Back in the late ‘90s, when it was still emerging as a world-renowned ecotourism hotspot, Costa Rica was my first trip abroad as an adult. As a budding nature lover, my mind was blown by all of the different things to do in Costa Rica, not to mention the remarkably rich biodiversity of its wilderness.
On my first 10-day visit I only had a chance to explore a few of the country’s 27 national parks, 58 wildlife refuges, 32 protected zones, 15 wetland areas, 11 forest reserves and 8 biological reserves. But I was astounded by the plentiful wildlife in Costa Rica– four types of Monkeys, two kinds of Sloths, the inquisitive White-Nosed Coatis, the bizarre Baird’s Tapir, Caiman, Crodociles, and so many different species of birds, frogs and butterflies that I lost count.
As fascinating as all the animal action was, I was even more impressed by the locals, who are affectionately known as ticos (or ticas, in the feminine form). Ticos are known for their happy disposition and pura vida philosophy, which emphasizes a love of the “pure life”– good food, good friends, and savoring the beauty of the world around you. Their friendly smiles and gracious hospitality warm my heart even now.
I’ve returned to the country several times in the 20 years since my first visit, sharing my deep love of the country with my wife and daughter. Here are my picks for the top 10 things to do on a Costa Rica tour:
Bask on the Beaches
Belize and Panama are perfectly lovely. But, with the Caribbean coast in the east and the Pacific in the west, Costa Rica arguably has some of the most beautiful beaches in Central America. Santa Teresa and Tamarindo Beach are both gorgeous and extremely popular with tourists and locals alike. But to avoid the masses, try Playa Conchal, Playa Tambor, and Playa Samara instead.
Birdwatching in Monteverde
Located 4,724 feet above sea level, Monteverde Cloud Forest Biological Reserve spans six distinct ecological zones and helps to protect an impressive cornucopia of flora and fauna. Often covered by clouds, this 25,730-acre preserve is also home to over 400 species of birds, including the rare Resplendent Quetzal, the endangered Three-wattled Bellbird, and more than 30 species of Hummingbirds.
Explore Tortuguero National Park
Located on Costa Rica’s northern Caribbean coast and accessible only by boat or small plane, this 77,000-acre protected area is a pristine paradise. The Tortuguero River feels like a miniature Amazon: Boat tours of its canals offered close-up views of caiman, river otters, monkeys, sloths and myriad tropical birds. But my favorite activity was the nighttime guided beach walks in search of sea turtles coming up to nest.
Go on a Rainforest Canopy Tour
With forested areas comprising around 2,391,000 hectares (46.8% of the country’s land), nearly two-thirds of Costa Rica’s remaining rainforests are protected by a government project that pays landowners for preservation. There’s no better way to see them than through canopy tours– whether via aerial tram, hanging bridges or zipline– in places such as Manuel Antonio, Monteverde and Sarapiqui.
Hike Corcovado National Park
Referred to by National Geographic as “the most biologically intense place on Earth in terms of biodiversity,” the 164-square mile Corcovado National Park is Costa Rica’s largest national park, with a variety of ecosystems (montane forest, cloud forest, prairie and mangrove swamp) providing sanctuary for an exceptional array of wildlife. Located on the southern coast’s remote Osa Peninsula, it’s one of my favorite national parks in the world.
Monkey Around in Manuel Antonio National Park
Listed by Forbes among the world’s most beautiful national parks, Manuel Antonio attracts around 150,000 visitors a year with its beautiful beaches and hiking trails that include primary forest, secondary forest, mangrove swamps, and lagoons. The park boasts 184 species of birds and 109 species of mammals, the most frequently sighted of which are the monkeys. But beware: They’re become so habituated to humans, they’re renowned for stealing food and other items!
See Sloths Up Close
Though we may not rival Kristen Bell’s level of sloth adulation, one of our family’s favorite memories of our time in Costa Rica was seeing a mama and baby sloth in Tortuguero National Park. You can see these adorably bizarre creatures in virtually every park or even alongside the road. But for a more up-close dose of cuteness you can also visit the Toucan Rescue Ranch, a favorite of our Custom Travel Planner Charlie.
Soak in Rejuvenating Hot Spings
Costa Rica’s numerous volcanoes (see: Arenal, Poas, Rincón de la Vieja) are prominent features of the country’s dynamic landscape and popular tourist attractions. One of my favorite memories from my first visit was soothing my aching muscles after a long day’s hike in the waterfall at Tabacón Hot Springs, with a picturesque view of Arenal in the background. Other well-known hot springs worth visiting include Baldi, Eco Termales, and Titoku.
Snorkel Cano Island
Most people don’t think of Costa Rica as a snorkeling/diving hotspot, but this island located 10 miles off the coast of the Osa Peninsula offers gorgeous white sand beaches and coral reefs teeming with marine life. The visibility is typically over 20 feet, and we saw huge schools of yellow and silver-striped Grunts, Amberjacks, and dozens of other species. Barracudas, Eels, Turtles, Rays, Puffers, and Parrotfish are often sighted, with Humpback Whales and Bottle-nosed Dolphins sometimes seen in winter months.
Whitewater Rafting on the Pacuare River
For more extreme things to do in Costa Rica, it’s hard to beat a wild ride down the Rio Pacuare, which National Geographic named as one of the best whitewater rafting spots in the world. Located near the town of Turrialba, this was the site of the 2011 World Rafting Championships. The fast-moving river takes you through incredibly scenic landscapes, as well as 11 different Class III and IV sections. It’s a serious workout, and serious fun!