Costa Rica packs adventure into every corner, from the rainforest to the ocean. It’s hard to go wrong in this eco-paradise that offers a surfeit of hiking, surfing, day-trip tours, and more—however, there are a handful of experiences that combine the beauty of this destination with once-in-a-lifetime magic.
Here are our top picks on what not to miss during your next trip to Costa Rica.
Witness Sea Turtles Giving Birth
With coasts on two oceans, Costa Rica offers twice as many opportunities for witnessing the magic of sea turtles laying eggs. Arguably the best place is the Las Baulas Marine National Park on the Nicoya Peninsula, part of Guanacaste Province—because there it’s possible to watch leatherbacks, the largest sea turtle species at up to six feet in length. This experience is offered seasonally, October 20 and February 15, with the peak falling December to January.
For an organized night tour, make reservations through the Local Guide Association, organized through the Ministry of Environment and Energy (MINAE).
Scuba Dive with Hammerhead Sharks
Costa Rica’s Cocos Island is famous the world over for being one of three destinations on the planet where scalloped hammerheads school by the dozens. This outpost isle—the inspiration for Michael Crichton’s Jurassic Park—lies 340 miles offshore, making it beyond the reach of day boats.
Rather, companies such as Aggressor Adventures offer both four- and 10-night sailings to this magical destination; guests sleep and eat aboard their yachts during the trip, relying on zodiacs to zip to dive sites as well as to shore to access hiking trails. Can’t swing the expense? Day trips to the Bat Islands are offered by other operators. While you won’t likely see hammerheads, sightings of bull sharks and schools of jacks are common in these islands.
White-water Raft a Class IV River
This destination has steep mountains and enough rainfall April to November to make for some thrilling kayaking and rafting. Costa Rica is home to 14 main rivers, with almost a dozen offering commercial trips. The Rio Toro—in English, the Bull River—delivers Class III and IV rapids through the heart of the green interior. Most guides double as comedians, keeping the mood light while keeping you safe—and lifting you back into the boat by your PFD after you hop into the latte-colored water to cool off.
Travelers can have a dialed-down experience with the Class I and II Penas Blancas river or commit to a bigger adventure by booking a multi-day trip on the Class III and IV Sarapiqui River.
Meet a Sloth
Surely the inspiration for Jim Henson’s muppets, sloths can’t help but delight with their stick-like, often outstretched arms and their comically slow speeds. In the town of Limon on the Caribbean coast, the Sloth Sanctuary of Costa Rica welcomes visitors for two-hour insider tours of the 320-acre site.
Guests join workers as they feed their rescued sloths, many of which were taken in after being harmed by the electric wires brought in following new construction. Tours are educational and include time wherein the sanctuary workers hold and interact with the sloths, allowing visitors a chance to witness the behavior of this otherwise largely sedentary animal.
Traverse a Hanging Bridge
Costa Rica’s rainforests impress even from ground level, but the higher vantages of Mistico Arenal Hanging Bridges Park put hikers at the top of the canopy—right at bird and monkey level. The hanging bridges path is 2 miles, offering 16 hanging bridges that traverse rivers and lead to open areas with relatively unobstructed views of Arenal Volcano.
We like that the bridges create dramatic setting for photos—and we really like the thrill of walking across a swinging, bouncing bridge that feels alive with every step, making for an undeniably exciting way to experience the rainforest.
River Cruise in Tortuguero
Costa Rica’s east coast—the Caribbean shore—may as well be called the Forgotten Coast, given that most Americans head west just after touching down. True, the eastern side isn’t as developed, but that’s part of the charm when staying at eco-resorts that offer daily boat tours upriver for easy viewing of scarlet macaws, howler monkeys, White-Faced Capuchin monkeys, tiger herons, crocodiles, and every other species that calls this jungle home.
We like the Tortuga Lodge for its clean accommodation, onsite restaurant serving upscale Costa Rican food and daily riverboat wildlife viewing tours guided by a naturalist.
Stay at a Working Coffee Plantation
Finca Rosa Blanca Coffee Farm and Inn somehow manages to be one of the country’s most prolific producers of organic coffee—and a luxury boutique resort with 14 one-of-a-kind suites and villas. The inn, like the coffee, is organic in its design, from copious amounts of curves, arches, and spirals in the architectural design of the inn to the murals adorning bedroom walls.
We especially love the Guarumo suite for its oversize soaking tub that accommodates at least two people and affords views of the plantation and surrounding cloud forests. Staff number guests one-to-two, so there’s plenty of attention during a stay, from the guided tours of the coffee plantation to the elaborate and inventive four-course dinners.
Tour the Rainforest by Night
Like any environment, the rainforest sees a new cast of fauna come nightfall—and you will, too, if you join a night hike with Monteverde Wildlife Refuge. Groups of eight guests join a guide; all are given headlamps and walkie talkies to share findings, whether it’s sleeping birds such as toucans and quetzals or frogs, insects, and snakes. Monkeys are a common sight, as are olingos, a brown-button-eyed cousin of the common racoon.
A welcome find is the kinkajou, a rainforest tree-dwelling mammal that looks like a Japanimation take on a tiny bear crossed with a rodent. Guides will also point out how to spot the eye shine of frogs and other amphibians.
Kayak into a Trippy Light Show
This after-hours tour of Paquera Bay, part of the Nicoya Peninsula, is best booked on a night with or close to the new moon. The lack of light pollution allows for an even brighter display of bioluminescence, a tiny organism that glows electric blue or green when disturbed, such as when a kayak paddle pushes past.
These guided tours take groups of no more than 10 guests to witness this natural phenomenon, which feels much more like the work of CGI than Mother Nature.
Humpback whales ply the waters off Costa Rica more than six months out of the year—that’s because it draws these animals from both the northern and southern hemispheres. December to March, whales migrate here from Alaska. Late July though September, southern hemisphere whales make the journey up from Antarctica.
As to which coastal cities and areas to target for a whale-watching tour, you have your pick: Tamarindo, Flamingo, Drake Bay, and the Gulf of Papagayo all see their share of cetacean action. However, the best place is the town of Uvita, home to the Marino Ballena National Park.