The Central American country of Costa Rica truly has everything you could ever want in a vacation including rainforests exploding with biodiversity, adrenaline pumping adventures, surf towns with laidback beaches, and radiant museums.
There is just one itty bitty problem. How do you plan an itinerary of things to do and see with endless possibilities? It's not an easy task!
Even with 6 weeks of backpacking in Costa Rica, Brad and I couldn't complete everything on our wishlist. So don't get discouraged if you have to narrow down your picks; it'll probably be the hardest part of your trip.
To help ease the squeeze, I put together a list of 20 stops organized by activity to inspire your planning process. Whatever you choose to do in Costa Rica will undoubtedly knock your socks off!
Beaches & Whale Watching
Kick back, relax, and feel the sunshine on Costa Rica's rocky coastline. Flanked by the Pacific Ocean and Caribbean Sea, the country has some great areas for snorkeling, surfing, scuba diving, and swimming. The southern Pacific coast is a prime destination to see migrating Humpback whales!
What began as a quiet fishing village and Leatherback turtle nesting site is now a modern tourist town with eclectic restaurants, nightlife, and boutique hotels. Test your balance with a surf lesson or savor a refreshing copo (flavored shaved ice with condensed milk) as you watch a golden sunset at Playa Tamarindo. We saw starfish, Devil rays, butterflyfish, pufferfish, and Whitetip sharks during our scuba diving trip to the Catalina Islands in the Pacific Ocean.
Manuel Antonio National Park
Costa Rica's most popular park has 4 gorgeous beaches on the Pacific coast and offers visitors the chance to get within mere feet of baby monkeys, iguanas, sloths and deer! Cooling off in the calm turquoise water at Playa Las Gemelas after our hike in the humid rainforest was divine. Check out my Manuel Antonio National Park post to help plan your visit.
Marino Ballena National Park
Uvita, a town on the Pacific coast, is the ideal spot to book a whale watching tour. If you're traveling between December-April or July-October, you'll have the most luck finding Humpback whales. We saw a playful calf with its mama during our excursion with Ballena Aventura. The epic sight was enhanced by breaching Bottlenose and Spotted dolphins! I really appreciated how the boats kept a respectful distance away from the animals.
Gandoca-Manzanillo National Mixed Wildlife Refuge
Near the border of Panama on the Caribbean coast is a park with shy hermit crabs, territorial Howler monkeys, and Strawberry poison dart frogs. Stick your toes in the golden sand as you enjoy a picnic lunch along the breezy coastline. Keep your eyes peeled for creepy Orb-weaver spiders along the trails. The best beach is Playa Punta Mona which requires a 8 km (5 mi) out-and-back hike, but there are also a few smaller beaches along the way.
Puerto Viejo de Talamanca
Backpackers and modern-day hippies will have a hard time leaving the chill vibe of this Caribbean town packed with hostels, eateries, and shops. Rent a bike or scooter and make your way towards Playa Cocles. Take a dip in the waves or set up your towel on the sand and watch the surfers. Grab a cocktail from one of the bars along the road or wait for a vendor to offer you a coco loco (coconut water and rum mixed inside a fresh coconut).
Hiking & Wildlife
Captivate your senses in the rainforests of Costa Rica with invigorating hikes. Traverse diverse microclimates to find exotic birds, lizards, insects, and animals. Brad and I spent a full day exploring each of the following parks. Please take out what you take in and leave no trace, including biodegradable food which can harm wildlife.
Santa Elena Cloud Forest Reserve
Looking for a private rainforest experience? Walk narrow emerald trails to surround yourself with towering trees covered in vines, bromeliads, and moss. This glistening Garden of Eden was our first and favorite park in Costa Rica! Read my Santa Elena Cloud Forest Reserve post for more information.
Arenal Volcano National Park
Behold the 5,436 ft (1,657 m) high steaming peak of Arenal Volcano as you hear the crunch of lava rocks beneath your hiking shoes. Locate ornate birds calling in the canopy, find fruit bats resting in the massive Ceiba tree, and admire delicate orchids. The trails are well-maintained and easy to navigate with exceptional viewpoints.
Monteverde Cloud Forest Biological Reserve
Standing on the iconic red metal suspension bridge in Monteverde is pretty neat! The bird's-eye view gives you a unique opportunity to see sloths, birds, and Howler monkeys alongside the canopy. The rolling terrain is mostly cloud forest and rain showers are common. Be on the lookout for the most famous bird of Central America, the Resplendent Quetzal. Check out my Monteverde Cloud Forest Biological Reserve post to help plan your visit.
Mistico Park: Arenal Hanging Bridges
Can't get enough hanging bridges? You're in luck! This park has a 2 mi (3.2 km) long trail with 10 bridges and 6 hanging bridges. Gaze over the treetops from as high as 148 ft (45 m) to find boisterous parrots, inquisitive monkeys, and idle snakes. There is plenty to see back on solid ground including baby coatis foraging for food. Even though tourists are plentiful, the trail feels intimate.
Mirador El Silencio
The protected land of this affordable park nearby Arenal Volcano covers 550 acres (225 hectares) with primary and secondary forests. Each of the 7 trails has different topography including volcanic rocks, lush rainforest, and open pasture. Brad and I were impressed with the amount of flora and fauna. We saw a Three-toed sloth, pit viper, Rufous Motmot, anteater, and several Capuchin monkeys!
Waterfalls & Hot Springs
Costa Rica's beauty is intensified by its mesmerizing waterfalls and geothermal hot springs. Chances are you won’t have to travel far to see a show-stopping cascade! Keep in mind heavy rains can turn the water from transparent aqua to muddy brown. Don't worry though since any runoff will clear up in a few days.
La Fortuna Waterfall
After a steep descent of 530 steps, you'll reach the base of this breathtaking 230 ft (70 m) high waterfall. Find a seat on the large rocks surrounding the pool and feel the magical power of Mother Earth. Whimsical butterflies and dragonflies will keep you company as you soak in paradise.
The sweaty jungle hike (1-2 hours) to reach this multi-level waterfall is definitely worth the reward. Along the trail we encountered a Yellow-throated Toucan, Gray-headed Tanager, Scarlet Macaw, and two Slaty-tailed Trogons. Swimming beneath this majestic wonder is indescribable! Watch out for sharp and slippery rocks; Brad unfortunately punctured his foot during our visit.
El Choyin Hot Springs
Naturally heated by Arenal Volcano, these free hot springs are the perfect way to rejuvenate your body and mind. The soothing water has a cozy temperature. Enjoy the shallow hot springs during the day with a couple of canned cocktails or dial up the romance with a candlelit soak.
Night Walking Tour
One of the biggest mistakes you can make in Costa Rica is missing out on a night walking tour. The rainforest comes alive with strange insects, hungry vipers, tarantulas, and frogs. Our excursions in Monteverde and La Fortuna were fantastic!
Refugio de Vida Silvestre Monteverde
Grab a flashlight and follow your guide into the darkness to find curious critters, sleeping birds, and Unicorn grasshoppers. I couldn't believe my eyes when I saw a precious baby Two-toed sloth with its mama foraging in the canopy! Other noteworthy finds included a salamander, owl, and pit viper. Wildlife Refuge Monteverde offers 2 tours every night at 6:00 PM and 8:00 PM.
Arenal Oasis Frog Sanctuary
The protected habitat at Arenal Oasis Eco Lodge & Wildlife Refuge has approximately 40 species of amphibians. Walk beside spring-fed ponds and native plants while hearing a symphony of loud croaks. Our trained naturalist found 13 species in 2 hours, including the famous Red-eyed tree frog, Hourglass tree frog, and Translucent glass frog.
Costa Rica has a plethora of adventure activities such as zip-lining, scuba diving, ATV riding, deep sea fishing, and horseback riding. However, nothing will get your heart pumping like whitewater rafting! There are several spots all over the country, but one stands apart from the rest.
Dial up your adrenaline with an 18-mile ride along the Pacuare River! You'll be on the edge of your raft paddling over exhilarating Class I-IV rapids. The smiles were constant during our 3-hour journey with Exploradores Outdoors. Along the way we saw Blue Morpho butterflies, Kingfishers, and a Three-toed sloth. Paddles up!
Did you know Costa Rica has over 900 species of birds? Birdwatchers rejoice! Prepare beforehand by downloading the Merlin Bird ID app by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology and installing the Costa Rica bird pack to help keep track of your discoveries. A pair of binoculars also comes in handy!
The 9 trails of Curi-Cancha Reserve are some of the best in Costa Rica for birdwatching. Visitors can walk approximately 7 km (4.3 mi) through virgin forest, secondary growth, and open pasture. Brad and I identified over 20 species including a Lesson's Motmot, Slate-throated Redstart, White-eared Ground Sparrow, Squirrel Cuckoo, Keel-billed Toucan, and Lesser Violetear. Read my Curi-Cancha Reserve post for more information.
San Gerardo de Dota
You'll find the crown jewel of Central America in the misty cloud forest of San Gerardo de Dota. The Resplendent Quetzal is a miraculous creature sacred to the ancient Maya and Aztecs. Males grow iridescent twin plumages as long as 3 ft (1 m) to attract females! Tears of joy filled my eyes as I watched these gorgeous birds fly and perch around aguacatillo trees to feed. Check out my Trogón Lodge post reviewing our stay and tour with guide Greivin Gonzalez.
More than likely you'll fly into the capital of San José to begin your Costa Rica adventure. Most travelers depart the city as soon as they arrive, but it's worth spending a day to check out the cultural museums full of rich history, artifacts, and precious metals.
Museo de Oro Precolombino
The Pre-Colombian Gold Museum is divided into 9 sections highlighting the vital relationship between indigenous people of the region and nature. Learn about societal structure, agriculture, metallurgy, symbolism, gender equality, myths, and rituals. You'll see stone carvings, ceramics, and over 600 gold objects! Placards are in English and Spanish.
Museo del Jade
The Jade Museum has approximately 7,000 incredible pieces depicting frogs, shamans, animals, warriors, and fertility goddesses. Most of the artifacts are over 2,500 years old! Jade was valued for its translucent color and rarity. Appreciate the intricate craftsmanship, learn about carving techniques, and reflect on the religious importance of this semi-precious stone. Painted ceramics and gold items are also on display.
In A Nutshell
Whew, that's a lot of information! My biggest piece of advice is quality over quantity. It's possible to fit a majority of this list into 2 weeks, but you'll likely be exhausted. Instead, build an itinerary around your top contenders and interests. Traveling at a slower pace will help you absorb all of the magic!
I recommend first-time visitors to prioritize Monteverde and La Fortuna. Transportation in between the two areas is a breeze. Find out more information in my La Fortuna post which explains most of the aforementioned activities in more detail.
Brad and I plan to return one day to go scuba diving with hammerhead sharks around Cocos Island and explore Corcovado National Park. Another popular destination is Tortuguero National Park for nesting sea turtles, mangrove forests, and caimans.
Costa Rica is unlike anywhere else on Earth and embodies a harmonious spirit. The country truly respects wildlife and prioritizes rainforest conservation. I have a feeling my favorite country in Central America will also be yours!