Costa Rica was our home for 5 amazing years and we were able to experience so much of the country in that time. I assume most of you, though, do not have 5 years to spend exploring and determining what is and is not worth your time. If you only have a week or a month in the country it can be daunting to determine what you should be sure to do. So we have put together a list of 10 experiences in Costa Rica you don't want to miss!
Soar over the jungle in Monteverde
Tip: Don't forget closed toed shoes. Easy to do in a place like Costa Rica and you usually will not be allowed to zip line if you don't have safe shoes.
Visit sloths at the sanctuary in Cahuita
Another area of the country that should not be missed is the Caribbean side. Stunning beaches, secluded tranquility, and wildlife galore is what this area offers and is simultaneously why it should not be overlooked. One of the best experiences we had in the area was visiting the sloth sanctuary in Cahuita, where they rescue and nurse back to life injured or abandoned sloths. With all the new development in the country sloths have been increasingly injured on power lines and on the roadways and this generous organization does its best to rehabilitate and either, release back to the wild or care for them the rest of their lives. A worthwhile organization to support!
Tip: You can also do a really cool canal boat tour right behind the sanctuary so ask about that as well!
Listen to the grumbles of Volcan Arenal
No trip to Costa Rica would be complete without viewing the majestic Arenal volcano. It is one of the 5 active volcanoes in the country but the only one that is a perfect stratovolcano. The entire area is beautiful with hot springs, waterfalls, hiking trails, and a stunning freshwater lake. If you visit at the right time you can lay in bed at night watching the lava glow down the sides of the volcano and hear the tumbling rocks and rumbles from within.
Tip: Be sure to hike the La Fortuna waterfall and visit one of the hot springs. The less popular the spot the more affordable and tranquil it will be. Ask the local ticos!
Swim in a secret waterfall
One thing that the lush vegetation and the 6 month long rainy season will give you is one magnificent waterfall after another. In our small mountain town of Atenas we stumbled upon one and it ended up being one of our favorite spots to hang out by! Ask around and you'll find many to choose from.
Tip: Los Chorros in the Grecia area is not exactly secret but there were never crowds when we visited and it's great fun.
Watch monkeys scamper along the beach in Manuel Antonio
Manuel Antonio is both a great little tourist town and a beautiful beach location. At the far end of town you will find the national park where all ages can enjoy the calm waters. The best part of the park, though, is all the wildlife spotting that can be done. We have seen large marine and land iguanas, anteaters, coatis, sloths, and of course the white faced capuchin monkeys. They come out around lunch time and run wild along the beaches and the paths that surround the park.
Tip: Be careful! Monkeys are cute and fun to watch but they are out there for your food. They will rifle through your belongings and steal anything that looks good so keep a good watch.
Peer into an active crater at Volcan Poas
Volcan Poas located about 1 hour from the town of Grecia is another one of the 5 active volcanoes in Costa Rica. The great thing about both Poas and Irazu (located closer to San Jose), aside from how lovely they are, is the accessibility. You drive up and park within 1/2 mile of the crater making it accessible to nearly everyone. There you can marvel at the various craters, some filled with colorful water, and if your lucky it will even have a small eruption while you are standing there watching. Don't worry though, they are mostly harmless.
Tip: If you have the time head over to La Paz waterfall gardens located nearby. They have loads of great animal exhibits, cultural experiences, and of course, waterfalls!
Go to a Tope
Nothing says Costa Rican culture like a Tope! If you don't know already a Tope is basically a horse parade and there seems to be one every other weekend someplace in the country. Now it may not seem very exciting but some of the best times we have had were celebrating and laughing among locals in the streets watching one of these parades. If you get a chance try and see one, bonus points of you can catch an evening parade where the antics of the riders overshadows the horses themselves!
Tip: There is regular time and then there is Tico time. When going to a parade, or any function that is similar, expect it to start at least 1 hour after the time it was supposed to start. We once went to a tope that started 3 hours later then was advertised. Pura Vida and bring drinks!
Watch a sunset in Playa Samara
All of the pacific side beaches offer beautiful sunsets but we have never seen such vibrant colors as in the sunsets we watched in Playa Samara. It is a large beach and easy to find a peaceful spot to string up a hammock and enjoy. On top of that it happens to be one of our favorite beaches in the country.
Tip: Playa Samara is one of the best spots to go deep sea fishing or head out to see some dolphins on a tour, but bargain hard. They start out way above the fee they will accept. I once got a dolphin boat ride for 90% off the starting asking price.
Visit the Children's museum in San Jose
Sometimes even when you are in a beautiful country you need to have a bit of familiarity for children. This can be found (although lots of the writing is in Spanish only) at the Museo De Los Ninos. Located in an old prison, so sort of cool for that alone, this is a hands on experiential museum that our kids loved visiting. I think its something like $3 to get in and provides hours of fun so well worth it if you have the time. There are earthquake platforms, helicopters to explore, planes to "fly", banana plantations to run, and a full grocery store complete with shopping lists, pretend food, and a cashier.
Tip: San Jose is full of unique little museums to explore. While in the area why not try out the Gold museum as well?! Not as much fun as the children's museum but my kids thought all the gold artifacts were really cool.
Take a road trip through the Orosi Valley
The Orosi valley is probably the most under utilized area in the country. We took a road trip out there for 2 days and had an incredible time. If you have enough time in your itinerary it is definitely worth a day or 2's visit. Heading out of San Jose you first hit Cartago (the old capital) where you can marvel at the Our lady of the Basilica church, a beautifully constructed church that is the end point of a yearly pilgrimage in Costa Rica. There are also ruins to explore in Cartago and in the small towns surrounding it, as massive earthquakes flattened the area years ago.
Also in the area are some stunning botanical gardens, the Orosi church (the oldest church in Costa Rica that is still in use today), the Cachi dam, hot springs, and loads of amazing vistas to take in.
Tip: If you can stay the night I would do so, there is just so much to explore. Many of the hotels in the area have natural hot ponds that make for a peaceful reprieve after hiking around or sitting in the car most of the day!