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Top 10 things to do in Costa Rica
With the Caribbean Sea to its east and the Pacific Ocean to its west, the tiny republic of Costa Rica hits big with glittering beaches, fog-shrouded rainforests, smoking volcanoes, world-class coffee plantations, wildlife-rich national parks, and adrenaline-pumping jungle adventures. Here’s our round-up of the best things to do in this wild, wondrous, and ecologically-rich playground located at the exact centre of the Americas.
Take a behind-the-scenes guided tour of a coffee plantation
A winning combination of high altitudes, fertile soils of volcanic origin, cool climates, and steady rainfall means that Costa Rica has produced some of the finest coffee in the world since the end of the 1700s. And since the government allows only superior-quality Arabica beans to grow on coffee plantations (a law was passed in 1989 prohibiting the planting of low-quality beans, thereby encouraging farmers to pursue true excellence) you can expect a spot-on cuppa when it comes to aroma, body, flavour, acidity, and sustainability. To learn more about the country’s most famous export, start your coffee journey at Hacienda Espíritu Santo - the 600-acre plantation in the Central Highlands that offers a detailed behind-the-scenes tour of the production process (growing, harvesting, drying, and processing). Further fabulous bean-to-cup experiences are to be found at the Santa María de Dota Coffee Plantation in the Los Santos region, La Bella Tica Organic Farm in Monteverde, Finca Rosa Blanca Coffee Plantation in the greater Central Valley area, El Toledo in Atenas, and Naturalba near the charming little town of Turrialba.
Don’t miss: Located on the slopes of Póas Volcano, the family-owned Doka Estate has operated as a working coffee farm since 1908. The tour's highlight is easily the coffee tasting where you can choose from eight deliciously smooth or bold blends: Peaberry Estate, French Roast, European Roast, Espresso Roast, House Blend, Breakfast Blend, Decaf, and Organic.
Saddle up and make like a Costa Rican cowboy or cowgirl
Ticos (Costa Ricans) are incredibly proud of their horseriding and ranching cultures, especially in the northwestern province of Guanacaste - a biodiverse region famed as the heart and soul of equestrian life. Head here to trot or canter along dry forest trails and mountain foothills like a cowboy or cowgirl, spend the night in an eco hotel or nature lodge, learn about livestock from ranch hands and wranglers, and immerse yourself in the sabanero (cowboy) way of life. Equally thrilling are the half-day, full-day, and multi-day horseback riding tours at Centaura, just outside of La Fortuna and near to Arenal Volcano. Hailed as one of the 15 best horseback riding destinations by CNN Travel, you can expect exciting itineraries, varying landscapes, and staff who provide an exceptionally high level of care for their horses as well as their riders. Similar services are also offered by privately-run outfits such as Horse Trek Monteverde, Brisas del Nara, Rancho Tropical, Pura Aventura, Caribe Horse Riding Club, Discovery Horseback Tours, and El Pinto Expeditions (they all cater for beginners as well as experienced riders).
Don’t miss: Just minutes from some of the famous Pacific Coast beaches, the Painted Pony Guest Ranch at Casagua Horses is a 50-acre family-owned ranch offering bespoke equestrian experiences and tuition. Day packages can be arranged for riding high-stepping Criollo horses on the Old Spanish Trails through mountains, small towns, and beaches with professional guides.
Become a lava lover by visiting at least one volcanic giant
Of all Costa Rica’s smoking hotspots (there are five listed active volcanoes and another 61 dormant or extinct ones), the most photographed is the perfectly symmetrical Arenal Volcano. Just an easy three-hour drive from San José, this 1,670-metre-high giant erupted unexpectedly in 1968 after having been dormant for centuries. But nowadays it’s in a “resting phase” and deemed safe for those keen to take guided hikes around its lower slopes, watch smoke and cinder blocks billowing from its top (daytime), and see fiery-red lava pour down its steep sides (night-time). Also visit-worthy is the 2,740-metre-high Poás Volcano for its huge crater (over a mile across and 1,050-feet deep) and geyser-like ejections of water. Should time allow, also visit Rincón de la Vieja Volcano for its freshwater lake, waterfalls, hot springs, geysers and boiling mud pools, and the lesser-known Turrialba Volcano for its mountain range, montane forest, and surrounding daily farms. Just be aware that any activity involving ash, gas, mud, and magna will result in closures, so some volcanoes may be temporarily off-limits.
Don’t miss: Only an hour northwest of San José, the easy-to-access Irazú Volcano is one of the few volcanoes in Costa Rica where you can drive almost all the way to the top. Head here to hit the half-mile hiking trail offering unobscured views of the main crater, Diego de la Haya, Playa Hermosa, and the Laguna craters. Alternatively, simply marvel at this sleeping giant from afar.
Keep your eyes on the jungle and your head in the clouds
It’s impossible not to be wowed by Costa Rica’s headline-grabbing ecosystem - the fog-shrouded rainforests that seem to literally rest within banks of low-level clouds (characterised 100 per cent by humidity, the atmosphere here is as misty and dreamlike as you’d imagine). Of all these hotbeds of biodiversity, the most beloved is the high-altitude Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve in the Sierra de Tilarán; not least for its wind-sculpted elfin woodlands, endemic flora and fauna, and seriously cool ziplining, canyoning, and rope-climbing attractions. You’ll also find a hummingbird gallery, butterfly and orchard garden, serpentarium, and network of canopy footbridges and trails offering opportunities to see the forest at different levels. For more crowd-free cloud forest experiences, visit San Gerardo de Dota in the highlands of Cerro de la Muerte, Bosque de Paz Rain/Cloud Forest Biological Reserve in the Central Valley, and Los Angeles Cloud Forest (also in the Central Valley, not far from the mountain town of San Ramón).
Don’t miss: For daredevils who fancy whizzing across the rainforest canopy, Monteverde Extremo Park has 14 ziplines (the longest is over 1,000-metres), a freefall Tarzan swing, and two Superman-style cables - one of which sends you soaring through a 175-metre-long mountain tunnel. There’s also a new 469-feet bungee jump, reportedly the highest in Latin America.
Seek out cultural thrills in the buzzy capital city of San José
A world away from the misty rainforests, warbling jungle birds, mighty volcanoes and swoon-worthy beaches, the vibrant capital city of San José is home to one-third of Costa Rica’s population. Most come here to marvel at the grandiose National Theater of Costa Rica (founded in 1897, this beloved landmark still hosts performances several times a week), but there’s much more to grab your attention. Must-dos include stocking up on knick-knacks at the Mercado Central (Central Market), stopping for coffee on Avenida Central, exploring the late-night haunts of El Pueblo, shopping at San Pedro Mall, and people-watching in Central Park. For a cultural kick, visit the Museum of Contemporary Art and Design, the Costa Rican National Museum, the Pre-Colombian Gold Museum, the Peace Museum, and the Jade Museum. If you’re staying in the heart of the city, everything worth seeing is within walking distance. Alternatively, take an Uber (it’s no more expensive than a bus and usually works out cheaper than a taxi).
Don’t miss: Located north and west of Plaza España, the architecturally-stunning Barrio Amón neighbourhood is home to some of the city’s most historic 19th- and 20th-century buildings and cafetalero (coffee grower) mansions. Spend time marvelling at the amazing mansions, many of which have been converted into restaurants, contemporary art galleries, and boutique shops.
Spend time on the drop-dead-gorgeous beaches
Given that it has not one but two wild and dazzling coastlines (Pacific and Caribbean), it comes as no surprise that Costa Rica tempts with over 300 named beaches - many of which guarantee brilliant-white or volcanic sands, deep-blue waters, candy-coloured corals, and cinematic sunsets. Most sun-seekers make a beeline for the top-ranking Manuel Antonio Beach to soak up the delights of its coral seascape, horseshoe bays, hiking trails, abundant wildlife (mainly monkeys), and balmy waters that are perfect for swimming. But there’s plenty more sparkling gems that embrace the country’s pura vida (pure life) lifestyle, including Playa Mal Pais and Playa Manzanillo for surfers and yoga-lovers, Playa Conchal for snorkellers, Tamarindo for boogie boarders, and Nacascolo Beach for stand-up paddleboarders and kayakers. For more off-the-beaten track spots, try Playa Avellanas for its Insta-worthy backdrop of protected mangrove forests, Playa Bejuca for its bird-watching, Punta Uva for its shallow coral reefs and eye-poppingly white sands, and Playa Montezuma for its bohemian and artsy vibe.
Don’t miss: While it would take a lazy lifetime to visit every single beach, it’s worth exploring both the under-the-radar Caribbean Coast in the east and the more developed Pacific Coast in the west, if only to get to grips with the country’s geographical diversity. Driving coast-to-coast takes forever, so it’s far easier to hop on an internal flight (the journey is about 30-minutes).
Go snorkelling and diving in two different oceans
Given that it’s wedged between two oceans, Costa Rica’s aquatic world is every bit as mind-blowing as you’d imagine - especially along the Pacific Coast where the crystalline waters are home to a staggering amount of accessible marine life (an estimated 6,777 species in total). Most seasoned divers and underwater photographers make their way to the Islas Murciélagos (Bat Islands) off the coast of Playa Hermosa in Guanacaste for sightings of the bull shark (like a regular shark but with a snout that’s more rounded). Equally thrilling is the Isla del Coco - a UNESCO World Heritage Site located 300 miles southwest of Cabo Blanco (accessed only by diving liveaboard vessels which operate year-round, this exquisite marine park is recommended for advanced divers only due to the heavy currents and surges). Also memorable is the Catalina Islands for populations of giant manta rays, pilot whales, sharks, turtles, and dolphins, Cahuita National Park for its 35 different types of coral, 20 types of molluscs and 40 species of crustaceans, and Isla Uvita for its immaculate reefs, colourful fish, and shipwreck.
Don’t miss: For fearless divers, nothing beats the Caño Island Biological Reserve for marine adventures on an epic scale. Located 300 miles off the Pacific Coast, this eco-friendly island is one of the best place places in the world to spot white-tipped reef sharks, moray eels, lobsters, hawksbill sea turtles, hammerhead sharks, manta rays, surgeonfish, grouper, and snapper.
Marvel at the wonderful waterfalls and natural hot springs
Whether you’re swimming, jumping, or posing for selfies, nothing beats Costa Rica’s wildly picturesque waterfalls for thunderous flows, cool sprays, and refreshing swimming pools. Some of the best timeless beauties include La Fortuna Waterfall at Arenal Volcano for its mesmerising blue base pool, Rio Celeste Waterfall in Guanacaste for its serene tropical surrounds, La Paz Waterfall Gardens in Cloud Forest for its five waterfalls, and Montezuma Waterfalls on the Nicoya Peninsula for its three different cascades (the largest is almost 80-feet-tall). There’s also numerous natural hot springs located throughout the country, many of which offer mineral-rich mud treatments as well as the chance to bathe in soul-soothing thermal waters. Just bear in mind that a good chunk of these places are on private property or incorporated into the upscale spas and resorts. If you’re out hiking and stumble across a natural spring, test the waters carefully first (some may be scalding hot) and keep your head well above the surface to avoid infection.
Don’t miss: As the first and only completely natural hot springs located at the base of Arenal Volcano, the luxurious Tabacon tempts with multiple bathing pools heated by the volcano’s magma, dozens of cascading waterfalls, and a series of secluded pools for swimming and soaking. Day guests are allowed to use the facilities for a fee (towels and lockers can be rented).
Hit the pedals and ride the country’s coolest cycling trails
Given that it hosts regional and international touring races and competitions every year, it comes as no surprise that Costa Rica is a biking wonderland complete with an extensive and ever-expanding network of exciting trails that cover every type of terrain. For casual cyclists who fancy a gentle ride, head to the outskirts of San Jose around the Irazú and Poás volcanoes, the Orosi Valley, and the peaceful countryside road that runs from the damn to the main entrance of the Arenal National Park. Also hit the Las Catalinas Trail - a single-track mountain bike trail measuring just 20.5-miles (it takes about 90-minutes to complete). More advanced riders looking for a challenge should head to Rincon de la Vieja to venture through astonishing natural landscapes or hit the trails near Cerro de la Muerte, that descends to a Pacific beach. There are plenty of guided cycling tours available, many with front-suspension bike rental, helmets, gloves, water bottles, biking guides, support vehicles, and two-way radios.
Don’t miss: For confident cyclists, the Pacific Coast’s laid-back Nicoya Peninsula rewards with rugged topography, unmarked dirt and gravel roads, and plenty of places for off-road adventure. Start at Playa Flamingo and continue around 115 miles south to Mal Pais, making sure to stop at one of the hostels or boutique-style hotels along the way (beach camping is also an option).
Get up-close with the country’s wondrous wildlife
In spite of making up just about 0.03 per cent of the earth’s total landmass, Costa Rica hosts five per cent of the world’s biodiversity. There’s over 220 reptile species, 6,700 marine species, 9,000 plants, 20,000 spider species, 34,000 insect species, and 1,000 butterfly species - many of which can be found in 26 national parks (the enlightened national conservation system means that a quarter of the country is protected for wildlife). For some of the best encounters, head to Santa Rosa National Park for its mass annual nesting of Olive Ridley sea turtles, Manuel Antonio National Park for its red-backed squirrel monkeys, sloths, iguanas, toucans and anteaters, Carara National Park for its armadillos and orange-chinned parakeets, and Corcovado National Park for its puma, scarlet macaws and endangered jaguars. Those serious about their binocular-usage should also venture to Tortuguero National Park for 47,000 acres of natural wildlife habitat, including coast, hinterland, and a maze of rivers and waterways where you’re likely to see snap-happy crocodiles and exotic birds chilling on the riverbanks.
Don’t miss: Named after the humpback whales that migrate here every year from December to April, Marino Ballena National Park is the best place for spotting green marine iguanas, bottle-nosed and common dolphins, and Olive Ridley and Hawksbill turtles. There’s also islands and rocky formations that provide refuge for marine birds such as brown booby and pelicans.