If you are planning a trip to Costa Rica and you have never been there before then you want to make sure you see the best this incredible country has to offer. With so many beautiful places to visit it was admittedly quite challenging to narrow it down to just 10, but after plenty of agonizing I have come up with what, in my opinion, is the definitive list of places to visit if you are a first time Costa Rica traveler.
Now, there will be some veteran Costa Rica travelers who will turn up their noses at some of the recommendations on this list, dismissing them as overcrowded or “overly touristy”, however do not let their negativity dissuade you from visiting these beautiful destinations. Yes, there are lots of other tourists there, but there is a reason for that. These spots are breathtakingly beautiful spots where Costa Rica’s wildlife is on full display for visitors to enjoy. It’s no surprise you’ll have to share them with others. Nothing this beautiful remains secret for long. You can bet those veteran Costa Rica travelers who are thumbing their noses were just as awestruck as you will be when they visited these places for the first time.
10 – Tamarindo
Perhaps no spot in Costa Rica breeds as much divisiveness between frequent visitors to the country. For some Tamarindo is the ultimate party town, with great beaches, and is an excellent place to learn to surf. The naysayers will claim that Tamarindo is growing too fast, is noisy, dirty and ugly. I heard these same arguments when I first visited Tamarindo several years ago, and the truth lies somewhere in the middle. Yes, Tamarindo is growing fast, and the infrastructure is certainly suffering as a result. However, don’t expect skyscrapers and luxury resorts going up everywhere. This is still very much a sleepy village when compared to party towns in countries like Mexico.
Tamarindo is definitely worth a visit if it is your first time traveling in Costa Rica. Not only does it have the beautiful beaches and great surfing, if you fly into Liberia International Airport you can be on the beach and relaxing in less than an hour. My recommendation: spend a couple days in Tamarindo acclimatizing to the culture. After that, you’ll have seen all you need to, and can avoid this party town on future visits.
9 – Mount Chirripo
The highest mountain in Costa Rica is a must visit if you are the type that likes to hike and get out into the back country. This particular selection is reserved for solo travelers or couples who are physically fit and want to see a part of the country that most tourists don’t get to. When you reach the peak of Mount Chirripo you will be 3,820 meters above sea level, and if you are blessed with a clear day you will be able to see both the Pacific and Atlantic oceans from this incredible vantage point. Be warned that this is not an up and down same day hike. Prepare to be on the trail for 2-3 days depending on your fitness level and what you want to see while you are there.
8 – Puerto Viejo
Only a small percentage of travelers that visit Costa Rica actually take the time to visit the Caribbean side, and that is a shame because they are not only missing incredible beauty, but also a cultural experience much different than that found throughout the rest of Costa Rica.
The stretch of the Costa Rica Caribbean coast that is actually habitable is quite small with hundreds of miles of untamed coast between Puerto Limon and Cahuita. However the small stretch of coast between Cahuita and the Panama border is incredibly scenic and abounds with wildlife. Puerto Viejo is the hub of this area, and the largest village on this stretch of coastline.
Beautiful beaches abound at or near Puerto Viejo including Punta Uva which is in my humble opinion one of the most ruggedly scenic beach in the entire country. Playa Cocles, Playa Negra and Playa Manzanillo are also nice beaches in the area, and all worth a visit if you’ve got some time to spend there.
Puerto Viejo itself is a funky little beach town with tons of restaurants, quaint beach-side bars and interesting shops to visit. The place exudes an Afro-Caribbean vibe and reggae music can be heard pumping out of the local discos at night.
If you are looking for a place to stay then check out Kaya’s Place. If you are looking for an upscale resort, then you’ve come to the wrong place. Resorts don’t exist in Puerto Viejo…yet. However, Kaya’s is clean, reasonably priced, and the staff are wonderfully friendly. Best of all they are right across the street from Playa Negra, and you can lie on the common balcony on a hammock and read a book as you listen to the waves crash against the shore.
Looking for a place to eat? There are literally dozens of wonderful little Sodas where you can get a cheap yet delicious meal of the local Costa Rican fare. Looking for a more familiar meal? Check out Bread & Chocolate. This wonderful little restaurant has delicious sandwiches and absolutely mouth-watering chocolate cake.
Don’t forget to take a break from laying on the beach and drinking to see some of the local wildlife. Both Cahuita National Park and the Manzanillo Wildlife Refuge offer incredible opportunities to see local wildlife like monkeys, sloths, snakes (rare), raccoons and more.
If you are an experienced surfer you might want to brave Salsa Brava. This is the heaviest wave in Costa Rica and breaks just off the point of Puerto Viejo. This surf spot is not for beginners! The wave is often over 10 feet in height and breaks right over a reef. If you don’t know what you are doing you could be in a world of hurt. Calmer waves can be found at Playa Negra, Playa Cocles, and there is a nice secluded spot about 500 meters inside the Manzanillo Wildlife Reserve.
As you can probably tell I love this area of Costa Rica, and it would come in much higher on my own personal top 10 list. However, I recognize that this vibe might not be for everyone, and this area likely holds more appeal to the budget backpacker than the family of five looking for a resort-style vacation.
7 – Playa Montezuma
This is another area of Costa Rica that may hold appeal only to a particular niche of travelers. Known for its hippie culture and its beautiful waterfalls Montezuma is a lovely little beach town that makes a nice spot for a quick visit or to spend a month unwinding from all the pressures of everyday life. The usual Pacific coast activities are available at this funky little beach town. You can surf, fish, dive and sunbathe. However, it is the waterfalls that are the main attraction of the area. Montezuma Falls is the most spectacular, and is actually a series of three beautiful waterfalls where you can swim, cliff jump, or launch yourself from a tire swing.
However, Montezuma Falls are just one of many waterfalls or catarata in the area. Ask for directions to Delicias Falls, Los Cedras Falls, or Rio Lajas Falls. Rio Lajas is particularly spectacular and secluded, but be prepared to spend the day hiking to get in and back from Montezuma.
Last but not least you should schedule a visit to the Limestone Waterfall Cave, one of Costa Rica’s hidden treasures, and an absolutely spectacular experience. The area is on private property but you can arrange a tour by contacting Rainsong Sanctuary and Retreat. Definitely worth the time and cost if you are looking to visit a place most visitors to Costa Rica never get to see.
6 – San Jose
I’ll preface this entry on the list of the top 10 places to visit in Costa Rica by saying that I am not a “big city guy”. Generally when I visit Costa Rica I either fly into Liberia, and head directly to the Pacific coast, or if I am off to the Caribbean side I try and schedule my arrival to connect with a bus leaving for Limon that same day. However, I can appreciate that many travelers enjoy the culture, dining and upscale service that comes with visiting a big city, and San Jose has plenty to offer in that regard.
If you have looked into visiting San Jose then you have probably been warned about the crime rate there. I can say that San Jose poses no more, and in many cases significantly less, danger than visiting a major US city. Use your common sense and you will almost certainly be fine.
If you are looking to visit museums and cultural heritage sites while in Costa Rica then spending time in San Jose is a must. You can see the National Center of Art & Culture (Centro Nacional de Arte y Cultura) where you can enjoy dance, art, and theater. This venue is huge, taking up more than a city block, and you’ll find the art of Costa Rica’s finest artisans on exhibit. A must visit for all art lovers.
If ancient history is more your cup of tea then a visit to the National Museum is in order. Some of the exhibits to be seen at the museum are more than 2000 years old, and you can see the history of the Costa Rican civilization up close.
If you are looking to eat then San Jose also boasts some world class restaurants. Two of the best in the city are Tin Jo (if you are looking for Asian cuisine) and Machu Picchu where you can enjoy Peruvian cooking at its finest.
If you are looking for an economical place to stay them I would heartily recommend the Hemmingway Inn. Clean and comfortable, with a nice little restaurant and bar, it is one of the best budget hotels in the city. It is only a few minutes walk to the city’s cultural and shopping district, and is just a few blocks away from the Caribbean bus station.
5 – Tortuguero
If you are looking to escape from the beaches and resorts and see a more rugged, natural part of Costa Rica then a visit to the Tortuguero National Park should be near the top of the list. The “Land of Turtles” is an experience unlike any you’ll find anywhere else in the country.
With more canals and lagoons than there is dry land you’ll be navigating your way through Tortuguero in a boat. Wildlife abounds along the shoreline including sloths, howler monkeys, and spider monkeys. Tortuguerro is also a bird watcher’s paradise and you’ll see dozens of species of birds here including herons, egrets, pelicans, great frigatebirds and more.
Last, but not least, are the turtles. Both the green turtle and the massive leatherback turtle can be seen here, depending on the time of year you visit.
Tortuguero can be a hassle to travel to, so make sure to make your arrangements for both your travel and your accommodation well in advance. However, once you are there and experience this magnificent national park all thoughts of inconvenience will disappear. It is truly a sight to behold.
4 – Arenal Volcano
If you have been doing your research for your trip to Costa Rica then you’ve no doubt read plenty about Arenal Volcano, and if it is not already on your list of places to visit in Costa Rica then it should be.
Far removed from the beaches and resorts, Arenal is high in the mountains of central Costa Rica. Cooler and dryer, a visit to Arenal can be a nice break from the dry heat of the Pacific coast, or the stifling humidity of the Caribbean side.
The volcano itself is a wonder of nature, continuously erupting, and providing a spectacular lava show at night if you are fortunate enough to see the peak on a clear night.
The village of La Fortuna, at the base of the volcano has dozens of lodges and restaurants, most reasonably priced in a variety of luxury levels. The prices climb as you climb the volcano, but the views of the cone of the volcano get more and more spectacular.
Want to see the volcano up close and personal? There is a park at the base of the volcano where you can hike through cloud forest, and climb over old lava flows. You can clearly hear the volcano erupt from this close up vantage point, and you can even take a bus tour here during the night to get an up close and personal look at the lava flow.
One of the main attractions of Arenal is the plethora of spectacular natural hot springs whose soothing waters are heated by the active volcano. You can enjoy both the Baldi Hot Springs or Ecotermales Hot Springs for a reasonable price, and both are relaxing and enjoyable. However, if budget is not an issue and you really want to pamper yourself you need to visit the legendary Tabacon Hot Springs. With dozens of pools and waterfalls, a swim-up bar and a world class restaurant, Tabacon Hot Springs is truly the lap of luxury, and if you are going to treat yourself only once while in Costa Rica this should be the time you blow the budget.
There are plenty of other things to do in the area as well. You can windsurf on Lake Arenal, visit the Arenal Hanging Bridges – a series of suspension bridges right in the middle of the rain forest, hike to several waterfalls, take a river sightseeing tour and much more. Plan to spend at least 3 days here if you really want to get a taste of all Arenal has to offer.
3 – Monteverde Cloud Forest
Not far from Arenal is another one of Costa Rica’s not to be missed destinations. Though many people will tell you to visit either Arenal or Monteverde taking the time to see both is far from a waste of time. The cloud forest is absolutely breathtaking and is teeming with wildlife, including scores of species of birds. People come from all over the world to see the legendary Quetzal – an extremely rare bird that nests in the Monteverde Cloud Forest.
Looking for more adventure? Try the cloud forest ziplines. Soaring above the forest on a cable at high speed is a rush and something everyone should try once in their lives.
If you plan to visit Arenal as well then only a day or two in the Monteverde Cloud Forest is necessary. However, you should take at least that. If you don’t you are missing out on one of the highlights of the country.
2 – Manuel Antonio National Park
Many veteran travelers to Costa Rica will complain that Manuel Antonio National Park is overcrowded, touristy, and overrated. However, I will venture a guess that they don’t recall their first visit there and how beautiful and exotic it seemed the first time around.
If you have come to Costa Rica to see wildlife up close and personal, enjoy spectacular beaches, and experience a true rain forest then Manuel Antonio can give you all that in a single day.
The park is massive, with hundreds of trails, several gorgeous beaches and is absolutely teeming with monkeys, sloths, raccoons, iguanas, coatis and more. For those who are worried it will be overcrowded the crowing of the naysayers should be ignored. Staff at the park limit the number of entries for a single day to 600. In a park as large as Manuel Antonio that relatively small number is insignificant. Sure the main beach at lunchtime is a little bit crowded, but nothing compared to what you would see on a beach in Mexico or Cuba.
Nowhere in Costa Rica will you see wildlife more prominently on display, and if you have kids they will absolutely love seeing the capuchin monkeys up close as they frolic in the trees. It is a great place to get fantastic pictures and video, and you’ll find your face is sore from smiling at the end of the day.
So ignore the naysayers when they tell you to give Manuel Antonio a miss. Sure, it is a little more expensive and a little more touristy than most places in Costa Rica, but if it is your first time visiting the country it is a great introduction to everything Costa Rica has to offer, and I guarantee you won’t be disappointed you stopped there.
1 – Corcovado National Park
While Manuel Antonio might be a tamed-down introduction of Costa Rica if you really want to see the rain forest and the wildlife at their rugged, untamed spectacular best then you owe it to yourself to pay a visit to Corcovado National Park.
Certainly not the easiest place to get to, Corcovado is worth the time, expense and inconvenience that you’ll experience getting to this remote gem on the southern tip of Costa Rica. Taking one of the tiny thirteen seater planes offered by domestic carriers Sansa or Nature Air can get you to Puerto Jiminez, and a two hour collectivo ride on a rickety old school bus will get you to the Ecolodges that border the jungle that is Corcovado National Park.
The park itself offers miles of trails that take multiple days to traverse. You will need to book at one of the ranger stations in the forest if you plan to hike the length and breadth of the park. You can stay overnight at San Pedrillo or La Sirena to break up the hike. You can enjoy Costa Rica’s nature at its absolute rawest here and see an incredible number of animal species including jaguars, pecari, crocodiles and several species of monkeys.
Corcovado National Park holds treasures for bird lovers as well, and dozens of rare species can be seen here, including the rare, colorful, raucous scarlet macaws that thrive in the area.
Even the most jaded Costa Rica traveler will agree that Corcovado should definitely be on the radar if you are planning a trip to Costa Rica. Sure it is expensive and inconvenient to get there, but if you want to experience the raw, natural beauty of Costa Rica the way you’ve always imagined it then Corcovado National Park is not to be missed.
So there you have it – the top 10 places to visit in Costa Rica for first time travelers. Don’t run around trying to squeeze them all in on your first trip, but make sure to see 2 or 3 at least. I promise you’ll fall in love with Costa Rica and you’ll want to come back and do everything else on the list in the years to come.