There’s no doubt: Costa Rica is one of the most naturally-blessed countries in the world. In a country where primeval forests chime with the cries of howler monkeys, mist-capped volcanos peer over lush greenery and rolling whitecaps accent perfect sand beaches, you can’t help but become awe-struck.
Costa Rica’s hardly the off-the-beaten-path destination it once was. Thousands now visit every year in just about every capacity—as packaged tourists, adventurers, and backpackers—all in search of what Ticos affectionately dub the “Pura Vida” (“simple” or “pure” life).
Whether you’re leaping into Costa Rica to laze along its pristine beaches, hike among its biodiversity or dip your toe into its more adventurous side, this small Central American slice of paradise will forever be imprinted on your mind. Explore Costa Rica to its utmost and live out your own pura vida by searching out these best places to visit in Costa Rica.
Table of Contents
- Can’t figure out where to go in Costa Rica? Start off with these 10 best places to visit in Costa Rica.
- Summary: The best places to visit in Costa Rica
Can’t figure out where to go in Costa Rica? Start off with these 10 best places to visit in Costa Rica.
Visiting Costa Rica isn’t as simple as flying into the capital, San José, and finding a room. Like in much of Central America, the best places to visit in Costa Rica are in the interior and on the coast, removed from the capital city.
Fortunately, many of the most popular tourist destinations in Costa Rica are within a couple hours of the country’s two major international gateways: San José (SJO) and Liberia (LIR). Although roads may not always be up to standards you’re used to, scooting between towns isn’t so difficult either.
Transportation in Costa Rica—even public transportation—is efficient and relatively comfortable, particularly in the Arenal, San Jose and Guanacaste triangle. Wherever you decide to start your Costa Rica itinerary, you should have no trouble adding in a couple of these 10 best Costa Rica 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. In this 29,692-acre national park, part of the massive Arenal Conservation Area, 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. It’s 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 kilometres 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 in Costa Rica for 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 who call Arenal Volcano National Park home.
Arenal Travel Essentials
Where to stay
- Budget: Arenal Volcano Lake Hotel (from $37)
- Mid-Range: Lucky Bug Bed and Breakfast (from $79)
- Luxury: Heliconia Hall (from $125)
By air: The closest airport is La Fortuna Arenal Airport, handling 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 9:15am daily ($30) and take about 3 hours.
Manuel Antonio National Park
If Costa Rica’s reputation as one of the world’s best natural destinations was ever in question, the picture-perfect beaches and views of Manuel Antonio National Park will end the argument. Instantly.
Although you’ll need to share this slice of paradise with many other travellers, Manuel Antonio has some of Costa Rica’s best tourist infrastructure. For eating and lodging, you’re hardly 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. Whether hiking through the park face-to-face with larcenous monkeys and work-shy sloths, spotting waterfalls on horseback, plopping onto a surfboard or paddling your cares away in a kayak, your days at Manuel Antonio will never bore you.
Nighttime is equally compelling. Staring out into the Pacific while sipping on a cocktail as the sun dips below the horizon could be one of the world’s best ways to unwind.
Manuel Antonio Travel Essentials
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 (doubles from $66)
- Mid-Range: Hotel Villabosque (doubles from $125)
- Luxury: Si Como No Resort, Spa & Wildlife Refuge (doubles from $220)
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 3 daily buses from San José to Manuel Antonio National Park ($7). The journey lasts approximately 3.5 hours. Shuttles are a little bit quicker (3 hours) and more comfortable, but much more expensive ($54).
Costa Rica’s reputation as a top worldwide ecotourism destination approaches its apex in Monteverde. This small settlement nestled in the Central Highlands, famous for the Monteverde Cloud Forest Biological Reserve at its doorstep, offers a glimpse of Central America at its most primeval. Monteverde’s also one of the best places for family travel in Costa Rica. 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 earth’s total biodiversity.)
Hike through the cloud forest at leisure to appreciate the full breadth of the park’s natural attractions. Keep your eyes peeled for the resplendent quetzal, a famous colourful 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 along with, arguably, 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!) and other Central America travel essentials like a water bottle to stay healthy and hydrated.
Monteverde Travel Essentials
Where to stay
Most of the best 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.
- Budget: Pura Vida Hostel (doubles from $24)
- Mid-Range: Manakin Lodge (doubles from $50)
- Luxury: Monteverde Lodge and Gardens (doubles from $228)
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. Expect to pay about $40-55.
By bus/shuttle: Unless you’re on a tight budget, shuttles to Monteverde will far more convenient than public buses. The journey from Arenal & La Fortuna to Monteverde lasts approximately 3 hours (~$35) 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 an angry burst like Gunung Bromo in Indonesia. Poás Volcano may be active, but it’s tame as far as volcanoes go.
Visit Poás Volcano National Park early in the morning to watch the clouds and mist play hide and seek until finally giving up to reveal the turquoise lake dwelling at the bottom of the 320-metre 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 an Icelandic-style geyser burst from depths!
Poás Volcano National Park Travel Essentials
Where to stay
Although most will visit as a day trip from San José, finding hotels near Poaś Volcano National Park will allow you to visit early before the crowds come in and the clouds obscure the view.
- Budget: Hostel Orozco (twins from $20)
- Mid-Range: B&B Garden Grecia (doubles from $55)
- Luxury: Peace Lodge (doubles from $430)
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. But the well-developed tourist infrastructure gives Tamarindo a distinct advantage over other more offbeat beach destinations in Costa Rica.
Playa Grande, Tamarindo’s most famous beach, is 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 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 all the best places to visit in Costa Rica, Tamarindo is perhaps most compelling for foodies. Some of the best restaurants in Costa Rica, serving up delicious local and international cuisine, await in Tamarindo.
Tamarindo Travel Essentials
Where to stay
As one of the best 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.
- Budget: Hotel Mahayana (twins from $55)
- Mid-Range: Hotel in the Shade (queen and king rooms from $89)
- Luxury: Esplendor Tamarindo (doubles from $150)
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).
Puerto Viejo de Talamanca
The last major tourist town before Costa Rica melts into Panama, Puerto Viejo de Talamanca, charms with a 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, 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.
Puerto Viejo Travel Essentials
Where to stay
Compared to other top places to visit in Costa Rica, 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.
- Budget: Casa Moabi (doubles from $30)
- Mid-Range: El Tucan Jungle Lodge (doubles from $58)
- Luxury: Physis Caribbean Bed & Breakfast (doubles from $95)
By air: Although the closest airport to Puerto Viejo is about an hour away in Limón, there’s limited service here. 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 4 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.
The closest Costa Rica comes to a glitzy and luxurious riviera is along the Papagayo Gulf in Northern Guanacaste. Home to many of Costa Rica’s premier luxury resorts and all-inclusive resorts, Papagayo sings with natural beauty from its world-class beaches to the tropical forests that surround it.
For many travellers, Papagayo is the perfect first 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, Guancaste, and Rincón de la Vieja. Heading inland to ramble through lush tropical forests teeming with wildlife is both safe and exciting.
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
Papagayo Travel Essentials
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 travellers rather than budget backpackers. Most of the best hotels and guesthouses are centered around Playas del Coco, Playa Hermosa, and Culebra.
- Budget: Hotel M&M Beach House (doubles from $53)
- Mid-Range: Villa de Sueño (doubles from $85)
- Luxury: El Mangroove, Autograph Collection (suites from $251)
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 popular places to visit 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 crowds of Arenal or Monteverde 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 best 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!
Tortuguero Travel Essentials
Where to stay
The selection of accommodations in Tortuguero is limited compared to other popular places to visit in Costa Rica. Although lacking in true luxury options, the budget and mid-range is well covered in Tortuguero.
- Budget: Cabinas Icaco (doubles from $35)
- Mid-Range: Tortuguero Adventures Guesthouse (family room from $78)
- Luxury: Tortuga Lodge & Gardens (doubles from $188)
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.
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 an 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 most diverse wildlife. Keep on the look out 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.
Drake Bay Travel Essentials
Where to stay
Considering the difficulty of getting here, there’s a surprising array of accommodations in Drake Bay that book up faster than you’d think. Start looking early during high season to find the best deals.
- Budget: Drake Bay Backpackers (twins with shared bathroom from $40)
- Mid-Range: Pacheco Cabins (doubles from $55)
- Luxury: Drake Bay Wilderness Resort (triples with sea view from $360)
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 a bit of a complicated affair. There are no direct buses from San José (not surprising), 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 and around Montezuma 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 not the best surf spot in Costa Rica, the town’s über-cool atmosphere draws in legions of fans, many of whom 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.
Montezuma Travel Essentials
Where to stay
Like many of the best places to visit 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 with most hotels and guesthouses falling in the mid-range.
- Budget: El Mariposario Montezuma Gardens (doubles from $50)
- Mid-Range: Hotel Amor de Mar (doubles from $90)
- Luxury: Casa Bellavista Bed & Breakfast (family rooms from $145)
By air: Tambor (TMU), the closest airport to Montezuma, 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 awhile!
Summary: The best places to visit in Costa Rica
Still can’t decide where to go in Costa Rica? Here’s an even quicker summary of the top places to visit in Costa Rica:
- 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 tropical forest escape? Enjoy all the amazingness that is Manuel Antonio National Park.