It’s tempting to sum up Costa Rica by its three largest tourism draws: surf, rainforest, and beaches. But this laidback Central American paradise is so much more; from the warmth of the locals—who can remind us that there’s more to life than our salary—to the wealth of attractions to explore, including wildlife rescue sanctuaries and coffee plantations.
You almost can’t go wrong no matter where you choose to spend your time—just don’t devote too much of it to San Jose, which is, for most folks, just a waypoint en route to the good stuff. Here are our top picks for where to spend your time on your next Costa Rican getaway.
If you like your villas and your amenities high-end, consider Playa Flamingo, 165 miles northwest of San Jose. Playa Flamingo, in the Guanacaste Province along the northern Pacific coast, is also home to a new marina, making it a choice spot for scuba-diving and deep-sea fishing enthusiasts.
We also love that many of the villas perch hillside, offering seaside and sunset views so packed with color that it’s hard to want to leave. However, with this much development, what’s lacking is local color and culture, which can be experienced more easily in the nearby town of Brasilito, just 10 minutes away.
On the tip of the Nicoya Peninsula, find this expat-haven that is Santa Teresa. It’s known as an enclave for expats—primarily those who appreciate surfing, yoga and an overall active lifestyle. It was once a backpacker enclave, and still is somewhat, which explains the hostels and abundance of cafes that don’t mind lingering. Because it is one of the more established surf towns, it also supports more tourism, from canopy to waterfall tours.
The flip side of that is, come sunset, the beaches fill with smallish crowds, so don’t expect to have that ‘away from it all’ feeling. Also keep in mind: Because Santa Teresa is a 5-hour drive from San Jose, most visitors opt to fly into Tambor, just 40 minutes away.
For a similar getaway to Santa Teresa but with fewer people, try Nosara. This still up-and-coming beach town is developed enough to have a grocery store that stocks kombucha, French cheeses and a host of other Westerner favorites, and yet many of the beaches are often void of people.
Part of this is due to the fact that there is not a singular, central town, but rather a few pockets clustered with vegan eateries, real estate offices, coffee shops, deep-sea fishing outfitters and the like. Nosara, like Santa Teresa, has extremely rutted dirt roads, so consider renting an ATV or rental car during your stay.
This East Coast town, so named for its abundance of turtles, is worth the trek if you want to devote a few days to river cruises watching for monkeys, crocodiles and exotic birds, such as toucans, parrots and macaws.
Not to miss is the nighttime experience of watching sea turtles lay their eggs on the sand March through October. It’s magical, if not life changing. (Leatherback turtles, the biggest of the four species to nest here, do so March through May.)
The area known as Manuel Antonio largely refers to the Manuel Antonio National Park—the rainforest home of three-toed sloths plus capuchin, howler and squirrel monkeys—as well as its surroundings, including the town of Quepos. This region, 100 some miles from San Jose, is also home to white-sand beaches, making it, for many, a one-stop destination for the best that Costa Rica offers.
This cloud forest in the Puntarenas region is a 3-hour drive from San Jose and Liberia. Most tourists choose between Arenal and Monteverde; Arenal has the attraction of fire and is arguably easier to access. Monteverde, however, is at a much higher elevation—at 5,000 feet, compared to Arenal’s 1,150. If you’re going to do both, it’s incredibly memorable to opt for a tour that starts at Arenal Dam and includes a boat tour.
Once in Monteverde—which means green mountain—spend your time hiking the Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve, preferably with a guide, as it’s incredibly difficult to know what you’re looking at amid all that vegetation. The other big attractions are ziplining—invented in Costa Rica—as well as hanging bridges that bring you higher and closer to canopy wildlife.
When most people say they’re going to Costa Rica, they typically mean the Pacific Coast. The Caribbean coast lacks big resorts and western development, which means a sleepier, barefoot vibe still prevails, attracting backpackers looking for chill days spent in hammocks and on the wide beaches.
Of course, there’s plenty to do for those who like to stay moving. Visit the Jaguar Rescue Center or try a tour that welcomes you into the local BriBri indigenous communities.
If it’s your first time to Costa Rica, it’s worth tacking on a couple days to see the Arenal Volcano near the town of La Fortuna, 50 miles northwest of San Jose. This outdoorsmen playground offers much to do, from hiking the volcano to white-water rafting on the Class III and IV Rio Sarapiqui, which allows for wildlife viewing in between rapids.
One of the more unique local offerings are the night hikes, giving you the chance to meet frogs, insects and snakes that hunt after dark. For the less physically adventurous, consider the thermal pools; we like those of Tabacon Thermal Resort and Spa; the property offers day passes, but it’s so lush that we think it’s worth the overnight.
Most of the towns in the Guanacaste region are quickly becoming recognizable names with lots of development. Playa Avellanas, however, just 90 minutes by car from the Liberia airport, is still a place with untrafficked dirt roads, virgin jungle, escapism vibes and plenty of tranquilo. Like just about every other town on the coast, its waves are surfable. Add in its golf course and the nearby Palo Verde National Park, and you get a good mix of outdoor attractions.