Costa Rica is famous for its lush coasts, biodiverse jungles, stunning waterfalls, and dramatic volcanoes – not to mention a mix of eco-resorts and urban attractions like museums and gardens.
If you aren't sure where to begin tackling everything Costa Rica has to offer, here's a list of 19 can't-miss sites, from volcanic cascades to surf breaks for all skill levels.
1. Parque Nacional Volcán Arenal
Parque Nacional Volcán Arenal is approximately 17km (10.5 miles) west of La Fortuna. The main park entrance is on the road to El Castillo (turn off the main road 13km west of town). It’s easiest to reach the park by car or on a tour. Otherwise, take any bus to Tilarán and ask the driver to let you off at the turnoff.
In 2017 a new "sector peninsula" set of trails opened, comprising 1.2km (.75 miles) of trails, an observation tower and scenic lake overlook. Hikers routinely spot sloths, coatis, howler monkeys, white-faced capuchins and even anteaters. Although the last entrance to the national park is at 2:30pm, you may be allowed to enter and stay at the new sector later.
2. Viento Fresco
If you're traveling between Monteverde and Arenal, there's no good excuse for skipping this stop. Viento Fresco is a series of five cascades, including the spectacular Arco Iris (Rainbow Falls), which drops 75m (246ft) into a refreshing shallow pool that’s perfect for swimming. There are no crowds or commercialism to mar the natural beauty of this place. You’ll probably have the falls to yourself, especially if you go early in the day.
3. Museo de Oro Precolombino y Numismática
This three-in-one museum houses an extensive collection of Costa Rica's most priceless pieces of pre-Columbian gold and other artifacts, including historical currency and some contemporary regional art. The museum, located underneath the Plaza de la Cultura, is owned by the Banco Central and its architecture brings to mind all the warmth and comfort of a bank vault. The interactive 360-degree videography display of Bribrí cultural hierarchy in the basement is worth the admission price alone.
4. Venado Caves
Two kilometers (1.2 miles) northeast of Venado (Spanish for "deer") along a good dirt road, these caves are an adventurous excursion into an eight-chamber limestone labyrinth that extends for almost 3km (1.9 miles). A bilingual guide leads small groups (limit seven) on two-hour tours through the darkness, squeezing through narrow passes and pointing out the most interesting rock formations (an altar, a papaya) while dodging bugs and bats (12 species in all – the vampires have darker poop from their iron-rich blood diet). Rubber boots, headlamps and helmets – plus a shower afterwards – are provided. You’ll definitely want to bring a change of clothes.
5. Museo del Jade
This museum houses the world’s largest collection of American jade (pronounced ‘ha-day’ in Spanish), with an ample exhibition space of five floors offering seven exhibits. There are nearly 7000 finely crafted, well-conserved pieces, from translucent jade carvings depicting fertility goddesses, shamans, frogs and snakes to incredible ceramics (some reflecting Maya influences), including a highly unusual ceramic head displaying a row of serrated teeth. Interesting indigenous history is on display, too. The museum cafe, Grano Verde, serves sandwiches, salads and smoothies.
6. Playa Cocles
Playa Cocles has waves for surfers who aren't keen to break skin and bones at nearby Salsa Brava (Costa Rica's biggest break). Instead, it has steep lefts and rights, which break (and often dump) on the steep sandy beach. During the right tide and swell, the best wave breaks are near the island offshore, producing a mellow left-hand longboarder's ride over a deep reef. Conditions best from December to March, and early in the day before winds pick up.
7. Parque Nacional Manuel Antonio
Featuring lush jungle, picture-perfect beaches and craggy headlands, this tiny park (680 hectares/1680 acres) absolutely brims with wildlife (and often visiting humans). As you wander its lovely trails, you'll catch a glimpse of dangling sloths, squawking toucans and playful monkeys, and stumble on breathtaking views of the sea and nearby islands. To beat the crowds and maximize wildlife sightings, arrive early or, better still, buy your tickets the afternoon before and walk straight in the following day.
8. Costa Rica Surf Camp
This fantastic locally owned surf school prides itself on a two-to-one student-teacher ratio, with teachers who have CPR and water-safety training and years of experience. The amiable owner, Cesar Valverde, runs a friendly, warm-hearted program including surf lessons and accommodation. Single lessons and board rental is also available, and boards are great quality.
9. Playa Negra
At the northwestern end of Cahuita, Playa Negra is a long, black-sand beach flying the bandera azul ecológica, a flag that indicates that the beach is kept to the highest ecological standard. This is undoubtedly Cahuita’s top spot for swimming and is never crowded. When the swells are big, this place also has a good beach break for beginners.
This site, 4km (2.5 miles) north of Sierpe, offers the best opportunity to view the mysterious pre-Columbian spheres created by the Diquís civilization between 300 BCE and 1500 CE, in their originally discovered locale, near culturally significant mounds 30m (98ft) in diameter. In their original setting, one can really appreciate their size and perfect sphericity.
The onsite museum screens an informative video on the spheres' significance and purpose, and there are other fascinating artifacts on display here, such as stone sculptures and metates (grain-grinding stones) unique to the Diquís.
10. Catarata Manantial de Agua Viva
This 200m-high (656ft) waterfall is claimed to be the highest in the country. From the entrance, it’s a steep 3km (1.9-mile) hike down into the valley (an hour back up); at the bottom, the river continues through a series of natural swimming holes. The falls are most dramatic during the rainy season, though the serene rainforest setting is beautiful any time of year. A 5km (3.1-mile) dirt road past Hotel Villa Lapas leads to the primary entrance to the falls.
11. Wilson Botanical Garden
The world-class Wilson Botanical Garden is internationally known for its collection of more than 2000 native Costa Rican species. Species threatened with extinction are preserved here for possible reforestation in the future. A trail map is available for self-guided walks amid exotic species such as orchids, bromeliads and medicinal plants. Guided walks are at 7:30am and 1:30pm. The botanical garden is a choice spot for birders, as it draws hundreds of Costa Rican and migrating species, as well numerous butterfly species.
If you want to stay overnight at the botanical garden, make reservations well in advance: facilities often fill with researchers. Accommodations are in comfortable cabins (singles/doubles including meals and a tour US$105/180) in the midst of the gorgeous grounds. The rooms are simple, but they each have a balcony with an amazing view.
12. Hacienda Barú National Wildlife Refuge
Consisting of pristine beaches, riverbanks, mangrove estuaries, wetlands, primary and secondary forests, tree plantations and pastures, this 330-hectare (815-acre) nature reserve forms a key link in a major biological corridor called the Path of the Tapir.
Explore the reserve by hiking five trails making 8km (5 miles) of marked and well-kept self-guided pathways. Monkeys, sloths and toucans are commonly spotted here. Experience the rainforest canopy by tree climbing or ziplining "Flight of the Toucan," (US$49 per person) or join birdwatching and walking tours.
Keep an eye out for monkeys in the canopy above, plus brightly colored poison-dart frogs as well as the occasional pair of scarlet macaws.
13. Punta Catedral
At its end, the isthmus widens into a rocky peninsula, with thick forest in the middle, encircled by Sendero Punta Catedral. There are good views of the Pacific Ocean and various rocky islets – nesting sites for brown boobies and pelicans.
Along this landbridge are the park's two amazing beaches, Playa Manuel Antonio, on the ocean side, and the slightly less-visited (and occasionally rough) Playa Espadilla Sur, which faces Manuel Antonio village. With their turquoise waters, shaded hideouts and continual aerial show of brown pelicans, these beaches are dreamy.
14. Cataratas Nauyaca
Owned and operated by a Costa Rican family, this center is home to the coast's most impressive waterfalls. Two falls cascade through a protected reserve of both primary and secondary forest, and are reached by hiking, 4WD or on horseback. Visitors can swim in the inviting natural pools at the lower falls, and the family runs horseback-riding tours and tours by pickup truck to the falls (reservations required; Dominical pick-up available).
15. Parque Nacional Marino Ballena
Famous for its wide, 4km-long (2.5-mile) beach, part of which is shaped like a whale's tail at low tide, this small but important marine park protects coral and rock reefs surrounding several offshore islands, along with migrating humpback whales, dolphins and nesting sea turtles. The best times of year for whale spotting are from December to April and July to November. You can walk along the sandy 'whale's tail' at low tide only; at high tide, much of the beach is covered.
16. Catarata del Toro & the Blue Falls
Find a beautiful 90m-tall (295ft) waterfall that cascades into a volcanic crater (free for overnight guests) and two trail options through virgin forest (one 4.5km/2.8-mile out-and-back option, and one 6km/3.7-mile route) to turquoise swimming holes and the Blue Falls of Costa Rica. There's also a restaurant where you can recharge after your hike while watching hummingbirds fly around. Or make a night of it in one of the wood-paneled rooms (from US$65 per night) tucked under A-frame-style eaves.
17. Eco Termales Hot Spring
Everything from the natural circulation systems in the pools to the soft lighting is understated, luxurious and romantic at this gated, reservations-only complex about 4.5km (2.8 miles) northwest of town. Lush greenery surrounds the walking paths that cut through these gorgeous grounds. Numbers are managed to maintain the serene, secluded ambiance.
Cocktails – served while you soak – come highly recommended (at an additional cost). The add-on lunch is a traditional Tico offering (rice, beans, meat) and includes dessert and coffee.
18. Ollie's Point
Surfers make pilgrimages to this isolated beach, near Playa Portrero Grande, to find the best right in all of Costa Rica. This famous surf break offers a nice, long ride, especially with a southern swell. The bottom here is a mix of sand and rocks, and the year-round offshore is perfect for tight turns and slow closes.
Ollie’s Point is only accessible by boat from Playas del Coco or Tamarindo. Or you can do as Patrick and Wingnut did in Endless Summer II and crash-land your chartered plane on the beach (ahem, not actually recommended). Shortboarding is preferred.
19. Tiskita Jungle Lodge
Set on a verdant hillside between Pavones and Punta Banco, Tiskita Jungle Lodge consists of 100 hectares (247 acres) of virgin forest and a huge orchard, which produces more than 125 varieties of tropical fruit. Trails wind through the surrounding rainforest, which contains waterfalls and freshwater pools suitable for swimming. The combination of rainforest, fruit farm and coastline attracts a long list of birds (about 300 species have been recorded here). Hikes led by knowledgeable local guides are available with advance reservations.