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Costa Rica Travel Guide: What to Do in Costa Rica

For such a tiny country, Costa Rica sure crams in a lot. Equivalent in size to West Virginia, this rain forest-swaddled Central American country is home to more than 500,000 different species — about 4 percent of all plant, insect and wildlife species on Earth. Astounding!

Having established itself in the 1990s as the “it” destination for ecotourists — think ziplining, whitewater rafting and trekking — you’d imagine that every inch of Costa Rica has been explored and every activity invented. Yet it is still possible to stray off the beaten path in Costa Rica and experience nature and culture that others let pass them by.

Click through our slideshow to explore some of the less publicized experiences you can have on your trip to Costa Rica.

Stay in a Jungle Ecolodge

The term “ecolodge” was practically born in Costa Rica, and some of the best rain forest-based accommodations in the world can be found here. The most authentic ecolodges take sustainability seriously — they’re built of local materials, employ Costa Ricans from nearby towns, recycle and reuse, and give back to their communities.

One of the best is the Pacuare Jungle Lodge, which is accessible via a 1.5-hour whitewater rafting trip (a bus ride and gondola trip can get you there too, but that option is less exciting). Lapa Rios, located on the edge of Corcovado National Park, has won multiple awards for its conservation work and eco-friendly practices. Learn more about Costa Rica Lodging.

Stare into the Eyes of a Jaguar

The beautiful jaguar is incredibly elusive — most Costa Ricans have never even seen one, though it’s the third largest big cat in the world (after the tiger and lion). Similar in look to a leopard, the jaguar prefers to live in the dense rain forests, which explains why they’re rare to see in the flesh.

The Jaguar Rescue Center in the Caribbean coastal town of Puerto Viejo (on Playa Chiquita) is the best place in Costa Rica to see one. The center takes in young jaguars that have lost their mothers, been injured or experienced other traumas. The center cares for other injured animals too, including monkeys, sloths, anteaters and owls. Guided tours are available twice a day, six days a week. (Love animals? See nine more up-close animal encounters around the world.)

Rappel Down a Waterfall

Why merely rappel down a rock face if you can do it while getting soaking wet? It’s the hottest new adventure sport in Costa Rica: strapping yourself into a harness and descending down a crystal-clear waterfall. Anyone of moderately good physical shape (and lacking a fear of heights) would have no problem taking part in the activity at the waterfalls in La Fortuna. No previous experience is necessary.

Desafio Adventure Company includes six waterfall rappels on its eight-day Costa Rica Pure Adrenaline tour. Pure Trek Canyoning offers half-day excursions that include three waterfalls and one canyon rappel.

Watch Chocolate Being Made

The same conditions that make coffee such a strong-growing crop in Costa Rica allow cacao to thrive. And where there’s cacao, there’s chocolate!

See how organic cacao is harvested on indigenous reserves and watch artisanal chocolates being made during Ecole Chocolat’s five-day tour. Sibu Chocolate offers a shorter option with its half-day chocolate-tasting tour; the company’s name is a tribute to a creator god that was revered for spreading seeds of life to create all the plants and animals of the world. (Can’t get enough chocolate? Check out 12 Places Every Chocolate Lover Should Visit.)

Advice from a Traveler Who’s Been There

Pura Vida Costa Rica by bonbon travel tips
“From all the capital cities I stayed in while traveling through Central America, I [found] San Jose to be the safest, most interesting and fun of all. It’s the only capital city I stayed in more than one night, enjoying my time there during the daytime as well as nighttime. San Jose has plenty to offer. Add to that [its] strategic location on the map, and you found yourself the perfect home base for your travel to Costa Rica.” Read more!

Soak in a Hot Spring

Nature can be indulgent! Given its volcanic landscape, Costa Rica has quite a few natural hot springs and mud pools. Most are open to the public; independent travelers visiting small towns should ask around about hot springs on private property that you can get permission to access with a sweet smile and small “donation.”

One of the best places to indulge is the Rio Negro in Rincon de la Vieja. For easy access, buy the one-day Adventure Pass from the nearby lodge Hacienda Guachipelin. You’ll drive across an unpaved road, then walk 10 minutes down a dirt path and cross a canopy bridge before arriving at the buttery smooth mud pool. The mud is super hot — most people paint it on with brushes, then let it harden. After a quick rinse, plunge into a nearby hot spring.

Take a Night Hike

To fully appreciate Costa Rica’s wildlife population, you’ll have to head out after dark. Nocturnal animals such as armadillos, sloths, caimans, frogs and bats are among the critters you might see on a night hike in the Arenal area.

Fortunately, you don’t have to be out until dawn; most excursions begin at twilight and last two to three hours. Jacamar Naturalist Tours offers a night walk in which a guide will help you spot nocturnal animals and birds as well as teach you about medicinal plants in a family-owned garden. Anywhere Costa Rica and Mapache Tours also offer night hikes in the Arenal region.

Advice from a Traveler Who’s Been There

Superb Experience with Eddie Recio by Vic Garcia
“At Lake Arenal we had lunch at a country restaurant and the proprietor gave us a fabulous prancing demonstration with his Costa Rican Paso horse. On the drive back to San Jose, we stopped at an operational farm/ranch, high in a mountain valley, for a working life demonstration with hands-on experiences.” Read more!

Study the Mystery of the Stone Spheres

The island of Yap has stone money. Easter Island is known for its moai. And Costa Rica, few people know, has its own mysterious stone carvings too: petrospheres, or stone spheres. Ranging in size from less than an inch to nearly seven feet in diameter, the stones are believed to have been carved between 200 B.C. and 1500 A.D. and were discovered by workers clearing jungles for banana plantations.

The spheres were originally found on Diquis Delta and Isla del Cano, just northwest of Corcovado National Park. You can see them at the National Museum of Costa Rica in San Jose or head to Finca 6 in Palomar Norte, where a new visitor center helps explain the history of the spheres.

Advice from a Traveler Who’s Been There

Nicaragua and Costa Rica by RichardNika
“I entered into a walkway that led up, zigzagging through a huge sort of arboretum, filled with native plants and live butterflies. At the top was a door leading to the rest of the [National Museum], and if someone is interested in many different varieties and eras of pre-Columbian art, this is their Mecca. There were endless sculptures, furnishings, burial objects and tools. There were hundreds of examples of pre-Columbian jewelry and gold.” Read more!

Be a Surf Bum

The Pacific coast of Costa Rica has some of the best surfing in all of Central America, with zones ideal for beginner, intermediate and advanced surfers. Costa Rica is known as such a surfing hot spot because the water is often warm enough to forgo wetsuits, waves break cleanly and the sea is surf-worthy nearly year round. (September and October can be rough because of hurricane season.)

Beginners usually head to the touristy beaches of Tamarindo for basic instructions and easy-to-manage waves. Puerto Viejo de Talamanca (not to be confused with Puerto Viejo de Saraquipi) is a touristy party town with an Afro-Caribbean feel. Jaco is another chill spot that’s considered one of the Caribbean’s ultimate surf destinations. But we like the prospects of learning to surf in a laid-back village like Dominical. Sunset Surf Dominical is a family-run surf school that offers surf package deals including accommodations, transfers, breakfast, surfing instructions almost every day and your choice of additional activities, such as ziplining or horseback riding.

Advice from a Traveler Who’s Been There

Pura Vida Costa Rica by bonbon travel tips
“Puerto Viejo is a small town with only one main road, filled with reggae colors and state of mind. If you’re looking for a laid-back atmosphere, where you have nothing to rush for, and everything that you need within walking distance, Puerto Viejo is the place for you. Just outside Puerto Viejo, you can find a few of the world’s best surfing beaches. Just ask around.” Read more!

Go in Search of the Resplendent Quetzal

Its name means “precious” or “beautiful” in the Atzec language — perfectly apt to describe one of the coolest-looking birds in North America. The resplendent quetzal (pronounced “ket-saal”) has jewel-toned green plumage, with long tail feathers twice the length of its body.

The bird lives in moist mountain forests, such as the popular Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve and less-visited San Gerardo de Dota valley. Quetzals are a bit shy; you often hear their deep, melodious calls before you ever see them. But even for non-birders, spotting one is a special treat. Head out in the early mornings between December and April for the best viewing chances, and use a local guide with knowledge of the bird’s favorite hangouts.

Advice from a Traveler Who’s Been There

Monteverde Cloud Forest, Costa Rica by Eileen K.
“We only stayed in Monteverde for one day and that was a mistake. If you are going there, stay at least two days. We didn’t have the time to explore the hanging bridges, which I heard were fabulous. And get yourself a guide, because you won’t see half the things that are there hiding in the jungle.” Read more!

Buy Pottery — or Make Your Own

Costa Rica has a fine history of artisanal crafts. Archeologists have discovered pottery dating back more than 2,500 years to pre-Hispanic days. In the towns of San Vicente de Nicoya and Guaitil in Guanacaste, you can observe artisans, who are descendants of Chorotega Indians, creating earthenware using the same techniques as their ancestors.

Observe the ancient art and buy pieces from the artists themselves at Guaitil Artisan Village, in the Carrillo community in Guanacaste. Or take a five-day workshop at Guaitil Pottery Studio to learn how to create your own pottery, starting with harvesting the clay and ending with crafting your own work of art.

Help Protect Sea Turtle Hatchlings

The beaches of Costa Rica provide one of the most important nesting grounds for four species of sea turtles. Turtle hatchlings can be observed on both Caribbean and Pacific beaches; it’s possible to see them nearly every month of the year, depending on where you go.

Dozens of tour operators offer trips to see them. But why not do one better and volunteer to protect them? SEEtheWILD trains you at a remote research station, then brings you to beaches to measure turtles, move eggs to safe spots and collect other data. Or you can stay at Pacuare Nature Reserve, which will have you patrolling beaches at night and gardening, teaching English or visiting schools in the afternoon.

Learn How Coffee Is Made

Costa Rica is well known for its coffee, which revolutionized the small country’s economy (that’s why it’s known locally as grano de oro, or the “golden grain”). Heck, coffee has revolutionized the world — you try going to work without chugging a cup in the morning. Seeing how the ruby-colored coffee berry is converted into the most important of all beverages is quite remarkable.

Several working farms offer tours. The original coffee roaster in Costa Rica is Cafe Britt, which welcomes 500,000 travelers a year to tour its plantation. For a coffee farm experience that allows you to get to know local farms, head into the mountains where Cafe Monteverde runs its tours in conjunction with the Santa Elena Cooperative. You’ll go into the fields and get to meet the local farmers, perhaps giving them a hand to pluck coffee cherries from the bushes. Proceeds from your tour cost go to supporting the farmers and their families. To book, see

Best Time to Go to Costa Rica

Costa Rica has two main seasons: the dry season and the rainy or “green” season. Dry season equals high season. From late November through late April, Costa Rican rains are mild, and tourists flock to the country. May through mid-November is Costa Rica’s green season; sure, it rains a good amount, but you will find a surplus of travel deals in the country during this time. Keep in mind that it can be difficult to drive over muddy roads during green season in Costa Rica.

Costa Rica on a Budget

Costa Rica is a fantastic destination for travelers watching their wallets. Budget-friendly offerings abound, from affordable but delicious local meals to economically priced lodging. As a general rule, the more remote and eco-friendly your lodging, the more expensive it will be. Isolated ecolodges in the thick of the jungle offer an unparalleled experience, but rates, which are often all-inclusive, tend to be high. In the more popular tourist destinations, well-priced resorts abound, and a traveler can likely find a room with an ocean view for an affordable price — especially during the rainy season.

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