The Top 19 Things to Do in Costa Rica

Hazy Sunset at Mountains of Costa Rica
Kryssia Campos / Getty Images

From city to sea, and with rainforest, volcanoes, and mountains in between, Costa Rica is a paradise of possibilities. You can restaurant-hop in the capital, fly through the forest, hike a volcano, spot toucans and sloths, tour a coffee plantation, reboot at a retreat, and dive under the sea—all in one trip. But there is still so much more to do, see, and eat, you’ll want to return again and again. Let this list of 19 things to do in Costa Rica inspire an unforgettable trip.

01 of 19

Take a Hike—at Night

Red Eyed Tree Frog Perched on Edge of Leaf Eyeing Mosquito with Black Nighttime Background
Erin Donalson / Getty Images

While sunset signals the end of the day for many, it’s just the beginning for some residents of Costa Rica such as sloths, armadillos, and the beloved red-eyed tree frog. To spot nocturnal creatures in action, head into the jungle on a guided night hike. You can arrange a guided night hike at Chilamate Rainforest Eco Retreat in Sarapiqui, Toucan Rescue Ranch in Heredia, and with Desafio Adventure Company in Arenal. Wave Expeditions also offers a twist on the nocturnal experience: a wildlife float down the Peñas Blancas river under the light of the stars and moon.

02 of 19

Try Forest Bathing

Costa Rica Rainforest
MB Photography / Getty Images

The term shinrinyoku (taking in the forest atmosphere, or “bathing” in the forest) has Japanese roots but the practice of spending time in nature is common in Costa Rica. And with so much green space in the country, there are endless opportunities for forest bathing. Book a guided forest bathing experience with Sentir Natural and Manuela Siegfried, the first certified forest therapy guide in Costa Rica, will lead you through “invitations,” activities that will help you slow down, take notice, and connect with the natural environment around you. Reservations must be made in advance and forest bathing experiences can be arranged for a variety of outdoor spaces including the forest reserve at the University of Peace, urban parks in San José, and Chilamate Rainforest Eco Retreat in Sarapiqui.

03 of 19

Go Birdwatching With an Expert

Keel-billed Toucan (Ramphastos sulfuratus) perching on branch, Costa Rica
Chris Jimenez / Getty Images

Whether or not you consider yourself a birder, you could easily become one here where you may see a variety of colorful birds including toucans, scarlet and green macaws, hummingbirds, kingfishers. Keep an eye out for the quetzal while birdwatching in Monteverde’s cloud forests. Count green macaws while on a bird walk in the Mesoamerican Biological Corridor where reforestation efforts have helped increase macaw numbers. If you’ll be staying in Punta Islita, pay a visit to the Wild Scarlet Macaw Reserve to observe the birds and learn from the dedicated biologists there. Or spend several days birdwatching with an expert in the Osa Peninsula, home to 453 species of birds.

04 of 19

Learn How to Salsa

It’s almost impossible to sit still when you hear Costa Rican music. And why sit if you can dance? A fun, no-pressure way to learn is an informal lesson with a local family in a rural Sarapiqui community (can be booked on request in advance). If you need some liquid courage, sign up for wine and salsa lessons in La Fortuna where you’ll learn the basics of salsa, merengue, bachata, and cumbia. Or get dolled up and head to El Cuartel de la Boca del Monte in San José. They’ve got live music Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays. Scan the crowd for a patient partner to help you practice your steps.

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05 of 19

Taste and Sip Your Way Around San José

High Angle View Of Trees And Buildings Against Sky
Virginie Ménard / EyeEm / Getty Images

If you’ve got at least a day in the capital you can restaurant hop around town to try some of the best restaurants in San José. There are also organized guided tours to choose from. Take a culinary, coffee, or craft beer tour with an expert guide from Carpe Chepe. Or join an Urban Adventures San José by Night tour and experience the culture, history, and cuisine of Costa Rica’s capital city.

06 of 19

Swim in Jade-Colored Waterfalls

Waterfall in a tropical rainforest
OGphoto / Getty Images

The colors in this country are sometimes so spectacular, your eyes have to blink to adjust. One of the beautiful shades of blue-green can be found in some mineral-rich rivers. You can take a dip in the La Fortuna Waterfalls, accessible by steep stairs. A bit further afield and a lot less crowded are the waterfalls on the Kinkara property in Santa Elena where you can book a river walk or waterfall experience.

07 of 19

Watch Sea Turtles Hatch

tortugueroBeach
be happy! / Getty Images

Every year from July to October, turtles nest on the beaches of Tortuguero. If you visit the Tortuguero National Park during this time, be sure to reserve a night walk on the beach. The turtles tend to come up on the sand to lay their eggs and the babies typically wiggle their way out of the eggs and head for the water after sundown as well, so you have the best chance to see the action then. Plan to spend at least one night here as it’s a long journey by car/bus and boat. On the Pacific coast, from July to November, Hotel Punta Islita can arrange for you to watch turtles nesting and hatching at Camaronal Beach.

08 of 19

Go Waterfall Jumping

Take trust falls to the next level. On this waterfall excursion to Gravity Falls, you will do five waterfall jumps in addition to a 140-foot rappel, some scrambling, and swimming through narrow canyon passages. While you can find waterfalls across the country, this experience is exclusive to Gravity Falls.

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09 of 19

Soak in Hot Springs

Rio Celeste-Borbollone
billberryphotography / Getty Images

Costa Rica is home to active volcanoes, which means there are also thermal hot springs here. The waters are rich in minerals that are good for the skin. And time spent surrounded by the sounds and sights of the rainforest is arguably good for the soul. Save time in your schedule to slow down and soak in natural hot springs at EcoTermales in La Fortuna. Or, if you’re in the San José area, make a day trip Hacienda Orosi hot springs.

10 of 19

Tour a Coffee Plantation

Costa Rican indigenous women dressed in traditional clothes harvesting coffee in her basket.
Kevin Valverde / Getty Images

Several regions of Costa Rica have the ideal conditions for growing coffee: favorable climate, elevation, and mineral-rich soil. And if you land in San José, you’ll be flying into the Central Valley—one of the country’s coffee-producing regions. Only 20 minutes from the airport, at Finca Rosa Blanca, you can tour an organic coffee plantation and even do a “coffee cupping” where you’ll learn how to identify aromas and flavors like a pro. Or visit Mi Cafecito, a rural coffee tour and restaurant that serves up traditional Costa Rican food and supports local farmers, less than 1.5 hours from the airport.

11 of 19

Hike an Active Volcano

Outdoor photo with Arenal Volcano in Costa Rica
OGphoto / Getty Images

With a nearly perfect conical shape, Arenal Volcano is one of the world’s most striking volcanoes. Trek across the lava fields at the base of Arenal with a knowledgeable guide and learn about the history of this area. It’s best to set out early; parts of the trail are exposed to the sun which can warm things up quickly, and in green season, rains often arrive in the afternoon. Join a group hike with Desafio Adventure Company, or book an exclusive eco-experience with GreenSpot.

12 of 19

Sample Chocolate from Bean to Bar

Tour a chocolate farm to see how the cacao plant becomes a chocolate bar. You’ll also learn the history and, of course, taste samples along the way. Costa Rica Best Chocolate leads engaging and entertaining tours through their family-run organic chocolate farm. If you’re traveling in the Osa Peninsula, you can book a chocolate tour that culminates with tropical fruits and chocolate fondue through Osa Wild, a locally-run, community-minded ecotourism company.

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13 of 19

Take a Surf Lesson

A young man surfing in Costa Rica
Jen Edney / Getty Images

With coasts on both sides of the country, it’s no wonder Costa Rica attracts surfers and those eager to learn. Gentle waves, fewer crowds, and patient instructors are a must. Playa Samara on the Nicoya Peninsula has all of the above. Spend some time with C&C Surf School to get the basics down, and soon you’ll be popping up on your own, cruising toward the beach on your board. On the Caribbean side, Puerto Viejo has surf breaks to suit a variety of skill levels. Caribe Fun Tours can arrange a 2.5-hour lesson to get you up and running (or, rather, surfing!).

14 of 19

Fly Through the Forest

Zip Line
Malena Barrios / Getty Images

If you’ve ever wondered what it’s like to soar through the rainforest with a birdseye view, you can find out in Costa Rica. Zipline canopy tours are one of the most popular activities. Fly along the longest zipline cable over La Fortuna Waterfall on Arenal Mundo Aventura Big AMA tour. Or zip through the cloud forest near Barva Volcano with Canopy Adventure.

15 of 19

Make Corn Tortillas

You will likely eat a lot of tortillas in your Costa Rica travels. But they seem to test better when you make them with your own hands. Take a tortilla-making lesson in the home of Doña Maria, a local cook in La Fortuna that radiates the pura vida spirit. She welcomes visitors into her kitchen to prepare tortillas before sitting down to feast on compida tipica (typical or traditional food).

16 of 19

Go White Water Rafting

Rafters on Rapids
raularosa / Getty Images

Racing down rapids and floating on the river will be one of your most memorable experiences. Costa Rica has Class 1 to Class V rapids, so whether you are a beginner or advanced, you’ll find a route to fit your skill level. If you’re in the Arenal area, Wave Expeditions and Desafio Adventure Company both offer a variety of rafting tours that can also be combined with other adventure activities like zipline. About an hour from Arenal, Chilamate Rainforest Eco Retreat is located on the Sarapiqui River and hosts the biggest river festival of the region. They work with guides that prioritize safety so you can feel confident booking a white water rafting tour with them. Whichever area you travel to, be sure to use a reputable company that abides by warnings related to weather and water levels.

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17 of 19

Retreat and Reboot

Harmony Hotel

Courtesy of Harmony Hotel 

When our tech gadgets freeze up, crash, or stop working properly, the first thing we are told to do is reboot them. Costa Rica, with its abundance of rainforests and sea on each side, farm-to-fork foods, and pura vida attitude is an ideal place to reboot yourself. Try a retreat at Living Forest near Arenal Lake (and if you don’t have time for a full retreat, you can check out weekly yoga classes or private healing sessions). Nourish your body with organic food from the land and feed your soul with restorative experiences such as sound healing at Kinkara. Or book a “restoration week” at The Harmony Hotel in the Blue Zone, a region where people live past 100 years old, and learn some of the secrets of a happy and healthy life.

18 of 19

Learn About Indigenous Culture

There are a number of indigenous tribes that live in Costa Rica. GreenSpot arranges visits to the Brörán community where guests can learn how to process cacao and make traditional masks before sitting down to share a meal together. If you’re in the Arenal area, Desafio can coordinate private visits (with advance notice) with members of the Maleku tribe to learn about their culture and traditions. Experience Bri Bri ancestral culture at Koswak Usure Lodge in Talamanca. If you won’t have a chance to visit a community, you can learn about indigenous cuisine at Sikwa in San José.

19 of 19

Spend Some Time Under the Sea

Manta Ray
AndamanSE / Getty Images

While there’s a lot of adventures to be had on land, it’d be a shame to come to Costa Rica and not explore under the sea. Travel across the tropical fjords of Gulfo Dulce and snorkel near the Piedras Blancas National Park with Osa Wild. If you’re here sometime between July and November, you may also spot dolphins and whales en route. Or join a bioluminescence tour and experience the underwater light show from your kayak. Dive deep near Caño Island with Mad About Diving for a chance to see stingrays, whale sharks, turtles, white tip sharks, and more.

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