Although it only accounts for 0.03% of the world’s surface, Costa Rica houses almost 6% of the world’s biodiversity.
The flora and fauna are only two of many reasons travelers from across the globe are flocking to this ecologically and culturally-rich country. The list of Costa Rica attractions includes everything from relaxing by turquoise waters on pink sand beaches to speeding down a zipline through the middle of the jungle.
In a place that offers a seemingly endless number of things to experience, narrowing down what you want to do isn’t going to be easy. Lucky for you, our experts have been there, done that – and they’re willing to share it all.
Start getting excited about traveling around Costa Rica with these top 12 attractions that you just can’t miss.
Costa Rica is home to a large chunk of the planet’s biodiversity, mostly found in rainforests that cover 25% of the country’s territory. While Costa Rica has cloud forest, tropical dry forest, and tropical rainforest, it’s the latter that the majority of flora and fauna call home.
Beyond their role as the home of 1000’s of insect, animal and plant species, Costa Rica’s rainforests help manage the global climate, keep our oxygen supply clean, and provide an abundance of food and other natural resources.
Perhaps one of the best ways to get deep into these jungle landscapes is a canopy tour. Built in many shapes and forms across the country, a canopy tour takes you deep into the heart of the rainforest for an adventure course you’ll never forget. You’ll traverse zip lines, aerial bridges, and platforms built right into the canopy of enormous trees – and it’s good fun for both the kids and the adults.
Speaking of rainforests, you won’t want to leave Corcovado National Park off of your Costa Rica to do list. Covering over half of the Osa Peninsula, Corcovado is 163 square miles and 13 ecosystems full of stunning landscapes, white sand beaches lined by lush, green mountains, and, of course, plenty of wildlife. In fact, this is one of the best places for wildlife viewing in the country - being relatively remote and untouched means more opportunities for spotting Costa Rica’s elusive and endangered inhabitants, including; tapirs, jaguars, macaws,and squirrel monkeys.
Bordering the park, you’ll find 23 miles of marine and beach habitats. Once you’ve taken in all the monkey-sightings you can handle, grab your snorkel and check out the reefs nestled along this pristine piece of coastline.
Another one of the most popular stops when travelling around Costa Rica is Arenal Volcano – the country’s most active volcano – and the 29,692-acre National Park surrounding its base.
The National Park itself sits within the 504,094 acre Arenal Conservation Area, which stretches from the Tilarán to the Guanacaste mountain range. Within the conservation borders, not only will you find most of the 850 species of bird living in Costa Rica, the territory itself spans 8 of the 12 life zones in the country and protects some 16 reserves.
Northeast of the famed volcano, you’ll find Eco Termales, Arenal’s only truly natural hot spring. With a physical-chemical composition that benefits the mind and the body, it’s the ideal place to rest after a hard day of taking in all the beauty of Arenal. Plus, their waste disposal system makes them a more sustainable alternative to some of the other hot springs in the area.
Costa Rica attractions that involve wildlife viewing are a big draw for a significant number of the tourists that visit every year. It goes without saying that, in one of the most diverse places on earth, you’ll have a once in a lifetime opportunity to see and learn about elusive, rare creatures.
Costa Rica has 220 species of reptiles, 240 species of mammals, 160 species of amphibians, 34,000 species of insects, 1,000 species of butterflies, and 180 species of freshwater fish. The country also counts two species of sloth among its biodiversity: the two-fingered and three-fingered sloth. All that life in such a small space means you’ll likely be seeing animals you’ve never seen without even looking for them.
Hitting the beach is an obvious Costa Rica attraction for anybody who loves sand and sunshine, and white sand beaches abound on the Pacific and Caribbean coasts. But while sparkling, soft sand beaches nestled into coves are the things all travel dreams are made of, this coastline offers up a little something extra special: colored sand beaches.
Head to Flamingo Beach in the Guanacaste region to bask in the exceptionally beautiful glory of a Pacific sunset on a pink sand beach. Along the Nicoya Peninsula, you’ll find volcanic black sand beaches. Namely, the Ostional Beach within the Ostional Wildlife Refuge is not only unique for its colored sands, but also for its turtle populations.
With coastline on both the Pacific and Caribbean, and surf breaks galore on both sides, Costa Rica is a world class destination for catching waves. But with that reputation comes crowds and plenty of waiting in line for your turn at the best break. That is, unless you know where to look.
One of Costa Rica’s best kept surfing secrets is Matapalo. With three main surfing spots – Pan Dulce, Backwash Bay, and Playa Matapalo – there’s something for newbie to lifelong surfers alike. Whether you just need a board for a day or you’re looking to perfect your pop-up, this quiet surf town has schools, camps, rentals, and shops to get you outfitted and out on the water ASAP.
If the bird watcher in you is wondering what to do in Costa Rica, spotting rare and incredible bird species isn’t so rare over the course of a few weeks here. Among the 850 bird species identified in the country, there are 57 types of hummingbirds, 42 species of toucans, and perhaps the most stunning and mysterious of them all, the Quetzal. Surrounded by the lush greenery of Los Santos Forest Reserve on one side and Quetzales National Park on the other, Tami Lodge is the ideal place to start your bird viewing tour and your best chance at catching a glimpse of the Quetzal.
Ticos, a name that Costa Ricans call themselves in reference to the common use of “tico” as a suffix, are welcoming to visitors and well-regarded as friendly, inviting people. Costa Rica was colonized by the Spanish, but it’s full of multicultural influences that are evident in architecture, food, dress, and cultural activities.
You can experience all of that thanks to the robust rural community tourism infrastructure in Costa Rica. As part of their sustainable heritage, Costa Rica is on the cutting edge of local-led tourism initiatives where visitors can venture into remote regions and learn their ways of life. Not only will you have the most authentic cultural experience possible, you’ll also be contributing to the current and future well being of the community.
And while you’re visiting, don’t be surprised if you find yourself invited to one of many community activities, harvest celebrations, carnivals, or church parades. If an invite is what your gunning for, then make sure to visit in December, when holiday festivals and parties line the streets and light the night sky, or February and March, the months hosting cultural festivals with storytelling, competitions, tradition, and food.
Just northeast of the beautiful Corcovado National Park you’ll find Isla del Cano Biological Reserve. While some visitors come here to watch for whales from the beaches, the real spectacle of the island is located in the virgin blue waters surrounding it.
Bring your snorkel or diving gear and take the plunge into coral beds that house sea turtles, dolphins, moray eels, stingrays and manta rays, as well as a fish, sharks, and whales. This 300-hectare island is rated one of the best diving spots in the world, with incredible underwater visibility and a diverse range of marine life.
With almost 26% of the national territory dedicated to parks, reserves, and conservation, you can find accommodations ranging from luxury hotels perched atop rocky, ocean-carved cliffs to eco-lodges and environmental retreats. Check yourself into a yoga retreat for a few days of getting grounded or get pampered in a treehouse perched among the jungles’ canopy – and do it all while reducing your carbon footprint.
No Costa Rica to do list is complete without a visit to the Monteverde Cloud Forest. As if that name isn’t magically enticing enough, imagine an area wherein 2.5% of all the world’s biodiversity resides, where 10% of the plants you’ll see can’t be seen anywhere else on the planet, and 100% of your entrance fee is used for education programming.
Arguably, the best part of experiencing any of these Costa Rica activities is tasting the traditional foods along the way. Be on the lookout for tamales, pastries and pies filled with meats and spices, and casado. There’s no shortage of fruit and vegetable options, either – and the flavor that comes with their freshness will have you wondering what you’ve been eating back home.
For all the foodie travelers out there, you can’t miss the national dish, Gallo Pinto. Typically served for breakfast, it’s a hearty start to your day with black beans, rice seasoned with cilantro and onions, eggs, and a dollop of sour cream. Once you’ve had your morning meal, find out where your coffee came from on a local coffee tour, where you’ll learn more about the impact of these beans on Costa Rican history and culture.
Costa Rica is a destination for adventure as much as it is for relaxation. It’s an opportunity to experience a new culture, to immerse yourself in food and music, and to see plant and wildlife that you can’t see anywhere else in the world… all to the tune of some of the most impressive landscapes Central America has to offer.
For a full list of Costa Rica attractions, or to start customizing your own trip, check out our Costa Rica custom trips here.