11 Essential Costa Rica Adventures That Keep Us Coming Back for More
For our Deal Experts, Costa Rica is a favorite destination we find ourselves returning to over and over again.
• It’s convenient — nonstop flights from 15 U.S. cities, and less than six hours in the air from New York, Los Angeles, Atlanta and Dallas.
• No jet lag — the Central American country is on the same time zone as the Midwest.
• It’s tourist-friendly and safe — more than one million Americans visited last year.
• There’s tons to see and do — it’s a one-stop shop for adventure.
Zip lines, curious monkeys, beaches fringed by tropical jungles, toucans, hot springs, turtles, serious surfing and sustainable eco-adventure — all in one destination. The tourism hot spot continues to deliver on the promise of Pura Vida, “pure life” — a mantra that’s a greeting, a goodbye, an attitude and a way of life here.
So if you’re sitting there with leftover vacation days burning a hole in your pocket, pack your sense of adventure (and a good pair of shoes) and get ready for these essential experiences …
1. Fly like Superman.
If you spend any time in Costa Rica and don’t go on a zip line, you’ve kind of missed the point of a trip here. It’s admittedly not for everyone, but one of the highlights for many travelers is the literal rush of sheer adrenaline as you fly through the air like a modern-day Tarzan. The bravest go “Superman” on their belly, head first. Zip lines aren’t hard to find — whether it’s in the misty cloud forest of Monteverde, in the looming shadow of the Arenal volcano, or through the colorful jungle canopy at various spots throughout the country.
A zip line trip is one of the best ways to get a bird’s-eye view of the wildlife in Costa Rica — many animals stay up in the trees. Bring your GoPro, selfie stick or camera with a strong strap and get ready to fly. There are plenty of other ways to experience Costa Rica’s forests — hanging bridges, nature hikes, horseback rides — but zip-lining is one of our favorites.
2. Watch out for Costa Rica’s wild side.
With 500,000 species packed into an area smaller than West Virginia, you’ll have a wild time in Costa Rica. One of the first things you’ll notice are the colors — whether it’s the flowers and foliage, the many colors of the native frogs that freckle the landscape or the bright plumage on the toucan. The animals get up with the sun, so start your days early to see the most wildlife. During Costa Rica’s green season (May through November), there’s another advantage to starting early: The rains tend to come mid- to late-afternoon.
Nature guides can help point out animals and plants during guided rain forest hikes and make sure you get that perfect picture for your Instagram. More than 25% of the country is protected land or national parks — nature really is the star of the show here. Bird-watchers should put Los Quetzales National Park (south of San Jose) on their itinerary to see the resplendent quetzal (really, that’s the bird’s name) and many other birds that call the cooler climes of the cloud forest home.
As for the monkeys, these guys are everywhere, and you might actually hear them before you see them. Howler monkeys are Costa Rica’s version of white noise — a soundtrack to remind you that you aren’t in the States. Capuchin monkeys will pop their white heads out of the trees to see what’s going on and may photobomb your next selfie.
If you’re feeling more adventurous — Corcovado National Park on the country’s southern Pacific coast is the country’s largest national park, and home to 3% of the world’s biodiversity all by itself. The waters off the surrounding Osa Peninsula are a great spot for dolphin sightings and whale-watching — humpback whales come to the waters off of Caño Island from as far away as Alaska.
It’s a little slower going on the Caribbean coast — sloths and turtles are the biggest draws for visitors to Costa Rica’s eastern shore. Tortuguero National Park in the northeast takes extra effort to visit — a short flight from San Jose and then a boat through the canals. But once there, you’ll find giant leatherback, loggerhead and hawksbill turtles taking it easy or laying eggs on the beach before dawn. You might also see a sloth or two just hanging out — because what else do they do?
Sure beats the zoo.
3. Go from sea to shining sea.
There are more than 900 miles of coastline in Costa Rica (more than California), so there’s a good bet you’ll find a “playa” to put down your beach blanket. Most visitors to Costa Rica orient themselves toward the Pacific Coast — many of the surf towns in Guanacaste, the Gulf of Papagayo and the Nicoya Peninsula are a couple hours’ drive west of the international airports in San Jose and Liberia. There’s good reason for this: It’s much easier to go west than east from the airports on Costa Rica’s rugged roads, beach towns like Jaco and Tamarindo are more developed and you’ll finish an active day with sunsets like this.
Manuel Antonio National Park is also on the Pacific Coast, south of San Jose. This national park isn’t massive, but it’s kind of a one-stop shop for everything that’s cool about Costa Rica. Abundant wildlife on land and sea, pristine beaches that front tropical rain forests, adventure options from zip-lining to horseback riding to hiking. You won’t want to miss this.
But don’t make the mistake of skipping Costa Rica’s Caribbean coast. To get there, it’s easiest to hop a quick flight to Puerto Limon. Once there, you’ll find the Caribbean’s warm water, animals galore (sloth sanctuary, anyone?) and low-key vacation spots like Puerto Viejo, where you won’t find nearly as many tourists as on the western shores. You could have this view all to yourself.
4. Learn to surf.
Year-round surfing on the Pacific Coast has drawn a ton of ex-pats to Costa Rica, and built up surf towns along the way. Jaco is the closest to San Jose, but our Deal Experts recommend making your way to Guanacaste in the country’s northwest for the best experience. Flying directly into Liberia makes getting to there easier. No need to bring your own board — many beaches will have a small stand offering boards and lessons for a half day or more. Towns like Nosara, Samara, Avellanas and Tamarindo are among our favorites.
Serious surfers will make their way to Puntarenas at the end of the Nicoya Peninsula to the surf community at Santa Teresa Beach. If you’re really up for an adventure, head to Pavones in the country’s far south for the three-minute rides on the left-handed break.
5. Feel the rumble in the jungle.
Towering like an ancient Mayan pyramid above the central Costa Rican forest, the Arenal volcano is one of the country’s iconic sights. While the volcano has been dormant since 2010, there’s still the occasional rumble in the jungle. The area around Arenal is a veritable playground with the massive Lake Arenal used for boating, kayaking and stand-up paddleboarding, hot springs and waterfalls (more on these later), zip lines and horseback riding. You’ll want to spend a couple days here. Go during the green season for smaller tourist crowds, but get up early no matter when you go to try to sneak a peek at the peak — the volcano summit often hides behind the afternoon clouds.
Arenal is one of 5 “active” volcanoes in Costa Rica scattered along country’s mountainous interior. Poás and Irazú are a comfortable day trip from San Jose (bring a jacket, it can get cold up top). On a clear day, you can see both coasts from the summit of Irazú.
6. Unwind at the spa.
So how exactly is a spa day an adventure? When your hot tub is a naturally occurring hot spring, and your spa attendant may well be a curious monkey. Costa Rica’s volcanic underpinnings mean hot springs bubble to the surface — drawing in visitors looking to unwind in mineral waterfalls amid a leafy backdrop.
7. Go chasing waterfalls.
It’s hard to beat the rush of that first time you see (and hear) a waterfall bursting from the jungle backdrop. There are several falls worth a detour — especially during the green season, when the rains feed Costa Rica’s rivers.
La Fortuna waterfall (near Arenal) is about a 20-minute hike on a well-marked path with a big reveal at the end. You can swim in the cold waters at the waterfall’s base or take the rope swing to jump in. Another favorite is in Tenorio Volcano National Park in the Northern Plains, where the Rio Celeste plunges out of the jungle into a pool of brilliant blue water (and right into your Instagram feed).
8. Get rolling on the Rio.
Who needs a water slide at the hotel pool when there’s stuff like tubing and rafting? Costa Rica’s rios (rivers for you gringos) are an adventure all to themselves.
Rio Pacuare is a white-water playground — we’re talking rapids as rough as Class V as the river rushes through gorges and untouched tropical forest toward the Caribbean. National Geographic named this one of the top spots in the world for white-water rafting. Companies will take you out for everything from a fun-filled day on Class III rapids to a 3- or 4-day adventure with serious white-water during the day and luxe eco-lodges at night.
Of course a trip like that isn’t for everyone. Ease into adventure by spending a day at Rincon de la Vieja National Park in Guanacaste. It’s more or less a natural theme park — there’s canyoneering, waterfall rappelling (you literally rappel down a waterfall) and, of course, zip-lining.
9. It’s about the journey, not the destination.
Driving in Costa Rica can be its own adventure. Take our advice and get the 4×4 rental when it’s offered. While main roads are generally okay, secondary and mountain roads can be narrow and rough — especially when rains cause potholes or washouts. Getting to off-the-beaten path gems requires a vehicle that can beat its own path. You should also get the GPS — road signs aren’t common outside the main cities, and even then it’s spotty. Don’t expect to get from Point A to Point B in record time, so embrace the slower pace. It’s worth a stop at a roadside shack for some rice, beans and plantains or a refrescos — a fresh fruit drink popular in Costa Rica.
One of our favorite ways to get around in Costa Rica is via horseback, whether it’s climbing the hills around Arenal (so you can zip line down) or along the surf at Hermosa Beach or Manuel Antonio.
10. Take a deep dive.
Costa Rica’s name in Spanish means “rich coast” — which has as much to do with the treasures below the surface as it does the picturesque beaches.
The Gulf of Papagayo in Guanacaste is a popular (and accessible) spot for casual divers — one of many along the Pacific Coast. If you’re serious about scuba, then Caño Island and the waters near Corcovado National Park should be on your list. This is a trip in and of itself, but the deep sea diversity is something to write home about. We’re talking schools of fish so thick that they block the sun, plus manta rays, bull sharks, dolphins and more.
11. Stretch out your vacation.
A little Zen goes a long way, and our Deal Experts really like to get their “Om” on in Costa Rica to balance out all the activities. There are several yoga retreats scattered around the country — not surprising in a place where the natural surroundings are inherently peaceful. One favorite spot is Nosara, a beachfront area on the Nicoya Peninsula that also doubles as a great surf spot. Ride the waves in the morning; strike a pose in the afternoon.
Sounds like the perfect day.
Discover even more adventures and travel tips, including itineraries for a Costa Rica vacation, at SavetheAmericans.org.