COSTA RICA has staked its reputation on being a progressive pioneer when it comes to environmental conservation policy. A full 25% of its territory falls under national park status or some other designation of protection. Deforestation — a serious concern in a state that’s 50% forest — has been halted almost entirely. The legislature banned recreational hunting in 2012, and the government is aiming to become the world’s first carbon-neutral nation by 2021.

And Costa Ricans have plenty to protect. Their tiny country (around the size of two Vermonts) accounts for just 0.1% of the world’s land area, but is home to almost 5% of its biodiversity. From rare amphibians to monkeys to big cats to sea turtles and over 800 different bird species, Costa Rica’s fauna is as impressive as its volcanic, rainforest-covered landscape.

For the traveler, all of this adds up to pretty much the most spectacular ecotourism opportunities anywhere, as well as plenty of volunteer-based travel options. Below are some snapshots of what you can expect when you go.


Storm at Playa Avellanas, Nicoya

Located on the thick arm of the Nicoya Peninsula, Avellanas lies about 10km south of Tamarindo and offers mellower waves than the more popular Playa Negra farther south.
Photo: Roman Königshofer


Volcán Arenal

Though nowhere near the tallest volcano in Costa Rica, Arenal is the most active, regularly putting on shows like this. It gives its name to the national park that surrounds it.
Photo: Scott Robinson


Sunrise on the beach

Costa Rica has over 750 miles of coastline on both the Pacific and Caribbean, which means a whole lot of beach.
Photo: Frontierofficial


Green sea turtle

The green sea turtle (this one was photographed in Hawaii) is one of many endangered species that depends on Costa Rica for its survival. The Tortuguero Conservation Area is the single most important nesting site for the Atlantic subpopulation of green turtles, and serves as an epicenter for turtle conservation.
Photo: Roy Niswanger


Cruising the zipline

Many of the country's ecotourism zones feature ziplines, which sling visitors over rainforests and waterfalls. The highest concentration is in the La Fortuna/Arenal area.
Photo: Alex


Hammerhead at Cocos Island

Cocos sits 340 miles southwest of mainland Costa Rica (about halfway to the Galapagos) and is an uninhabited national park. If you manage to make it out here, you've probably done so for the diving—some of the best in the world.
Photo: Barry Peters


Arenal in cloud

The volcano's 5,350ft peak is often banked in clouds—which doesn't really detract from the view.
Photo: Scott Robinson


Green and black poison dart frog

One of Costa Rica's 133 species of frog, this specimen was photographed in the rainforests of the Gandoca-Manzanillo Wildlife Refuge, near the border with Panama.
Photo: Geoff Gallice


Llanos de Cortez Waterfall, Guanacaste

A quick detour off the Panamerican Highway in Guanacaste Province will take you to this waterfall and swimming hole, which has its own white-sand beach.
Photo: "Mike" Michael L. Baird,


Mango break

One of the many tropical fruit options at markets in the capital San Jose and around the country.
Photo: Everjean


Baby two-toed sloth

These arboreal mammals are native to Costa Rica. According to the photographer, this little guy is under the care of the Jaguar Rescue Center in Puerto Viejo de Talamanca.
Photo: Matt MacGillivray


Rolling hills

The mountains of Costa Rica run down the center of the country and are flanked by rolling green hills and farmland like this.
Photo: Ray Che


Pacific sunset

A mellow sundowner on the Pacific coast near Nuevo Colon, Guanacaste.
Photo: Melissa Roy


Vibrant butterfly

A large chunk of Costa Rica's biodiversity is made up by its 300,000+ species of insects, which include 1,250 butterfly species—10% of the world's total.
Photo: Frontierofficial


Catarata del Toro

Just north of San Jose, this waterfall plunges from a hole in the cliff face 300 feet to the bottom of an extinct volcanic crater.
Photo: Steve Jurvetson


Sunset over Manuel Antonio

On the central Pacific coast near Quepos, this is the sunset view from Buena Vista Villas & Casas, in Manuel Antonio National Park.
Photo: kansasphoto


Costa Rican breakfast

The star of the plate here is gallo pinto, or "spotted rooster," a rice-and-beans concoction that's a national dish of Costa Rica (also claimed by Nicaragua).
Photo: The LEAF Project


No mistaking it—this is the tropics

This view of Arenal and the surrounding tropical forest drives home the Jurassic Park-level of lushness of Costa Rican flora.
Photo: Arturo Sotillo


Volcán Poás

A good 3,000 feet taller than Arenal is Volcán Poás, another active volcano in central Costa Rica. It has erupted 39 times since 1828 and has dual crater lakes near the summit.
Photo: Apetitu


White-headed capuchin

This is one of four species of monkey native to Costa Rica and probably the easiest to spot. It can make its home in pretty much any type of tropical forest.
Photo: Gloria Manna


Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve

Near the town of the same name, in the Tilarán Mountains, this reserve protects a 26,000-acre tract of virgin rainforest consisting of six different eco zones and tremendous biodiversity.
Photo: Thomas Frost Jensen


Playa Herradura sunset

Another Pacific sunset, this one taken in Playa Herradura, one of the country's most popular tourist draws, located an hour west of San Jose.
Photo: Andrew Morrell



Costa Rica is home to over 800 known species of birds. This hummingbird was photographed in Alajuela.
Photo: Jon Fife


Day's end

A vodka sundowner at a luxury resort in Manuel Antonio National Park, one of Costa Rica's smallest but also one of its most renowned, combining rainforest and beach landscapes.
Photo: sean hobson


Rio Agujitas at Drake Bay

The relatively short Agujitas River rises in the forested hills of the Osa Peninsula and empties into Drake Bay just north of Corcovado National Park.
Photo: Trish Hartmann


Monkey silhouettes

A pair of monkeys, mother and child, spotted at the luxury resort Hacienda Pinilla, on the Nicoya Peninsula.
Photo: Paul Kehrer


Irazú Volcano National Park

From the photographer: "This picture was taken during our road trip in Costa Rica, while visiting the Irazú Volcano National Park. From the top it is possible to see both the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans on a clear day. However, such clear days are very rare and it is typical for the volcano's summit to be covered in cloud for much of the time. Although we did not have the opportunity to observe the beautiful view from the top, these clouds created a very mysterious atmosphere and made the landscape very photogenic."
Photo: Céline Colin


Cocoa beans, raw ingredient of Costa Rican chocolate

Many small-scale chocolate producers operate in Costa Rica, offering tours of their working facilities.
Photo: Everjean


Laguna Verde, Volcán Irazú

Within one of the multiple craters at the summit of the volcano Irazú is this green lake, so colored on account of its chemical content.
Photo: Cristina Valencia


Surfing Costa Rica

People have been traveling to surf Costa Rica for decades—there are breaks to hit all along the Pacific coast, as well as a few on the Caribbean side.
Photo: Darren Johnson


Scarlet macaws

This distinctive parrot species can be seen in a few of Costa Rica's preserves. The pair shown above was photographed near Carara National Park.
Photo: Andrew Morrell


Arenal's halo

A close-up shot of clouds draping the peak of Arenal.
Photo: carol patterson


Rio Celeste Falls

One of the northernmost of Costa Rica's 26 national parks, Tenorio Volcano is home to the Rio Celeste and this waterfall.
Photo: Bruce Thomson


Rhinoceros beetle

Rhinoceros beetles can reach lengths of up to six inches and are found in multiple parks in Costa Rica. They are completely harmless—they can't bite or sting. They may, however, freak you out.
Photo: Lyn Gateley


View from Cerro Amigos

Cerro Amigos is the highest point (6,000ft) in the Monteverde reserve. On a clear day, you can see Arenal, the Pacific, and even across the border north to Nicaragua.
Photo: Dennis Tang