Straddling the Central American isthmus, Costa Rica is one of the most biologically diverse countries in the world. Its varied ecosystems range from tropical rainforests, cloud forests, and dry forests to wetlands, mangroves, and coral reefs. The country’s diversity of landscapes and habitats makes it an ideal destination for a variety of outdoor adventures.
Costa Rica’s appeal is perhaps best summed up by the phrase pura vida (pure life), an expression that serves as a greeting, informal motto, and overall reflection of the Tico (Costa Rican) approach to living. Here are some can't-miss activities when you visit Costa Rica.
Costa Rica abounds with great trails, whether you want to hike through a lush forest, along a beach, to a waterfall, or up a volcano. Many of the most popular trails are located in the country’s national parks and reserves, which cover more than 25 percent of the country. Standouts include the lowland rainforest and lovely beaches of Manuel Antonio National Park, the old lava flows and extinct volcanos of Arenal National Park, and the active craters and cloud forest habitat at Poas Volcano National Park. The Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve also has a network of trails with diverse plant and animal life.
Costa Rica has several outstanding whitewater rivers, but one of the best is the Pacuare River, east of San José. Ecotourism pioneer Rios Tropicales has been operating single- and multi-day rafting trips on the Pacuare since 1985. Many include a stay at the company’s riverside rainforest ecolodge, where other activities include hiking, ziplining, canyoning, wildlife viewing, horseback riding, and bathing in waterfalls and forest pools.
Ziplining & Canopy Tours
The birthplace of canopy tours, Costa Rica has a plethora of places where you can explore high above the forest floor. You can choose to fly through the treetops on a zipline, explore at your own pace along walkways and suspension bridges, or ride an aerial tram such as the one operated by Rainforest Adventures in two different locations. El Santuario Canopy Adventure Tour at Manuel Antonio National Park and Selvatura at Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve are two reputable outfits with tours that include hanging bridges and some of the country’s longest ziplines.
Despite its small size, Costa Rica is home to approximately 900 species of birds, many of them endemic. Corcovado National Park and Carara National Park are home to populations of scarlet macaws, while the Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve and Los Quetzales National Park are good places to search for the appropriately named resplendent quetzal. Other highlights include the keel-billed toucan and several species of hummingbird, motmot, and trogon. During breeding season, many birds engage in elaborate courtship displays and nesting behavior.
Home to four species of sea turtles, Costa Rica has dozens of important nesting sites. On the Caribbean coast, Tortuguero National Park is an excellent place to see green, leatherback, and hawksbill turtles during their respective nesting seasons. On the Pacific Coast, olive ridley turtles nest along the Osa Peninsula, while at Playa Grande the entire beach is protected as Las Baulas Marine National Park because of its nesting leatherbacks (baulas). Nesting typically occurs at night, when access to beaches is with a guide only. SeeTurtles.org is a good resource for more information.
Costa Rica’s waves are some of the best and most consistent in the world, but fortunately its clean and often secluded beaches are often significantly less crowded than those at other leading surfing destinations. Top spots include Playa Guiones, Playa Grande, Playa Tamarindo, Playa Avellanas, Playa Hermosa, and Playa Pavones. Most of the best-known surfing is on the Pacific side, though there are also good spots along Costa Rica’s southern Caribbean coast. Some breaks are best for advanced surfers, but many are suitable for all levels.
Costa Rica is a global leader in tourism that promotes conservation and benefits local communities. Staying at one of the country’s outstanding ecolodges not only supports this mission, but is also a great way to immerse yourself in a spectacular natural setting. The luxurious Lapa Rios Eco Lodge is located in a private reserve on the Osa Peninsula that’s home to abundant wildlife including macaws, toucans, monkeys, pumas, and sloths. Further up the Pacific Coast, La Cusinga Lodge is set in a rainforest reserve bordering Ballena Marine National Park, named for the mating humpback whales that are present between December and April. Another standout ecolodge is Finca Rosa Blanca, located on a sustainable coffee farm in the central highlands near San José.