Every year thousands of tourists from all over the world head to Costa Rica to experience some of the most beautiful parks, beaches, and natural wonders in the world.
For such a small country, Costa Rica has been blessed with more than its fair share of natural beauty and is dotted with sublime beaches and tropical national parks; it’s great for visitors, still choosing an itinerary can be challenging. Josh Linnes, an American ex-pat living in Costa Rica chooses the best places to visit in Costa Rica…
1. Playa Uvita – a unique beach in a national park shaped like a whale’s tail
If you’re looking for where to go in Costa Rica, just south of the Marino Ballena National Park, which has regular whale sightings, is the stunning sandbar known as the Whale’s Tail at Playa Uvita.
When the tide is low a sandbar emerges that extends out into the ocean like a whale tail-shaped peninsula.
The town has plenty of bars and restaurants and is a great place for whale watching during the mating season.
My must-do highlights of Playa Uvita
- Visit the most beautiful waterfall in Costa Rica, Nauyaca Waterfall, featuring natural swimming pools at the base.
- Watch the sun go down over the ocean at Uvita Beach and admire the sky as it turns an orange/pink color.
- Take a surfing lesson or practice your skills by riding the waves, ideal for beginners and intermediate levels.
Our cool and unusual hotel pick near Playa Uvita – La Cusinga Lodge said to be one of the best hotels in Costa Rica
- Costanera Sur, 58000 Uvita, Costa Rica
- To book La Cusinga Lodge with Booking.com
2. Arenal Volcano – an active volcano and one of the most visited places in Costa Rica
Costa Rica is known for this incredible spot. For travelers who want to visit a real volcano with little chance of hazardous geothermic activity, Arenal Volcano is the place to go.
This once highly active volcano ceased its continual eruptions in 2010. Previously, Arenal Volcano was known as one of the most active volcano experiences in Costa Rica, attracting visitors for continuous explosions since 1968.
Although the majority of activity has ceased, in a matter of months to years, it could begin at any moment. Apart from the volcano, the area is surrounded by mountains, lakes, and rivers to be explored by adventure-seeking tourists.
My must-do highlights of Arenal Volcano
- Explore around the surrounding area filled with lush greenery and unique old lava flow.
- Discover the largest lake in Costa Rica, Lake Arenal, where you can enjoy activities such as paddleboarding or kayaking.
- Walk to get the best views of the volcano by taking the trail along the hanging bridges.
Our cool and unusual hotel pick for near Arenal Volcano – Lost Iguana Resort and Spa – one of the best areas to stay in Costa Rica
- Costanera Sur, 58000 Uvita, Costa Rica
- To book La Cusinga Lodge with Booking.com
3. Territorio De Zaguates – if you’re for fun places to visit in Costa Rica this is a doggy paradise located on a beautiful mountain
This wonderful place in Costa Rica has now reached legendary status, especially among kind-hearted visitors! Sadly Costa Rica’s stray dog problem is relatively severe, and this place was set up to help a good handful of them.
This wonderful dog sanctuary is known as “The Land of a Thousand Strays.”
It is the largest no-kill facility in Costa Rica and is home to an estimated 1300 dogs.
If you are an avid dog lover or looking for another dog for your furry compadre to play with, the facility allows visitors to come to play with the dogs, go for playful hikes, and even bring their own dogs along for playdates!
- Find out more about how to visit the Land of the Thousand Strays
My must-do highlights of Territorio De Zaguates
- Enjoy a fun hike along the beautiful terrain and capture some Insta-worthy shots.
- Learn about the sanctuary and its positive progression since being set up.
Our cool and unusual hotel pick for the region – Clandestino Beach Resort
- Varablanca, 31698 Vara Blanca, Costa Rica
- To book Poas Volcano Lodge with Booking.com
4. Manuel Antonio National Park – rugged rainforest, white-sand beaches, sloths and coral reefs
If you’re looking to explore the best of Costa Rica, Manuel Antonio is consistently listed as Costa Rica’s best wilderness beach. The undeveloped, jungle-surrounded beaches are stunning with white sand and blue-green water.
Wildlife spotting is easy here, the monkeys and lizards often cover the beach and during mating season you can see dolphins and whales offshore.
A visit to Parque Nacional Manuel Antonio is one that should not be missed. This park is open Tuesdays through Sundays throughout the year, but visitors claim the best time to visit is during the dry season of December through April.
The park is full of amazing opportunities to hike and enjoy the grandeur of the seas. Bring your camera and a few snacks for the journey, but as with all national parks, carry out everything with you to minimize your impact on the wildlife.
A helpful hint: Admission to the park is $16 for adults and children under 12 are free.
However, there are many vendors along the road to the park that will try to sell you admission tickets and tours. They will look official but are not affiliated with the park. Do not fall for their tricks. Pay at the entrance to the park at the end of the road.
My must-do highlights of Manuel Antonio National Park
- Cool down by taking a dip or going for a swim in the clear turquoise colored waters.
- Take a guided tour around the park to explore through the best spots for a great experience.
- Go kayaking through the mangrove forest to enjoy the tranquil sounds of the jungle.
Our cool and unusual hotel pick for the region – Poas Volcano Lodge
- Playa Palo Seco, 60901 Parrita, Costa Rica
- To book Poas Volcano Lodge with Booking.com
5. Playa Samara – known as one of the prettiest and safest beaches in all of Costa Rica
Beach life is a given in Costa Rica and when in Guanacastle, Playa Samara is the place to go. Playa Samara is not your typical beach.
Its laid-back atmosphere attributes to substantially longer lives for its residents compared to other parts of the country. The people here are accepting; they enjoy the journey of experiencing life.
Excellent food and fun water activities such as snorkeling and diving are common here. Your quintessential beach experience awaits at Playa Samara.
Located on the southern Pacific coast of the Nicoya Peninsula in the province of Guanacaste, visitors here also love organic food, yoga, surfing, wild horses, friendly people, and the laid-back bohemian vibe.
My must-do highlights of Playa Samara
- Sip on a refreshing cocktail at the beach club and indulge in some delicious food.
- Go snorkelling to swim through the magnificent underwater world.
- Relax along the golden sand shores whilst soaking up the rays from the sun.
Our cool and unusual hotel pick for Playa Samara – Nammbú Beach Front Bungalows
- Playa Carrillo, 10000 Sámara, Costa Rica
- To book Nammbú Beach Front Bungalows with Booking.com
6. Santa Teresa – a small beach village that surfers and backpackers love
Avid surfers from around the world know Santa Teresa.
It is among the most famous surfer meccas in the world and the atmosphere of Santa Teresa in Costa Rica depicts this laid-back personality.
The landscape is not merely beaches, but beautiful rainforests to explore as well. Snorkeling, surfing, bird watching, and hiking are among the best activities to do in Santa Teresa, and rest assured, there is a photo op around every corner of this remarkably beautiful part of Costa Rica.
My must-do highlights of Santa Teresa
- Wander through the bohemian village filled with ice-cream cafes, shopping boutiques and wonderful restaurants.
- Check out one the of night time beach parties and dance around the sand whist the sun goes down.
- For those who love to surf, the rough waves make this an ideal spot to do so.
7. Monteverde Cloud Forest – a huge and beautiful tropical forest with a variety of plant and animal species
There is a reason why Monteverde is one of the most tourist-frequented places in all of Costa Rica: it is unbelievably beautiful. Beautiful national parks with undisturbed cloud forests, hundreds of species of birds, epic views, and volcanoes make it an eco lovers’ dream.
The outdoor activities here are truly endless including hikes through the cloud forest, bird watching where you can spot the endangered Quetzal, canopy tours, walking across a suspension bridge, touring butterfly gardens, and simply relaxing and enjoying nature from the quaint town of Santa Elena.
My must-do highlights of Monteverde Cloud Forest
- A unique way to explore through the forest is to take a guided tour at night time.
- Go hiking to discover the suspending bridges amongst the magnificent scenic nature.
- Capture some breathtaking Instagrammable shots to remember your trip here.
8. Isla del Coco – an uninhabited island sometimes said to be the most beautiful in Costa Rica
Isla del Coco is certainly on the list of Costa Rica’s most beautiful places. This area is a mecca for experienced divers from around the world.
Located south of the Costa Rican mainland, Isla del Coco is teeming with marine life including white-tipped sharks and hammerheads.
The shimmering waters of this island, also known as Coco Island, offer the opportunity to explore ancient caves and even give you the opportunity to see cave and rock etchings by those that have traveled before you. On land, you will notice a lot of pigs roaming around the island as well.
My must-do highlights of Isla del Coco
- Go on a scuba diving excursion to see the spectacular world under the water.
- Explore through the caves and forests to be immersed in the beautiful scenery.
- Hike to the waterfall where you can take a dip in the waters at the base of it.
9. Playa Conchal – considered to be one of the most exotic beaches on the Costa Rican Gold Coast
Playa Conchal is consistently rated as one of the most beautiful beaches in the country. The white sand beach is made of millions of crushed seashells and the water is perfectly clear for swimming, snorkeling, and boating.
It may be on the Pacific Coast, but the water and sand will fool you into thinking you’re on the Caribbean. The nearby towns of Playa Brasilito and Playa Flamingo have hotels and accommodations.
This is also a great family-friendly destination in Costa Rica.
My must-do highlights of Playa Conchal
- Relax to the sound of the waves whilst having a massage on the white shell shores.
- Hire a jet ski and have some fun out on the bright blue waters.
- Walk the entire stretch of the beach to admire a change in the color of sand and water.
10. Tortuguero – a stunning Costa Rica attraction and a major nesting site for green turtles
Across the country on the Caribbean is the mangrove forest and turtle nesting site of Tortuguero. This is one of the most diverse parks in the country with canals, beaches, and marshland.
You can rent kayaks or canoes and explore the wetlands, spotting all kinds of wildlife like caymans, birds, even crocodiles. This part is most famous for its turtle hatching which happens on the beach at night.
My must-do highlights of Tortuguero
- Explore through the canals, rivers and lagoons with a guided boat tour.
- Have a unique fine dining experience at the Katonga floating restaurant.
- Take a walk along the soft sand of the beach, a perfect spot to watch the sunset.
11. Montezuma – a laid back hippy beach town which is one of the best places to visit in Costa Rica
Located in the southern part of Costa Rica’s Nicoya Peninsula, this is a wonderful gem of a place. It’s mostly known for its long sandy beach and surrounding jungle and coves.
There’s also a popular surf beach in the area, Romelia Wildlife Reserve, a turtle sanctuary and hatchery, and even Montezuma Waterfall which is made up of a series of cascades and natural pools.
It’s a laid-back place with a hippie beach town vibe where days of the visitors can be spent just kicking back and enjoying the sea, sun, and sand!
My must-do highlights of Montezuma
- Visit the epic Montezuma Waterfalls, well known for being a must-see attraction.
- Enjoy live music located at different bars across the area in the afternoon and evening time.
- Check out the organic Saturday market, a popular and vibrant place to start your weekend right.
12. Corcovado National Park – a protected area considered to be one of the world’s most biodiverse regions
National Geographic named the Osa Peninsula the most intense place on earth in terms of biodiversity. Corcovado National Park, and particularly the area surrounding the La Sirena River is truly undisturbed Costa Rican wilderness.
The beaches are wild and stunning with sharks and crocodiles swimming at the river mouth.
Animals like pumas, peccaries, monkeys, and tapirs live in the jungle and are sighted often. Old-growth trees and gorgeous flowers are everywhere. This park truly embodies the pure jungle beauty of Costa Rica.
My must-do highlights of Corcovado National Park
- Take a boat ride to arrive at the park, you will also be able to enjoy the scenic journey along the way.
- Book a tour of the area that allows you to stay overnight in the jungle amongst the beautiful nature.
- Hike around the designated trails to explore through the amazing trees and flowers.
13. Manzanillo Wildlife Refuge – a sanctuary situated in one of the most stunningly beautiful regions of Costa Rica
On the far south Caribbean coast next to Panama is the Manzanillo Wildlife Refuge. Its gorgeous hidden beaches are perfect for snorkeling when the sun shines and the sea becomes flat and loved by surfers during the storms and big swells.
The golden sand and turquoise ocean is distinctly Caribbean. The jungle is filled with all kinds of incredible animals including howler monkeys, sloths, and if you go deep enough, jaguars.
My must-do highlights of Manzanillo Wildlife Refuge
- Go snorkelling in the visibly clear waters to discover the spectacular landscape under the water.
- Stroll along the golden sand shores that is lined with coconut palms and almond trees.
- Enjoy the sun rays by laying across the beach for a relaxing day or afternoon.
14. Isla Tortuga – an uninhabited island and one of the best snorkeling spots and places to vacation in Costa Rica
Isla Tortuga is exactly what it sounds like. It is an island in Costa Rica home to a unique community of turtles. Turtle Island is the common name for this relaxing, unspoiled atmosphere.
Visitors can choose from a number of tour opportunities and activities such as scuba diving, canopy tours, and hiking, but many tourists choose to simply relax on the beach and enjoy the quiet.
Isla Tortuga can only be reached by boat and it will take approximately one hour to arrive at its sandy shores.
My must-do highlights of Isla Tortuga
- Take a guided sea kayaking excursion, it’s a bit more hard work than on a lake but the surrounding scenery is a reward to see.
- Indulge in a BBQ on the beach where you can eat delicious food whilst soaking up the incredible views.
- Pick up a souvenir from one of the many shops to remind you of the trip.
15. Poas Volcano – an active volcano and a popular tourist attraction
Arenal may be the most popular active volcano in Costa Rica, but Poas just an hour outside of San Jose is one of the most beautiful places in the entire country. In the center of the main volcano crater is a blue-green lake that emits bubbles and smoke.
The park surrounding the volcano is dense with wildlife, cloud forest, and rain forest, making it among the most stunning destinations in Costa Rica.
On a clear day, you can see both the Atlantic and Pacific coasts from the top of the volcano.
My must-do highlights of Poas Volcano
- Get your camera ready to capture picturesque Insta-worthy shots of the unique vibrant lake.
- Appreciate the views that stretch across to the Atlantic and Pacific coasts on a gorgeous day.
- Check out the nearby rain forests in the park that feature magnificent greenery.
16. Bajos del Toro – a less explored paradise in the Alajuela Province
Bajos del Toro is not a place you will find in the center of town. It is an area of Costa Rica that is perfectly off the beaten path. Approximately 90 minutes from San Jose, you will find this hidden gem, but you will have to walk a while. Bajos del Toro, however, is truly worth the walk.
It is a private reserve full of exceptionally beautiful waterfalls and unique pools. If you are looking for a place to enjoy the water in a tropical setting and get some epic pictures of your journey, Bajos del Toro delivers perfectly.
My must-do highlights of Bajos del Toro
- Visit one of the coldest waterfalls in Costa Rica, Blue Falls. Well known for being a perfect piece of nature.
- Hike along the Parque Nacional del Agua Juan Castro Blanco filled with color and beauty.
- Have a go at canyoning, a fun and adventurous activity to do that can be equipped to all levels.
17. Tamarindo Beach – a famous surfing mecca
This beach is known for its surfing with many choosing to kick back and stay for a while. Located in the Guanacaste province it started as a small village and has now grown into one of the most popular places to visit in the Central American country.
It’s a long and pretty sandy beach with fantastic waves, although there can be a strong current so caution is advised if you’re a newbie surfer. If you fancy a try, hotels in the area can set you up with a nearby water sports rental.
My must-do highlights of Tamarindo Beach
- Hit the waves at the beach with some surfing, which is known for having some of the best breaks in the world.
- Embark on a private ATV tour to see the scenic forests, rivers, countryside and more.
- Soar through the sky for a birds eye view above the area on a thrilling zipline.
18. Rio de Celeste – a beautiful river and waterfall known for its distinctive turquoise color
With glowing milky blue waters, it’s easy to understand why the Rio de Celeste is considered one of the most beautiful places in Costa Rica.
Inside of the Tenorio Volcano National Park, the Rio de Celeste gets its opalescent hue from the mix of sulfur and calcium carbonate from the volcano. Enjoy the river by playing in the waterfall or soaking in the hot springs.
My must-do highlights of Rio de Celeste
- Chill out in the gorgeous hot springs.
- Take a dip in the waterfalls base for a refreshing activity.
- Grab a stunning picture underneath the waterfall.
19. Rincon de la Vieja National Park – an under-the-radar destination with a volcano and geothermal landscapes
Have you ever wanted to see an active volcano up close? The notion is exciting to many and in Rincon de la Vieja National Park, you can get your volcanic fix.
The entire park is known for high levels of geothermic activity and hiking up Rincon de la Veija, an active volcano, and one of the best travel destinations in Costa Rica, is a truly remarkable experience.
Geothermic studies are common in the area and if you have ever wanted to know about volcanic activity it is an excellent resource for those that want to learn.
Rincon de la Vieja National Park is not all about education but offers some insanely beautiful photo ops as waterfalls are an amazing attraction in this area.
My must-do highlights of Rincon de la Vieja National Park
- For those looking to have a memorable experience, hike up to the active volcano, something you will never forget.
- Swim and relax in the stunning blue hot springs, a natural outdoor spa.
- Have a great time taking part in the river tubing activity.
20. Playa Ostional – famed for its visiting population of turtles
Located in one of the best beach towns in Costa Rica this is one of the most incredible sights in Costa Rica, if not in the world, is the arribada of hundreds of thousands of leatherback turtles on the beaches of the Ostional Wildlife Refuge.
The week before the new moon hundreds to hundreds of thousands of female turtles come onto the shore at night to lay their eggs. When the eggs hatch several weeks later participants come down to the beach to protect them from dogs and vultures as they make their way back out to the sea.
Costa Rica is an unbelievably beautiful country with many wonders to explore. While this list includes the best places to visit in Costa Rica, you really can’t go wrong with the gorgeous beaches, wildlife parks, and incredible mountains and volcanoes. Enjoy!
My must-do highlights of Playa Ostional
- Take a walk before breakfast to listen to the sounds of nature in the forest.
- Book a sunset catamaran tour which are filled with water sport amenities to enjoy before watching the sun go down.
- Be amazed by the delicious food offered in the array of restaurants across the area.
21. San José – the capital and one of the best cities to explore in Costa Rica
Considered one of the best places to stay in Costa Rica, San José is the capital and the largest city with a population of over 350,000 people. Although it’s known for its majestic volcanos and greenery hills, San José also offers a great variety of attractions.
San José is split into neighborhoods that are called barrios. One of the most iconic is Barrio Amón where you can explore a crucial part of the city’s history. It’s also a place where you can visit one of the most magnificent architectural sites in Costa Rica.
There is also the downtown part called el centro where there is a blend of businesses and cultural centers. You will find anything from retail shops to world-class museums. San José is without a shadow of a doubt of the greatest places to visit in Costa Rica.
My must-do highlights of San José
- Visit the historic and interesting tourist site of Winchester Mystery House, filled with stories.
- Stroll through the 6-acres of the beautifully prepared Japanese Friendship Garden.
- Be inspired by the fascinating exhibits at the Tech Museum of Innovation.
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Gaby Maia – writer and photographer
Born and raised in Brazil, Gaby has always had a taste for the intriguing, the off-beat and the far flung. After traveling around most of South America, living in Spain and Italy and then moving to England, her feet have stayed continually twitchy. Studying for a degree in Spanish translation and then learning five more languages only poured more fuel onto her traveling ardor. Gaby likes nothing better than discovering new destinations in her spare time and meeting the locals, tasting the cuisine and then writing about her favourite places. Her other indulgences include French cinema, boxing, photography, colourful manicures and soaking up the rays on a sun-infused beach. The places she loves the most include Rio de Janeiro, Rome, Turkey, Barcelona, Lisbon and Cornwall. Find Gaby on Linkedin or Twitter.