Costa Rica is a unique, vibrant, and beautiful country. It is increasingly popular with tourists from around the world- and it is not hard to see why. I fell in love with the place on my first-ever vacation and have been coming back ever since. Now that I have spent more time, I wanted to share some of the best bits to help inspire others!
If you are wondering what to do in Costa Rica, let me tell you- your options are endless! The entire place is packed full of stunning natural beauty, adrenaline-pumping activities, and once-in-a-lifetime adventures- not to mention a rich and unique culture that oozes through the food, music, architecture, and way of living.
After many years of living in Costa Rica, I still haven’t run out of things to do and see and places to go in Costa Rica to have fun and learn more about what makes this place so special. Here are 30 of my favorite experiences so far that I recommend you try during your time in the Land of Pura Vida.
If you want a full list of places you can book tours in Costa Rica, I made this page offering details.
Why Visit Costa Rica?
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In case you are not already sold on Costa Rica, here are 10 reasons you should add it to your must-visit list.
- It is STUNNINGLY beautiful- with a unique blend of lush tropical rainforest, gorgeous beaches, volcanic national parks, and quirky architecture.
- The Costa Rican culture is unlike anywhere else in the world. From the capital city to small towns and rural communities, vibrant local culture is thick in the air.
- Lovers of the great outdoors have many ways to explore- including boats, trams, hiking, and even horseback riding.
- You can enjoy a range of water sports at multiple incredible locations. Learn to surf, scuba dive, paddleboard, kayak, and much more.
- Animal lovers can enjoy diverse wildlife in natural environments up close. Birdwatching and turtle-watching are two of the most popular options, but it doesn’t end there.
- It is easy to get around, with a range of public transport options and affordable car hire. There are also a few excellent tour operators that arrange trips across the country.
- The food- oh my goodness the food! Costa Rican flavors are rich, delicious, and varied- and it is pretty inexpensive to eat great meals in authentic local spots.
- As well as the well-known popular destinations, there are endless hidden gems just waiting to be discovered.
- Costa Rica is an excellent place to unwind and relax- connecting with yourself and your loved ones is a place where the Pura Vida lifestyle runs deep.
- Visiting Costa Rica is an excellent way to learn more about Latin America and the natural world that thrives within it.
The Best Things 30 to Do in Costa Rica
Okay, now that the undisputable reasons to visit Costa Rica are cleared up- let’s talk specifics. While this list is far from exhaustive, it does cover 30 of the best adventures and activities Costa Rica has to offer.
I based my list on the things that I enjoyed the most and think are the most representative of what Costa Rica is all about. It includes a mixture of nature activities, adrenaline-based adventures, cultural experiences, and a few special gems that just had to be on my list.
Let’s get started!
1: Take a Tram Ride Through the Rainforest
Northern Costa Rica is home to dense rainforest- something you can’t miss on your trip. Hikes and treks are always options, but a tram ride is a great alternative for people who aren’t into too much walking or aren’t able to partake in strenuous activity.
There are quite a few to choose from, but these three are my favorites.
- Rainforest Adventure Park Atlantico
- Sky Tram (one at Arenal and another at Monteverde)
- The aerial tram at Veragua Research Center and Adventure Park
All three carry you up through the sprawling rainforest to take in the incredible views and spot some of the animals and birds that call it home. Monkeys have always been a main feature on my trips, but there is a bunch of other wildlife to see as well.
Even the plants and flowers are worth the trip to see. The whole experience is excellent- and suitable for all ages.
2: Visit the Arenal Volcano National Park
Volcanoes are a distinguishing feature of Costa Rica, and you must visit at least one while you are here. Many national parks invite visitors to tour the volcanic grounds- including a mix of inactive and active volcanoes with walking trails to stunning viewpoints.
My personal favorite is the Arenal Volcano National Park. It has the classic cone shape people think of when they picture a volcano, and exploring the remaining lava beds and lush forest surroundings from the last eruption in 1968 is perfect if you like hiking. If you are closer to San Jose, you’ll be closer to the Poas National Park.
Don’t worry about the hiking- it is not overly challenging. The routes are not too long- and most parts are quite flat. My favorite trail is the Coladas trail to the Lake Arenal viewpoint.
Other worthwhile volcano visits include Poas, Turrialba, and Irazu.
3: See the Nesting Sea Turtles
Sea turtles rarely return to land, but when they do, they always go back to the same spot they were born. More than 20,000 female sea turtles return to Costa Rica’s shores once per year to nest and lay their eggs.
Because four different species of turtles nest in Costa Rica, you can spot them almost all year round. Ostional Beach, Tortuguero National Park, and Las Baulas National Marine Park are three of the best spots- all protected to provide a safe and sustainable way for tourists to enjoy the turtles without disturbing them.
The peak seasons are different for each species- as are the best places to see them. Here is an idea of when to visit per turtle type.
- Green turtles: July until October (August and September are the best)
- Leatherback turtles: March until September
- Olive ridley turtles: June until December (peak season in September and October)
- Hawksbill turtles: July until October
You can also occasionally see loggerheads out at sea.
Make sure you go with a reputable organization and only in places with proper licenses.
4: Go to Corcovado National Park
Corcovado National Park is one of my all-time favorite places in the world. It is a stunning example of the world’s biodiversity at its best- and it feels like an entire little world of its own.
It is located in the Osa Peninsula and is a hotbed for hiking trails and nature spotting. There are a few ways to visit, but my personal recommendation is to do an overnight hiking trip. I went from La Leona to Sirena with a guide (you need to take a guided tour to visit the best parts of the park).
We saw anteaters, pumas, and much more- not to mention stretches of stunning beaches and dense greenery. The overnight stay was worth it, but if you can’t fit it into your itinerary, one-day trips are possible from San Pedrillo and La Leona. You can also go from Sirena, but I haven’t tried that option (yet!).
5: Relax in Natural Hot Springs
There are hot springs peppered throughout Costa Rica, but the best ones are in La Fortuna. The river supplies the Tabacon hot springs near the La Fortuna waterfall, and there are some great spots to visit for free (most locals go to the river’s free access spot, so it is great if you want to feel more local than tourist).
The Baldi and Ecotermales hot springs are other places worth visiting- all located in Arenal.
If you are staying in a hotel in the area, they might have private hot spring access for guests. This is handy if you don’t feel comfortable heading out on your own- but I have always had a great experience at the free spots.
6: Visit the La Paz Waterfall Gardens
La Paz is home to one of- in my opinion- the most beautiful parts of Costa Rica. The waterfall gardens cover 70 acres buzzing with life. The whole place is filled with the noise of diverse wildlife ringing out through dense, leafy canopies and jungle.
My personal highlights of this eco-park are the five waterfalls- a must-see if you are in La Paz. There is a lodge on site with dining options, although it is a little on the pricey side. If you are traveling on a budget and happen to be passing by, you can spot the waterfalls from parts of the highway without needing to pay the entry fee- but the experience is not quite the same.
7: Try a World Famous Zipline
Costa Rica is known for its fantastic zip-lining experiences. There are many all across the country, so you can most likely find one near wherever you are. You can find family-friendly zipline adventures and more extreme wires flying over the tops of the rainforest.
My favorite zip-lining spots are in Monteverde and Guanacaste, but the zipline at La Fortuna is a close runner-up. I especially recommend the Tarzan swing at Monteverde- talk about an adrenaline rush!
8: Explore Some of Nature’s Best Hiking Trails
Wherever you go in Costa Rica, you are surrounded by endless options for nature exploration. Pack your hiking boots to make the most of the many great places to go trekking and discover another side of the country’s beauty.
Getting off the beaten path is one of my favorite Costa Rica things to do. I have been here many times and have lived here for the last year- and I still haven’t tired of heading out with a day pack and walking through the amazing nature trails, forests, and national parks on offer.
You don’t always need a guide, but longer hikes that go deeper into the wilderness are best with someone who knows the area. That said, there are plenty of easy walks you can do by yourself for free in most parts of the country.
9: Party at the Fiesta Civicas
Costa Rica fun is not just about the natural wonders- the people and their culture are every bit as beautiful. Let your hair down and join the party at Fiesta Civicas. These local fiestas are all about having a good time and are held at various points throughout the year.
Everywhere in Costa Rica has some version of Fiesta Civicas (local parties), but Palmares and Puntarenas are my favorites. If you are there over Christmas, try to get yourself to Zapote in San Jose- the December fiestas there cannot be forgotten in a hurry!
Good food, flowing drinks, excellent music, plenty of dancing, and bull riding are staples at Fiesta Civicas. They are a fantastic way to move past being a tourist and take part in an important part of local culture.
The months with the most parties are usually February, March, July, and December- plenty to look forward to throughout the year.
10: Take a Cruise to Tortuga Island
If you are looking for a full-day trip that involves boating, white sand beaches, beautiful views, and sunset at sea, then a boat tour to Tortuga Island is a must. I have gone twice- once from San Jose and once from Puntarenas. On both occasions, it took around an hour and a half to get there, and we spent around five hours on the island itself.
Tortuga Island sits in the Gulf of Nicoya and is one of the closest things to paradise you will find. Sure, it can be a little busy these days due to touristic popularity, but it is still one of the must-do Costa Rica adventures.
11: Learn to Cook Traditional Costa Rican Food
I have always found food to be the heart and soul of culture in so many places- Costa Rica included. Food is central to many events, family gatherings, and local traditions, and you can learn a lot about the country through its cuisine.
Whether you experiment with a few local favorite ingredients by yourself at home or take part in a cooking class- it is worth giving it a go. One of the best cooking experiences I have come across was a farm-to-food tour in La Fortuna that focused on fresh, locally sourced ingredients to make healthy traditional meals.
Here are a few traditional meals to add to the list of things to try eating and cooking yourself.
- Gallo Pinto (rice and black beans)
- Pan de Yuca (yuca bread)
- Picadillo de Vainicia (a ground beef and green bean-based dish)
- Piononos (traditional Costa Rican dessert)
12: Test Your Balance with Stand-Up Paddle Boarding
One of my regular go-to activities to do in Costa Rica is stand-up paddle boarding. It is very popular across the country, and there are few ways to do it.
You can take paddle boarding lessons, hire a board for an hour, or join a paddle boarding tour to special secluded locations. If you are a total beginner, Playa Tamarindo is a great place to try it for the first time. Most of the hotels in the Papagayo Peninsula offer SUP boarding lessons, which is another great way to introduce yourself if you happen to be taking a more luxurious approach.
I love paddle boarding for the exercise, fun, and sun that comes with it- not to mention some of the places you can experience in a whole new light.
My top two favorite SUP board experiences are:
- Guided tour through the Matapalo mangroves (combined with kayaking)
- The Golfo Dulce experience (a completely unspoiled, untouched, magical part of the country)
13: Walk the Whale’s Tail
Another must-see in Costa Rica is the Whale’s Tail- a unique joining of beaches that looks exactly like- you guessed it- a whale tail in low tide.
It is located in the Marino Ballena National Park, which- incidentally- happens to be one of the best spots in Costa Rica to spot humpback whales. Just make sure to time your visit with low tide. Otherwise, you won’t be able to walk out along the tail.
You can also get a great view of the whale’s tail from the nearby hills. There are viewpoints in passing places on the roads up there where you can pull in and get some great photos. If you go into the park itself, you can spend time exploring the rock pools or looking out for passing humpback whales.
Another way to see the tail is by sea. A few kayaking and paddle boarding trips go around the tip of the tail, but you won’t really see the shape unless you go further out.
14: Get a Tan at One of Costa Rica’s Beautiful Beaches
Remember, not all Costa Rica activities need to involve being active. In fact, relaxing on the beach at some point is like law when you visit this place. Once you see the beaches, you will understand why.
The thing I like most about the country’s beaches is the variety. Whether you want a secluded paradise, a party vibe, scenic surroundings, or postcard-perfect white sand beaches- you will find it here.
Here are my top three Costa Rican beaches.
- Playa Quesera (stunning turquoise waters and white sand with tropical surroundings- perfect for snorkeling, swimming, and nature- but it takes a little more effort to get to than other popular beaches)
- Playa Conchal (the most famous- and probably the most beautiful- beach in Costa Rica, close to Tamarindo with easy access to amenities, food, and water sports)
- Playa Negra (the black sand beach- a must-see for first-timers and a popular spot for talented surfers)
15: Surf the Waves
Where there is sun, sand, and sea- surfing usually follows. Surfing is a popular pastime in Costa Rica- why wouldn’t it be? In fact, people travel from far and wide specifically to surf Costa Rican waves.
As I already mentioned, Playa Negra is considered one of the best spots- but only if you know how to surf. The same applies to spots such as Witch’s Rock at Playa Naranjo, Pavones, and Salsa Brava.
Playa Grande, Playa Tamarindo, and Playa Avellanas are three of the best places to take surf lessons, with ideal learning conditions for all abilities. I recommend signing up for a surf camp at one of these spots. Programs range from three days to several weeks- it depends on how much you want to learn!
16: Experience the Magic of Rio Celeste Waterfall
Of all the famous Costa Rica tourist attractions, this is the one that most lived up to and exceeded my expectations. The only word to describe the Rio Celeste waterfall and river is magical.
It is nestled in Tenorio Volcano National Park (yep, yet another volcano!) near the town of Bijagua. The water is a vibrant sky-blue color- it doesn’t even look real. Nature does strange and wonderful things- especially in the vicinity of Volcanic activity.
Another highlight of this visit is swimming in the exquisite water in the free pool at Rio Celeste. Even the gateway town of Bijagua is well worth an overnight stay- if not more.
For another waterfall you won’t want to miss, check out Llanos de Cortes in Bagaces, just 20 minutes south of Liberia.
17: Go Bird Watching
Back to Costa Rica’s wildlife. Birds, birds, and more birds: this country is truly a bird-watching paradise. It is as if the entire country is one big aviary- with a rich bounty of exotic and beautiful species.
I was never a particularly avid bird watcher, but coming to Costa Rica changed that. After seeing the famed Resplendent Quetzal in the Curi Cuncha Reserve (best to visit from January until April), I was hooked.
Costa Rica has over 800 species of birds across the entire country. with various hotspots for bird lovers. We stayed at the Trogon Lodge, which is purpose-built for bird watching- but there are a few others to consider.
18: Sail Costa Rica’s Pacific Coast
If you love being out at sea, a sailing trip should definitely be on your list. The Pacific coast of Costa Rica is ideal for sailing, and there are plenty of tours available.
My favorite excursion was a sunset sailing trip from Tamarindo that included snorkeling, snacks, and music. This particular trip was in the evening on a catamaran, but other sailing boats go in the morning instead.
Other great spots to sail from include Samara, Play del Coco, and Jaco- to name a few.
19: Walk Through Downtown San Jose
Moving away from nature for a minute, let’s talk about the Costa Rican capital of San Jose. Although not a huge city by any means, it is home to the majority of the population- and every inch of the place is bursting with rich, vibrant culture and life.
Enjoy local life and people-watching at Plaza de la Democracia, explore the various museums and important cultural sites, shop at the market, or take a walking tour to learn more about the history and lifestyle.
A couple of days is enough time to see most things in San Jose but spend longer if you want to get more of a feel for what it is like to live in Costa Rica. Something not to miss is a San Jose dinner show- I recommend Mirador Tiquicia.
20: Scuba Dive
The clear waters surrounding Costa Rica are perfect for scuba diving. You have a special opportunity to dive off the Pacific coast or in the Caribbean Sea- meaning a wider range of species!
If you already have a PADI certification, you can hire equipment and go on personal dives or join dive groups in the area heading to particular spots. Drake Bay and Flamingo are two of the best towns to stay in if you want to do some scuba diving. The dive communities there are friendly and it is easy to find people to head out with.
There are a few Costa Rican islands that make for a fantastic scuba experience. Bat Islands and Las Catalina Islands (both from Guanacaste), and Cocos Island (Puntarenas) are three of my favorite spots. Bat Island is the winner for me because of the incredible (and scary) opportunity to dive with Bull Sharks and Giant Mantas. The Tortuga Island Shipwreck is also worth diving if you are visiting that area.
Don’t worry if you are not certified- you can still give it a go through a discovery dive. These mini-dives are designed for those who don’t have a PADI but want a scuba experience. Playas del Coco is a good place to do this.
If you don’t quite want to scuba but still want to see some marine life- snorkeling tours are the best option. I have never had much lunch snorkeling off the coast, so I would recommend joining a tour or looking for a boat trip that included it.
21: Go Horseback Riding to the Nauayca Waterfalls
The Nauayca Waterfalls are up there with my favorite falls in Costa Rica. If you are staying in Manuel Antonio, Uvita, or Dominical, it is worth taking the trip.
There are a few ways to see these falls- which are actually privately owned. Luckily, the family understands that such impressive natural beauty should be shared, so they offer some ways in.
My top recommendation is to go on horseback. There are a few spots for horseback riding in Costa Rica, but this was probably my favorite. It feels pretty magical and is not an easy experience to replicate anywhere else. The ride is not particularly challenging- the pace is slow, and it is all about taking in nature in a different way.
If horses are not for you, you can still visit the waterfalls by hiking (roughly 2.5 miles each way) or book a lift in a 4X4. They are hidden pretty deep in the rainforest, so you pass many other things worth seeing on the journey.
22: Eat Rice and Beans on Costa Rica’s Caribbean Coast
It is not just about what to see in Costa Rica, but also about what to eat. The culinary experience in this country is phenomenal, but it is sometimes the humblest of dishes that best represent a culture.
You may be thinking, why rice and beans? Surely there are more exciting meals to try! It may sound simple, but this most traditional of Costa Rican breakfast dishes is a must if you are on the Caribbean coast.
This is not rice and beans as you know it. Seasoned simply but beautifully, this delicious dish is served with eggs, tortilla, cheese, and fried plantains- with a little bit of Salsa Lizano to add the finishing touch. It is a staple in Caribbean Costa Rican culture, and I eat it whenever I get the chance.
23: Immerse Yourself in Nature at the Caño Negro Wildlife Refuge
Wherever you go in the world, never miss the opportunity to go on safari if the opportunity presents itself! As luck would have it, Costa Rica offers a fantastic wildlife safari at the Caño Negro Wildlife Refuge.
This is easily one of the best things I have experienced in all my time here, and I cannot recommend enough that you try it! We went from La Fortuna for a river raft safari adventure. Floating down the river through glorious nature was enough of an experience on its own, but the opportunity to observe local wildlife up close was unforgettable.
There are other places to take part in a safari float tour, such as Palo Verde National Park, but the wildlife refuge was my favorite. You can choose from a few tour operators offering full and half days to fit in best with your budget and schedule.
24: Go on a Night Walk in the Osa Peninsula
Much of Costa Rica’s wildlife comes out at night. When the sun goes down, the rainforest is even more alive- with all kinds of interesting sun-shy creatures creeping out to say hello.
Night walks are exhilarating and peaceful at the same time. Combine nature watching with hiking and star gazing in some of the country’s most special places. You can do this in many places, but the best I have personally experienced was from Leona Station in Osa Peninsula. We decided to treat ourselves and stayed at the eco-lodge on-site- a worthwhile expense in my opinion.
Rainforest Adventures is a good company for night walks- but there are many operators dotted around in all the jungle hotspots.
One piece of advice- be ready for a few creepy crawlies! Some of the less-loved and misunderstood species such as snakes, spiders, frogs, lizards, and other bugs are more likely to cross your path at night time. Guides can tell you some fun facts about the creatures you find- a fun, healthy, and educational adventure for all!
25: Dance the Night Away in Jaco
I have talked a lot about the nature attractions in Costa Rica, but there is a whole other side to life here that I would be remiss not to include on my list of must-dos. The nightlife in many parts of the country is excellent, and dancing is an important part of the culture.
Places like San Jose and Tamarindo are known for having great spots for drinking, dancing, and eating- but for me, nothing compares to Jaco.
Jaco Beach is famous for its many bars and nightclubs. Be careful, however, as there is a lot of prostitution here. A night out here won’t disappoint- especially if you want energetic, colorful, and multi-cultural dance floors. XTC is the go-to nightclub for the young and vibrant, but Republik Lounge is a staple of Jaco nightlife that can’t be missed.
There are also some excellent lounges where you can enjoy great cocktails in classy settings. Orange Pub, Cocal Casino, and OHM Lounge are all worth checking out if you want atmosphere, comfort, and drinks.
My favorite thing about partying in Jaco is the diversity. The crowds are as diverse as the rainforest species, and they all come together to have a great time in this beach-side town in Costa Rica. Whether you are looking for a cocktail by the beach, a surf-vibe bar, a Latin-American dance party, or dance floor raves- you can find it here.
26: Meet the Rescue Animals at Puerto Viejo
The Jaguar Rescue Center in Puerto Viejo is a wholesome and educational day out. It is a rescue and rehabilitation center for sick and injured animals that need some help to get back out into the wild.
Before I talk more about the experience, let me clear up two things:
- This is not a zoo, although it can seem like that on first impressions. All the animals here are either receiving treatment with the goal of re-release or cannot live in the wild because of their illness or injury.
- There are no jaguars here, although there are plenty of other interesting species. The rescue center is named for the first-ever animal they took in- a baby jaguar.
I put this place on the list because I think it is important to learn about conservation efforts that protect Costa Rica’s wildlife, and the work the rescue center does is admirable. On top of that, it is a great place to see a diverse range of species and birds.
It is not the only wildlife refuge, but it is one of the bigger ones- and has some of the best visitation options. You can join a group tour or private tour around the main site with a guide. They also offer guided tours at night time from their release site at La Ceiba in the Punta Uva rainforests.
Spending longer in-country and looking to get more involved? Why not apply as a volunteer? You need to be able to commit to four weeks. It is a rewarding experience if you have the time and ability.
27: Visit the Manuel Antonio National Park
Considering it is one of the smallest protected green areas in Costa Rica, Manuel Antonio National Park has a whole lot going on! Kayaking, zipline, river tours, hiking trails, beach, nature spotting, water sports- the list of things to see and do goes on!
It stretches along the Central and South Pacific Coast and is easy to get to from all the main tourist locations in the area. You can go by yourself if you have a car or book a guided tour that includes round-trip transport.
Here are my five favorite things to do in Manuel Antonio National Park.
- Explore the hiking trails: There are around a dozen main walking trails through the park that have clear markers and maps along the way. My favorites are the Mangrove Trail and the Waterfall Trail.
- Spot the sloths: Sloths are iconic residents of Manuel Antonio, and if you look hard enough, you can see many along the way. Try the sloth trail for the best sighting spots.
- Swim in the turquoise waters of Playa Manuel Antonio: This is a great place to swim and soak up the sun’s rays. You can also walk a little further to Playa Espadilla Sur if the main beach is too busy.