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7 best places to go in Costa Rica

In a tropical spot between the Caribbean and the Pacific lies Costa Rica. This compact country tempts visitors with its lush nature and laidback lifestyle, and makes for an excellent destination on its own or as part of a multi-centre holiday to Central America.

Despite its small size, Costa Rica can still paralyse first-time visitors with choice. This brief travel guide to Costa Rica will give you an insight into each region and what you can see and do there.

San José & the Central Valley

San José, Costa Rica’s capital city, is encircled by the green mountains and volcanoes of the fertile Central Valley. Here you’ll find all manner of museums, galleries, shops and eateries. While it may lack the depth of historical sites found in some other Latin American capitals, it is a great city for people watching and immersion in contemporary Costa Rican culture.

San José is also an excellent base for excursions into the surrounding Central Valley, home to volcanoes, farms and national parks. Visit coffee plantations to learn about the journey from bean to cup, traverse the rainforest and cloud forest of Braulio Carrillo National Park, and marvel at the orchids within Lankester Gardens.

Poás Volcano, around 40km from the centre of the capital, is most famous for its smouldering crater lake. The lake’s vivid turquoise waters contrast with the surrounding ashen rock, and are best admired from the public viewing platform. La Paz Waterfall Gardens – set on the volcanic slopes between Poás Volcano and Braulio Carrillo National Park – is also a worthy diversion, with its numerous trails, butterfly garden, and resident hummingbirds.

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Monteverde & the Cloud Forests

In the northwest of Costa Rica, cloaked in mist, lies the Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve. Both Monteverde and its smaller neighbour, Santa Elena Reserve, serve as habitats for an abundance of butterflies, insects, plants and birds – including resplendent quetzals, who look fetching in their iridescent green plumage.

Monteverde invites hikers to venture along trails enveloped in draping vines and blooming orchids. Alternatively, you can wander through the treetops via canopy walkways – suspended bridges that intimately connect you with the surrounding nature.

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Arenal & the North

Once one of the region’s most active volcanoes, Arenal rises in a cone shape from the forest floor to kiss the clouds of northern Costa Rica. You can enjoy the volcano vistas with a range of activities, from soothing dips in the nearby thermal springs and leisurely boat rides on Lake Arenal to adventures along canopy walkways.

To the west of Lake Arenal and off the well-trodden path, you'll discover the Tenorio Volcano National Park. Here, rainforest hikes can deliver you to a beautiful waterfall and the vivid turquoise hues of the Rio Celeste.

Go further north, close to the Nicaraguan border, for voyages along the Rio Frio and the Caño Negro wetlands – especially recommended for birders. Or head further west to experience the rustic tranquillity of Guanacaste Province, where cattle herds graze and Rincon de la Vieja National Park beckons with its forest-fringed volcano, diverse wildlife, geothermal springs and bubbling mud pools.

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Corcovado & the Osa Peninsula

The Osa Peninsula nestles between the Pacific Ocean and the Golfo Dulce in the remote southwestern corner of Costa Rica. It is home to the Corcovado National Park and covered in dense primary rainforest, offering excellent hiking trails and a remarkable concentration of flora and fauna. Towering 70-metre-high ceiba trees grace the tranquil peninsula, as does a dazzling variety of animals such as howler and spider monkeys, sloths, ocelots, anteaters, scarlet macaws, and more than 350 bird species.

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Manuel Antonio National Park & the Central Pacific coast

On the west side of Costa Rica, the Central Pacific coastline promises a seamless blend of discovery and relaxation. Taking centre stage is the compact national park of Manuel Antonio, which features lush rainforests that meet picturesque beaches and rugged headlands. Within its confines, a variety of wildlife thrives, from white-faced capuchin, howler and squirrel monkeys, to toucans, sloths, and agoutis – relatives of the guinea pig.

North of Manuel Antonio lies Carara National Park, a haven for crocodiles, monkeys, and scarlet macaws; while to the south, you will find Ballena National Marine Park, which safeguards coral reefs and offers a chance to spot turtles, dolphins, and the migrating whales that gather here to mate between December and April.

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Tortuguero National Park & the Caribbean coast

The unassuming lodges near Tortuguero village serve as ideal bases for forest hikes and river cruises into Tortuguero National Park, a wilderness on the northern Caribbean Coast that is only accessible by boat or plane.

On these outings, you can spot diverse wildlife, including monkeys, sloths, caimans, toucans, and – most famously – turtles. Tortuguero is named after the Spanish word for turtle, tortuga, because its beaches become nesting grounds for green turtles between July and September, while leatherbacks make their appearance from March to June.

The southern Caribbean coast, meanwhile, offers unspoilt tropical beaches and a laid-back atmosphere, embodying the spirit of Costa Rica's Afro-Caribbean community. Explore the coral reefs or simply unwind in a hammock and relish the serenity.

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Tamarindo & the Nicoya Peninsula

The Nicoya Peninsula unfolds along the country’s northern Pacific coastline, and is blessed with some of Costa Rica’s best beaches and one of the last expanses of dry forest in Central America. Here, you can enjoy a stay in luxury at one of the expansive resorts fringing the Bay of Papagayo. Meanwhile, the unassuming coastal town of Tamarindo has retained its laid-back ambience, inviting visitors to unwind amidst its charms.

Sink into relaxation on sandy shores, cruise by boat into the mangroves, or opt for an excursion to witness nesting leatherback turtles (November to March). The southern reaches of Nicoya exude a sense of remoteness, featuring hidden retreats such as the resort town of Punta Islita, which poises on a hillside overlooking a private beach.

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Inspired to explore Costa Rica? Browse our Costa Rica escorted tours and private holidays, or contact our Central America specialists.