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The 7 best things to do in Costa Rica

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If you travel to stretch out with a book in front of a lapping ocean, yet also find yourself antsy for adventure, Costa Rica might just strike the perfect balance. The jungled jewel of Central America has built an envious reputation in recent years for its ecotourism, sprawling beaches, lush national parks thick with wildlife; and for being a rainforest-swathed nirvana for activity-seekers and adrenaline junkies.

Read on for our list of the seven best things to do in Costa Rica. With its unapologetically joyful ethos, you’ll soon understand the meaning behind its unofficial nickname, la pura vida.

green trees on white sand beach during daytime

Lose yourself in the dreamscape of Arenal Volcano

Reaching into the clouds at over 5,000 ft tall, Costa Rica’s famed Arenal volcano is certainly aesthetically impressive, though it’s much sleepier than it once was. For around 50 years it was remarkably active, spewing explosive lava and thick plumes of smoke on a daily basis – until 2010 when it settled into its current period of dormancy. Regardless, the now-peaceful peak casts a gorgeous figure wherever you stand in Arenal National Park, which, accompanied by green rainforest and the picturesque Arenal Lake, makes for a glorious day of scenic hiking.

The natural splendour here is second-to-none; a huge portion of Costa Rica’s biodiversity can be found within the park’s borders. Look to the treetops for 300 bird species including toucans, parrots and hummingbirds, alongside the likes of howler monkeys, spider monkeys and the Costa Rican icon, the sloth. 

At the foothills of Arenal is the jungle town, La Fortuna, an ideal starting point for one of many hiking trails, or you could access the indulgent, steaming hot springs also dotted around the park. If you’re after a similarly beautiful volcanic peak that doesn’t see quite as much footfall, the smaller Chato Volcano (3,740 ft) lies nearby, close to the stunning La Fortuna Waterfall, and features an enticing emerald-green lagoon.

a view of a mountain with a cloud in the sky

Watch baby sea turtles hatch at Tortuguero National Park

Costa Rica is one of the most important places on the planet for nesting sea turtles, and the best place to see them is Tortuguero National Park. Every year in the nesting season a roster of hawksbill turtles, green sea turtles, loggerhead turtles and leatherback turtles congregate here to lay their eggs in the sand. Lucky visitors can get up at dawn to watch the adorable baby hatchlings make their way down to the water. Witnessing the perilous first journey of so many tiny turtles is truly something special, and especially heartening given the amazing conservation efforts of the local community.

It’s not just turtles that reside here – the park is full of water-dwellers, with stunning canals and waterways abundant with caimans, crocodiles and sea otters. Over 400 species of birds also inhabit the treetops, such as the sungrebe and purple-throated fruitcrow. Travelling the water by canal boat or kayak is a popular endeavour, and makes it easy to spot wildlife as you meander past swamps, rainforest and peaceful lagoons. It’s no surprise why many call Tortuguero ‘the Amazon of Costa Rica’. 

gray and brown turtle on gray sand during daytime

Explore the lofty heights of surreal cloud forests

Named for their high elevation that shrouds the landscape with a low blanket of clouds, Costa Rica’s cloud forests are popular for a reason. Two towns with a strip of civilisation between them, Monteverde and Santa Elena, both have their own cloud forests – where the height, cool climate, and moisture content in the atmosphere allow unique and delicate ecosystems to thrive.

Monteverde Cloud Forest is the best-known of the two, and makes for an intriguing day of exploration. The canopies of the forest consist of lush vegetation, where the tallest trees are cloaked in mosses and creeping plant life. Ferns, orchids and shrubs fill up the lower canopies, inhabited with mammals, birds and hundreds of dancing butterflies. With the ever-present mist and fresh atmosphere, the air in Monteverde feels pleasantly cool and alive.

Nearby Santa Elena Cloud Forest is much newer than Monteverde’s (it opened in 1992 compared to Monteverde’s ‘72), sees fewer visitors, and can be mistier and more peaceful. If you have the time, meander some of its 12 km of trails and admire the views of Arenal Volcano that can sometimes be spotted in the distance. Both are fantastic examples of unique Costa Rican wilderness protected by the local communities.

green trees near mountain covered with clouds

Experience the meaning of la pura vida

The Costa Rican cultural mentality is compelling, one that celebrates living simply, joyfully, and at one with nature and your surroundings. La pura vida means ‘the pure life’ or ‘simple life’, and you’ll recognise its embodiment in warm interactions with locals, their true appreciation for nature’s gifts, and the honourable collective responsibility Costa Ricans feel to preserve and protect it.

You’ll likely feel this national mood all over Costa Rica if you’re taking a trip planned by a local expert. There are lesser-visited regions, however, such as the Nicoya Peninsula in the north west – with its yoga retreats and surfing beaches – where inhabitants and tourists really do enjoy a slower pace of life. To feel truly immersed in nature, visit Corcovado National Park on the Osa Peninsula in the south, where you can search for a plethora of diverse wildlife; elsewhere, nearby Manuel Antonio National Park matches the magic of jungle expedition with tranquil, Pacific beaches. 

trees near seashore

Be among the animals at Corcovado National Park

Speaking of Corcovado, don’t miss this enormous national reserve – at 164 sq miles, it’s one of the most ecologically dense areas in the whole of Costa Rica, and the world. Located on the Osa Peninsula in the south, where a remarkable range of landscapes such as coastline, mangroves and rainforests are home to incredible biodiversity, Corcovado National Park remains significant. In fact, National Geographic called it ‘the most biologically intense place on Earth’.

If you’re serious about nature, exploring Corcovado offers an incomparable experience. One can hike or even ride by horseback through the dense jungle, keeping an eye out for all manner of birds, mammals, reptiles and amphibians including a number of endangered species: striking scarlet macaws, red-eyed tree frogs, tapirs, sloths, monkeys, jaguars, and more.

If you only have a limited time in the country, it’s recommended that you pick one coast and explore slowly to get a real sense of what Costa Rica is all about – but chat with a local travel expert based in the country to get in-depth itinerary advice.

a white and black monkey sitting on a tree branch

Spot some of the world’s most enthralling birdlife

Birding fans who love to travel will likely have Costa Rica high up on their list. The country is bursting with flocks of dazzling, jewel-coloured bird species – 900 of them, in fact – making it a veritable haven for avian enthusiasts. Conveniently, some of the most popular attractions in Costa Rica (Arenal, Monteverde Cloud Forest, Tortuguero) are also bird-watching hotspots, meaning you don’t have to get too off the beaten track to spot some exciting feathered species. If you’d like to focus on birding, however, other captivating Important Bird Areas (IBAs) include Manuel Antonio National Park, La Selva Biological Station, and Carara National Park. 

A significant bird sighting is the resplendent quetzal, Costa Rica’s national bird. With its shimmering emerald feathers and pristine plumage, it is truly a delight to see in the wild (Monteverde offers your best chances). You might also spot the scarlet macaw, keel-billed and black-mandibled toucans, fiery-throated hummingbird, turquoise-browed motmot, and the three-wattled bellbird, to name very few. Best pack your binoculars!

blue yellow and red parrot

Go chasing waterfalls

Visualise Costa Rica and you may picture a sloth or a toucan in a rainforest canopy, but stunning waterfalls will usually come a close second. The country is known for its invigorating cascades, and there are plenty of places to either admire the show from a viewpoint or take a refreshing dip. La Fortuna in Arenal National Park has some spectacular falls – a 70 m drop surrounded by forest that makes for the perfect place to cool off after a hike around the volcano. 

Nearby Rio Celeste Waterfalls are also beautiful, with crashing powder-blue waters, geothermal pools and deep lagoons. Rio Celeste means ‘light blue river’ – local legend has it that when God painted the blue sky, he rinsed his brush in the waters here. 

You’ll find a number of falls at Monteverde Cloud Forest; the San Luis waterfall is perfect if you feel like a mid-hike swim. With hot springs, enticing coastline and natural pools aplenty across Costa Rica, you’ll soon get used to stripping down to your swimming gear at a moment’s notice. If you’d rather a more adrenaline-fuelled plunge, white-water rafting on the Pacuare River is the perfect chance to step it up a gear.

waterfalls in the middle of the forest during daytime

Make it happen

If you’re envisioning the Costa Rica trip of a lifetime, one of our locally-based experts can plan everything for you. Get in touch today to tell them all about your dream Costa Rica holiday, and they’ll work up the ideal itinerary.

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