15 Top-Rated Tourist Attractions in Costa Rica
Written by Lana Law
May 4, 2020
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Costa Rica is a wonderland of natural attractions, with volcanoes, beaches, cloud forests, and unique 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 and lovely squares, but the real treasures lie beyond the capital, in the forests and small coastal villages.
Endless stretches of beach line the Pacific Coast, with small towns that cater to surfers and sun seekers. Inland, the forest-covered mountains offer their own adventures, from volcanoes and waterfalls to ziplining and extraordinary wildlife viewing. For something completely different, check out the Caribbean coast with its calm waters, abundant wildlife, and different cultural vibe.
Find ideas for places to visit with our list of the top tourist attractions in Costa Rica.
1. Manuel Antonio National Park
Manuel Antonio National Park | Photo Copyright: Lana Law
Manuel Antonio Park and the surrounding area are known for beautiful beaches, lush forest, and diverse wildlife that inhabits the area.
As soon as you venture into the park, you will have no trouble finding iridescent butterflies and colorful birds flitting about. Howler monkeys, squirrel monkeys, sloths, and the hard-to-miss capuchins can be seen from the trails. 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 viewing and photography.
Most of the action in town is centered around the beautiful oceanfront beach, where noon time soccer matches break out, 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. For those who want to escape from the activity of the main beach, equally attractive beaches are inside the park.
You can find most hotels in Manuel Antonio, but the area is also home to one of the top beach resorts in Costa Rica.
2. Arenal Volcano (Volcan Arenal)
Arenal Volcano (Volcan Arenal)
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.
Accommodation: Where to Stay in Arenal Volcano National Park
3. Monteverde and the Cloud Forests
Monteverde and the Cloud Forests
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 howling 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.
Accommodation: Where to Stay in Monteverde
Dominical | Photo Copyright: Lana Law
Dominical is a tropical backpacker’s haven, with dirt streets, beautiful beaches, cheap accommodation, casual open-air restaurants, and a great vibe. Domincal is one of the best places in Costa Rica for surfing. Surfers who come here find it hard to leave, and visits often turn into extended stays.
Dominical also attracts an upper-end crowd who can find small luxury inns and bed and breakfasts on the outskirts or in the hills overlooking the town. These places are often set off on their own and allow for close-up wildlife viewing, with howler monkeys waking guests in the morning and toucans flying by the pool.
Back from the beach under the shady trees, vendors set up tables and sell crafts and other items. Outside of town are quieter beaches where it’s possible to find your own special place.
Due to Dominical’s southern location, it is lush and steamy even in the dry season when northern areas are dusty and the trees have dropped their leaves.
Accommodation: Where to Stay in Dominical
Tamarindo, located on the Nicoya Peninsula is a top destination for surfing, beaching, and good times. Once a quiet fishing village, Tamarindo is now a tourist haven where you can find good food and a range of accommodations.
The town is spread along Tamarindo Beach, which 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.
The area around Tamarindo is also known for 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.
Accommodation: Where to Stay in Tamarindo
6. Mal Pais and Santa Teresa
Mal Pais and Santa Teresa
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 hotspot 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.
Accommodation: Where to Stay in Mal Pais
Jaco is a good choice for anyone looking to get out of San Jose but still wanting the comforts and amenities of a larger town or city. The beach here is spacious and pleasant, but average at best by Costa Rican standards.
The surfing and swimming here are both very good, with smaller waves than other areas along the coast. What Jaco does have that sets it apart from the numerous coastal towns along this stretch of the Pacific is modern apartments and stores, a strong selection of good restaurants and hotels, and other modern conveniences that have made it a popular choice with expats and retirees.
Accommodation: Where to Stay in Jaco
8. Tortuguero National Park
Tortuguero National Park
For something a little different and a little off the beaten path, visitors may want to head to Tortuguero National Park on the Caribbean Coast. This area, accessible only by boat or plane, is one of the wettest areas in the country and offers something different than the rest of Costa Rica. The park is an important breeding ground for the green sea turtle and as a result, turtle watching is the main activity here.
While there are many beaches, the coastal area is not suitable for swimming as the surf and currents are rough and strong. Sharks are common. Hundreds and even thousands of green and leatherback turtles can be viewed (guides are necessary) nesting and laying eggs on the beaches overnight. Recent conservation efforts have increased the number of turtles nesting in the area.
From the hiking trails or boat rides along the canals, it’s possible to spot monkeys, sloths, and kinkajous. Peccaries and tapirs are also present but more difficult to see. Freshwater turtles, lizards, snakes, frogs, toads, and other amphibians are also common.
Accommodation: Where to Stay near Tortuguero National Park
9. Osa Peninsula and Corcovado National Park
Osa Peninsula and Corcovado National Park
In southern Costa Rica, beyond the beautiful beaches of Dominical, is the remote Osa Peninsula and Corcovado National Park
The park, established in 1975, protects what is considered to be the best remaining stretch of Pacific coastal rainforest in Central America. It has an extensive trail system and is popular with travelers who enjoy long-distance hikes.
In addition to surfing, other popular activities in the region are diving, snorkeling, and fishing. Puerto Jiménez is the area’s largest town, and several fine lodges are found in the Drake Bay area.
Accommodation: Where to Stay in Corcovado National Park
10. The National Theater in San Jose
The National Theater in San Jose
Costa Ricans take pride in the National Theater, which is considered to be the most impressive building in San José. In the 1890s, the ruling coffee barons voted for a tax on coffee exports in order to fund the construction of the theater, and European artisans were imported to design the building.
Completed in 1897, the building features a classical Renaissance columned façade topped by statues symbolizing Dance, Music, and Fame. Inside, the pink marble foyer features allegorical figures of Comedy and Tragedy, and painted murals depicting themes in Costa Rican life.
The most famous of the paintings is one showing coffee harvesting and export painted by Arturo Fontana in Milan in 1897.
Accommodation: Where to Stay in San Jose
11. Irazu Volcano National Park
Irazu Volcano National Park
The Irazú Volcano is the highest active volcano in Costa Rica at 3,342 meters. The summit of the volcano is a lunar-like landscape with craters. Irazú’s Principal Crater is 1,050 meters in diameter and 300 meters deep, and the Diego de la Haya Crater is considerably smaller and contains a small lime-green lake that sometimes appears red.
Marked trails lead to these craters and two other smaller ones, one of which also contains a lake. A pyroclastic cone can also be seen, which has been formed from fragmented volcanic rock. From the summit, it’s possible to look out to the Pacific and Caribbean on clear days.
12. Braulio Carrillo National Park
Braulio Carrillo National Park | Photo Copyright: Lana Law
Braulio Carrillo National Park, a 30-minute drive from bustling San Jose, encompasses rugged mountains, waterfalls, canyons, dormant volcanoes, and virgin rainforest. The park’s proximity to the country’s main gateway means it is an easy way to see some of Costa Rica’s unique plants and wildlife.
Many different habitats exist in the park due to the variety in elevation, which ranges from the top of the Barva Volcano (2,906 meters) to less than 50 meters in the Caribbean lowlands. The park is home to mammals such as jaguars, pumas, tapirs, sloths, and monkeys, but easier to see and hear are several species of birds including the Quetzal (national bird), toucans, and eagles.
Accommodation: Where to Stay in San Jose
13. Rincón de la Vieja National Park
Rincón de la Vieja National Park
The Rincón de la Vieja Volcano is the main attraction in this park. One of the most popular things to do is a hike to the summit. This 9.6-kilometer trail leaves from Las Pailas and passes through a variety of ecosystems as it climbs to the top. The views are spectacular. You can see the the Nicoya Penisula, and on a clear day, right into Nicaragua.
Other less strenuous trails lead to waterfalls and hot springs. The park is also home to a wide variety of wildlife, with tapirs; sloths; monkeys; and large cats such as the jaguar, puma, and ocelot inhabiting the park.
Accommodation: Where to Stay near Rincón de la Vieja National Park
14. La Paz Waterfall Gardens
La Paz Waterfall
This privately owned nature park is a must-see attraction in Costa Rica. Spread out over 70 acres, the park is home to a wide variety of wildlife including monkeys, butterflies, hummingbirds, and others.
The highlight of the park is La Paz waterfall. Rainwater from the cloud forests tumble off a high ledge, dropping 37 meters into a pool below. In addition to the waterfall, your admission ticket includes access to the serpentarium, butterfly observatory, jungle cat exhibit, and ranarium (frog exhibit).
Official website: www.waterfallgardens.com
Wildlife | Photo Copyright: Lana Law
Costa Rica is one of those rare countries where the wildlife alone can be worth the trip. What the country may lack in cultural attractions, it more than makes up for with interseting and prevalent wildlife experiences.
You rarely need to search out animals. Monkeys make regular appearances around the towns, scarlet macaws soar through the skies, and toucans rustle in the branches nearby.
Opportunities to see wildlife are not limited to any one area, but visiting the parks or taking organized tours with knowledgeable guides will improve the chances of seeing some of the more elusive species.