13 Can't-Miss Spots in Costa Rica

Dec 19, 2016

Despite a relatively small footprint, Costa Rica isn't a destination where you're going to see everything in a one-week vacation.

In a country where off-the-beaten path can be quite literal, here are spots to visit after you've landed or already done Arenal and Manuel Antonio. You could try to do it all on one long trip, or return again and again to knock these can't-miss spots off the list.

Flying into San José

Most nonstop flights from the U.S. land in San José, located in the Central Valley, close to white-water rapids, rain forest hikes and coffee plantations. Here are a couple quick trips from the capital city that can start your trip off right.

1. Take in the Theatre.

Before you venture out from San José, make sure to check out the National Theatre. This neo-classical building is impressive on the outside, but jaw-dropping inside -- with massive murals on the ceilings, ornate furnishings and Italian marble sculptures in the lobby. Hourly tours are offered -- though you can also catch National Symphony Orchestra performances here.

2. Reach the summit.

The Poás Volcano is the most active of Costa Rica's volcanoes and features two lakes in the caldera. About a 90-minute drive from San José, the summit is fairly accessible -- with a paved road to the visitors center. Editor's Note: Due to recent eruptions in 2017 and 2019, check to make sure the park is open to visitors before visiting.

The best time to visit is in the morning -- on a clear day you can see the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans from the summit before the afternoon clouds roll in. Go in the middle of the week for smaller crowds. Farther down the mountain, the cloud forest is dense with vegetation and wildlife and hiking trails.

3. Check out this dramatic drop.

Continuing along into the Northern Plains, make sure to see Catarata del Toro -- a dramatic 300-foot waterfall into an extinct volcanic crater located on a private reserve. (There is an admission fee, but that means the facilities are in better shape for visitors -- and it's less crowded.) You can take the steep hike to the bottom for an up close view –-- or take in the big picture from above.

Near Arenal

When you visit the iconic Arenal volcano, there will be plenty to do between peeks at the mountain to try to see the summit emerge from the clouds. Plan on spending 2-3 days in the area -- kayaking on Lake Arenal, zip lining or mountain biking on the slopes of Arenal and relaxing the natural hot springs.

4. Consider yourself 'Fortuna'te.

One spot you can't miss near Arenal is La Fortuna waterfall. A 20-minute hike through the rain forest takes you to an Instagram-worthy scene as the water drops 140 feet into a pool below. Bring your suit and try the rope swing.

5. Watch water change colors in front of your eyes.

Tucked inside the rain forest of the Tenorio Volcano National Park is Rio Celeste. The moderately difficult hike along the river will bring you to Los Teñideros, where two smaller clear rivers combine and the water turns a brilliant blue (due to the volcanic minerals) that gives the river its name (sky blue river). You're not going to see this anywhere else on earth.

The Caribbean Coast

Fly into San José if you plan on heading east to Costa Rica's Caribbean Coast, with its sun-drenched days and remote beaches.

6. Visit the Land of Turtles.

A short flight northeast from San José to Tortuguero puts you closest to one of the country's coolest national parks. Translated as the land of turtles -- you'll see plenty of these guys along with crocodiles, birds and monkeys during canal boat tours through the park. At night, go with a guide to the beaches to watch the sea turtles laying eggs in the sand.

7. Take a Caribbean beach break.

Puerto Viejo is on Costa Rica's Southeast coast and feels more Caribbean than the rest of the country. The area's wide, secluded beaches are the big draw for travelers looking to splash in the warm water.

For wildlife exploration, you're well-positioned here between two national parks -- Cahuita to the north and Gandoca-Manzanillo to the south.

Flying into Liberia

If you're flying into Liberia, your likely destinations are Guanacaste or the Nicoya Peninsula for some quality beach time and surfing. The weather in Guanacaste tends to be drier and you won't find as much rain forest here compared with regular forests you might find back in the States. This area is a particular favorite of our deal experts -- because you can find adventure and relaxation here -- sometimes in the same day.

8. Be on the lookout.

Northwest from Liberia on the Pacific Coast is Santa Rosa National Park, a dry tropical forest which is good for spotting monkeys and other wildlife in the less dense vegetation. Santa Rosa was Costa Rica's first national park less than 50 years ago, now 26% of the country is protected land.

The road in can be bumpy (you'll want a 4x4), but trails lead to a lookout of Witch's Rock and Playa Naranjo, a popular surfing spot for hardcore boarders.

9. Enjoy some "ReLuxeation".

Heading down the Pacific Coast toward the Nicoya Peninsula, you'll come upon luxury resorts -- especially around the Gulf of Papagayo Peninsula. So hey, if you want to stop for a couple days to relax in style -- we won't blame you.

10. Put sand, surf and sun on repeat.

Some of our favorite spots in the whole country are beach towns scattered further down the coast. Here are three we recommend, but part of the fun is uncovering beaches and beach towns along the way. Tamarindo is one of Costa Rica's most popular beach towns. It is more developed than many others on the Pacific Coast, so it's a good pick if you want to get away (but not from modern conveniences.)

Nosara is known as a yoga and surfing retreat –- you can hang ten in the morning and strike a pose in the afternoon. It's very popular with ex-pats, which have brought in an emphasis on organic restaurants and boutique hotels -- but have avoided overdeveloping the area.

The wide, white-sand beaches, calm surf (protected by a coral reef offshore) and bohemian vibe makes Samara a great stop for an uncomplicated beach day or two. This isn't the most developed beach town in the area -- and that's part of the appeal. While there is a town, the beach and jungle meet in many spots and looking back at the coast from the ocean you'll see more trees than buildings.

From Manuel Antonio

After enjoying the beaches and exploring the lush rain forest of Manuel Antonio, it's worth continuing down the Pacific coast.

11. See whale tails from a whale tail.

An hour south of Manuel Antonio you'll find Playa Uvita and Marina Ballena National Park -- Costa Rica's only marine national park. Humpback whales come to the waters off the coast here from January to April and July to October. Ocean currents have shaped a sandbar off the coast that looks a lot like a whale's tail that is just as impressive in person as it is on Google Maps.

12. Two waterfalls, one day trip.

One of the best waterfalls in southern Costa Rica is a day trip from Playa Uvita. Set deep in the rain forest, the Nauyaca Waterfalls can be accessed on foot or by horseback. Once there, you'll find two falls -- a lower falls include a wide swimming area for cooling off after the two-hour journey in.

Climb the steps to the upper falls to see a deeper drop while you picnic on the rocks.

13. Go the extra mile.

You've gone this far -- some of the best biodiversity in the entire world is nearby if you continue down the coast. The Osa Peninsula and Corcovado National Park is much more remote -- don't expect four-lane highways to get there. Water taxi is the best way to reach many spots down here. But that makes the area relatively untouched and a good place to go off the grid for a few days.

Drake Bay is a water playground -- kayaking and boating through mangroves, fishing, stand-up paddleboarding and snorkeling.

Ten miles off the coast is Cano Island Biological Reserve. You can pick up tours in Drake Bay to take you on the 40-minute boat ride to the island. Once there, you'll find one of the best snorkeling and diving locations in the world. We're talking schools of fish so dense they'll block out the light from the ocean's surface.

We just scratched the surface of what to see and do in Costa Rica. Not sure where to start? Use this itinerary tool to help plan your trip through Costa Rica.

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