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The Top 7 Must-See Destinations in Costa Rica

“Beach or mountains?” This million-dollar-question is often the first thought that pops into our minds when trying to nail down the destination of our next big getaway. Do I want to soak up the sun on the coastline with a cold drink in hand, or would I rather explore the lush jungles and stunning vistas of the cloud-covered mountaintops?

Well, what if you could do both?

Therein lies the beauty of Costa Rica.

Costa Rica, whose name means “rich coast,” not only boasts some of the world’s most beautifully pristine beaches (and killer waves!), but it also lays claim to some of the region’s most striking mountain ranges, rumbling volcanoes, colossal waterfalls, and a wealth of amazing wildlife, all packed tightly into a country that is roughly the size of West Virginia! The intense natural beauty of this little country, along with the hospitality of the locals, the delicious cuisine, and the laid back (or “pura vida”) culture, will have you hooked from the moment you step off the plane.

But with so much to see in this compact country, how do you possibly narrow it down?

After living in and exploring Costa Rica for the past three years, I have compiled a list of the top 7 must-see destinations in the country! Scroll down to see the ultimate countdown of the most remarkable places that Costa Rica has to offer!

#7 San Jose

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I know what you’re thinking: “Why would I travel to Costa Rica just to experience a huge, bustling capital city?” But trust me on this: to miss San Jose would be to miss the very heartbeat of Costa Rica itself. With almost 50% of the Costa Rican population residing in the capital city, San Jose is truly the cultural epicenter of the country: from incredible museums to a blooming art scene to amazing restaurants and open-air markets, this city is not to be missed!

Best things to do:

1. Go see a soccer game! There is no better way to experience the local Costa Rican culture than to see a local “futbol” match in the country’s National Stadium.

2. Walk down the Avenida Central in downtown San Jose and stop in the Mercado Central (or Central Market) for an authentic Costa Rican lunch called a “casada,” which includes rice, beans, chicken or steak, salad, and plantains.

3. Explore the spectacular Gold and Jade museums

4. See a show in the historical National Theater

 #6 Puerto Viejo de Talamanca

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Puerto Viejo, located in Costa Rica’s Southern Caribbean coast in the province of Limon, boasts an entirely unique culture all to itself. Known for its reggae music and delectable Afro-Caribbean cuisine, Puerto Viejo’s hippie-esque beach town offers the traveler a laid-back and fun vacation spot. Surrounded by gorgeous crystal blue waters, white-sand beaches, an active nightlife, and amazing chocolate farms, Puerto Viejo has something for everyone!

Best things to do:

1. Rent bikes and explore the nearby beaches and towns of Punta Uva and Playa

Cocles.

2. Get a relaxing chocolate-scrub facial at the Pure Jungle Spa.

3. Tour a local chocolate farm.

4. Go on a long horseback ride on the beach.

# 5 Monteverde Cloud Forest

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Monteverde, or “Green Mountain,” is perhaps the most famous cloud forest in all of southern Central America. Known for its extraordinary biodiversity and rich jungle, Monteverde offers a spectacular experience. Although a bit difficult to reach, the striking views, unique and diverse assortment of wildlife, as well as the famous Monteverde Biological Reserve and zip lining adventures, will make the journey more than worth it!

Best things to do:

1. Enjoy one of the famously long ziplining tours through the jungle canopy with Sky Trek Tours.

2. Go on a local coffee tour and taste some of the most delicious coffee in the world.

3. Discover the nearby town of Santa Elena and grab a meal at the Tree House Restaurant for a unique dining experience.

4. Visit the famous Monteverde Cheese Factory and buy a block of unique mountain “queso.”

# 4 Manuel Antonio National Park

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Situated just 3 hours south of San Jose in the country’s Central Pacific coast region, Manuel Antonio is a protected national park with natural, untamed beaches and a diverse assortment of wildlife. The crystal blue waters, gorgeous vistas, and countless animal species found within the biological reserve will have you swooning!

Best things to do:

1. Head to Manuel Antonio National Park and walk along the numerous jungle paths, where you will see a wealth of amazing wildlife, such as two and three-toed sloths, howler and capuchin monkeys, colorful toucans, and numerous other unique bird species in their natural habitat. Bring a towel and a lunch and have a picnic on the beautiful, virgin beaches. (But be careful: those monkeys will try to steal your food if you leave it out!).

2. Go parasailing on the local public beach.

3. For a great view and wonderful meal, enjoy the sunset from Emilio’s Café.

Tips:

As a famous national park, Manuel Antonio can get packed with tourists during the weekends and during high season in December in January; try to travel here during the week, if possible, to avoid the crowds!

#3  Guanacaste

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Known as Costa Rica’s “Gold Coast,” Guanacaste is located in the Northern Pacific region of the country. Well-known for it’s white-sand beaches, great scuba-diving and snorkeling, and awesome fishing, Guanacaste is a unique destination for the avid beach-goer. So grab a cold drink and your scuba gear, fishing pole, or surfboard, and head to Guanacaste for an unforgettable beach vacation!

Best things to do:

1. While beaches like Tamarindo have become over-touristy and crowded, lesser-known beaches in the area, such as Playa Grande, Playas del Coco, and palm-covered Playa Carrillo, not only offer great waves, but also some of the most amazing sunsets (and less of the crowds!)

2. Get your scuba on! Go on a scuba diving tour in the Catalina Islands to see a variety of marine life.

3. Go snorkeling in the Gulf of Papagayo.

4. Grab your fishing gear and take a boat out for some of the best fishing in the country!

# 2 Arenal Volcano and La Fortuna

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You simply cannot travel to Costa Rica without visiting the Arenal Volcano and the national park that surrounds it. I traveled to Arenal over five times, and it never seemed like enough time to do all the fun things that this area has to offer! Located in the mountainous area of La Fortuna about 3 hours north of San Jose, Arenal is situated amidst a luscious jungle that is full of large waterfalls, rushing rivers, famous natural hot springs, incredible hiking, and countless adventure opportunities.

Best things to do:

1. Do a rappelling (or “canyoning”) tour down the beautiful waterfalls with Desafio Adventure Company.

2. Visit the local hot springs. The famous springs of Tabacon and Baldi are great for the whole family! If you are looking for smaller, less-touristy springs, try Ecotermales hot springs.

3. Explore the (very high!) Hanging Bridges Park to walk along the canopy in the jungle.

4. Observe the rich biodiversity of the area by hiking (or taking a horseback ride) through Arenal National Park!

5. For a unique experience, stay at the Arenal Observatory Lodge, located at the base of the volcano, and watch the lava light up the night from your bedroom window.

# 1  Nicoya Peninsula

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The Nicoya Peninsula is my number one, must-see destination in all of Costa Rica! The Nicoya stretches along the country’s Pacific coast and boasts some of the world’s most incredibly pristine beaches. You won’t find any high-rise hotels or chain restaurants in this area (perhaps that is why it’s my favorite area in the country!); instead you’ll find over 80 miles of unspoiled beaches and lush jungle, local stores and restaurants with delicious Costa Rican cuisine, and some of the greatest waves in North America. So, learn to surf with the locals, search the jungle paths for sloths and howler monkeys, buy yourself some ceviche and a cold coconut from a local vendor on the beach, all for a perfect day in paradise.

Best things to do:

1. The most notable beaches in this area include: Santa Teresa, Nosara, and Playa Samara.

2. Rent ATVs and have a blast exploring the nearby beaches and towns!

3. Take surf lessons, or just rent a surfboard and tear it up with the locals!

4. Take a morning yoga class on the beach.

These incredible beaches, national parks, and lush mountain jungles make Costa Rica the ultimate bucket-list destination for any and all types of travelers.

Where will your first stop be?

 

Written by Grace Klopp

Follow along on instagram @gsklopp