There’s no doubt: Costa Rica is one of the most naturally blessed countries in the world. Discover lush rainforests, pristine beaches, and diverse ecosystems as you dig into all of the best places to visit in Costa Rica.
Costa Rica is hardly the off-the-beaten-path destination it once was. Thousands now visit every year in just about every capacity—packaged tourists, adventurers, and backpackers. All are in search of what Ticos affectionately dub the “Pura Vida” (“simple” or “pure” life).
There’s no better place to start exploring the country than Arenal Volcano National Park. This majestic, active volcano is surrounded by lush rainforests and hot springs, creating a haven for both relaxation and adventure seekers alike.
Costa Rica is synonymous with biodiversity, and a visit to Manuel Antonio National Park proves why. Walk through its dense forests to encounter monkeys, sloths, and vibrant birdlife before dipping your toes in the turquoise waters of its pristine beaches.
Whether you’re drawn to the thrill of zip-lining through the canopy or the tranquility of lounging on serene shores, live out your own pura vida at these top-notch travel destinations in Costa Rica…
Where to go in Costa Rica
Visiting Costa Rica isn’t as simple as flying into the capital, San José, and finding a room. Like in other destinations in Central America, the country charms travelers most in the interior and on the coast, far removed from the capital city.
Fortunately, many of the most popular tourist destinations in Costa Rica are within a couple of hours of the country’s two major international gateways: San José (SJO) and Liberia (LIR).
Take note that roads may not always be up to the standards you’re used to. But scooting between towns isn’t so difficult either. Transportation in Costa Rica—even public transportation—is efficient and relatively comfortable. This is particularly true in the Arenal, San Jose, and Guanacaste triangle. Even better, though, is to rent a car in Costa Rica. It’ll give you more freedom and free up time to explore more of the country!
Start your Costa Rica itinerary with these ten top-notch destinations…
Arenal Volcano National Park
Ask most people where to go in Costa Rica, and Arenal Volcano National Park will be somewhere near the top of the list. This 29,692-acre national park is part of the massive Arenal Conservation Area. Here, muscular volcanoes peek through misty forest floors, revealing dramatic landscapes that are quintessentially Central American.
Arenal Volcano National Park is home to two amazing volcanoes: Chato Volcano and Arenal Volcano. Unlike the extinct Chato Volcano, Arenal Volcano gets tempered from time to time.
Arenal Volcano been dormant since 2010, so catching plumes of sulfurous smoke and lava dripping down the hillside is no longer possible. (When Arenal will decide to act out again is anyone’s guess!)
It’s not only the beauty of the looming volcanoes that make this national park so compelling to visit, but the wide variety of things to do in Arenal.
Trekking around Arenal is one of the best ways to experience the national park. There are even a few short trails coming in at under three kilometers for the less adventure-inclined.
If you prefer water to forests, slip outside the national park to rent a kayak on Lake Arenal to take in some of the area’s most impressive vistas.
Besides trekking and kayaking, Arenal is famous for its wildlife watching. Test your spotting skills by embarking on a quest to behold deer, tapir, white-faced monkeys, exotic birds, and all the other animals that call Arenal Volcano National Park home.
Where to stay
By air: The closest airport is La Fortuna Arenal Airport, which handles domestic flights. Arriving from abroad, you’ll need to into Liberia (LIR: Daniel Oduber Quirós International Airport) or San José (SJO: Juan Santamaría International Airport). Airport transfers between these airports and Arenal should take about 2.5 to 3 hours, respectively.
By bus/shuttle: Both shuttle buses and public buses ply the route from San José to Arenal or La Fortuna. Depending on weather conditions, the trip to La Fortuna should take about 4.5 hours from downtown San Jose and cost around $4. From Liberia, shuttles are far more convenient than public buses. Shuttles leave Liberia for Arenal and La Fortuna at 9:15 am daily ($30) and take about 3 hours.
Manuel Antonio National Park
If Costa Rica’s reputation as one of the world’s foremost natural destinations was ever in question, the picture-perfect beaches and views of Manuel Antonio National Park will end the argument. Instantly.
Unfortunately, you’ll need to share this slice of paradise with many other travelers. (It is one of the best places to stay in Costa Rica, after all!)
With its popularity though, Manuel Antonio has some of Costa Rica’s most robust tourist infrastructure. For eating and lodging, you’ll be spoiled for options. The main town is a great place to chill after spending a day exploring all the nooks and crannies of Manuel Antonio National Park.
There’s a wide variety of things to do in Manuel Antonio. Go hiking through the park and get face-to-face with larcenous monkeys and work-shy sloths. Spot waterfalls on horseback. Plop onto a surfboard to catch some waves or paddle your cares away in a kayak. In any case, your days at Manuel Antonio will never bore you.
Nighttime is equally compelling. Staring out into the Pacific Ocean while sipping on a cocktail as the sun dips below the horizon could be one of the world’s most compelling ways to unwind.
Where to stay
There’s a good selection of accommodations in Manuel Antonio catering to all budgets. You’ll probably want to stay just outside the park in Manuel Antonio for a quick escape into the wilderness.
- Budget: Casa Amigos By the Beach
- Mid-Range: Hotel Villabosque
- Luxury: Si Como No Resort, Spa & Wildlife Refuge
By air: The closest airport, Quepos (XQP), handles only domestic air traffic. To get to Manuel Antonio from abroad, you’ll need to fly into San José (SJO). There are no scheduled shuttles from the airport. Find your way from the airport into downtown San José to grab a bus to Manuel Antonio.
By bus: There are three daily buses from San José to Manuel Antonio National Park. The journey lasts approximately 3.5 hours. Shuttles are a little bit quicker (3 hours) and more comfortable but much more expensive.[/makebox]
Costa Rica’s reputation as a top worldwide ecotourism destination approaches its apex in Monteverde. This small settlement is nestled in the Central Highlands.
Monteverde is famous for the Monteverde Cloud Forest Biological Reserve at its doorstep. It offers a glimpse of Central America at its most primeval. Monteverde is also one of the coolest places for family travel in Costa Rica. It’s certainly a unique experience the little ones will never forget!
You don’t have to be a nature photographer to appreciate the stunning array of exotic birds and other fauna and flora lurking within the Monteverde Cloud Forest Biological Reserve. (The biodiversity of the park is so impressive that it protects as much as 2.5% of the earth’s total biodiversity.)
Hiking through the cloud forest at leisure is one of the must-do activities in Monteverde and will help you to appreciate the full breadth of the park’s natural attractions. Keep your eyes peeled for the resplendent quetzal, a famous, colorful bird native to Central America with mythical underpinnings.
Besides spotting wildlife while hiking through the Monteverde Cloud Forest Biological Reserve, the nearby Santa Elena Cloud Forest Reserve offers quieter hikes. The hikes, arguably, lead to even better views of the surrounding area, including Arenal.
For exploring the cloud forests at Monteverde, be sure to bring along a sturdy pair of hiking shoes, not sandals! Don’t forget to pack other Central America travel essentials like a water bottle to stay healthy and hydrated.
Where to stay
Most of the popular accommodations in Monteverde center around the town of Santa Elena. From here, you’re not far away from both the Monteverde Cloud Forest Biological Reserve and the Santa Elena Cloud Reserve Forest.
By air: There’s no airport in Monteverde. The closest major international airports are San Jose (SFO) and Liberia (LIR), with the latter as the more convenient of the two options. A private and shared shuttle from the airport in Liberia to Monteverde will take approximately 2.5 and 3.5 hours, respectively.
By bus/shuttle: Unless you’re on a tight budget, shuttles to Monteverde will be far more convenient than public buses. The journey from Arenal & La Fortuna to Monteverde lasts approximately 3 hours by both shuttle and boat, offering superb views along the way. From San José, the trip takes at least 4 hours and will cost about $54. Look up schedules and prices for other destinations here.
Poás Volcano National Park
Unlike dozy Arenal, you’ll get to witness a little action at Poás Volcano National Park. Just don’t expect too much of an angry burst: Poás Volcano may be active, but it’s tame as far as volcanoes go.
Visit Poás Volcano National Park early in the morning. Watch the clouds and mist play hide and seek until they finally reveal the turquoise lake dwelling at the bottom of the 320-meter-deep crater. The perpetual steam shrouding the sulfurous water adds an air of mystique to the volcano. If you’re lucky, you might even catch a geyser burst from the depths!
Where to stay
Most travelers visit Poás as a day trip from San José. Finding hotels near Poaś Volcano National Park will allow you to visit early before the crowds of tourist come in and the clouds obscure the view.
By air: The closest airport to Poás Volcano National Park is San Jose (SJO). A transfer from the airport should take less than an hour.
By bus: There’s only one bus per day from San José departing at 8:30 from Avenida 2, Calles 12/14. The return bus to San José leaves Poás at 14:30. From other destinations in Costa Rica, you’ll likely need to backtrack to San José to get to Poás Volcano National Park.
Beach bums and surfer dudes/dudettes love wasting away their vacation days in Tamarindo. Better Costa Rican beaches dwell elsewhere, to be sure. However, the well-developed tourist infrastructure gives Tamarindo a distinct advantage over other more offbeat beach destinations in Costa Rica.
Playa Grande is Tamarindo’s most famous beach. And it’s one of the best places in Central America to surf—even if you’re an absolute beginner. Long days on the water, followed by serious unwinding in the bars and restaurants of Tamarindo, is the perfect cocktail for your Costa Rican beach vacation.
Don’t think that Costa Rica’s most famous party destination is nothing more than a string of sleepless nights and late mornings, though. Even families and out-of-the-partying-years adults will find things to do in Tamarindo to their liking.
Both the Tamarindo National Wildlife Refuge and Parque Nacional Marino Las Baulas, a giant leatherback turtle breeding ground, are within a short drive of town.
Of all these destinations, Tamarindo is perhaps the most compelling for foodies. Some of the finest restaurants in Costa Rica, serving up delicious local and international cuisine, await in Tamarindo.
Where to stay
As one of the most popular places to visit in Costa Rica, Tamarindo sells out fast. You’ll need to book your accommodations in Tamarindo well ahead of time to avoid disappointment.
By air: Tamarindo is just over an hour away from Liberia Airport (LIR). Buses to Tamarindo from the airport are cheap and plentiful.
By bus: Connections from most destinations in Costa Rica to Tamarindo come through Liberia. Expect long bus journey times, including San José (6 hours), Arenal (6 hours), La Fortuna (5 hours), and Monteverde (4 hours and 40 minutes).[/makebox]
Puerto Viejo de Talamanca
Puerto Viejo de Talamanca is the last major tourist town before Costa Rica melts into Panama. This coastal town charms travelers with its distinctive Caribbean vibe and laid-back beach bumming atmosphere.
Puerto Viejo isn’t as sleepy as it once was. With an influx of tourists discovering it, Puerto Viejo has built up a reputation as a raucous party town. It’s replete with all the hedonistic pleasures that come along with a youthful vibrance.
The real pleasure of Puerto Viejo for most lies outside it. Escape town and let the sounds of nature guide you through dense rainforest or in search of the perfect spot on a quiet white-sand beach. Or, if you’re looking to add a little more excitement to your stay, Puerto Viejo is a great base for exploring eastern Costa Rica’s more adventurous side, including river rafting on the Pacuare River.
Where to stay
Compared to other popular travel destinations in the country, the value of accommodations in Puerto Viejo is excellent. Finding budget-friendly, quiet, and clean rooms set among greenery and close to the beach is hardly uncommon here.
By air: The closest airport to Puerto Viejo is about an hour away in Limón. There’s limited service here, however. From international destinations, you’ll find better fares flying into San José (SJO) and busing to Puerto Viejo. You might also want to consider flying into Bocas del Toro (BOC), also a 4-hour journey, to start your trip with a short Panama itinerary.
By bus/shuttle: From San José, buses to Puerto Viejo leave approximately four times per day and take about 4 hours. The cheapest buses run about $6. If you’re in Panama, shuttles from Bocas del Toro take about 4 hours ($33). There are also shuttles to Puerto Viejo from Arenal ($60) and Tortuguero ($75). The journeys last approximately 6 hours and 5 hours, respectively.[/makebox]
The closest Costa Rica comes to a glitzy and luxurious riviera is along the Papagayo Gulf in Northern Guanacaste. Papagayo is home to many of Costa Rica’s premier luxury resorts and all-inclusive resorts. The town sings with natural beauty, from its world-class beaches to the tropical forests that surround it.
For many travelers, Papagayo is the perfect introduction to Central America. High-quality mid-range and luxury accommodations and pristine white-sand beaches in towns like Playa Hermosa and Playas del Coco make for an easy transition from the Caribbean resort scene.
And not far away from the tourist enclaves lie several national parks ripe for exploration, including Santa Rosa, Guanacaste, and Rincón de la Vieja. There’s a barrage of adventures to choose from—whether it’s zip-lining, bathing in hot springs, or spotting wildlife among the volcanic rainforest landscape. Access all of the them by staying at a place like the Buena Vista Lodge near Rincón de la Vieja. It’ll make your trip to Guanacaste nothing short of memorable.
Of course, adventure is optional in Papagayo. The main reason to come here is to relax along the gulf in the shade of palm trees. There’s perhaps no better experience in Papagayo than to pull out a beach towel and sink into the sand while the sound of waves drown all your problems
Where to stay
Don’t expect to find bargain-basement prices when searching for accommodations in Papagayo. Costa Rica’s luxury enclave caters to mid-range and high-end travelers rather than budget backpackers. Most of the most popular hotels and guesthouses are centered around Playas del Coco, Playa Hermosa, and Culebra.
By air: Papagayo Gulf is located close to Liberia’s Daniel Oduber Quirós International Airport (LIR). To any major town along the gulf, it should take between 30 and 60 minutes to transfer from the airport.
By bus: From Liberia, it’s a one-hour bus ride to Playas del Coco. There are three buses a day from San José, departing at 08:00, 14:00, and 16:00. Budget for 5 hours to Playas del Coco from San José.
If you’re looking to get off the beaten track, throw a trip to Tortuguero into your Costa Rica itinerary. Tortuguero lies along the Caribbean Coast, giving the small town a different feel than other beach towns in Costa Rica. Much like Puerto Viejo to the south, there’s a distinct Afro-Caribbean vibe in Tortuguero.
Don’t think that the pleasure of ditching the big tourist crowds in Tortuguero will come easily. No roads lead into town, leaving planes and boats the only two options to find your way there. Struggle through the difficult journey, though, and you’ll experience one of the true wonders of Costa Rica.
Tortuguero would be nothing without its water. Many of the top things to do in Tortuguero and Tortuguero National Park take place along its rivers, canals, and lagoons.
Rent a canoe or kayak to ply along the waterways in search of exotic birds, monkeys, and crocodiles. Alternatively, take to the hiking trails of Tortuguero National Park to explore Costa Rica’s wildlife and flora up close.
What Tortuguero is most famous for, however, is its importance as a green sea turtle nesting ground. Hire a licensed guide to lead you to the beaches after nightfall to watch the turtles in action. If you’re lucky enough, you might even catch a cute baby sea turtle hatching from an egg!
Where to stay
The selection of accommodations in Tortuguero is limited compared to other popular destinations. Although lacking in true luxury options, the budget and mid-range are well covered in Tortuguero.
By shuttle: Public transportation is a bit hit or miss for Tortuguero. The easiest way to get here is via shuttles that combine land with water transport. Shuttles from Puerto Viejo take about 5 hours ($75), while from San José, you’ll need 6 hours ($50) to get to Tortuguero.[/makebox]
Drake Bay and Corcovado National Park
It’s hard to find a more relaxing destination in Costa Rica than Drake Bay and the nearby Corcovado National Park. Like Tortuguero, finding your way to Drake Bay involves a bit of an offbeat journey.
The difficulty of getting here keeps crowds at bay. With Costa Rica’s ever-growing popularity, space like this is at a premium. That’s precisely why you’ll cherish a visit to Drake Bay.
Besides letting the isolation melt away all your stresses, there are plenty of things to do in Drake Bay that will keep your muscles busy. Along the coastline, you’ll find plenty of opportunities to swim, scuba dive, or snorkel along the pristine coastline and its deserted beaches.
Inland, Corcovado National Park is the perfect place to lace up your hiking shoes and scout out some of the country’s diverse wildlife. Keep on the lookout for tapirs, pumas, jaguars, squirrel monkeys, macaws, and eagles.
With 13 different ecosystems, from lowland rainforests and highland cloud forests to mangroves and flawless beaches, avoiding boredom won’t be hard. You’ll need to hire a guide in Drake Bay or take a Corcovado National Park tour, as independent hiking is no longer allowed.
Where to stay
Considering the difficulty of getting here, there’s a surprising array of accommodations in Drake Bay. And they book up faster than you’d think. Start looking early during the high season to find good deals.
By air: Drake Bay has its own airport (DRK) with flight services from Puerto Jimenez and San José. For international arrivals, San José (SJO) is the closest major international airport, followed by David (DAV) in Panama.
By bus: Arriving in Drake Bay by public transportation is complicated. There are no direct buses from San José, so you’ll need to work out and time your route in advance. Drake Bay Backpackers has a good guide to getting to Drake Bay that you can find here.
The chilled-out beach town of Montezuma on the Nicoya Peninsula is the perfect Costa Rican getaway for backpackers, surfers, and other free-spirited folks. All the elements of the classic Costa Rican travel experience present themselves in & around Montezuma. You’ll enjoy everything from tropical forests and waterfalls to sun-drenched beaches and natural warm springs.
Surfing at nearby Playa Grande is Montezuma’s biggest claim to fame. Although it’s not the best surf spot in Costa Rica, the town’s über-cool atmosphere draws in legions of fans. Many visitors are just as happy to take to the interior or laze around than prop themselves on a board.
The town’s sleepy exterior by day belies a raucous nighttime party atmosphere. Both locals and visitors flood into Montezuma’s upbeat bars and clubs with gusto to recover from the adventures of the day.
Where to stay
Like other popular towns in Costa Rica, accommodations in Montezuma book up months ahead of time. There isn’t a lot of selection in the budget or luxury categories. Most hotels and guesthouses here fall in the mid-range.
- Budget: El Mariposario Montezuma Gardens
- Mid-Range: Hotel Amor de Mar
- Luxury: Casa Bellavista Bed & Breakfast
By air: Tambor (TMU) is the closest airport to Montezuma, but offers only domestic flights. For international flights, you’ll have to fly to San José (SJO) and continue to Montezuma overland.
By bus/ferry: From San José, the quickest route to Montezuma is via Jacó (2h30; $3). There’s a ferry crossing to Montezuma at Jacó (1h; $40). Even though the distances seem short as the crow flies, getting to Montezuma from elsewhere on the Nicoya Peninsula isn’t as easy as it would appear. Without your own car or a private driver, expect short distances here to take a while![/makebox]
- Need peace and quiet? Hit up the tranquility of Drake Bay and Corcovado National Park.
- Seeking a luxurious escape? Book yourself into an exclusive, all-inclusive resort in Papagayo.
- Want to bask in classic Central American scenery? Hike through the cloud forests of Monteverde and around the volcanic landscapes around Arenal.
- Craving both a beach vacation and a tropical forest escape? Enjoy all the amazingness that is Manuel Antonio National Park.
Like this article? Share it & pin it for later!