Costa Rica attractions that will take your breath away
There are many, many Costa Rica attractions you’ll find worth exploring on your vacation. It’ll be tough to pack everything in — we went for a 10-day honeymoon and we only scratched the surface of what Costa Rica vacations can offer.
For us, it came down to what we most wanted to do. We structured our trip around the most interesting Costa Rica tourist attractions that looked like fun. We came up with an itinerary that maximized our time spent in each location and minimized our travel time. We didn’t want to spend all day in a car. (Especially with how bad some of the “roads” can be.)
Here’s a rundown of some of the most notable Costa Rica attractions and where you can find them.
Zip lines (aka Canopy tours)
As far as Costa Rica attractions go, this could be considered THE signature adventure activity. It’s an experience unlike any other.
|Costa Rica canopy tours: The only way to fly…through the tree tops.
A Costa Rica canopy tour starts off high in the trees of the rain forest. You’ll be strapped to a thick steel cable (“zip line”) via a harness and you’ll zip through the forest, 100 feet up from the forest floor, from platform to platform. It’s an incredible adrenalin rush.
You’ll have no problems finding canopy tours all over the country. But do go with a reputable, licensed tour company. Check with your hotel for more details on tours within the area — that’s how we booked our tour.
With 5% of the world’s biodiversity located within this small nation, Costa Rica has sought to preserve the local flora and fauna by protecting over 25% of its land in various conservation areas. These Costa Rica attractions serve up the best natural splendor that the country has to offer.
There are over 35 national parks in Costa Rica. Over 35!
There are six dedicated to Costa Rica’s volcanoes: Arenal, Turrialba, Poás, Irazú, Tenorio, and Rincón de la Vieja. Arenal gets a lot of attention, but Poás and Irazú are the most popular parks.
|One of the most popular Costa Rica attractions: Majestic Arenal Volcano on a clear, sunny day.
If you’re looking to spot wildlife, you’ll want to check into the numerous National Wildlife Refuges.
A wildlife refuge is space set aside for the express purpose of protecting the wild animals, and in some cases endangered species, that roam or live in the area. Rangers oversee the area to ensure that humans do not hunt or otherwise harass the inhabitants.
Wildlife refuges in Costa Rica include:
- In the Northern Plains: Caño Negro Wildlife Refuge
- In North Guanacaste: Ostional Wildlife Refuge, Cipancí Wildlife Refuge, and Bahía Junquillal Wildlife Refuge
- In the Carribean: Barra del Colorado Wildlife Refuge in the north, and Gandoca-Manzanillo Wildlife Refuge in the south
Those are your best bet for spotting wildlife, but all of Costa Rica’s national parks are teeming with animals. And each one offers something slightly different — different geography, different plant life, and variations of the local inhabitants.
The remaining national parks are sprinkled all over the country. Here they are broken down by region:
- Central Valley: Braulio Carrillo National Park, Tapantí National Park, Guyabo National Monument, Carara National Park, La Cangreja National Park, Los Quetzales National Park, Chirripó National Park
- North Guanacaste: Barra Honda National Park, Las Baulas National Marine Park, Guanacaste National Park, Santa Rosa National Park
- South Guanacaste: Diriá National Park, Palo Verde National Park
- Central Pacific: Cabo Blanco National Reserve, Manuel Antonio National Park, Isla del Coco National Park
- South Pacific: Corcovado National Park, Ballena Marine National Park, Los Amistad International Park
- North Carribean: Tortuguero National Park
- South Carribean: Cahuita National Park, Barbilla National Park
As you can see, the conservation areas are more prevalent in the Central Valley and Pacific coast. These are some of the most pristine, most picturesque, most beautiful Costa Rica attractions you can visit on your trip.
Another fun thing to do when you travel to Costa Rica is soak in the natural mineral hot springs. (This is also one of those signature Costa Rica attractions — the hot springs are very picturesque and often used on guidebook covers.)
Most of the Costa Rica hot springs are borne out of the Arenal Volcano, where the underwater rivers are heated and flow outward.
Water temperatures range from around 85 °F to 105 °F. You’ll find soaking pools throughout the temperature range, and it’s just a matter of dipping your toe in to figure out where you want to soak for while.
In addition to the pools, you’ll likely find numerous waterfalls you can sit under and get a relaxing, warm massage.
|This waterfall greets you as you enter Tabacón. There are many more, and many are perfect just for two.
In the immediate Arenal area, there’s Tabacón Hot Springs, Baldí Hot Springs, and Eco Termales. In Guanacaste, there is the newly opened Blue River Resort and Hot Springs.
San José is home to many Costa Rica attractions, and the jump-off point for many more, but for cultural significance, the museums are second to none.
All of the main, important museums in Costa Rica are located in San José. Chances are you can knock off a couple of them in a day. What follows are just some of the major museums — there are many more to explore around the city (and around the country.)
When I think of museums, I first think of art. The Costa Rican Art Museum (Museo de Arte Costarricense) is located in the old principal airport terminal in San José. It showcases works of all types by Costa Rica’s premier artists. Expect to spend one to two hours at this museum.
You can easily spend another couple of hours at the Costa Rica Pre-Columbian Gold Museum (Museo de Oro Pre-Colombiano). This is an underground museum located downtown under the Plaza de la Cultura; on display are thousands of gold artifacts dating back to 500 BC.
Another museum which works to document the artifacts of early indigenous peoples to the region is the Museo de Jade (Jade Museum). It’s located on the 11th floor of the Institute for National Security (INS). About a quarter of the museum is dedicated to jade pieces, with the rest dedicated to other relics made of stone, ceramic, gold, and bone. Great views of San José are a bonus!
The National Museum (Museo National de Costa Rica) highlights the history and culture of Costa Rica from pre-Columbian times to present day. There are permanent exhibitions covering Pre-Columbian history (12,000 BC), Pre-Columbian gold artifacts, and the history of Costa Rica since the arrival of the Spaniards in the 16th century. This is a solid 2 hour visit if you plan to hit most of the museum.
If you’ll be traveling with your kids, you’ll need to find some Costa Rica attractions just for them. The Children’s Museum (Museo de Los Ninos) fits the bill and is a must-do. It’s located in the former Central Prison in San José, but you’d never know it from the outside. Think of this as an experiential science center for kids.
Cloud forests and Rain forests
Other popular Costa Rica attractions include the cloud and rain forests. Of these two “wet” forest types in Costa Rica, you’ll find that the cloud forests see less rain but are still pretty damp. The flora and fauna will be different as well.
The most notable cloud forest is the Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve. The cloud cover always seems to dip just below the forest canopy. You are truly up among the clouds.
|For a more in-depth look at the cloud forest canopy, you can tour it via suspension bridges like this one.
When we arrived it was raining buckets but that subsided by the next day. We booked a tour guide for our hike which I highly recommend. The tour guide will be able to point out all sorts of unique trees, plants, and wildlife. The one drawback to having a guide is that I constantly found myself playing catch-up; I was stopping to take pictures pretty much every step of the way.
Another cloud forest in the area is the Santa Elena Cloud Forest Reserve. This one is administered by the community, and admission fees go towards preserving the site and sustaining educational programs in the area.
True rain forests are abundant in Costa Rica and many of the national parks protect these areas. Notable parks to visit the rain forest include Manuel Antonio National Park, Corcovado National Park, Cahuita National Park, Arenal National Park, Tortugeuro National Park, and Braulio Carillo National Park.