The best way to describe Costa Rica to someone who’s never been might be as a tropical beach paradise mixed with an adventure playground, a la Jurassic Park. Sure, you can surf some of Central America’s best breaks here — but that’s only the beginning of what you’ll find. From active volcanoes and gushing waterfalls to stunning national parks that cover one-quarter of the country and the greatest biodiversity on the planet, Costa Rica is a nearly unrivaled outdoor destination. Add in hearty local food, bountiful coffee plantations, and warm, welcoming people, and it might just be time to start booking your flights.
1. It’s easy to get there — and get around.
A quick flight from many US and Canadian air hubs, Juan Santamaria International Airport (SJO) is located just outside of San Jose, the capital city, and welcomes you with awesome coffee, healthy snacks, and high-quality service — in English, for those lacking the native tongue. The country receives nearly two million visitors each year, making tourism the leading national industry in this country of just under five million. Ticos, as Costa Ricans refer to themselves, are among the world’s most hospitable people. Everywhere you go you’ll be greeted with a smile and given clear directions. When you land, stay in San Jose for a night or two before heading to the coast or jungle. Traveling around is seamless. Explore the city by walking or in an Uber, or hop a bus around town.
2. Costa Rica is a global leader in sustainable tourism.
The land of the Ticos consists of over 35 microclimates and two major seasons. Dry season runs from November to April, and green season is from May to October. Dry season is the more popular of the two for visitors as it’s perfect for tanning, surfing, and outdoor exploration. Count on good, if muggy, weather and make those tour reservations for early morning. Being up in the trees as the sun rises over the jungle is often as unforgettable as zip lining, canyoning, or trekking in and of itself.
Green season is not to be underestimated, however. If you don’t mind some afternoon showers, you’ll see fewer tourists and prices will be cheaper across the board, from lodging to tours to beachside bottles of Imperial beer.
A major reason to toast that Imperial beer is that Costa Rica prides itself on being extremely green both in appearance and attitude. Rivers slice their way throughout this lush country, and harnessing the power of its volcanoes, rivers, and windmills has allowed the country to run a whole 96 percent of its energy use in 2019 from renewable sources.
Expect bamboo straws at high-end restaurants and roadside sodas, the small mom-and-pop cafes common on highways and in small towns. Even in the capital, you aren’t likely to see much plastic or trash around.
3. La Paz Waterfall Gardens is a truly wild menagerie.
Picture yourself walking down a misty jungle path. A monkey hollers. You holler back. Coming around a bend, you’re greeted by a toucan. Yes, a toucan. Then, after you’ve pulled yourself together and snapped a few dozen photos, you continue to the main attraction, chilling with a jaguar. La Paz Waterfall Gardens, about an hour and 20 minutes north of San Jose, is a park divided into different sections where you can see colibries (hummingbirds) flying freely, monkeys doing their thing, beautiful snakes in aquariums, and giant cats. The cool thing about this place is that it really cares for the animals.
Each of the bigger species, such as the tiger and ocelot, are rescues, as is the spider monkey you may see overhead. The park has taken them in after they’ve been wrongly kept as pets or have suffered injuries in the wild. After you’re done aww-ing at the sloths, head down to the waterfalls, of which there are a total of five that you can do a quick hike to within the park.
4. You’ll get a rush of adrenaline at the Arenal Volcano.
Let’s get some adrenaline pumping through your veins. Thanks to the ample rainforest and waterfalls, you can go canyoning just under three hours north of San Jose with Pure Trek in La Fortuna at the base of the Arenal Volcano. Prepare to rappel down a 160-foot waterfall. It’s an exhilarating experience, climbing down a rock face towards rushing water below, but one that offers an unrivaled view of the Costa Rican jungle. Scream too much and the guides may play a joke on you and steer you over to the water for a quick dip. By the time you reach the last waterfall, though, you’ll feel like a real pro.
Nearby Sky Treka offers zip-lining tours in the Arenal and Monteverde areas. You’ll fly up to 45 miles per hour, the only thing between the blue sky above and the luscious vegetation below — though there may be the occasional howler monkey in a tree laughing at you. For overnight accommodations in the area, the Arenal Manoa offers easy access to the canyons and to Arenal Volcano National Park, where you can hike around the lava fields surrounding the volcano. The volcano is still active and used to harness natural energy, harking back to the country’s emphasis on green power and sustainable tourism. Wherever you go in the area, you’ll see its impressive crater towering over the landscape, reminding you of how majestic nature is. You’ll get to have breakfast with a front-row seat gazing out at the volcano.
5. Costa Rica’s rivers are an incredible place to chillax.
Thanks to the Tabacón River, which stems down from the volcano, the Arenal area has a half dozen outdoor hot springs spas. Arguably the most impressive is Tabacón Grand Spa Thermal, where a day pass gives you access to over 20 pools of varying temperatures where you can soak while looking at the palm trees as your feet feel grounded in the soft sand and smooth rocks. The cherry on top is that this resort has a bar inside one of its pools, as well as a dinner buffet with healthy gourmet eats, included in the pass.
Closer to the west coast, the Jungle Crocodile Safari takes adventurous travelers on an hour-long ride down the Tarcoles River, where they can see crocodiles in their natural habitat. Birders will be happy too, as the surrounding mangrove has over 40 different species of birds. You’ll see a tiger heron and a black neck stilt casually flying over and at times, landing on the boat.
6. Manuel Antonio National Park is packed with charismatic creatures.
Manuel Antonio National Park is one of the smallest national parks in the country, but it’s very rich in wildlife. The trick here is to go in with a guide, as they’ll have a spotting scope and be able to point out the creatures hiding in the bushes. You’ll see exotic birds, sloths, a boa here and there, and countless butterflies and grasshoppers. The park also has three beaches, so make sure to bring your bathing suit. Visiting at the crack of dawn is always the way to go, as this place is super popular year-round, and it only admits 300 people at a time.
Besides any pointed to by your guide, you won’t see any snakes, either in the park or really anywhere else in the country. Unless you want to, of course. If you’re the type who’s turned off by the slithering species, you’ve got nothing to worry about. Snakes, while common in photos of the country’s aquariums, are really low-key in actuality. You’ll only get to see them in the serpentarium at La Paz Waterfall Gardens or pointed to by local guides on those three particular trees along the Pacific Highway. If you want to see a viper in its natural habitat, you’ll have to ask your tour guide because otherwise, they won’t come close.
Just south of the park is the Osa Peninsula, home to the most biodiverse place in Central America, Playa Cativo. This is where you want to spend your nights while near the coast — fully off the tourist circuit and immersed in lush natural surroundings. You can only reach the ecolodge by boat, so you’re guaranteed a whole lot of peace and privacy. The resort produces 60 percent of its food on its own organic farm, to which they take you on a tour to sample herbs that will later be used in your gourmet mahi mahi tacos and lemongrass cocktail. Dozing off in a hammock here on a lazy afternoon after paddleboarding is pure bliss.
7. You can admire whales and dolphins from the sea.
Just off the peninsula are some of Central America’s most fruitful whale-watching tours. If you’ve ever been on a whale-watching tour where you see one or two whales tops, and then head in trying to decide if you should be disappointed, this isn’t one of those. Heading out on the Golfo Dulce and the Pacific Ocean with Playa Cativo’s whale and dolphin watching tour guarantees you’re hanging out with a whole school of these majestic creatures. You’ll see at least a half dozen dolphins swimming by your boat, and they’re likely to gaze right back at you as you stare at them, their air holes opening and closing as if they’re trying to communicate with you. The best time to see bottlenose dolphins and humpback whales is from July to October.
8. You’ll see where your pour-over coffee really comes from.
For those who consume healthy doses of coffee on the daily, a coffee farm tour is a good way to see where your drink actually comes from. There are eight coffee-producing regions in Costa Rica. A few of the primary farms sit just outside San Jose, so you can visit for a day tour to sample the magic elixir straight from the source and see what beans look like from farm to cup. All the coffee produced here is fair-trade, so companies like Starbucks — which has one of the largest farms in the area — take care of their workers and make sure they are medically insured.
Some plantations host visitors overnight, an experience that includes tours, tastings, and more info than you could ever hope to learn about coffee. Finca Rosa Blanca is among the most popular outposts near the city, though half-day and full-day tours are also available through outfitters like Britt CoffeeTour.
9. You’ll be very happy you pulled over at the roadside food stands.
Speaking of sodas, you should definitely make a random stop at at least one. Of the many pleasures of driving around Costa Rica, views of rolling hills and meadows, for instance, the ease of stopping to munch on something sweet makes the top of the list. You’ll find them lining the road from San Jose to La Fortuna. Here, you can indulge in a sugar cookie as big as your head topped with molasses, corn cookies, or fresh strawberries, often as cheap as $1.50 for an entire box. Most serve full meals, as well, and you’ll learn very quickly that Costa Ricans are as crazy about french fries as, well, everyone else in the world. An order of fajitas is bound to come with a side of fries, as is a plate of fish tacos.
Even beyond the sodas, the food scene in general will satisfy even the pickiest of foodies. Costa Rica is all about pura vida, and this mantra extends to the dinner table — they make sure to feed you well. Typical meals include casado, which is a mix of rice, beans, plantain, and smoky, flavorful chicken. This usually comes accompanied by a fresh watermelon or pineapple juice.
As you make your way to Golfito Dulce and the Pacific region of the country, expect to taste the freshest mahi mahi, tuna, and red snapper, getting better the closer you get to the sea — the Tico version of drinking Guinness in Ireland. If you’d like to treat yourself to a five-star gourmet meal near the western coast, Hotel Parador in the Puntarenas province town of Punto Quepos is the place. If you’re on a budget, that’s fine too. You can get a really good, healthy meal for anywhere between $4 and $20 per person.