Costa Rica is a popular destination in Central America that offers lush rainforests, stunning beaches, volcanic mountains, and incredible biodiversity.
If you’re planning to travel to this paradise, you’re in for a treat. In this article, we’ll uncover the best places to visit in Costa Rica and the must-see attractions that should be on your itinerary.
My Top 5 Best Places to Visit in Costa Rica
I had always pictured Costa Rica as Central America’s version of Switzerland, and I never thought I would be able to afford a trip there. But a traveler I met showed me that it was possible to make it happen. And so, I took a leap of faith and spontaneously booked a ticket to San Jose, the capital of Costa Rica.
It was still during the Covid times, and I had no idea what to expect. I hadn’t even looked at what I wanted to see or where I wanted to go. But that’s the beauty of slow traveling, plans can be made last minute. I arrived in San Jose and checked into a Selina hostel where I met a few travellers who would accompany me for half of my trip.
What was meant to happen, happened: I fell in love with Costa Rica. Here, I have compiled a list of my personal favorite best places to visit in Costa Rica that I believe should not be missed on any itinerary. San Jose, in my opinion, is more of a departure spot to visit the rest of the country and not where I would spend my time. But, that depends on every traveler.
So without further ado, here are my top 5 destinations in this beautiful country.
1. La Fortuna
I started my journey with La Fortuna, a small town nestled in the northern region of Costa Rica, at the base of the Arenal volcano. It’s a popular destination for travelers seeking adventure and natural beauty. The Arenal Volcano is one of the most active volcanoes in Costa Rica and visitors can hike to the summit for a breathtaking view. But while most travelers come to see the volcano, there’s another hidden gem nearby that’s well worth a visit.
When I first arrived in La Fortuna, I met a traveler who had just returned from a hike to another volcano, Cerro Chato. He raved about the incredible hike and the stunning crater lake at the summit. I had never heard of Cerro Chato before – I guess because the government closed the trails a few years ago – but I was intrigued. So, I decided to skip the Arenal volcano and joined a few others for an adventure hike the next day.
The hike to Cerro Chato, which stands at 1140m, is quite challenging and takes about 1-2 hours each way depending on your fitness level. The trail is mostly narrow and steep, with slippery parts due to clay and bulging tree roots to avoid. But the scenery is absolutely breathtaking, as you hike through the rainforest and up into the misty cloud forest. Navigating the trail was a bit of a guessing game since there are no official markers, but we finally made it to the summit.
The Cerro Chato volcano is dormant, but the crater lake at the top is a sight to behold. It’s a deep emerald green and surrounded by lush vegetation. While the portion down to the crater can be steep, the reward is well worth it – a refreshing swim in the crater lake. What a wild experience it was to take a dip with the Arenal volcano looming in the distance. My advice? Bring clothes that you don’t mind getting muddy and don’t forget your swimwear.
But the natural beauty of La Fortuna doesn’t end there. The town is also known for its hot springs, fed by the volcanic thermal activity. While many resorts offer access to hot springs, we decided to go for a free version and had a great time. We soaked in the warm waters while admiring the natural surroundings. If you want to combine hot springs, the Arenal Volcan and La Fortuna Waterfall, check out this Full-day trip on Viator.
La Fortuna is not only one of the best places to visit in Costa Rica but also a great base for other outdoor activities such as waterfall hikes, zip-lining, rafting, and kayaking. So, whether you’re seeking adventure or relaxation, La Fortuna has something for everyone.
2. Santa Teresa
Santa Teresa, located on the Nicoya Peninsula, is a beach town that holds a special place in my heart. Known for being part of one of the world’s five Blue Zones, where residents are known to live longer, healthier, and happier lives, the town exudes a sense of wellness and tranquility. Many people come to Santa Teresa to heal, both physically and mentally.
The town is characterized by its laid-back, bohemian vibe and is a popular destination for backpackers, surfers, and yoga enthusiasts. With access to fresh, whole foods, opportunities for physical activity and outdoor recreation, and a strong sense of community, it’s easy to see why people come to Santa Teresa to live a healthy lifestyle.
One of the main draws of Santa Teresa is its world-class surf spots. Playa Hermosa, Playa Santa Teresa, and Playa Carmen are just a few of the many beaches where you can catch some of the best waves in the area. For those looking for more adventure, there are also a variety of outdoor activities to choose from, including hiking and ATV tours. We went for an ATV tour; it was incredibly fun and a bit on the expensive side but truly worth it.
Our days were spent on the beach, soaking up the sun, surfing, and watching some of the most spectacular sunsets I have ever seen. The food options in Santa Teresa are also incredible and cater to all tastes. I recommend trying pastries and croissants at The Bakery or a fresh fish ceviche (raw fish cured in fresh citrus juices) with patacones (green plantains that are flattened before being fried) at a local Tico eatery called soda, which are sure to blow your mind. If you know, you know!
I had an amazing time in Santa Teresa and would have loved to have stayed longer if only I hadn’t messed up with my visa meaning I had to leave the country to go to Nicaragua. It’s a place that truly embodies the Pura Vida spirit and had to be on my list of best places to visit in Costa Rica.
Pura Vida is considered the national slogan of Costa Rica and a way of life. The phrase encapsulates the laid-back, carefree attitude of Costa Rican culture and emphasizes the importance of living in the present moment and enjoying the simple things in life.
3. Manuel Antonio
Manuel Antonio is a national park located in the Central Pacific Conservation Area of Costa Rica, on the Pacific coast. Situated near the town of Quepos, the park is relatively small, yet it packs a punch in terms of biodiversity and natural beauty.
Take a guided tour or wander around to witness the park’s animals including monkeys, iguanas, and sloths in their natural habitat. You can also enjoy a wide range of outdoor activities, such as hiking, swimming, snorkeling, and kayaking.
With its combination of beautiful white-sand beaches, lush rainforests, and fun-fuelled activities, Manuel Antonio is one of the best places to visit in Costa Rica and a must for nature lovers, adventure seekers, and anyone looking for a true taste of Costa Rican paradise.
And then on the Caribbean coast, two more best places to visit in Costa Rica:
4. Tortuguero National Park
Nature lovers will be excited to explore Tortuguero National Park, located in the Limón Province of Costa Rica. Getting to the park is an adventure in itself. Quite remote, the only way to reach it is by boat or small plane.
The park is home to an Amazon-like rainforest and is known for its diverse wildlife, especially the large number of sea turtles that come to nest along the shoreline, hence its name “Region of Turtles”. Conservation efforts have been successful in boosting the turtle population in the area, and you can take a guided tour to see the sea turtles nesting on the beaches at night. The best season to go and not miss them is from July to October.
When exploring the park, keep your eyes peeled for monkeys, sloths, crocodiles and other amazing species while hiking, kayaking or taking a boat tour. It’s truly one of the best places to visit in Costa Rica.
5. Puerto Viejo
Puerto Viejo is the last one of my best places to visit in Costa Rica. It’s a small town located in the province of Limón, that I had the pleasure of visiting during my second trip to Costa Rica. It’s known for its laid-back Caribbean vibe and is a popular spot for surfers, backpackers, and eco-tourists.
The town is a nature lover’s dream, with lush rainforests and breathtaking beaches at every turn. We stayed at Playa 506 Beach Hostel, a beautiful accommodation right on the beach, and couldn’t get enough of the natural surroundings. We spent lazy days lounging in hammocks and soaking up the sun, but also made sure to rent a bike and explore the many hidden gems this destination and its surroundings have to offer.
Puerto Viejo is renowned for its Afro-Caribbean cultural influences that are evident in its music, food, and architecture. During our visit, we relished in the sounds of traditional Caribbean tunes at local bars and savored authentic dishes such as the mouth-watering jerk chicken. And don’t miss out on the town’s vibrant nightlife, with memorable nights to be spent at hostels and beach parties.
Last but not least, if you are looking to take a visa run to Panama, it’s easy to get to Bocas del Toro from Puerto Viejo via affordable public transportation or organized shuttles.
Quick Travel Tips
- Costa Rica is a large country with a lot to explore, so renting a car is a popular option for travelers who want to reach the best places to visit in Costa Rica. I initially used public transportation, but I was lucky enough to meet an American girl with a big SUV – all Americans seemed to have one – who took me and some others on an unforgettable road trip. Thanks again, Georgia!
- When it comes to accommodations, there are plenty of options to choose from regardless of your budget. If you’re on a tight budget, you can opt for hostels and cheap hotels. We mostly stayed at Selina hostels, but in Santa Teresa, I highly recommend the “Somos”. It is a bit more expensive, but it has great infrastructure and is just a few steps away from the beach.
Final Thoughts on the Best Places to Visit in Costa Rica
In conclusion, Costa Rica is a destination that should be on every traveler and digital nomad’s bucket list. The country’s natural tropical beauty is unparalleled, with lush rainforests, stunning beaches, volcanic mountains, and incredible biodiversity.
Whether you’re a backpacker looking for an adventure, a surfer on the hunt for the perfect wave, or a digital nomad looking for a harmonious blend of work and leisure, Costa Rica has something for everyone.
In this post, I have introduced my top 5 best places to visit in Costa Rica, but this is just the tip of the iceberg as Costa Rica has so much to explore and discover. I invite you to experience it for yourself and share your own travel tips, stories and adventures, as well as YOUR best places to visit in Costa Rica in the comments below.
Get ready to experience the Pura Vida!