Costa Rica is a wonderland of natural attractions, with volcanoes, beaches, cloud forests, and wildlife. This is a country that appeals as much to bird-watchers and luxury travelers as it does to surfers and backpackers.
The busy city of San Jose is home to the country’s best museums, resorts, lovely squares, and cultural attractions, but the real treasures lie beyond the capital, in the forests and small coastal towns and villages.
Endless stretches of beach line the Pacific Coast, with small towns that cater to surfers and sun seekers. The province of Guanacaste in Costa Rica is considered the best place to visit for beautiful beaches and beach towns.
Inland, the forest-covered mountains offer their own adventures, from volcanoes and waterfalls to ziplining and extraordinary wildlife viewing. Although wildlife is prevalent throughout the country, the lush south is where tourists tend to head if they are looking to find animals. The areas south of Jaco down to the Osa Peninsula are some of the best places to visit for wildlife.
For something completely different, check out the Caribbean coast with its calm waters and unique cultural vibe.
Jaco, Costa Rica
Jaco is a good choice for anyone looking to get out of San Jose but still wanting the comforts and amenities of a larger town or city. The beach here is spacious, pleasant, and has an active vibe.
The surfing and swimming here are both very good, with smaller waves than other areas along this section of coast. What Jaco does have that sets it apart from the numerous coastal towns along this stretch of the Pacific is modern apartments and stores, a strong selection of good restaurants and hotels, and other modern conveniences that have made it a popular choice with expats and retirees.
Palm trees on the beach in Jaco
Jaco is less than a two-hour drive from San Jose. If you are arriving in San Jose and want to get out of the city right away but don’t want to drive too far your first day, this is an easy destination to reach. You can also base yourself here and explore nearby beaches and attractions on day trips.
Costa Rica is one of those rare countries where the wildlife alone can be worth the trip. What the country may lack in cultural attractions, it more than makes up for with interesting and prevalent wildlife experiences.
You rarely need to search out animals. Monkeys make regular appearances around the towns, cappuchins hang out around restaurants, scarlet macaws soar through the skies, and toucans rustle in the branches nearby.
Opportunities to see wildlife are not limited to any one area, but visiting the parks or taking organized tours with knowledgeable guides will improve the chances of seeing some of the more elusive species.
As a general rule, you may have better luck seeing a wider variety of animals in the south of Costa Rica. A guided walking tour through Manuel Antonio National Park will almost guarantee you sightings of sloths and different types of monkeys, along with a variety of other animals. Plan a stay at an eco-lodge in the Osa Peninsula or stay at a small mountainside resort or inn around Dominical, Uvita, or Ojochal, and the wildlife will likely to come to you.
But the north is also full of wildlife. Even if you are staying in downtown Tamarindo, howler monkeys are a common sight in the trees and on overhead wires along the streets. Keep your eyes peeled, and you’re sure to see some interesting critter.
Diamante Eco Adventure Park, Costa Rica
If traipsing through the jungle in the heat is not your idea of fun, head out on a trip to Diamante Eco Adventure Park. Here, the animals, including monkeys, sloths, jaguars, and pumas, are easily spotted in their natural habitat. On-site biologists care for these non-releasable animals and are also on hand to answer any questions you may have. In addition to the large animals, a butterfly enclosure is available to walk through. If you are lucky, one of these gentle and colorful creatures may even land on you.
It wouldn’t be Costa Rica if there wasn’t an opportunity to go ziplining, and if you want to try it, this is one of the best places to strap in and fly. The most popular zipline at the Diamante Eco Park is the Superman course. You literally jump off the top of a mountain and zip down one mile towards the ocean – head first! Get a Diamante Eco Park Day Pass with Lunch for all day access and enjoy the park at your own pace.
If you’d rather learn about Costa Rican culture and immerse yourself in the country’s rich biodiversity, take the Costa Rican Cultural Experience tour. Here, the friendly guides showcase Tico life, food, and culture while teaching you about the local plants that surround you.
Osa Peninsula and Corcovado National Park, Costa Rica
In southern Costa Rica, beyond the beautiful beaches of Dominical, is the remote Osa Peninsula and Corcovado National Park
The park, established in 1975, protects what is considered to be the best remaining stretch of Pacific coastal rainforest in Central America. It has an extensive trail system and is popular with travelers who enjoy long-distance hikes.
In addition to surfing, other popular activities in the region are diving, snorkeling, and fishing. Puerto Jiménez is the area’s largest town, and several fine lodges are found in the Drake Bay area.
Tortuguero National Park, Costa Rica
For something a little different and a little off the beaten path, visitors may want to head to Tortuguero National Park on the Caribbean Coast. This area, accessible only by boat or plane, is one of the wettest areas in the country and offers something different than the rest of Costa Rica. The park is an important breeding ground for the green sea turtle and as a result, turtle watching is the main activity here.
While there are many beaches, the coastal area is not suitable for swimming as the surf and currents are rough and strong. Sharks are common. Hundreds and even thousands of green and leatherback turtles can be viewed (guides are necessary) nesting and laying eggs on the beaches overnight. Recent conservation efforts have increased the number of turtles nesting in the area.
From the hiking trails or boat rides along the canals, it’s possible to spot monkeys, sloths, and kinkajous. Peccaries and tapirs are also present but more difficult to see. Freshwater turtles, lizards, snakes, frogs, toads, and other amphibians are also common.