Best Costa Rica vacation spots

Here are the best Costa Rica vacation spots to plan your memorable tropical getaway

The best Costa Rica vacation spots to visit depend on what it is you like to do on vacation.

You can plant yourself in one spot for the duration, but most travelers hop around the country to take in the rich and varied experiences the country has to offer.

Check out exciting Costa Rica vacation spots in the following regions:

1.1 Central Valley

1.2 Northern zone

1.3 North Pacific coast

1.4 Central Pacific coast

1.5 South Pacific coast

1.6 Caribbean coast

Central Valley

This is where most Costa Rica vacations begin. The Central Valley is home to the capital of Costa Rica, San José, and the major international airport.

San José is likely to be your “jump-off” point for the rest of your vacation in Costa Rica. However, consider spending a day or two exploring what San José has to offer. As far as Costa Rica vacation spots go, there are a multitude of museums to visit and parks to relax in. And that’s just the start.

Of particular note is the Central Market, or Mercado Central, which is a great place to soak up the local culture, pick up some souvenirs, or stockpile some of the local coffee. There are lots of little shops for fresh fruit and vegetables, meat, and fish. And don’t forget to stop and get a bite to eat in the food courts.

Poas Volcano Doka Coffee Plantation Tours
On the Cafe Britt Coffee Tour, we are introduced to the subtleties of perfectly roasted coffee.

If local culture is your thing, also check out the numerous museums and galleries inside and outside of the city. Shopping is plentiful, and at night, the bars and clubs start hopping!

Just outside of San José, in Heredia, is the Cafe Britt coffee tour. If you have any interest in coffee whatsoever, check this out. You’ll tour an actual working coffee plantation. Coffee is cheap here — I bought 20 bags to take home with me — but you’ll find it cheaper in the Central Market if you make it that way.

Northern zone

There’s lots to do in the Northern zone. If you’re coming from San José, chances are your first destination will be one of the most famous and spectacular – the Arenal volcano. It’s been erupting daily since 1968. The views are spectacular, and if the cloud cover isn’t too bad, you’ll see red-hot molten lava streaming down the side.

At the foot of Arenal in nearby La Fortuna are a number of hot springs where you can relax and soak in luxurious warmth. Along with Arenal, these hot springs are on the Costa Rica vacation spots “must do” list. Tabacón is a popular choice, but not the only one. There’s also Baldí and Eco Termales. My new bride and I spent a late, dark evening getting the best neck and shoulder massage by sitting in a hot, pummelling waterfall. Awesome.

Baldi hot springs
I saw this scene at Tabacón in a guidebook before we went on our honeymoon. I had to get my own shot.

Rounding out the top things to do in the Northern Zone is the La Fortuna waterfall. The 200-foot waterfall descends into a shimmering blue-green swimming hole.

North Pacific coast

Hiking through the misty Monteverde Cloud Forest Biological Reserve.

Bordering the North Pacific and the Northern zone is the small town of Monteverde. You’ll want to stop here to visit the spectacular Monteverde Cloud Forest Biological Reserve.

Moving towards the coast, the province of Guanacaste and the Nicoya Peninsula of the North Pacific coast is one of the most sparsely populated regions in Costa Rica. However, visitors flock to these Costa Rica vacation spots to experience the numerous pristine, sunny beaches that pepper the coastline. If you ever wanted to learn how to surf, take a few lessons from the locals and make your dream a reality.

Scuba divers will appreciate the numerous, easily accessible dive sites. Marine life here is as abundant as life in the canopy.

If you’re basing your trip in this area, consider flying into Daniel Oduber Airport in Liberia. Most of the North Pacific coast is accessible in less than an hour by car or bus.

Central Pacific coast

The province of Puntarenas and the Central Pacific coast mixes warm, sandy beaches with Costa Rica’s most famous nature preserves.

Two hours outside of San José, the town of Jaco is not very big but is famous for its black sandy beach. Take a surfing lesson, or rent a surfboard or boogie board. (I could never be bothered with standing up, so a boogie board was more my speed.) You’ll find numerous restaurants available for your dining pleasure, and the clubs and bars stay open late. Some consider this town a “party beach.” with many vacation rental options for all budget sizes.

Tour Guide
The trick to seeing all Manuel Antonio has to offer is to book a tour guide.

About an hour south is the infamous Manuel Antonio National Park. It’s the most popular park in the country. Arrive early, because only so many visitors are let in at once — once the capacity has been reached, you have to wait for someone to leave before you can enter.

Manuel Antonio has some of the best trails, best beaches for swimming, and some of the most diverse wildlife in the country. This makes it one of those “must-do” Costa Rica vacation spots.

And here’s a tip: book a guide to make the most of your visit. Our guide was pointing out lizards, sloths, and monkeys that were literally right under our nose. Truly an incredible park.

South Pacific coast

Next on the list of Costa Rica vacation spots, National Geographic calls this region the “most biologically intense place on Earth.” Costa Rica’s South Pacific coast has the highest percentage of land devoted to national parks. Access is much improved due to the completion of a recent highway project.

If you’re serious about wildlife, make a trip to Corcovado National Park when you travel to Costa Rica. Here is where you’ll find the most species of monkeys, rare birds, and even big cats such as jaguars and pumas call this home. (If you’re lucky, you’ll find footprints.) Vegetation is more diverse than anywheres else in the country.

White Face Monkey
Common inhabitants at Corcovado: the white-faced capuchin monkey.

The Osa Peninsula is also home to spectacular deep-sea sport fishing, snorkeling, and scuba diving. Base your stay in Drake Bay and make your way to the Caño Island Biological Reserve for the best snorkeling and scuba diving Costa Rica has to offer.

The eastern coast was where Christopher Columbus landed and christened the country “Costa Rica”, or rich coast.

Caribbean coast

Contrasting the Pacific coast, the Carribean coast is far less developed and far less congested which makes this one of the more unique Costa Rica vacation spots. It has a much different vibe than the rest of the country — think reggae and “rasta” culture and you won’t be too far off.

Puerto Limón is the capital in the province of Limón. It’s the main city on the Caribbean coast and a port of call for many cruise lines. Tortuguero National Park in the northern coast is famous for its inhabitants: sea turtles. Multiple species (some endangered) make use of the pristine beaches as their nesting grounds.

Another major draw to the region (besides the miles and miles of secluded beaches) is the Cahuita National Park in the town of Cahuita. With the largest coral reef in Costa Rica, this park is famous for its snorkeling and scuba diving opportunities.