The Best Things to Do in Costa Rica

The Best Things to Do in Costa Rica
This post may contain affiliate links to things like hotels or tours. This means I may earn a small commission without any cost to you. If it's not something I personally use myself, I won't recommend it to you.

Ah, Costa Rica. There is a piece of my heart somewhere in that country. I spent six months living there, and it was a life-changing experience. Four of those months were spent volunteering at a wildlife rescue centre, and for the final months, I travelled around the country.

Costa Rica is one of the most biodiverse countries on the planet. With its lush jungles, powerful volcanoes, gorgeous beaches, and unique wildlife, Costa Rica has something for everyone.

In this post, I’ll share the best things to do in Costa Rica.

Costa Rica is becoming more popular every year with tourists heading there to get a true taste of jungle life. Slightly more developed than other Central American countries, Costa Rica is heavily influenced by America. This makes it the perfect country to head to if you’re new to travelling in Latin America. It’s generally very safe and has good infrastructure. Even if you’re an experienced traveller, Costa Rica is a must-visit destination. It is filled with natural wonders and adrenaline-filled activities.

Related read: All you need to know about visiting Costa Rica in March

Whether you’re a backpacker, nomad, or visiting for two weeks, Costa Rica offers something for everyone. I hope this blog inspires your trip there.

For those with little time who want to see the best Costa Rica has to offer

Visit a cloud forest

Over 50% of Costa Rica is a jungle, but just 1% of this is a cloud forest. A cloud forest is basically a jungle but at a higher elevation, meaning it experiences high rainfall but cooler temperatures. They are genuine biodiversity hot spots with a range of wildlife and plants you can’t find elsewhere. They’re also often covered in moss and layered in fog making visiting them a unique and awesome place to visit.

One of the most famous areas for cloud forests in Costa Rica is Monteverde. It’s very accessible and a popular spot for visitors and locals alike. While you’re there, you can visit the Monteverde Hanging Bridges, a famous set of walkways through the jungle canopy. There’s also the option to go ziplining which is a popular activity here.

When I visited Monteverde, I also spent a day hiking through the Santa Elena Cloud Forest. It’s a lot quieter than Monteverde but just as beautiful. There are a variety of walkways you can choose from and even a lookout to climb up to and view the jungle from above the canopy. If you have the time, I’d recommend visiting the Santa Elena Cloud Forest as well as Monteverde. It’s right next door so you won’t have to travel far.

Here are some of the best things to do in Monteverde.

Relax on the beach

Costa Rica boasts some of the best beaches in the world, making relaxing on a beach a great activity.

A personal favourite of mine is Santa Teresa Beach, situated in the Nicoya Peninsula. It’s a lively spot with a golden sand beach and some of the best sunsets I’ve witnessed in my life. It’s a popular surfing destination, which can make it tricky to swim, but it’s a gorgeous spot in the country.

150km up the coast you’ll find Playa Conchal in Guanacaste. This stunning beach was recently voted one of the best beaches in the *entire* world.

Over on the Caribbean side, the beaches of Puerto Viejo are a must-visit. Lined with palm trees and golden sand, it’s a postcard-worthy spot. Puerto Viejo is also home to Playa Negra, a 10km black sand beach.

Watch a sunset

Costa Rica has some of the best sunsets I’ve ever seen in my life, if not the best sunsets I’ve ever witnessed. Period. Some of the sunsets on the Pacific Coast are truly stunning. Think pink and purple skies as the sun disappears on the horizon.

You’ll need to head west to catch the best sunsets. Some of the most magnificent I saw were in Santa Teresa. This is also a great beach spot to base yourself if you want to settle down for a bit.

Try the local food

Costa Rica isn’t exactly known for its food, but that doesn’t mean it’s not worth trying. While in Costa Rica, you should try the traditional breakfast – Gallo Pinto. This dish is made of rice and beans. It sounds a bit dull but it’s actually delicious.

One of my favourite Costa Rican dishes is casado. It is traditionally served at lunch and consists of rice, beans, meat, plantain, salad, and sometimes pasta. The meal was designed to keep the labour workers full and energised. Most local cafes and restaurants will serve casado.

Another dish (or snack) to try is Patacones, fried green plantains. They’re found throughout Latin America but are popular in Costa Rica and are often served with avocado.

Relax in the hot springs

Costa Rica is a volcanic hot spot, and thankfully there are many ways you can enjoy its natural wonders. The town of La Fortuna is filled with hot springs that give you the chance to soak in beneficial volcanic minerals.

There are various spots to choose from which range in price, find a list of the best hot spring spots here.

Walk across hanging bridges 

I’ve already mentioned the famous Monteverde Hanging Bridges, but visiting this spot is truly one of the best things to do in Costa Rica. The bridges take you through the jungle canopy as well as above it, giving you a bird’s eye view of the area.

I also really loved visiting the Mistico Hanging Bridges in La Fortuna. In fact, I’d go as far as to say I preferred them to Monteverde. The bridges are giant and you get some awesome views including of Arenal volcano. The spot is also much quieter as it’s less well-known.

Mistico is also the spot where I finally saw a spider monkey after searching for months.

Mistico Hanging Bridges
Mistico Hanging Bridges

Explore a coffee plantation

Costa Rica is famous for its coffee so a visit to a coffee plantation is a must in Costa Rica. The tours often show you the process of making coffee, and give you the chance to taste it. I visited Mi Cafecito which is north of San Jose and on the way to La Fortuna. It’s supported by the tour company G Adventures. I loved this tour as it gave a real insight into the process of producing coffee and the labour that goes into it. It also has some fantastic views and a delicious restaurant.

Finca Rosa Blanca is another popular tour and it’s only an hour away from the international airport. You can also visit Starbucks’ coffee farm – Hacienda Alsacia – which is also north of San Jose.

For adventure and hiking lovers

Get up close and personal with a volcano

Like most of Central America, Costa Rica is a volcanic hot spot and it would be a shame not to visit one while you’re there. As of right now, there are six active volcanoes in the country, with Arenal arguably being the most famous (and active).

Arenal looms over the town of La Fortuna. Seeing Arenal for the first time was a magical experience. I had never seen a volcano before, let alone one so symmetrical and breathtaking. Despite the danger it imposes, you can’t help but respect this force of nature. See the 11 best things to do in La Fortuna here.

Arenal Volcano
Arenal Volcano

While you can’t hike to the summit of the volcano, there are several hikes in the National Park which get you closer to the volcano. There is a great guide here which gives you more information.

There are also options to visit the Irazu Volcano or the Poas Volcano on day trips from San Jose. I’d check Viator for the latest offerings.

Go ziplining

Costa Rica is famous for its ziplining and it’s one of the best things to do in the country. Even if you’re not into adventure activities, flying through the sky above the jungle canopy is a once-in-a-lifetime experience. It’s suitable for all fitness abilities too making it great for all the family.

Monteverde is very famous for its ziplining. This is the spot I visited and it was some of the most epic ziplining I had ever witnessed. There are numerous other locations around the country including La Fortuna and Manuel Antonio. There’s a great guide here for all the information.

Go snorkelling or scuba diving

Costa Rica is famous for its wildlife on land, but it is also a biodiversity hotspot under the water. For divers, a popular spot is Isla del Coco (Cocos Island). This remote island is surrounded by the ocean and has no other land for 300 miles in any direction. It’s one of the top diving spots in the world.

For something a bit more straightforward, there are lots of snorkelling options along the Pacific coast. If you’re on a quiet beach and no one else is in the water, always check with the locals before swimming. The currents in Costa Rica can be very strong and take you by surprise. Certain areas on the Caribbean side also have some dangerous marine animals, such as bull sharks, so it’s always important to check that you’re okay to swim.

Go white river water rafting

Costa Rica is full of adventurous activities, and white-water rafting is one of the best. With world-class rapids, shooting down the river in Costa Rica is the perfect way to indulge your adventurous side.

There are several places where you can take on the rapids, one of the most popular being La Fortuna. I opted not to do this activity as I don’t particularly enjoy river rafting, but my friends who did it absolutely loved it.

Check out other locations for white river water rafting in Costa Rica.

For nature and wildlife lovers

Search for monkeys

No visit to Costa Rica would be complete without seeing a wild monkey. Thankfully, they live all around the country and you won’t have to search too hard to see one.

There are four species of monkeys in Costa Rica, these are Howler, Squirrel, White-faced Capuchin and Spider monkeys. You should have no problem seeing a Capuchin monkey. They live throughout the country and often venture into the beaches to terrorise the tourists. Howlers are a little shyer and tend to stay high in the trees. You’ll likely hear their roar before you see them.

Squirrel and Spider monkeys can be a bit harder to find. I only saw Spider Monkeys once on my trip when I went to the Mistico Hanging Bridges in La Fortuna.

For the best chances of seeing a monkey, I’d suggest hiring a guide at a National Park such as Manuel Antonio. Monkeys can be very discreet and hiring a guide will give you the best chance of spotting one. They know exactly what signs they are looking for. I was often left stunned when guides spotted the monkeys high up in the canopy.

Wild Howler Monkey
Wild Howler Monkeys

Note: monkeys are wild animals and there are strict laws in place in Costa Rica to protect them. This isn’t Asia where you can get away with feeding them or interacting with them (and rightly so). Be sure to keep your distance and respect their space.

Hear a Howler Monkey roar (or howl)

The sound of a Howler monkey is one of my favourite memories of Costa Rica. I spent four months working with them and honestly, their sounds never get old. It’s even more special when you hear the sounds of the wild Howler monkeys from across the jungle. A male’s howl can be heard from up to 3 miles (4.8km) away. The first time I heard the sound made me think I had gone to Jurassic Park. It’s terrifying and mesmerising at the same time.

The Howlers are the noisiest at sunrise. I’d say set an alarm and wake up to listen to the sounds, but their roars are so loud you won’t need an alarm.

See the crocodiles at the crocodile bridge

The crocodile bridge in Costa Rica is exactly what it sounds like – a bridge with crocodiles underneath. To put it simply, this isn’t just some gimmick – there are so many crocodiles here. When I visited, I was genuinely stunned at the amount there were. I counted at least 20 which were easily visible.

The bridge crosses the Tarcoles River, which is estimated to have one of the highest densities of crocodiles in the world. Sadly, they’re here because boat drivers used to feed them.

Crocodile Bridge
Crocodile Bridge

You’ll find the bridge on Route 34 as you leave San Jose towards Manuel Antonio and Jaco. The crocodiles can be viewed from on top of the bridge. It’s worth looking on both sides to see as many as you can. It’s such a popular stop that there are souvenir and coffee shops surrounding the bridge.

Go on a nighttime jungle walk

While in Costa Rica, you’ll likely experience the jungle by day, but seeing it at night takes it to a whole new level. Once the sun sets, the jungle comes to life with nocturnal creatures and creepy insects, including some of the most dangerous in the world. Exploring the jungle in the evening is one of my favourite things to do in Costa Rica.

The Best Things to Do in Costa Rica
Red Eyed Tree Frog

Of course, you can attempt this by yourself if it’s allowed where you are. However, I’d really advise hiring a guide or joining a tour for this. The truth is that the jungle can be a little scary at night. On top of this, guides are trained to spot night-time wildlife. You’d be amazed at how difficult it can be to spot some of the animals. They camouflage so well into the plants. You’ll get so much more from having someone with you who knows where to look and what they’re looking for. Entering the jungle at night isn’t something to be taken lightly, some of the world’s deadliest insects and animals are active then.

I did a few night treks, but one of my favourites was in Monteverde. There were a few groups there which made it a bit chaotic, but there were dedicated staff who would be out finding the animals, then calling the tour guides once they found them. This meant we saw SO much including one of the world’s most venomous snakes. It was one of my favourite experiences in Costa Rica.

Spot a sloth

Sloths are found throughout Central America, but Costa Rica is one of the easiest places to see them. Generally, seeing a sloth in the wild is down to luck. They often stay high in the trees so can be hard to find to the untrained eye. They are plentiful in Manuel Antonio and Monteverde but I’d suggest hiring a guide to help you. Most of the national parks in Costa Rica give you the option of hiring a guide, and this is well worth doing for the best chance at spotting wildlife as well as learning all about it.

You could also consider visiting a sloth sanctuary. There is a popular one in Monteverde at Selvatura Park. Although Costa Rica has high animal welfare standards, some sanctuaries still allow visitors to hold sloths. This is not advised as it can be a very stressful experience for the animal.

For those who want to get off the beaten path

Visit the Osa Peninsula, a biodiversity hotspot

The Osa Peninsula is home to 50% of the species found in Costa Rica and 2.5% of species in the entire world. When it comes to biodiversity, it doesn’t get much better than here.

Not many visitors make it to this spot – it’s quite pricey and will take you some time to reach. I’m gutted I didn’t get to explore here. As soon as I go back to Latin America, visiting here is at the very top of my list.

The Osa Peninsula allows you to truly immerse yourself in the remote and pristine jungle. The area is full of wildlife including birds, monkeys and even jaguars. There isn’t much development here and it’ll require you to go off the grid, but it gives you a true insight into this incredible country and its unique wildlife.

Your best option to reach the Osa Peninsula is to fly into Drake Bay. There are a few accommodation options from there.

Hike to hidden beaches

We’ve already established that Costa Rica has some of the best and most popular beaches in the world. However, if you’re looking to escape the crowds and get off the beaten track, consider hiking to a hidden beach. The coastline is filled with hidden spots and one of the best ways to discover these is to ask the friendly locals for their favourite spots.

My favourite ‘hidden’ beach is in Cabo Blanco National Park. A 5km walk through this quiet and stunning park will lead you to one of the most breathtaking beaches I’ve ever seen. I visited twice during my time in Costa Rica, and it was only me and my friends there. Once you arrive at Playa Cabo Blanco, it’s the perfect spot to relax for a bit or even take a swim.

Cabo Blanco is located on the tip of the Nicoya Peninsula near the towns of Montezuma and Cabuya. It also makes a great day trip from Santa Teresa.

Visit Tortuguero National Park

Tortuguero is one of my favourite places in Costa Rica. I only spent two days there but really could have spent much longer. Quite literally, Tortuguero means ‘turtle’ in Spanish which gives you an idea of why the area is so famous. It’s much less developed than many areas in Costa Rica and really gives you a taste of jungle life. It’s also way more accessible than the likes of the Osa Peninsula, but the journey there is still a bit of an adventure.

I’m working on a guide for visiting Tortuguero, but there is an endless list of things to do. Jungles hikes, kayaking through mangroves, boat rides, looking out for the elusive pink dolphin and even seeing turtles lay their eggs. It really is an epic spot and if you have the time, well worth building into your itinerary.

One thing you won’t want to do though is swim on the beach there (or in the river). The area not only has dangerous currents but is infested with bull sharks. You won’t even find the locals swimming there.

Enjoy the naturally hot river

If you want to enjoy Costa Rica’s volcanic waters without breaking the bank, consider visiting Rio Chollin in La Fortuna. This river is naturally heated by the volcanic activity in the area. It’s a popular spot for the locals and few tourists know about it. The best part about this whole experience is it’s entirely free. There are no changing facilities so you’ll need to plan for that, but it’s a fantastic experience. Any local taxi driver will be able to take you to the exact spot.

Extra things for backpackers or those with more time

Spend time in the capital, San Jose

San Jose is the capital of Costa Rica. Most visitors simply use this as an arrival/departure spot and spend little time here. I ended up staying here for 10 days. I didn’t have high expectations but I actually grew to love this city. It’s full of culture and history and is a good place to base yourself for a while.

One of my favourite areas was Barrio Escalante. This popular up-and-coming urban area has some amazing places to eat. During the ten days I spent here, I had some of the best food I had ever eaten. Costa Rica isn’t really known for its food, so I urge you to visit this spot and see what it has to offer.

Immerse yourself in the jungle

Spending time in the jungle is one of the best things to do in Costa Rica. The country is famous for its lush, vibrant jungles which are home to 5% of all animal and insect species on the planet. This makes it the most biodiverse country in the entire world.

Staying overnight (or for a few days) in the jungle is the best way to truly immerse yourself and experience jungle life. There are accommodations all over the country that allow you to do this. I’d suggest looking at Tortuguero, the Sarapiqui rainforest, or, for something really off the beaten path, the Osa Peninsula. All these places give you the opportunity to stay deep inside the tropical jungle.

A personal recommendation is Wild Sun Jungle Resort. This is on the tip of the Nicoya Peninsula in a tiny town called Cabuya (near Santa Teresa and Montezuma). The resort is the rescue centre where I volunteered for four months. It has a small but stunning hotel attached to the centre, with the profits going straight back into helping the wildlife. The location is honestly breathtaking. The site sits high on a hill with panoramic views of the jungle canopy down to the ocean. It’s right on the edge of Cabo Blanco National Park, an area with some of the highest biodiversity in the entire country. It’s truly a fantastic way to experience jungle life and get off-grid while helping animals in need. 

Learn Spanish

Costa Rica is a great spot to try and improve your Spanish. Nearly everywhere I visited I saw hostels offering cheap Spanish lessons. The friendly locals in Costa Rica make it an easy spot to practice your skills. I would often attempt to speak Spanish to the locals and never felt intimidated or pressured to get it right.

Spend your days riding the waves

Costa Rica is famous for its surfing, and it’s a good spot to try it for the first time. Many of the popular destinations on the Pacific coast offer world-class surfing, and the beaches are lined with surf schools.

One of the best surfing destinations on the West Coast is Santa Teresa. A little off the beaten path, this hidden gem sees fewer crowds than other locations. With its golden sand beach and thrilling Pacific waves, surfing in Santa Teresa is a great choice for those who want to surf.

Find the bioluminescence

Before I went to Costa Rica, I had no idea what the bioluminescence was, let alone plan to experience it. Put very simply, the bioluminescence is basically living organisms which emit light.  In the ocean, tiny plankton (and other organisms) will sometimes emit light when disturbed. At night, this can look like the ocean is full of stars.  

There are two popular places in Costa Rica where you can sometimes witness this phenomenon: Punta Cuchillos in the Nicoya Peninsula and Puerto Jimenez inside the Golfo Dulce Bay (Osa Peninsula). Both of these spots require you to go off the beaten track a little bit, and you’ll need to book an organized tour for your best chances of finding this marvel.

I was lucky enough to be living only an hour or so from Punta Cuchillos, so I booked a boat trip with some friends. As the sun set, our driver took us right out into the open ocean and told us to jump in. Swimming in the deep Pacific Ocean at night was an experience in itself, but all my fears went away when everything around me lit up. The only way I can describe it is like swimming with the stars.

Looking online now, there is mixed information on whether it’s still possible to swim with the bioluminescence in these places. There seems to be a debate about how safe it is. Having said that, there are kayaking tours available in Punta Cuchillos which allow you to view the phenomenon from the surface.

Seeing the bioluminescence is a top travel memory of mine, not just from Costa Rica but from all my travels combined.

Witness a sea turtle laying eggs (or baby turtles being born)

Costa Rica is famous for its wildlife, and the turtles of Costa Rica are one of the reasons why. Each year, hundreds of thousands of turtles will visit Costa Rica to lay their eggs. The country is home to five different species of turtle, including Olive Ridley, Green Sea turtle, Loggerhead, Hawksbill and Leatherback. Unfortunately, turtles are at risk worldwide so there are now many conservation programmes in place to protect them.

One of the best chances to see turtles is Tortuguero National Park – which literally translates as ‘turtle’. Between July and October, turtles come in at night to lay their eggs, and if you’re lucky, you may see baby turtles hatching. You’ll need to join a turtle-watching tour to view this, you can book once you’re at your accommodation in Tortuguero.

Moody beach in Tortuguero
Moody beach in Tortuguero

Costa Rica is also known for the true wonder of nature that is ‘Arribada’. This means ‘arrival’ and is a natural phenomenon where thousands of Olive Ridley turtles come in to lay their eggs over a period of a few days. The best place to witness this is Ostional Beach on the Nicoya Peninsula. The best time to see it is in the rainy season between July and November. By law, you’ll need a guide in order to witness this occurrence. Please note it only happens for a few days at a time in line with the moon’s cycle. When booking a tour, make sure to check when the best time to see them will be.

If you’re travelling to Latin America, you can see baby sea turtles in Guatemala.

Go on a boat trip

Spending the day (or evening) on a boat trip in Costa Rica is the perfect way to relax and see the country from another perspective. Manuel Antonio especially offers some of the best boat trips. I’d highly recommend joining a catamaran cruise either during the day or for sunset. The coastline is truly beautiful there and you even can sometimes see whales and dolphins, depending on the time of year.

There are many tour operators in the area. For Costa Rica, I’d recommend booking once you arrive in Manuel Antonio as this is how you’ll get the cheapest price. Most accommodations will be able to book this for you.

Visit Montezuma Falls

Costa Rica is a gem when it comes to waterfalls. All around the country are stunning waterfalls of all shapes and sizes nestled in the jungle. You can read more about some of the best waterfalls here.

One of my favourite spots is Montezuma Falls in the Nicoya Peninsula. It’s about a 20-minute walk to the falls, and once you’re there, you can jump in and swim. The walk there is an adventure in itself, navigating slippery rocks and clinging to a rope. Don’t let that put you off, though; it’s generally very doable.

Share this guide
This site uses cookies to offer you a better browsing experience. By browsing this website, you agree to our use of cookies.