Costa Rica is one of the world’s most scenic and wildlife focused places to visit, topping the list of ecotourism destinations. With idyllic beaches, natural hot springs and spectacular vistas from rugged volcanic ridges, your options for things to do in Costa Rica are endless.
The country has long been a leader in Latin American tourism. Its close proximity to the US along with an allowance of US funded infrastructure has meant its 32 national parks, 51 wildlife refuges, 13 forest reserves and 8 biological reserves have attracted travellers from all over the world.
The start of direct flights from the UK to San Jose in 2015 have attracted even more people to this fascinating part of the world, which has meant even more foot traffic and places which were once remote and untouched have become built up.
So where do you go when you want to experience a different side of Costa Rica? Places that are still untouched, where few people venture to, where you can feel as if you are the only one there?
Well, there are still a few places, but they come with caveats. Remote places are often hard to get to and have little in the way of up market accommodation, but for us, this is the Costa Rica of 15 years ago.
Renowned for its biodiversity, Costa Rica is abundant with nature parks and protected jungle. Myriad wildlife and exotic plants will woo even the most adept horticulturist or naturalist. There are some 150 species of orchid here!
We have outlined some places which are worth considering, whether it be for the wildlife, the location, the remote stretch of coastline or even a combination of them all!
Between its two coastlines and diverse ecology, you’re spoilt for choice.
Top 15 things to do in Costa Rica
This stretch of the Pacific coastline is still very much underdeveloped, which for Costa Rica is rare, so visit it before it changes. Uvita is caught between two worlds, the beach to the west and low lying mountains to the east. On the coast you can see whales and dolphins whilst inland are jungle trails teeming with flora and fauna: 3-toed sloths are at home here alongside ever-rarer capuchin monkeys and some 680 hectares of tropical plants and trees.
During the rainy season months of May to October, if lucky you can catch the Olive Ridley and Hawksbill sea turtles, which come to shore to lay their eggs at this time. The best place to witness this wildlife marvel is inside the protected area of Marino Ballena National Park, located just to the south.
From December to April, Costa Rica’s summer time, you can also watch the magnificent Humpback whales which migrate along this part of the Pacific coast at this time and often very close to shore.
Beach bum or happy hiker, this is one of things you should do in Costa Rica.
2. Arenal Volcano National Park (Parque Nacional Volcan Arenal)
Although a well trodden path, it is a home to the Arenal volcano. Brimful with things to do in Costa Rica, you could spend a few days here. Soak in the hot springs, explore forest and lava fields via the Las Coladas Trail, watch the waterfalls rush, horsed ride around the volcano, take a night trip to see the lava spewing down its steep banks and feed your adrenalin with water sports on Lake Arenal.
In a country packed with volcanoes, none have the perfect conical shape as the Arenal Volcano. After laying dormant for nearly 500 years, it burst back into life in 1968 and for the next 40 years it entertained us all with its steady spew of volcanic lava that would run down its banks. This in turn made Arenal one of the most visited places in the country and why today it appears to be bursting with hotels and lodges.
However, in late 2010, Arenal stopped offering the pyrotechnic display we all travelled to see and as of 2013 it has officially been classified as ‘inactive’. Based on what volcanologists say, the last time Arenal was inactive for this long, it remained this way for a further 200 years. Let’s hope this is not the case and she wakes to delight us all once more!
3. Monteverde and the Cloud Forests
One of the world’s rare mountainous forests constantly covered in clouds due to unique atmospheric conditions can be found in Costa Rica. Imagine tropical rainforest teeming with the song of native birds and the call its wild inhabitants.
The highlight of the region though is a guided walk through the Monteverde reserve which includes eight distinct life zones spread across 25,730 acres. Due its diversity it has attracted travelers and scientists from all over the world to marvel at its contents.
During any walk here you will pass virgin forests interspersed with tangled strangler fig trees dripping with moss and where birds jump from branch to branch. There are several viewpoints along the way which break the canopy and on a clear day, you can see both the Caribbean and the Pacific waters. The reserve is also home to the resplendent quetzal, which is worth the trip unto itself!
To enable visitors to get up close to one of the greatest examples of Costa Rica’s biodiversity, there are tree top walks and guided tours. The more adventurous will enjoy ‘superman’ zip lines and the Mega Tarzan Tour!
4. San Gerardo de Dota
The small town of San Gerardo de Dota sits in the foothills of the Talamanca Mountain Range, and is a pristine wilderness. The surrounding cloud forest has a network of trails and is a haven for birds. The Savegre River Valley near Los Quetzals National Par and the communities that surround it are home to nearly 200 different species of birdlife, including tanagers, hummingbirds, woodpeckers as well as the famous resplendent quetzals. This is an ornithologists’ paradise and a highlight among ll the things to do in Costa Rica.
But there are other options around here too. The second highest peak in Costa Rica (3,491 m) is nearby and you can walk into the forest of the San Gerardo de Dota valley. Here you will ascend/descend through 2 different ecosystems and 4 different vegetation zones, giving you the perfect insight into the biodiversity of this region.
5. Isla del Cano
Some 20km off-shore from mainland Costa Rica a day trip to Isla del Cano will both wow and relax visitors. An important ecological site with dreamy clear waters and stunning coral reefs, snorkelling, diving and boat trips are popular options for taking in the best the island has to offer.
In 1978 the Costa Rican government created “La Reserva Biológica Isla del Caño” and it now part of the vast Costa Rican National Park System. This important move safeguards this tiny island as well as the 21 sq miles surrounding it. Cano Island Biological Reserve is now the highlight of the Costa Rican National Park System’s marine sanctuary, a place protected from pollution, development and fishing. In time it will only get better.
6. Tortuguero National Park (Parque Nacional Tortuguero)
Over on Costa Rica’s Caribbean coastline Tortuguero National Park is famed for its sea turtle nesting beaches, particularly important for the rare green turtle. Beyond the beaches, the park’s maze of freshwater creeks lure you to explore this lush area by small boat allowing you to glimpse the elusive monkey species and native birds.
It is the green turtles that put Tortuguero on the map and each year, during the rainy season (June-October), literally thousands of green sea turtles returned to the same place where they were born and lay their eggs. In 1975, the region became part of the Costa Rican National Park system and since then, nesting have increased by nearly 400%! Today it the largest area colony of nesting green turtles anywhere in the world.
7. The Osa Peninsula
This pristine part of the country is home to just a few eco lodges. The peninsula is covered in rainforest with rugged mountains in the interior and is lined by crystal clear waters, which are home to spinner dolphins and whales. It is considered one of the most beautiful areas in Costa Rica and was declared by National Geographic as ‘one of the most biologically intense places on earth’, it is not a place to be missed.
8. National Theatre in San Jose
Divert to more urban things to do in Costa Rica and the Neo-Classical National Theatre in San Jose has to top the list. Considered the most important historical site in the city, its ornate exterior and lavishly designed interior certainly pack in the wow-factor. Upon completion in 1897, an equally elaborate performance of Faust was its opening show.
9. Chirripo National Park (Cerro Chirripo National Park)
A vast park of mountains and rainforests, it’s a magnet for hiking holidays and wildlife holidays. Costa Rica’s highest peak, Cerro Chirripo, challenges the keenest of scramblers. Home to more than 250 species of reptiles and amphibious creatures, you’ll also find Baird’s tapirs (Central America’s largest indigenous mammal), jaguars and spider monkeys alongside woodpeckers and trogons.
10. Barra Honda National Park
The water-formed caves of Barra Honda are also its biggest attraction. Yet it wasn’t until the 1960s that their cave structure was uncovered, replacing previous local belief that the area was volcanic. There are guided tours through its many limestone caverns, during the dry season, which are otherwise difficult to explore and vary significantly in depth. Otherwise, this is popular hiking territory too.
11. Cano Negro Wildlife Refuge and the Rio Frio
Cano Negro Wildlife Refuge and the Río Frío are considered to be one of the best sites for bird watching in the country. Here you can find a great variety of resident and migratory birds including the endangered Jaribu, the largest bird in Central America. Caño Negro is also home to three out of four species of monkeys which can often be seen on the banks of the river, as well as three-toed sloths and reptiles like turtles, caimans and basilisks, also known as Jesus Christ lizards as they appear to walk on the water!
12. Self drive around the Nicoya Peninsula
Home to some of the most isolated and beautiful beaches, this rugged peninsula is the place to unwind after your adventures elsewhere. A network of roads link most of the beaches, but having a vehicle allows you to find the more remote beaches, which you will often still have to yourself. You will also find some of the best surfing on Costa Rica’s Pacific Coast and even Tico cowboys!
13. Eat Gallo Pinto
Of all the things to do in Costa Rica, you’ll need to try the local food! Costa Rican cuisine centres around locally available ingredients, rice and beans. Michelin star rated it may not be, yet, but nutritional it most certainly is! Gallo Pinto is one traditional Costa Rican dish that stir fries these two core ingredients – usually for breakfast – served with eggs and sour cream or cheese.
14. Savor Costa Rica coffee and chocolate
Only Arabica beans are allowed to be grown on Costa Rica’s plantations. A coffee plantation visit while you’re here could most certainly uncover the coffee snob in you! Whether you take a formal coffee and chocolate tour like those organised by Cafe Britt, or simply indulge at a local market, you’ll discover a taste for the very best at a fraction of the cost you’ll find in the store back home.
15. Juan Castro Blanco National Park
This rarely visited cloud forest will give you the opportunity to see a wide variety of flora and fauna including the spectacular Quetzal with its eye-catching plumage and many other bird species. The park has a diverse array of flora with approximately 60% of the park’s total area being covered by primary forest and the remainder consisting of patches of secondary forest.
There’s no doubt that wildlife dominates any Costa Rica holiday. But of all the things to do in Costa Rica, from sunning yourself on the finest of beaches, hiking active volcanoes and rainforest trails, to discovering the nation’s diverse cultural heritage, you’re very much spoilt for choice.
Planning a Costa Rica trip?
We have first hand experience of the country and only works with hotels and accommodation providers he has stayed with. For a truly insightful Costa Rica travel plan and a bespoke itinerary to suit your dream holiday, contact us.