Costa Rica is the country of nature. The country, where you are sure to come face to face with tropical animals, such as frogs, monkeys, snakes, raccoon, crocodiles, sloths and countless bird and butterfly species. More than a quarter of the country is a protected and natural reserve. You will find dense rainforests, mangroves, volcanoes, waterfalls, suspension bridges and wonderful beaches on the Pacific and Caribbean Coasts. But what places should you visit during your trip to Costa Rica? In this travel guide I will give you tips for the best things to do in Costa Rica, including national parks, hiking trails, beaches, places to spot animals and even some cultural experiences. To help you get the most out of your trip or learn more about this beautiful country from home.
- Things to do in Costa Rica | 20 travel tips
- Best things to do at the Pacific Coast in Costa Rica
- Best things to do at the Caribbean Coast in Costa Rica
- Things to do in Northern Costa Rica
- Tips for cultural things to do in Costa Rica
- Best travel time Costa Rica
- Traveling in Costa Rica
- More Costa Rica travel tips
- Pin “Costa Rica travel tips” for later
Things to do in Costa Rica | 20 travel tips
San Gerardo de Dota – a paradise for bird lovers
One of the things to do if you are a bird lover is to visit San Gerardo de Dota in Costa Rica. This is a small village, located at 2200 meters, in the valley of the Talamanca mountain range. It is surrounded by rivers, tropical gardens and flowers. Here you have a chance to see one of the most beautiful birds in the world, the quetzal. No easy task, but because the area is full of wild avocado trees (and the quetzales love this) there is a great chance of actually spotting them. To see the quetzal you have to leave for the observation point around 5 am. During this time, around sunrise, the quetzales come out to look for their food. But not only quetzales can be observed in San Gerardo de Dota, also numerous parrots, hummingbirds and other tropical birds are living here!
San Gerardo also is also a great place to go for walks. Along the river, through botanical gardens or through the paramo, the plains above the tree line, at 3500 meters altitude.
Do you know that the quetzal is the national bird of Guatemala? Check out my Guatemala travel guide to learn more.
Best things to do at the Pacific Coast in Costa Rica
Manuel Antonio National Park
Visiting the Manuel Antonio National Park is undoubtedly one of the most famous things to do when you are in Costa Rica. The park is much smaller in area than the average parks in the country but the chances of seeing animals are therefore much higher. In fact, more than 100 species of mammals and 200 species of birds live here. Manuel Antonio is beautifully situated on the Caribbean coast of Costa Rica and has idyllic beaches. There are several routes that lead through the rainforest, along the sea, over hills and rocks.
The park is easy to explore on your own. But it is best to spend at least a few hours with a guide, because you’ll see so much more than on your own. Monkeys you can usually find but seeing other animals is a skill of its own and sometimes you really need to know which direction to look in. Guides bring large telescopes and show you the secrets of the park. From sloths, poison frogs, boa constructors to iguanas, spiders and crabs, which you would certainly have walked past on your own. After the tour you can relax on one of the beaches. Here you are often accompanied by the capuchin monkeys who are trying to steal your belongings.
National Park Antonio can be visited from Quepos, a small town located on the Pacific Coast. Within a half hour drive by local bus or taxi you reach Manuel Antonio. In Quepos there are several hotels and restaurants.
Costa Rica restaurant travel tips: For tasty seafood you want to go to El Gran Escape. Emilio’s cafe in the port of Marina Pez Vela is a lovely place for tea and cake.
The waterfalls at Uvita & Dominical
Around the town of Uvita and Dominical there are several nice waterfalls. The waterfall of Uvita and Pozo Azul are easily accessible via short hiking trails. It is important to wear good shoes because the paths can be slippery. Once at the waterfall, you can take a refreshing dip and take in the surroundings. Daredevils can even slide down the Uvita waterfall (a natural slide has been created here).
For the Nauyaca waterfall, you have to put in a little more effort. A hike of 4 kilometers takes you from the parking lot to the waterfall in the jungle. Due to the heat and the many ups and downs, it can be on the tough side. Good shoes and plenty of water are essential.
Do you want to see whales in Costa Rica? In the Marino Ballena National Park near Uvita, located on the Pacific coast, you can observe whales from the end of December to March and from July to October. One of the top things to do in Costa Rica, if you ask me. Between December and March, the humpback whales come from the north to Central America. During this time you have the best chance of seeing whales, but the population is still small. Between July and October, humpback whales swim along the coast to raise their young. The warmth and tranquility make it a safe place for the animals to stay. During this period there is a good chance of seeing a mother whale with her baby.
Most boat trips leave from Uvita and take around 3 hours. Along the way you also have a chance of seeing dolphins and sea turtles. Do not forget to go for a walk on the beach in Uvita. Believe it or not, it is in the shape of a whale’s tail.
On your way from San José to the Pacific Coast, you will pass one of the most extraordinary bridges. Under this bridge you will find countless crocodiles, lying here basking in the sun. The river is part of the Carara National park and is one of the places in Costa Rica that people love to stop for. You can park your car before the bridge at one of the restaurants. From here, continue on foot to observe the animals.
When you talk about beautiful beaches, you are talking about Sámara. Located on the Pacific Coast of Costa Rica, Sámara is a true paradise. The beautiful tropical jungle environment with the different green colors and the wonderfully warm sea make it a destination to come back over and over again. In Sámara you want to enjoy the beach but you can also do some fantastic surfing, take boat trips or horseback rides and watch the turtles on the surroounding beaches.
Costa Rica travel tips: It is important to always check with a guide or tour operator if and where turtles can be seen, booking an excursion.
Best things to do at the Caribbean Coast in Costa Rica
Cahuita is a small town on the Caribbean Coast of Costa Rica. It consists of a few streets with a couple of restaurants and stores. Most of the hotels are on the outskirts of the town, along the black sand beach. There is a relaxed vibe everywhere in and around Cahuita, with lots of Rastafarian influences and reggae tunes coming from the speakers.
Cahuita National Park
Cahuita is also your starting point for the Cahuita National Park. This natural park is located at the sea and is known for its beautiful hiking trails and beaches. From the town you can walk right into the park and it is easy to do this on your own, because of the clearly marked trails. There are short and long hiking trails that make for a great day trip. Along the way you have the chance to see sloths, monkeys, raccoons, coatis, anteaters and birds. Besides that you can spend time one of the beaches and take a dip in the sea. Keep an eye on the raccons, as they will try to steal everything.
Keep in mind that this is not a zoo and the animals are not waiting for you. Meaning, you need to be patient. It is also good to know that you will always see more with a guide than by yourself. It is therefore recommended to visit some of the national parks in Costa Rica with a guide to train your eyes and learn more about the flora and fauna.
Costa Rica travel tips: Nowadays you can only snorkel in the national park with a guide. If you want to do this, it is recommended to book a tour in advance.
Tortuguero National Park
One of the best things to do and highlights during a tour in Costa Rica is a visit to Tortuguero. This national park is located on the Caribbean Coast, near the border with Nicaragua and can only be reached by boat or plane. The name Tortuguero comes from Tortuga which means turtle and is named after the many turtles that come ashore every year to lay their eggs. A unique experience that you as a visitor can experience (with proper guidance and caution).
Tortuguero National Park consists of several canals and rivers surrounded by a lush jungle environment. You can spot countless animals during your hikes and take boat trips along the canals and observe the flora and fauna from the water. And if you are into more adventure, go for a hike to the viewpoint of Cerro Tortuguero. In Tortuguero village, there are small eateries, a turtle information center, hotels and stores to rent boots for your hike through the park. From the village you can walk right into the Tortuguero National Park.
Important Costa Rica travel tips: Please note that you must purchase tickets for Tortuguero National Park online through the SINAC website. You will need a separate ticket for the national park and a separate ticket for the hike to the viewpoint.
Hotels in Tortuguero
It is nice to pick a nice jungle lodge along the water, just outside the village. You may have less facilities such as restaurants around the corner but the locations are very beautiful. Moreover, the lodge restaurants serve good meals and the boats take you to the village and national park within minutes.
Looking for a place to stay in Tortuguero? Here you can find a list of hotels and lodges in Tortugero village and surroundings.
Things to do in Northern Costa Rica
One of the most beautiful tours to take is a boat trip on the Caño Negro, near the Nicaraguan border. This natural reserve is an important breeding ground for bird species as well as a resting and feeding place for migratory birds on their route from North to South America. You will be surprised by the amount of bird species living here. The most common birds to observe are egrets, ibises, spoonbills, storks and the snake bird.
And with a little luck you will even have an encounter with the largest bird of Central America: The Jabiru, which is 1.20 meters tall. In addition to birds, there are caimans, alligators and howler monkeys. A boat trip of about 2.5 hours sails from Los Chiles town through the swampy reserve. Tours are best booked from El Arenal.
La Fortuna lies at the foot of the El Arenal volcano, a perfect strato volcano, shaped like a cone, which is dormant today. This little town doesn’t represent much, but it is the base for some great excursions and things to do in Costa Rica. For example, you can visit the El Arenal waterfall, admire Laguna de Arenal or relax in one of the hot springs such as Baldi hot springs. You can also go for walks around the El Arenal volcano. There are several routes through lava fields, which offer great views of the volcano. If you like adventure, the Río Sarapiquí lends itself to fantastic rafting and kayaking trips.
Costa Rica is known for its beautiful frog species. And with a good guide you can encounter them in different places throughout the country. But do you want to admire and take beautiful pictures of frogs up close? Then make sure to visit Frog’s Heaven, a natural reserve, founded by a local family, who protect the habitat of frogs here.
You’ll find the red-eyed frog, ghost glass frog, striped leaf frog and strawberry poison dart frog, among others. In addition to frogs, sloths and several species of birds live here. Frog’s Heaven is located in Horquetas near Sarapiquí town.
Tirimbina natural reserve
Tirimbina is a nice natural reserve near the town of Sarapiqui. You can make several walks through the tropical rainforest, along rivers, over suspension bridges and through primary rainforest. There is a total of 9 kilometers of hiking trails and the routes vary from half an hour to 3 hours. You can either go with a guide or on your own. The surroundings are beautiful and because of the good trails you don’t have to be afraid to get lost. With a visit you also support the Tirimbina project, which is committed to the protection of nature through environmental education and research.
It is also possible to stay overnight in the Tirimbina natural reserve. Check here for availability and prices of Tirimbina Rainforest Lodge.
When you read or see anything about Costa Rica, you often see the cloud forest of Monteverde. And that together with the spectacular zipline, where you glide through the cloud forest like Tarzan. Pretty spectacular! Monteverde is one of the most famous things to do in Costa Rica and a destination that should not be missed during a tour of the country.
Zip-lining is one of the well-known activities, but you can also go hiking in Monteverde or in the Curicancha National Park. Here you can walk across suspension bridges for which Costa Rica is famous as well. You can also visit an orchid and butterfly garden, take a closer look at bats and snakes or go to a sloth sanctuary to learn more about these animal species.
Tips for cultural things to do in Costa Rica
Meet the Bri Bri people
Costa Rica is not necessarily known for its ancient cultures and indigenous people. But of course they exist. And that is exactly why it is worth getting to know them. From Cahuita you can visit the community of the Bri Bri indigenous people. A trip where the local people open their doors and take you into their lives. You will get an explanation about the traditional way of making cocoa, you can meet a shaman and help in the kitchen to enjoy a local meal. Touristy? Sure, because you are a visitor. But these people are proud and happy to share their traditions with you and make a little money out of it.
Puerto Viejo de Talamanca is another nice place to stay on the Caribbean Coast. It is a bit larger and has more facilities. Also from here you can visit the Bri Bri community and the Cahuita National Park. In addition, you can easily rent a bicycle or take surfing lessons here.
The museums of San José
When you read about San José in Costa Rica, you don’t get very excited in general. It is obviously not possible to compare this city with bustling capitals such Lima, Quito, Mexico City or Buenos Aires. Nevertheless, it is worth visiting the city at the beginning or end of your trip. You can take in the Costa Rican city vibes, visit interesting museums, such as the gold, jade and national museum and eat in nice restaurants. Curious about San José and how to get the most out of your stay? Then read more in my San José city guide.
Guayabo Archaeological Site
When you think of Costa Rica, you don’t think of archaeological sites either. But Costa Rica has an interesting historical place to visit: Monumento Nacional Guayabo. This pre-Columbian complex is located in the tropical rainforest and was inhabited by the Guayabo people between 1000 BC and 1400 AD. According to studies it was a place for the elite and priests who organised their rituals there. The site was discovered in the late 19th century but received little attention. It was not until the end of the 20th century that the first excavations started. Visiting Guayabo is one of the things to do in Costa Rica, if you are interested in history.
During a visit you will walk through the tropical rainforest along ancient streets, an old aqueduct, cemetery and monticulos, low round mounds that were built as a base for palenques. These are round huts covered with palm leaves, where some indigenous peoples still live nowadays. Does it compare to the impressive pyramids of the Maya or the ancient Inca cities? Anything but. But it could be a welcome change after visiting all the natural sights that Costa Rica has to offer.
Costa Rica travel tips: Monumento Nacional Guayabo is best visited from the provincial town Turrialba, located on the river and Turrialba volcano. From Turrialba you can reach Guayabo in just half an hour.
Cartago – the pilgrimage site of Costa Rica
It is nice to make a short stop during your travels in Cartago, the former capital of Costa Rica. Cartago has become an important pilgrimage site where every year (on August 2) countless people visit the cathedral. This is to pay homage to la Señora de los Ángeles, the country’s patron saint.
You can visit the cathedral, take a guided tour walk through the center and stop at the Ruinas de la Parroquia, the remains of an ancient church that collapsed during one of the volcanic eruptions.
Best travel time Costa Rica
You can basically travel all year round through Costa Rica. But it is recommended to consider which regions you want to visit, in order to choose the best travel time. The dry season in Costa Rica runs from November through April. However, it is very dependent on where you are in the country. On the Pacific Coast the climate is different than on the Caribbean side, or in the highlands. During the rainy season there are moments when it rains heavily but briefly and nature is at its best. During the dry season it can often be hot and dry. Also, during this season it sometimes can be difficult to spot animals, since they protect themselves from the heat. Each season has its advantages and disadvantages.
The best time to travel to Costa Rica is generally in the months of December to April. But keep in mind that this is also the busiest period, as well as the months of July and August.
Traveling in Costa Rica
Distances in Costa Rica are relatively short compared to other countries in Central and South America. In Costa Rica you can easily rent a car and visit the many sights, attractions and corresponding things to do yourself. In many places you can book shuttles that will take you comfortably from one destination to another. From the larger cities, you can travel by local bus. However, on some routes you will have to change public buses frequently and of course your journey will take longer because of the stops.
Need a rental car for your trip in Costa Rica? Use Rental Cars to search and compare your car rental options. A quick and easy tool and no need to have up multiple tabs trying to figure out which company is the most affordable. They also have great discounts and cancellation policies.
More Costa Rica travel tips
Are you looking for more tips for things to do in Costa Rica? Have a look in the next articles.
Curious about other destinations in Central America? Read more in the next article.