Quetzal and the Three-Wattled Bellbird are among the 400 species of birds you might see and hear. For a truly Tico experience, arrange a homestay or farm visit with a local family, or learn about Costa Rican culture and crafts through a hands-on workshop led by a local artisan at San Luis Monteverde (contact local experts at Find My Costa Rica to book). Join a guided trek through the Children’s Eternal Rainforest (the country’s largest private reserve) by day, and then take a walk on the dark side in the University of Georgia forests by night.
Time commitment: The road to Monteverde can be bumpy, so plan at least two to three days to enjoy the area after the long journey.
Why choose between lush jungle and sandy beach when you can have both? The forest meets the sea at Manuel Antonio, Costa Rica’s most well-known national park, located on the Pacific coast. If you visit here, you’re likely to also meet a mischievous monkey. Trek the trail to Playa Manuel Antonio for postcard-perfect views or take a dip at Playa Biesanz, recommended by locals as a swim spot. (While Manuel Antonio offers iconic views, not all of the region’s beaches are safe for swimming.) For a more exclusive experience, Arenas del Mar, Manuel Antonio’s only beachside eco-luxury resort, is ideal for honeymooners, families, and those with an appetite for eco-tourism served up with a side of creature comforts and sustainably sourced foods.
Time commitment: Two to three days to take in the sights and soak up some sun.
The Blue Zone
Those looking to live well and live long should head for Costa Rica’s Blue Zone on the Nicoya peninsula. “Blue Zones” are designated areas of the world where residents regularly live past the age of 100. Here in the Nicoya peninsula, you’ll find a focus on health and wellness, which means plenty of organic and mindfully sourced eats, yoga, and meditation retreats, and the natural environment of sun, sea, and surf that’s conducive to healthy living. A stay at The Harmony Hotel at Playa Guiones or Latitude 10 Beach House Resort in Santa Teresa provides all of the above and then some: year-round waves for surfing, rejuvenating dining, and culinary experiences (try the ceviche or patacone-making class), and onsite yoga and wellness activities all in a relaxing natural setting.
Time commitment: You’ll want at least three days to rest and recharge, though you may want to simply stay put here and settle into the laid-back life even longer.
If you’re searching for handcrafted souvenirs and a peek into Costa Rica's past, put Sarchí on your itinerary. This artisan town in the province of Alajuela is home to the Joaquin Chaverri Oxcart Factory, one of the oldest "carreta" (oxcart) factories in Costa Rica. Hand-painted oxcarts were traditionally used to transport coffee over the mountains and are still used today in parades and religious ceremonies. The Guinness Book of World Records “World’s Largest Oxcart” is on display in Sarchí’s Central Park, and you’ll find artisan markets and family-run leather and woodworking shops around town as well as the “wedding cake” church, a pink and blue-colored Catholic church with artisan carvings and vaulted ceilings.
Time commitment: Make a day trip from San José, or combine your visit with a stay up at Villa Blanca Cloud Forest Hotel and Nature Reserve. Alternatively, you can add a stop in Sarchí to your drive to Arenal.
Punta Islita is the kind of place you will want to spend your whole vacation, and the eco-luxury resort at the center of it makes that possible. Take a guided hike to scout wildlife, or better yet, take in the views while horseback riding through the countryside and along the beach. Hotel Punta Islita also offers art sessions, cooking lessons, and ziplining. But perhaps one of the most memorable experiences is a visit to the Lapa Lookout to learn about and observe the scarlet macaw recovery and release. Punta Islita’s location on the Nicoya Peninsula also makes it an excellent base for exploring other nearby attractions such as sea turtle nesting and hatching at Corozalito, surfing at Camoranal and Carillo, or souvenir shopping at artisan shops and museums in Islita town.
Time commitment: Three to four days to really take advantage of all that is on offer in this special place.
The Osa Peninsula
This southwestern peninsula positioned between the Pacific Ocean and Gulfo Dulce (one of only four tropical fjords in the world) invites visitors to go deeper and explore the rich biodiversity found here. Intrepid travelers can take a guided hike in Corcovado National Park, observe marine life (such as whales, spotted dolphins, and bioluminescent organisms) in the majestic Golfo Dulce, or spend time learning about the history and culture of the area through interactive experiences with local ethical ecotourism operator Osa Wild.
Time commitment: The Osa is quite far from the main tourist track (which means it’s also quite a distance to travel back), so plan on at least three days here.