Costa Rica is a mega-diverse nation located in Central America. You can find anything from beaches, volcanoes, hot springs, waterfalls, and high biodiversity in this tropical paradise. Because Costa Rica borders both the Pacific Ocean and the Caribbean Sea, it also has two shorelines with an immense variety of beaches that range from white sand to black sand and every color in between. With the endless possibilities, it can be difficult to figure out where to visit next in this gorgeous country. Thankfully, I spent two months in Costa Rica and have listed nine of my favorite activities below! I highly recommend trying them all out if you can.
Note: These are not listed in any particular order.
1. Look for sloths at Manuel Antonio National Park
Manuel Antonio National Park is one of the most popular tourist attractions in Costa Rica – and rightfully so. It has a little something for everyone. Nature lovers can hike through the forest and go looking for sloths and monkeys. Paradise lovers can spend their day laying on the beach soaking in the sun. I really loved visiting this park because there was so much to see. Throughout the trails, there were various lookout points where you had beautiful views of the ocean. Plus, I saw two sloths chilling in the trees and lots of capuchin monkeys (!!!), which completely made my day. When you arrive at the park, you can opt to hire a tour guide that will take you around the hiking trails and bring a telescope or binoculars so you can get a better look at the wildlife in the park.
If that wasn’t enough to convince you to visit, this area also has STUNNING sunsets. Although the park closes before sunset, you can go out to eat at a restaurant with an ocean view and wait for sunset there. The sunsets there were some of the most beautiful sights I saw during my trip to Costa Rica.
Entrance to the park costs $16 for adult tourists. To plan out your visit, check out their website.
2. Walk around the Irazú Volcano
Costa Rica has six active volcanoes, but dozens more that are dormant. Many know about the popular Arenal volcano, but you are not allowed to climb it. The Irazú Volcano allows easy access to those who are interested in seeing an active volcano’s crater. Its mineral-rich waters gives it a vibrant blue-green color that pops against the volcanic ash. You can walk around the crater to see it from various angles, and there is also another lookout point that you can drive up to. On a clear day, you could see both the Pacific Ocean and the Caribbean Sea, but unfortunately we didn’t have the best weather conditions for that.
If you’re planning a trip here, I recommend to bring warm clothing since it’s at a high altitude of 3,400 meters and can get very windy. Entrance costs $15 for adult tourists.
3. Swim under waterfalls at Maquengue Falls
Maquengue Falls Natural Resort is one of the hidden gems of Costa Rica. My host parents recommended visiting this place, and it did not disappoint. You hike through a trail that is alongside a river with four different waterfalls. The pictures below are of two different waterfalls here. It is so refreshing to swim here because the water is fresh and crisp (aka it can be a little cool). When we visited, we had the entire trail to ourselves, so we were able to swim underneath the waterfalls without anyone around us. I highly recommend making a day trip to see these waterfalls for yourself.
I believe you have to spend at least one night to visit the waterfalls, but I am not completely certain because there is not much information online about this place. For our trip, we spent about $87 for a single night at this lodge. This pays for admission to the falls and a two-bedroom house with a kitchen and bathroom. To make a reservation, you need to either call or send a WhatsApp message to their phone number.
Note: Do not confuse Maquengue Falls Natural Resort with Maquenque Ecolodge. These are in two completely different areas. The one you are looking for is located next to Siquirres, which is close to Limón on the Caribbean side of Costa Rica.
4. Go ziplining in Monteverde
There are a variety of activities to choose from in Monteverde, such as hiking through cloud forests, hanging bridges, and butterfly gardens. However, my group decided on going ziplining during our weekend trip there. There are a handful of adventure parks in the area, but we went with Xtremo Park since our hostel guide offered group deals with them. When you go ziplining in Monteverde, you get to feel like you’re flying over a cloud forest. It’s a surreal experience that I recommend to those who are brave enough to try it. This adventure park also offers other extreme sports, such as bungee jumping, horseback riding, and a Tarzan swing.
To read more about my experience ziplining, check out my blog post on it.
5. Catch some waves in Jacó
Jacó is a beautiful town located next to the Pacific coast. It’s known for its strong waves, which makes it an ideal place to go surfing. There are many people in the area that offer surfing lessons, and you can easily find surfboard rentals a short walk from the beach. Jacó also has some gorgeous black sand beaches, but be careful because they can get very hot on a sunny day so make sure you were some sandals. Because its waves can be very rough, this is not a good place to go to if you plan on swimming. In fact, some of the beaches here prohibit swimming. If you’re looking to ride some gnarly waves, though, this is the spot. Surf’s up, bra.
6. Lay on the beach in Playas del Coco
Playas del Coco is located in the Guanacaste Province. This area offers up beautiful beaches. You can take your pick from either white sand or black sand. This area is not as touristy as many other places in Costa Rica, so there is a lot less to do. I’d still recommend making the trip because the views are amazing and the water is very calm and clear. When we went to the nearby beach, Playa Hermosa, we were swimming with dozens of fishes and because the water is so clear, you can easily see them. This place would be ideal for children since the waters are shallow and you can take them snorkeling. You can also find people offering rides on a banana boat.
7. Visit the churches of Cartago
Cartago is the former capital of Costa Rica and has some deep cultural roots. It is best known for the legend of La Negrita. The story goes that a local indigenous girl found a figurine of the Virgin Mary by a rock and took it back home with her only to see that it had vanished from her home and had returned back to the spot where she had found it. She took the figurine to the priest and he locked it up in a box, only to find that again it had returned to that same spot. Because of this, in 1635, they built a church over the rock where the figurine was found and named it Basílica de Nuestra Señora de los Ángeles (Our Lady of the Angels Basilica). This church is still in pristine condition and the inside is pictured below.
Another interesting thing about this area are the ruins of a church located a couple of blocks away from the Basilica. This church was finished and consecrated in 1662, but was heavily damaged by an earthquake in 1718. The church was never completed because every time it was in the process of being repaired, another earthquake would damage it again. It had been damaged by earthquakes on four separate occasions until construction on it was halted in 1910 and it was named a cursed site. Interestingly enough, the nearby basilica never experienced any damage from those same earthquakes. Nowadays, the ruins are open to the public and has a gated garden inside. You can visit both churches for free.
8. Eat a torticasado in San José
You may have heard of the popular Costa Rican dish, gallo pinto, but a lesser known dish that they serve is called torticasado. For this meal, your choice of meat, gallo pinto, fried plantains, a side salad, and a slice of cheese are placed on top of a tortilla de queso (cheese tortilla). The best place to try out this dish is at the restaurant, La Tortillería, which quickly became my favorite restaurant in Costa Rica. This restaurant is located in the center of San José, the capital and largest city of Costa Rica. I recommend trying this meal with jugo de cas (sour guava juice) for a delicious combination. This restaurant also sells chorreadors, which is the device Costa Ricans use to make coffee. These make great souvenirs to bring back home!
9. Enjoy sunrise at Cahuita
Cahuita is a small town located on the Caribbean side of Costa Rica. This location is ideal for enjoying the perfect sunrise. Unfortunately, our trip to Cahuita was a little rainy so the sky was clouded when we went to see the sunrise, but we still managed to see some pretty pink skies. Even if you aren’t a morning person, Cahuita is a place you should check out because it has gorgeous beaches and one of the few FREE national parks in Costa Rica (they do ask for donations at the entrance, though). You can spend hours relaxing at the beach before walking through their lush green forest.
This list does not nearly cover all of the beautiful places to visit in Costa Rica. With a country so diverse, you are likely to keep discovering new hidden gems no matter how long you stay there. Regardless, I hope this list helps make it a little easier to pick out where to explore next in Costa Rica. If you enjoyed this blog post, leave a comment down below! Pura vida, mae!