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28 Best things to see & do in Costa Rica

  • Costa Rica

Last updated: 15 June, 2024
Expert travel writer: Alex Robinson
  • Cocos Islands, Puntarenas Province, Costa Rica

Cocos Island, in the deep Pacific, some 550km off the Costa Rican coast, is one of the top dive destinations in the Americas and together with the Galapagos one of the best destinations for marine wildlife in the Eastern Pacific.

It’s also the site of one of the great underwater spectacles – the mass schooling of hundreds of hammerhead sharks.

Each year, from June through October, they gather in uncountable numbers, attracted by high concentrations of prey. Cocos Island sits at a convergence of swirling, nutrient-rich currents, attracting vast schools of fish on which the hammerheads feed.

Whale sharks are also regular visitors to the waters around Cocos, making it a popular location for wildlife filmmakers.

Are hammerhead sharks dangerous?

Although officially tagged as a ‘man-eater’, hammerheads are shy of humans and attacks are extremely rare. They hunt on the ocean floor at night, feeding on stingrays (their favourite food), squid, mackerel, sardines and octopus.

Why do they have a strange-shaped head?

Their strange hammer-shaped head contains hundreds of small electrical sensors that they use to detect the faint electromagnetic fields generated by their prey hiding beneath the sand.

Adult price: £3500

Min age 16

Good for age: 18+

Duration: 11 days

  • Limon, Costa Rica

On the eastern edges of Costa Rica’s Central Valley, the Pacuare River cascades down a series of slopes on its way to the Caribbean Sea.

For decades, this has been ground zero for whitewater rafting – for good reason. The Pacuare is home to a series of Class III-V rapids that travel down a canyon wrapped in virgin rainforest.

It’s a thrilling ride and an essential stop for adrenaline junkies.

Adult price: £60

Min age 18

Good for age: 18+

Duration: 1 day

  • Costa Rica

Best National Parks in Costa Rica

Bucket List Experience

Best National Parks in Costa Rica

Protected jungles and reefs preserving an astonishing 900 bird species and nearly 250 mammals; fuming volcanoes swathed in cloud forest; tens of kilometres of beaches nested by critically-endangered turtles; no army (the money goes to education) and political stability…

Costa Rica’s status as a pioneer of sustainability and peace in turbulent Latin America is remarkable.

As is the story of this success. After World War II, 65% of the wild had gone to aggressive agriculture. Then a few mavericks took a stand – like Scandinavian hippy turned pioneer eco-campaigner Olaf Wessburg, who lost his life fighting to preserve the Osa Peninsula.

And Latin America’s ‘David Attenborough’ Mario Boza, whose relentless force of will inspired the wife of the president, led to Ley Forestal law of 1969 and the founding of 28 national parks. These now form the backbone of protected areas, covering 30% of the country.

Good for age: 8+

  • Alajuela Province, Costa Rica

For just over forty years Arenal was one of the world’s safest active volcanoes to visit – a rumbling cone set in lush forest, spewing out lava that glowed red in the night.

Today, Arenal sleeps but remains truly spectacular – oozing hot rivers and springs, with a near-perfect cone, fuming puffs of gas, and shrouded in black ash. On its slopes, lush forest fringes crumbling, congealed lava fields, and the trees are rich in wildlife – including peccaries, ocelots and capuchin monkeys.

The forests are beautiful, cut with numerous wildlife trails and dripping with waterfalls. There are spectacular views of the mountains’ perfect cone at every turn – framed by rainforest trees.

The entire area is protected as a national park, a larger conservation area and a series of private reserves – all part of the 204,000-hectare Arenal Conservation Area.

Over the years, a series of luxurious hotels and a string of hot river spas grew around its flanks and ecotourism parks with canopy walkways – at toucan’s eye level – were built in the beautiful cloud forests around the mountain.

It’s illegal and potentially dangerous to summit the mountain itself, but there are great hikes in the area; trails run across lava fields through pine woods filled with peccary and parakeets. Other trails lead to waterfalls like the 75m-high La Fortuna, which drops into a refreshing, clear-water pool that you can hike to and swim in.

There’s a range of other bucket list things to do in and around the national park too.

Canopy walkways offer monkey-eye views and the park environs have some of the country’s longest and fastest zip lines. There’s also rainforest river kayaking, tubing and white-water rafting, mountain biking and canyoning.

Good for age: 8+

Duration: -

  • Monteverde, Alajuela Province, Costa Rica

Spread across rugged mountains 1,400m above sea level, this private reserve (and adjacent protected areas) covers more than 10,000 hectares of wildlife-rich, misty cloud forest.

This is where dedicated twitchers come to combe the 15kms of trails in search of the resplendent quetzal, the brightly-plumed bird sacred to the Mayas.

But there is plenty of other wildlife to discover – from spider monkeys and over 400 bird species, to wild orchids and prehistoric ferns – and a variety of ways to explore Monteverde.

Walking trails lead through a forest encrusted with orchids and covered in thick carpets of dripping moss (there are day and night safaris available). Canopy walkways and cable cars run through the trees, affording an eagle’s eye view of the extraordinary landscape, or you can see it at high-speed on a zip-line experience.

Good for age: 8+

  • Ballena Marine National Park, Puntarenas Province, Costa Rica

Humpback whales migrate to the Costa Rican Pacific from Antarctica and North America – to court and mate in the warm waters, later calving in the shallow seas of this marine national park. With near year-round visits, this is one of the best places to see humpbacks with their young in the Americas.

The Ballena Marine National Park protects the marine area around four small islands where the whales congregate. The islands have become a haven for other marine life; Olive Ridley and hawksbills turtles, boobies and pelicans, and dolphins are a common sight.

Adult price: £50

Good for age: 4+

Duration: 3-4 hours

  • Costa Rica

With dozens of active and dormant volcanoes oozing hot springs and even rivers, and well-developed tourist infrastructure, Costa Rica is one of the best places in the world for geothermal pampering.

There’s a big choice of things to do. In locations like Volcán Tenorio and Rincon de la Vieja, it is still possible to find natural hot rivers flowing in pristine rainforest. Others in locations like Arenal have been diverted through man-made pools – set in designated day spas.

At the highest end are luxury geothermal spa hotels (usually open to guests only), where volcanic spring water flows directly into the spa or even into your personal in-room bath or plunge pool.

Adult price: £5

Good for age: 8+

Duration: -

  • Osa Peninsula, Puntarenas Province, Costa Rica

waterfall dropping down to aqua blue water

Bucket List Experience

Corcovado National Park

The last remaining stand of coastal Pacific rainforest in Central America is protected by this, the crown jewel in Costa Rica’s park system – a sprawling 425sq km reserve that occupies much of the Osa Peninsula.

It’s a National Geographic special waiting to happen: a riot of lush forest occupied by bellowing monkeys, snorting peccaries and noisy flocks of scarlet macaws – not to mention elusive night-time species such as pumas and jaguars.

The marine areas around the Osa Peninsula are an important breeding ground for dolphins and whales. Lodges can arrange boating trips in search of these incredible mammals.

Cabo Matapalo, at the south-eastern tip of the Osa Peninsula, is blessed with a good point break. Most lodges can arrange lessons, surfboard rentals and transport.

Good for age: 13+

Duration: 2 days

  • Costa Rica

Coffee beans cupped in a woman's hand

Bucket List Experience

Coffee & cocoa plantation tours

Costa Rica produces fine coffee – smooth, mildly acidic (depending on altitude) and floral. Coffee haciendas (plantations) dot Costa Rica’s Central Valley, Pacific coast foothills and northern highlands.

A number can be visited – on day tours. You can learn how the beans are grown and harvested, taste varieties produced under different conditions, see the cacao fruit, and the process which turns its seeds into chocolate.

You can even stay in an upscale coffee hacienda as an overnight stop on your way in or out of the country. There’s a scattering of them near the international airport, set in beautiful semi-wild surrounds.

Adult price: £30

Good for age: 13+

Duration: 2.5 hours

  • Limon Province, Costa Rica

Tortuguero National Park, on Costa Rica’s northeastern Caribbean coast, is the best place in the northern Atlantic to see nesting and hatching sea turtles; four species can be seen including giant leatherbacks.

The dominant species is the Green Turtle – Tortuguero’s black sand beach is the most important nesting site for the species in the Western Hemisphere, thanks to half a century of conservation. Visit in the right months and sightings are virtually guaranteed.

There’s much more besides – some 160 species of reptiles and amphibians, 60 species of mammals and 300+ species of birds. Shoreside lagoons, filled with crocodiles stretch back from the beaches; gallery forests are busy with capuchin monkeys, toucans, spider monkeys, iguanas and three-toed sloths.

Lush hills rise above the whole landscape – offering stunning viewpoints that look as wild and primeval as the Jurassic World.

See it all on short hikes, boat excursions on the long lagoons or by kayak.

But this is wilderness with ease and comfort – there are accommodation options for adults of all ages and families with even the youngest kids.

Good for age: 8+