17 BEST Places to Visit in Costa Rica
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If you’re planning a trip to Costa Rica then this blog is for you! We’ve narrowed it down to the 17 best places to visit in Costa Rica along with must-know info to be aware of before you go!
Costa Rica was a breath of fresh air. Between the stunning beaches, amazing wildlife, and kind people we knew that we were in for a treat.
Our goal in Costa Rica was to explore and experience a variety of things. So, that is just what we did! We saw baby sloths, swam in turquoise oceans, and walked through the trees in a cloud forest. Each experience was different from the next and represented a part of Costa Rica.
After a couple of weeks of traveling around Costa Rica, these are what we think are the 17 best places to visit in Costa Rica! Have a read and let us know if you think we missed anything – we could always use an excuse to go back to Costa Rica!
Where are the Best Places to Visit in Costa Rica?
The map above shows the exact locations of the best places to check out as a tourist in Costa Rica. Each point on the map is numbered and corresponds to the numbers in our list below. Here, you can find more information for visiting to plan your perfect trip to Costa Rica!
1. Cahuita National Park
One of my travel highlights in Costa Rica was a day trip to Cahuita National Park. This national park is special because of its pristine beaches and wildlife that is literally everywhere! I have never been to a national park where I’ve seen so many wild animals in one place before.
We saw several Howler monkeys and were able to watch them in the treetops for ages as they jumped from branch to branch and roared! These monkeys make the craziest sounds, they roar almost like a lion! We also saw Coatis, Raccoons, Tarantulas, and ever a Viper!
The only way to explore Cahuita National Park is on foot walking along a marked hiking trail. As you walk through the jungle trying to spot animals you can also stop at beautiful swimming spots along the way.
The entire trail is 5 miles (8 kilometers) long and you must return the same way you entered, meaning if you walk the entire thing it is 10 miles. Don’t worry though, you don’t need to hike the entire trail to enjoy this amazing national park and only need to walk as far as you’d like!
This park is easily accessible on a day trip from the town of Puerto Viejo (another one of the best places to visit in Costa Rica and next on this list) on a tour or with public transport. Alternatively, you can also visit Cahuita National Park on a guided tour from San Jose.
For more detailed information on visiting Cahuita, check out our blog which is a complete guide to visiting Cahuita National Park.
2. Puerto Viejo
Cahuita National Park is only a short 20-minute drive from the touristic town of Puerto Viejo on Costa Rica’s Caribbean coast. This town is easily one of the best places to visit in Costa Rica as there are a ton of fun things to do and see in Puerto Viejo!
Expect numerous pristine beaches, wildlife tours and experiences, endless trendy restaurants and cafes, lots of relaxation, and Pura Vida!
Eat at one of the local restaurants, attend a parade or festival, and then go out and enjoy the nightlife in one of the safest places in Central America.
3. Jaguar Rescue Center
The Jaguar Rescue Center just had to be included on this list simply because of the baby sloths and monkeys – they are too cute! But it isn’t just the cute animals that make this one of the best places to visit in Costa Rica, it is the center itself and what they are doing for the local wildlife!
The Jaguar Rescue Center is an animal rescue center operating near the town of Puerto Viejo. They save a variety of animals and each animal has its own story. Some were injured by poachers, some were kept illegally as pets, and some were simply found wounded.
On a tour of the center, you’ll learn about each story individually. We saw owls that were half-blind, baby sloths that were abandoned too early from their mothers, crocodiles that were a danger to the community they were near, and even some wild cats!
The Jaguar Rescue Center only lets visitors in on a tour. Public tours run daily at 9:30 am and 11:30 am and they cost $22 USD. Private tours can also be arranged. All proceeds go back to ensure that the Rescue Center can continue operating. All staff are volunteers so be sure to tip your tour guide!
You can also visit the Jaguar Rescue Center on this tour which includes stops a couple of the other best attractions in and around Puerto Viejo!
4. Punta Uva Beach
Punta Uva is a beautiful beach. It is on the Caribbean coast only a few kilometers from the Puerto Viejo. No trip to Costa Rica can be complete without swimming in the bluest, clearest water you have ever seen!
What I loved most about Punta Uva is how relaxing it was. When I was there, it was a beautiful day out and the beach was practically empty! It isn’t super built up and felt relaxing.
The best way to get to Punta Uva is to rent a bike from Puerto Viejo and ride there yourself. It is a flat ride and makes for a fun (and cheap!) day trip!
Once at Punta Uva, you can either just relax on the beach, or go on a kayaking tour! Either way, it is an amazing beach that’s well worth visiting in Costa Rica!
5. Montezuma Beach
Ah, Montezuma! This tiny village on the southeastern tip of the Nicoya Peninsula is remote, beautiful, and a little bit funky – but a whole lot of fun!
Montezuma sits on the Gulf of Nicoya, as opposed to the open waters of the Pacific, and has some absolutely gorgeous beaches surrounding it. There is a great mix of really inexpensive hostels, mid-range small hotels, plenty of apartment rentals, and absolutely stunning, and definitely expensive, extremely private resorts. You will also find a small but eclectic choice of restaurants.
There is nothing overgrown about Montezuma. While it grows slightly from year to year it has remained pretty much a two-street town.
Go down the main street until it comes to a “T” intersection. Go right, you’ll come to a small rocky beach that is favored by the locals and where the fishing boats come in. Go left, and you’ll find yourself at Playa Montezuma. This wide and sandy beach is a beautiful place to jump in the water.
But there are many more beaches to choose from! Whether you want to take surfing lessons on the giant, calm expanse of Playa Grande or you want to play in the waves at Playa las Manchas, Montezuma (and this side of the Nicoya Peninsula) have you covered.
Don’t forget to go see the waterfall! You can go on your own, but if you want to see the most spectacular part of it, ask someone how to access it from the top. You can hire a guide or get a local to spill the beans – either way, get yourself up there!
One of the reasons Montezuma is so amazing is because it isn’t all that easy to get there. But it is worth the trouble. If you are backpacking, you can grab a bus from San Jose or Liberia to Puntarenas where you will catch a ferry over the Gulf of Nicoya. The bus will take you to Cobano, and from there you jump on a different bus that will deposit you right into Montezuma. You’re going to LOVE IT!
Otherwise, you can organize a private shuttle from San Jose that’ll take you straight to Montezuma!
6. Santa Teresa Beach
On the other side of the southern tip of the Nicoya Peninsula is the opposite of Montezuma – Santa Teresa!
While still relatively small, Santa Teresa is generally not described as quaint. If Montezuma has a distinct “hippy” vibe, Santa Teresa would be best described as “posh”.
There are actually three towns here that have grown together, but Santa Teresa dominates the area. This is the surf capital of Costa Rica. Situated directly on the Pacific, Santa Teresa is where the pros go to surf. But even if you aren’t an expert, you can join a surf lesson in Santa Teresa or even a 7-day surf camp!
It’s also where celebrities who are visiting Costa Rica can often be found. In recent years, Leonardo DiCaprio, Mel Gibson, Matt Dillion, and Bono have all vacationed on this side of the peninsula. Santa Teresa has definitely become one of the best places to go in Costa Rica!
This might not sound like a place you want to go to have a chill, backpackers vacation but it definitely fits that bill as well. There are plenty of hostels and small affordable surfer hotels. Of course, if you’ve got money to spend you can also find some pretty fancy places to lay your head. Santa Teresa also has a great selection of international food.
To get to Santa Teresa, you do the same as you would to go to Montezuma. But when you get to Cobano, you take a different bus to Santa Teresa. It is not difficult to find but you have to put in the effort to get there. Thankfully this weeds out most people who are just coming to “party.”
Here’s a hint: If you are staying in either Montezuma or Santa Teresa you definitely want to go visit the other one. You could take a bus – two actually – but the MUCH better way is to rent an ATV. They are fairly inexpensive in either town and you will get to ride through some of the most amazing scenery. I recommend you take the Cabuya to Mal Pais road!
7. Manuel Antonio National Park
Located right next to the beach town of Quepos, Manuel Antonio National Park is one of the best national parks in Costa Rica. In fact, many people say it is The best! This may come as a surprise as it is the smallest of all the national parks. Small but mighty, for sure.
Inside the park you will find a pristine rainforest as well as some of the most beautiful beaches in the country. You can scuba to a coral reef, or snorkel. Take the trail through the park to get magnificent views and the opportunity to see some of Costa Rica’s famous wildlife in the actual wild, and maybe a few rare animals as well.
You can access the park through Quepos. The town itself deserves a visit. The things you can do in Quepos, Manuel Antonio and the surrounding areas are seemingly never-ending. Zipline, kayak tour, snorkel tour, a catamaran cruise, guide tours of the park… on and on and on.
But it’s okay to just go enjoy the serenity of this gorgeous, protected piece of paradise. The park is open Tuesday- Sunday from 7 am to 4 pm. They are closed on Monday! Don’t overlook this. The price of admission is $16 for an adult.
You can book a tour to the park with a guide and skip the admission line!
8. Monteverde Cloud Forest
A different side to Costa Rica, away from the beaches is up in the mountains exploring the cloud forest. Walking through the Monteverde Cloud Forest is magical. You literally walk amongst the clouds, through the trees and vines, over rope bridges, around waterfalls, and even to viewpoints above the forest.
The Monteverde Cloud Forest is located just outside of the town of Santa Elena in the central north of Costa Rica. It costs $20 USD to enter the Monteverde Cloud Forest and can easily be accessed by public bus from Santa Elena town.
Alternatively, you can visit the Monteverde Cloud Forest on an organized day trip from San Jose.
To be honest though, it is a beautiful area and you won’t regret spending a few days here. We stayed at a gorgeous little boutique eco-lodge just down the road from the Monteverde Cloud Forest, El Bosque Hotel. Here, we could just enjoy nature and watch tons of hummingbirds all afternoon long!
For all the information you need, check out our blog that is about all of the best things to do in Monteverde, including the Monteverde Cloud Forest!
9. Arenal Volcano
Have you ever wanted to visit a volcano that looked like it came directly out of a child’s drawing of a volcano? If so, head on over to a small town called La Fortuna. La Fortuna sits at the base of the mighty Volcano Arenal. Though the volcano is not currently active, it is still dramatic and beautiful.
La Fortuna is a nice little town and you can find a hostel room or inexpensive hotel easily. There are a lot of restaurants and tourist-oriented shops in La Fortuna, yet it still feels authentically Costa Rican.
Here are some of the best things about the Volcano Arenal/La Fortuna area.:
There is a river that runs directly from the volcano and is therefore hot – you can lounge in this natural hot spring for free. If you are looking for something more fancy, there are A LOT of paid hot springs -they range from simple and very affordable to a bit pricey and super fancy.
Don’t miss the La Fortuna waterfall. It is a bit of a trek down, and of course, more so back up, but it is all stairs/steps and it is absolutely worth it! Take your bathing suit – you can swim in the pool and river below the waterfall.
On the other side of the volcano is a very small village called El Castillo. In El Castillo, you not only get a view of the volcano that most others don’t, but you can try one of the best ziplines the country has to offer (and that’s saying something!), explore a massive volcano observatory, visit a huge butterfly sanctuary, and even visit a snake zoo!
Oh… and you can hike up the volcano if you really, really want to! A lot of visitors to Costa Rica just go to Monteverde, which shares its rainforest with this area, and miss Arenal. Don’t make that mistake!
10. Ficus Tree in Santa Elena
In the town of Santa Elena, there is this crazy Ficus tree! This is the most unique destination of all of the best places to visit in Costa Rica in this blog. In fact, many people don’t know this tree exists and those that do, often struggle to actually find it!
What was once a local secret, is now becoming a popular place for tourists. But not too popular, it is still free and just simply a tree in the forest in Santa Elena.
But why is this Ficus tree so special? The tree is perfect for climbing and offers insane views from the top. It is a playground for the adventurous traveler that nature has made all on its own. I have never seen anything like it and can’t believe it isn’t a proper tourist attraction with a long line-up and an admission fee yet!
11. Samara and Nosara
The northwestern portion of the Costa Rican coast, the “state” of Guanacaste, has quite a number of beach towns. You can pretty much find a beach that matches with any vibe. If your vibe is a little laid back, a little relaxed, and a little less touristy then one of these two Guanacaste villages is probably for you.
It’s Costa Rica, it’s a beach, so you know there will be plenty of opportunities for surfing or stand-up paddleboarding. But these are also great beaches for chilling and enjoying watching the waves. This area offers ample opportunity for horseback riding on the beach, mountain biking, exploring the area on ATVs, and lots of other active stuff, but it really invites you to just “be” there.
If you are trying to choose between the two you should know that Samara is a bit more touristy and developed than Nosara. Both are still very authentically Costa Rican and you can’t go wrong with either, but, if you’re looking for slightly fancier restaurants and maybe a bit more nightlife, go with Samara. If you want to experience a quieter and even more laid back beach town definitely spend some time in Nosara.
12. Osa Peninsula
We have this on our “Don’t Miss List” for Costa Rica but trust me, most people do just that. Osa Peninsula is a different kind of experience altogether. The first indication of this is that you can only access the peninsula by plane or boat. It takes some extra effort to go here, but it is definitely worth it!
Osa Peninsula is all about the flora and fauna. If you came to Costa Rica to experience the rich and diverse wildlife it has to offer this should be your destination. Over half of the species in Costa Rica live on this peninsula and the country has gone out of its way to protect them. That’s why in this relatively small area there are two national parks, two biological reserves, and a wildlife sanctuary!
As one would expect, even the hotels on the Osa are eco-oriented. My best advice is to plan a guided trip to Osa that includes one of the amazing hotels. With a guide, you will be able to see the most remote areas of the peninsula and see animals and plants you won’t find in many other places.
This place is very special and definitely one of the top destinations in Costa Rica!
13. Poás Volcano
Costa Rica has the most fantastic beaches and the rainforests are not to be missed, but some think the volcanoes are the really underrated stars of this show. What better way to feel like you have really been on an adventure than to walk up to the edge of an active volcano?
Volcano Poas is itself a national park and even if you don’t want to stand right next to the caldera of a live volcano, the drive (or ride!) up to the park and the park itself are well worth the trip. You pass up and through some of the most beautiful land in Costa Rica – including coffee and strawberry farms! There are plenty of opportunities to stop and enjoy the fruits of the hardworking farmers’ labor.
You should know that part of the adventure of Poas is the weather. Regardless of what the weather prediction is, there is a very good chance that the caldera will be mostly obscured by clouds for the majority of your visit – but trust me, that’s the coolest part!
When the clouds part for a few minutes and you get that glimpse of the massive size and scope, it is like nothing you have ever seen before!
Poas Volcano is most easily visited on a day trip from San Jose as it is only about 1.5 hours away.
14. La Paz Waterfall Gardens Nature Park
There are gorgeous waterfalls all over Costa Rica, but frankly, most of them are a bit of a challenge to get to. But you can’t come to Costa Rica and not see a waterfall! The perfect solution is La Paz Waterfall Gardens.
Just about an hour north of San Jose, this private park gives you easy access to some of the most beautiful waterfalls in Central America. And while you can’t swim in these waterfall pools, you can visit with rescued animals and eat a delicious lunch buffet… which you definitely cannot do at most of the other waterfalls in the country!
Take a couple of hours, maybe even make a day of the Waterfall Garden and Poas, and enjoy this protected piece of paradise. It is yet more evidence that the beaches of Costa Rica, while spectacular, are not the only game in town.
The park costs $48 USD to visit as a tourist, and the buffet lunch is an additional $14 USD, with discounts available for children.
15. Tamarindo or Jaco
Costa Rica has two airports. One is in the northern town of Liberia and one in the capital, nearly dead center of the country, of San Jose. Not particularly surprising is the fact that the two most visited beaches in the country happen to be the ones closest to those towns.
In the north, it is Tamarindo. If you are in search of a place to make a very short visit to Costa Rica or to find an “all-inclusive” so popular in other tourist destinations, Tamarindo may be your spot. This is the place to go if you looking for a “party” atmosphere. Note that if you are looking for a more authentic Costa Rican experience, this will be less than ideal – they don’t call it “Tamagringo” for no reason!
To the south, if you fly into San Jose, the beach is Jaco (pronounced HA-co). It too is more a touristy, party type town with the kinds of amenities and activities one would expect in a vacation destination. It is fun and raucous and full of vacationers enjoying the best nightlife Costa Rica has to offer.
If you’re looking for a party, I highly suggest you check out one of these towns. But maybe just one or the other. Sprinkle in a bit of the real Costa Rica along the way.
Pro Tip: If Montezuma or Santa Teresa interest you but you also want to have a couple of more touristy days, you can take a speed boat over to Montezuma from Jaco. It’s a fun way to see two different vibes of Costa Rica and get out on the water.
16. Downtown San Jose
San Jose has a bad reputation with travelers, and therefore many people skip it. But not for me! To me, San Jose is one of the best places to visit in Costa Rica!
Why? Well, a visit to any country cannot be complete without a visit to the capital city to learn about history and culture. This vibrant city has a ton to offer visitors, and in fact, there are lots of fun things to do in San Jose!
We did a free walking tour in the downtown area and learned so much about Costa Rica and its history! Did you know Costa Rica doesn’t have a military at all? They believe in “pura vida” or the relaxed “chilled out” vibe. We learned about the Civil War and about their journey to claim independence.
But besides the history, it is a beautiful city with lots of shopping and even the best ice cream I’ve ever tasted!
17. Britt Coffee Tour
For a lot of people, when you say you’re going to Costa Rica the only thing they may know about it is that they produce great coffee. They’re definitely right about that. Coffee and bananas make up the vast majority of the agriculture industry in Costa Rica and a coffee tour is a lot more fun than a banana tour…with a lot fewer spiders!
Britt is the most famous brand of Costa Rican coffee and their tour is the best! Whether or not you actually like coffee, this tour is fascinating and fun. And it is in a “suburb” of San Jose so it makes a really fun and interesting thing to do when you first arrive in Costa Rica or are on your way out.
Their classic tour is around 1.5 hours and covers a very short distance so it is easy for anyone to participate. You will also have the opportunity to have an authentic Tico lunch. But Britt has a number of tours that include other things so definitely check out their website.
And while the tours are wonderful, sampling Britt’s coffee and chocolates at the end of the tour maybe even better! Be sure to leave some room in your suitcase to bring back some tasty souvenirs!
Before you go…
And that’s the end – the 17 absolute best places to visit in Costa Rica! Although you may not have time to visit all of these amazing destinations and tourist attractions, even if you can just check out a few you’re guaranteed to have an amazing trip!
July 14, 2020