Costa Rica Attractions Guide
What Costa Rica attractions draw over one million visitors every year to this tiny little country? Well, to list them all it’d take much more than one web page. So let’s put in a nutshell.
The main attractions fall into three categories: Landscape, Animals, and Water.
Now I’ll explain some of the general attractions if you’re interested (or you can just skip ahead and jump down to the top Costa Rica attractions lists below).
Costa Rica’s landscape is nothing short of magnificent, including dramatic volcanoes, mangrove systems, rainforests, and gorgeous beaches. It’s also protected to save the beauty for future generations to enjoy. In fact, 27% of Costa Rica is protected in some way, with over 14% of that figure being national parks and the rest under the heading of reserve or wildlife refuge.
Habitats are diverse and provide for numerous Costa Rica attractions including adventure activities like hiking, trekking, zip lines, canopy tours, mountain biking, and conservation volunteering.
These landscapes are home to some other very important tourist attractions in Costa Rica: animals. Wildlife abounds here, with more species than you could ever count, most of them colorful, exotic, and unforgettable. If the gorgeous national parks are the stage, then the animals are certainly the stars.
The national parks and wildlife refuges spread throughout Costa Rica are home to coatis, jaguar, spider monkeys, white-faced capuchin monkeys, howler monkeys, two and three-toed sloths, iguanas, crocodiles, anteaters, bats, poison-dart frogs, scarlet macaws, toucans, kinkajous, and more. It’s like a zoo without the dreary cages.
This country is also one of the top bird watching destinations in the world. Tours to find the elusive and prized quetzal, with its resplendent emerald plumage, are one of the main Costa Rica attractions in the Monteverde cloud forest.
Along both the Pacific and Caribbean coasts you can watch endangered sea turtles nesting, from the giant leatherbacks at Playa Grande just north of Tamarindo to the smaller olive-ridleys, which synchronize their nesting and arrive on the same night numbering in the tens of thousands.
Home to more than just sea turtles, the waters of Costa Rica are teeming with marine life. Whales, dolphins, whale sharks, manta rays, white-tip reef sharks, octopi, huge schools of fish, and jumping devil rays are just some of the marine animals you may see.
Obviously water is one of the main Costa Rica attractions. With two coastlines on different oceans, dramatic lakes, and hard charging rivers there is every water sport you can imagine.
The above-mentioned marine life is best seen snorkeling or scuba diving. I have personally snorkeled with a whale shark, a mother and calf humpback whale, and a six-foot wide stingray.
Working as a divemaster in Playas del Coco I saw even more. I dove with manta rays that had a 16ft/5m wingspan, multiple white-tip reef sharks, huge schools of grunts and chancho barber fish, schools of eagle rays, guitar fish, scorpion fish, porcupine fish, seahorses and even a bull shark, just to name a few.
Perfect waves have long been one of the main tourist attractions in Costa Rica, drawing surfers from around the world. Wave sizes vary, providing options for beginners to experts.
The forgiving waves of Tamarindo are a great place to learn, where you’ll find plenty of shops offering surf lessons. Those with greater skill and big cajones can challenge themselves to the gnarly reef break at Salsa Brava on the Caribbean or the large swell that swoops into Playa Hermosa just south of Jaco.
Perhaps an even greater draw among the many Costa Rica attractions is the world-class fishing. Both coasts are filled with sport fish. Billfishing is huge here, but you can also find dorodo (dolphin fish/mahi mahi), wahoo (ono), roosterfish, Jacks, Tuna, Tarpon and snook to name a few. But there’s also great freshwater fishing too, like guapote (rainbow bass) and rainbow trout in the lakes and rivers.
White water rafting is popular with the many rivers here, an activity guaranteed to spike your adrenaline levels with the numerous arrays of intense rapids. There are also opportunities for windsurfing, kiteboarding, and kayaking.
Top Costa Rica Attractions: Nature
- Manuel Antonio National Park: This park features some of the most beautiful beaches in Costa Rica which are featured in most advertising and promotion of tourism in Costa Rica. It’s also one of the last refuges of spider monkeys in Costa Rica. The park is gorgeous and receives nothing but rave reviews from all who’ve been there.
- Monteverde Biological Cloud Forest Reserve: Well preserved, with a variety of good trails, Monteverde provides a unique experience. Hiking through the dense forest in the morning everything is in a misty haze and wild birdcalls ring throughout the treetops. Delicate orchids and dramatic bromeliads adorn giant tree branches jutting out into the fog. This is an excellent area to take a canopy tour in and fly down some zip lines whilst suspended from giant trees.
- Nicoya beaches: The most beautiful beaches in Costa Rica can be found on the Nicoya Peninsula, and it’s easy to find your own private swath with no one around for kilometers.
- Tortuguero National Park: Called the “mini-Amazon”, this coastal park features a network of canals and 11 ecological habitats that are home to lots of water birds, sloths, and caiman, among other critters.
- Corcovado National Park: This is some of the last Pacific primary forest to be found in Central America. What’s more are the 116 species of reptiles and amphibians, 139 of mammals, and 400 of birds, 20 of which are only found here. Among those species of bird is the largest concentration of Scarlet Macaws in Central America. It’s also one of the only bastions left for the Harpy Eagle, the largest of all eagles. Four species of turtles also nest here: the green, leatherback, Ridley olive, and the hawksbill. The eight different habitats here leave much to be explored.
Top Costa Rica Attractions: Adventure Activities
- Canopy Tour: Zip through the trees on a cable and discover what it feels like to fly. The less frightening bridges offer another way to get your bird’s eye view of the forest canopy. These tours can be found throughout the country.
- Diving: The Catalina Islands and Bat Islands (Islas Murcielagos) offer fantastic diving and the opportunity to see giant manta rays. The Bat Islands are also home to some fearsome looking bull sharks. I saw my first one here and she was about nine feet long.
- Fishing: Billfish are king in the waters of Costa Rica. Yearly tournaments are held here drawing professional anglers from around the world. Other game fish are plentiful too, like dorado (dolphin fish or mahi mahi), wahoo (ono), tuna, jacks, tarpon, and snapper among others including freshwater species.
- White water rafting: For a thrill of a lifetime hop join a rafting trip down one of the many rivers here, some of which offer Class IV-V rapids.
- Surfing: Already renown as a Central American surfer mecca, there are tons of amazing breaks here up and down the Pacific Coast, including the famous Witch’s Rock as featured in the documentary Endless Summer. Also, there’s a ridiculously long left hand break at Pavones and hard charging Caribbean surf at Salsa Brava in Puerto Viejo de Talamanca.
Top Costa Rica Attractions: Towns
- Tamarindo: The most developed beach resort town on the Nicoya Peninsula, this is a great town with lots of tourist amenities and a laid-back surfer vibe. Speaking of which, its also a great place to learn how to surf. There are lots of surf shops in town offering lessons in the forgiving surf. More advanced surfers can find bigger, less crowded surf just to the north and south.
- Puerto Viejo de Talamanca: Looking for a mellow, reggae vibe? Then this is your place. Located on the beautiful Caribbean, this place has a great party atmosphere that is still pretty chill.
- Montezuma: Lots of people come here and don’t want to leave. Beautiful beaches, a slightly hippy feeling, and a wildlife refuge just to the south provide for an excellent coastal town. The fact that gorgeous waterfalls are within walking distance doesn’t hurt either.
- La Fortuna: This fun, very Costa Rican town sits under the dramatic and looming cone of Arenal Volcano. With beautiful Lake Arenal nearby, relaxing hot springs, and lots of adventure opportunities close by, it’s a definite must on any itinerary.
As you can see there are really no shortage of Costa Rica attractions to see and experience.