Over the past month and a half I have had the opportunity to see a lot of Costa Rica. While I cannot claim to have seen it all, I can claim to have seen a fair number of the major tourist destinations in the country.
If you are planning a trip to Costa Rica any time soon (or simply suffering from an intense case of wanderlust), read on to learn all about San Jose, Arenal Volcano, Monteverde, Tamarindo, Liberia/Llanos de Cortes, Manuel Antonio, and Bahia Drake (Osa Peninsula).
Almost everyone who travels to Costa Rica will visit San Jose. Most international flights land here and if you are using any sort of public transportation, you are practically guaranteed to have to transfer in San Jose.
I don’t particularly recommend spending a lot of time in San Jose. But I also don’t recommend skipping it all together. La Sabana Park, Museo de Arte Costarricense, and Paseo Colon are all within walking distance of each other, so you can spend a day relaxing in the park, admiring art in the free museum, and strolling down the main street. Amongst all of this is La Bodeguita del Medio—a Cuban restaurant that continues to hold the title of best meal I ate in Costa Rica.
One day in San Jose is plenty, but if you find yourself here for longer, consider taking a day tour to the Poas or Arenal volcano. Speaking of volcanoes…
There are tons of gorgeous volcanoes throughout Costa Rica, but Arenal is by far the most famous. And for good reason. It is extremely picturesque and surrounded by a network of trails that can keep you busy all day long.
If hiking isn’t your style, head to the hot springs instead. But be careful—there are a lot of cheesy hot springs that serve little purpose except to overcharge tourists for a poor experience. I recommend Tabacon, where you will get an amazing experience at a fair price.
If you can afford it, a day tour to Arenal is a good idea. It’s a full day, but you don't need more than a day to see Arenal.
The more budget friendly option is to take a bus from San Jose in the morning and spend the night in La Fortuna. It’s pretty impossible to do Arenal in one day from San Jose if you are taking public transportation due to the erratic bus schedule.
However you choose to get there, I would highly recommend visiting Arenal. There’s something both powerful and exotic about standing at the base of an active volcano.
I would consider Monteverde a must for anyone visiting Costa Rica. Monteverde is a small town tucked far into the mountains. Up there, the Costa Rican heat will disappear and instead you’ll be surrounded by wind and clouds. Think of it as your one opportunity to wear that pair of pants you packed.
The town is pretty cute, but it is the cloud forest that makes Monteverde so unique. The Monteverde Cloud Forest is a stunning national park full of fun and diverse hiking trails for all levels.
On a good day, even the lowest hiking trail will be shrouded in clouds, creating a mystical atmosphere for your day of exploring. But even the bad days in Monteverde are beautiful. When you reach the overlook (whatever you do, make sure you hike to the overlook), wind will come at you from all directions and the heavy cloud cover will roll across the view.
The Monteverde Cloud Forest is unlike any place I have ever been in my years of travel and I can’t imagine going to Costa Rica without experiencing Monteverde.
Liberia/Llanos de Cortes
Honestly, Liberia itself is not much of anything. It’s a tiny city and there is hardly anything to see/do in the city. However, I am still glad I spent a day in Liberia. Why? Because of the Llanos de Cortes.
The Llanos de Cortes are beautiful waterfalls only about an hour outside of Liberia.
When you arrive, it may be tempting to head straight to the base of the falls, but I recommend hiking around. It’s fairly easy to reach the top of the waterfall, and it’s pretty spectacular to watch the cascading water from above.
If you are lucky enough to find a guide who really knows the place, you may even get to see the secret pool. The trail to the secret pool is hardly a trail and without someone who knows where it is, I can’t imagine trying to find it. But if you have the opportunity to have someone show you where it is (or the confidence to search for it on your own), you will be rewarded. This warm, private pool feels like a personal paradise away from everything and everyone. It is magical to say the least.
Whether you are a hard-core surfer, or just in search of a good beach, Tamarindo is a great option. This is one of the most popular beaches in Costa Rica, so you are guaranteed to find lots to do. And while it can be crowded with tourists during the high season, it never gets so bad as to be unenjoyable.
Tamarindo is the go-to beach for just about every kind of tourists. You can find teenagers partying on one end of the beach and families playing on the other. It’s a clean, gorgeous beach with great waves and endless sun.
Because of its popularity, there a ton of tour options too. Canopy tours, ATVs, turtle watching, horseback riding, sunset cruises, and surf lessons are just a few of the infinite activities available.
Tamarindo is especially fit for those who enjoy an active nightlife. Every night there’s something happening at one of the local bars and even Monday nights feel like Saturdays. It’s a lot of fun, but it can also be exhausting. If you are looking for a quieter beach experience, keep reading.
This was number two on my list of favorite places in Costa Rica. Manuel Antonio has a little bit of everything. On the one hand, it’s a quaint beach town with clean sand, blue water, and sea-side dining. It’s developed enough that there is plenty to do in regards to eating, shopping, and drinking, but it is also a lot quieter and calmer than Tamarindo.
While the Manuel Antonio Beach was fun for a day, it was the national park that really stole my heart.
The park is stunning. Around every corner is another lush, winding trail. After a few hours of sweaty hiking you reach the beaches that are part of the park. The first beach you reach is crowded with everyone who has finished hiking for the day, but if you walk less than five minutes farther, you reach a secluded and peaceful section of beach that you can enjoy all by yourself.
When determining where to go (and not go) in Costa Rica, Manuel Antonio should be near the top of your list.
Just above Manuel Antonio on my list of favorites in Bahia Drake. It isn't as easy to get to (you need a car with 4 wheel
drive or to take a small boat), but it is well worth the trek. Bahia Drake is on the Osa Peninsula, which is considered one of the most biodiverse places in the world. Translation? It's f**king beautiful.
Whether you want to hike, relax on the beach, stroll over a suspension bridge, admire the view from above, or watch for wildlife, Bahia Drake is the place to do it. This tiny town is super secluded and while you will see tourists, you wont see many of them. If you can only visit one place while in Costa Rica, make it Bahia Drake.
Celebrate the Diversity
The thing I love most about Costa Rica is the diversity. This tiny country is home to an incredible variety of landscapes. No matter where you choose to go, it is going to be beautiful. My main tip to you is not so much about where to go or not go, but to pick a handful of diverse environments and enjoy what makes Costa Rica so unique.