Costa Rica is a wonderland of natural attractions, with volcanoes, beaches, cloud forests, and wildlife. This is a country that appeals as much to bird-watchers and luxury travelers as it does to surfers and backpackers.
The busy city of San Jose is home to the country’s best museums, resorts, lovely squares, and cultural attractions, but the real treasures lie beyond the capital, in the forests and small coastal towns and villages.
Endless stretches of beach line the Pacific Coast, with small towns that cater to surfers and sun seekers. The province of Guanacaste in Costa Rica is considered the best place to visit for beautiful beaches and beach towns.
Inland, the forest-covered mountains offer their own adventures, from volcanoes and waterfalls to ziplining and extraordinary wildlife viewing. Although wildlife is prevalent throughout the country, the lush south is where tourists tend to head if they are looking to find animals. The areas south of Jaco down to the Osa Peninsula are some of the best places to visit for wildlife.
For something completely different, check out the Caribbean coast with its calm waters and unique cultural vibe.
Discover the best places to visit with our list of the top tourist attractions in Costa Rica.
Manuel Antonio National Park, Costa Rica
Set on the edge of the town of Manuel Antonio, Manuel Antonio National Park is one of Costa Rica’s top destinations for wildlife viewing. It also has the added bonus of being home to beautiful soft-sand beaches.
Some of the usual wildlife sightings in the park are howler monkeys, squirrel monkeys, sloths, white-nosed coatimundis, and the hard-to-miss capuchins. You can also expect to see iridescent butterflies and a myriad of colorful birds flitting about. You can walk the trails on your own, but for a more in-depth experience consider joining a Manuel Antonio Park Nature Guided Tour. Guides often know exactly where the animals are and carry tripods and telescopes, ideal for wildlife viewing and photography.
Part of the attraction of Manuel Antonio National Park is its proximity to the town of Manuel Antonio. In town, you can find hotels within easy walking distance of the park, as well as restaurants and other retail.
Most of the action in town is centered around the beautiful oceanfront beach, where umbrellas and beach chairs line the sand and surfers enjoy the usually gentle waves. This is a popular place for beginners to take surf lessons. Across the road from the beach and higher up on the hillside are restaurants and stores, some of which can get loud in the evenings.
If you want to linger here for a few days and treat yourself to a luxury stay, Manuel Antonio is home to one of the top beach resorts in Costa Rica.
Arenal Volcano (Volcan Arenal), Costa Rica
The Arenal Volcano National Park, found in the rugged Cordillera de Tilarán, is one of the top volcano viewing areas in the country. The main attraction here is the Arenal Volcano, a cone-shaped mountain with huge ash columns frequently streaming from the crater.
Arenal was dormant from AD 1500 until a massive eruption on July 29, 1968, which killed 82 people and destroyed two villages. Since then, it has seen regular activity and, depending on the day or week, visitors can expect to see anything from a cloud of ash to glowing red lava flowing down the mountain.
The park is also known for its wide range of biodiversity, with approximately half of all Costa Rican birds, reptiles, amphibians, and mammals represented somewhere within its boundaries.
The Arenal Observatory Lodge, originally a private observatory established in 1987, is the only lodge within the Arenal Volcano National Park boundaries. It is located on a macadamia nut farm on the south side of the volcano. From the lodge, check out the excellent views of the volcano and Arenal Lake in the opposite direction. Numerous hiking trails are in the area; many lead to waterfalls and old and recent lava flows.
Monteverde and the Cloud Forests, Costa Rica
The Cloud Forests near Monteverde and Santa Elena are some of the best places to visit in Costa Rica for ecotourism. If you are itching to immerse yourself in nature and see unique plants and wildlife without venturing too far off the beaten path, this is definitely the place to come.
The clouds covering these forests provide the moisture necessary to sustain the area’s unique habitats. While many people come simply for the bird-watching, the Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve and the Santa Elena Cloud Forest Reserve sustain various mammals, amphibians, and reptiles. Keep an eye out for colorful frogs and howler monkeys. Jaguars and pumas are more elusive. Organized hikes are one of the best ways to see the forest. Another option are canopy tours that may involve ziplines or bridges and even cable cars.
Monteverde and Santa Elena are the two main tourist centers in the region, with accommodation, restaurants, and even shops and artists’ galleries. This area, located northwest of San Juan, is a little more than four hours by bus. It can be cold up here, so be sure to bring warm clothes.
Tamarindo, Costa Rica
If you’re looking for an action-packed beach town to settle in to for a while, Tamarindo is just the place. Located on the Nicoya Peninsula in Guanacaste, Tamarindo is a top destination for surfing, beaching, and fun. Once a quiet fishing village, the town has grown into a tourist haven, where you can find a good assortment of restaurants and hotels.
The town is spread along Tamarindo Beach, a beautiful wide crescent that runs for approximately 1.5 kilometers. The area is known for surfing, with a range of breaks ideal for both experienced surfers and learners. The biggest waves are generally found here in November and December.
Sunset in Tamarindo
The area around Tamarindo offers eco-friendly adventures and activities that include snorkeling, diving, horseback riding, ziplining, and turtle watching in season. Nearby Playa Grande is one of Costa Rica’s most important nesting grounds for leatherback turtles. Throughout October and March, more than 100 turtles can be seen nesting and laying their eggs overnight.
Dominical, Costa Rica
Dominical is a tropical backpacker’s haven and one of the best places in Costa Rica for surfing. Lovely beaches, cheap accommodation, casual open-air restaurants, and a great bohemian vibe are what this town has long been known for. But, in the surrounding mountains, resorts, small inns, and luxury rentals attract an upper-end crowd.
A long stretch of beach fronts the town and in behind, under the shady trees, vendors set up tables and sell crafts and other items. In recent years, the once dirt streets have been paved, sidewalks have been bricked, and what was formerly a dusty beach town has become a much more refined tourist destination. Outside of town are quieter beaches, where it’s possible to find your own special place.
Beach at Dominical
Dominical is a fantastic place to spot wildlife without venturing too far from civilization. Toucans, monkeys, sloths, and scarlet macaws are common sights even right in the town of Dominical.
The annual Envision Festival draws a crowd to Dominical in late February or early March. This event focuses on music, arts, wellness, sustainability, and includes things like yoga and other workshops.
Mal Pais and Santa Teresa, Costa Rica
Mal Pais on the Nicoya Peninsula, is an area along the coast known for great waves that attract surfers from around the world. The town of Santa Teresa is the main hot spot in the area, however a chain of villages and beaches lie along the Mal Pais, including the villages of Mal Pais and Manzanillo.
Today, the area is a mix of backpackers, surfers who never managed to leave, and tourists who wish they had planned a longer vacation. The area is more trendy and has more of a scene than places like Dominical, and development in the area has turned it more upscale.