So, you’re on the hunt for the best holiday destinations in Costa Rica. Bingo: You’ve come to the right place. This guide will run through nine of the most enticing locations in the country. It will hop from the turquoise Caribbean to the wavy Pacific coast, through misty jungles inhabited by three-toed sloths and over smoke-belching volcanoes that pierce the clouds, all to help you pick the most incredible pitstops for your Central American jaunt this year.
We’re not going to lie – we have a serious love affair with the land of pura vida. Where else in the world can you surf world-class waves in the morning, trek to long-lost waterfalls in the rainforest by afternoon, and watch howler monkeys swinging in the trees over those evening beers, eh?
It’s no secret that this country is known primarily for its surf destinations, its eco-tourism hotspots, and those biodiverse national parks. They all make an appearance on our list of the best holiday destinations in Costa Rica, along with a few hidden beach towns that you might not have considered. Oh, and there’s a special mention for the bustling capital of San Jose, which we don’t think should be overlooked.
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Arenal has firmly established itself as the adventure tourism mecca of Costa Rica. Now those are big words in a country that’s positively brimming with hiking-riddled jungles and untrodden coastline. But Arenal lives up the rep, offering everything from white-water rafting expeditions to rainforest treks to waterfall swimming.
The perfectly cone-shaped volcano of Arenal itself is the centerpiece of the whole region. Soaring 1,657 meters above sea level on the lush plateaus in the very middle of the country, it’s still active and hiking to the summit is totally banned. But there are wonderful walks up the smaller cinder cone of Chato, along with treks through frozen lava fields and woods where toucans caw overhead.
The volcano is just the beginning, too. Weeks and weeks of adventure pursuits await here. There’s open-air hot spring bathing to be done near Tabacon. There’s wild swimming in the plunge pools and cataracts of the Rio Celeste park. There’s hiking around Lake Arenal to viewpoints that take in the great central Cordillera. Just be sure to pack the hiking boots!
Tamarindo has recently edged out the rather tacky Pacific town of Jaco to become Costa Rica’s surf town numero uno. We have to say that we’re quite pleased. Jaco is looking worn and is nowhere near as charming. Tamarindo, on the other hand, is all bamboo-built surf shacks, hammocks swinging between coconut trees, and charming ocean-side hostels.
The surf is the main reason folk keep coming. There are a couple of breaks and they cater to all levels. The easiest are crammed into the south end of Tamarindo Playa, while a barreling river mouth break offers something for more advanced riders to the north. There are also reef and point breaks to the south of town that work really well on wet-season swells.
But it’s not just for the board riders. Tamarindo is also an R&R mecca, fronted by a long curve of soft tropical sand. At night, the place can go into overdrive, with bars like Pacifico, Sharky’s, and El Be pumping with dancers and drinkers until the early hours.
Running for nearly two whole miles down the end of the Nicoya Peninsula, Santa Teresa has only really just come onto the travel radar. But we’d put it up there with the best holiday destinations in Costa Rica for a few reasons…
Chief among them is the beach. This is a vision of untouched Pacific shoreline. It runs for a couple of clicks with a fringing of stooping coconut palms to one side and the endless waves of the Pacific on the other. Talking of waves…Santa Teresa is also a surf haven, offering glassy left and right sandbar breaks for shortboard rippers and whitewash for those coming to learn.
There’s now a steady stream of boutique B&Bs, surf shacks, and eco stays in the jungles just behind the beach. They’re all linked to the main coast road that also goes south to the Cabo Blanco Nature Reserve, a land of towering teak trees where you can spot capuchin monkeys and ocelots in the wild.
Draped over the jungled ridges of the Cordillera de Tilarán northwest of San Jose, Monteverde is unquestionably one of the best holiday destinations in Costa Rica. But it’s not going to be about rest and relaxation in these parts. Nope. This one’s all about getting up close to the booming biodiversity of Central America on some seriously hair-raising walking trails.
The piece de resistance here is the Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve. That’s known for its pristine cloud forest habitats. They’re traversed by swinging rope suspension bridges and high lookout points built into the woods. The result is a place where you can come to spot some of the country’s most famous creatures, from the exquisite resplendent quetzal to sloths to tapirs on the forest floor.
Most visitors opt to stay in the nearby backpacker hub of Santa Elena. It’s a fun to that can get lively at night with travelers sharing tales of the animals they’ve seen on the trails. There are also some epic eco-luxury lodges in the hills that offer true immersion in nature.
The town of Manuel Antonio sits right on the cusp of the country’s most famous national park: The Manuel Antonio National Park. It’s not a big reserve, not by a long stretch. A mere 1,900 hectares forms the bulk of it, although that’s since been extended out into the Pacific to cover a vast marine area rich in whales, dolphins, and sharks.
It’s hard to know where to begin. How about the beaches? It’s postcard-worthy stuff. Check out Espadilla Sur and Manuel Antonio Beach, which come topped by a rock stack where rare seabirds whiz through the air. Or head to handsome Escondido Beach, a secret Shangri-La deep within the park that looks like something out of Castaway.
Delve into the jungles and there’s hardly a moment to blink. Three-toed sloths meet capuchin monkeys and howlers in the trees here. You can spot them while walking one of the few marked trails, which wiggle through orchid blooms and groves of beach almond and silk cotton trees that have stood for hundreds of years.
Uvita is the nicest Costa Rican beach town you might never have heard of. Content to let other major resorts on the Pacific stay in the limelight, this one’s quietly been riding the wave of development for the last few years. We think it’s time to give it the credit it deserves. So, if you’re a sand-loving relaxation seeker with a penchant for truly untrodden shoreline, we wouldn’t hesitate to say that this is one of the best holiday destinations in Costa Rica…
There are quite a few lovely beaches in the region. 15 minutes’ drive north will bring you to the pro surf hub of Playa Dominical. Even closer is the rock-studded bay of Playa Roca Verde. Then you have the wide scythe of cinnamon-tinted sand that is Playa Hermosa, a middle-ability surf break and a spacious beach for sunbathers.
Ecotourism is the other great draw of Uvita. You can come here to spot migrating humpback whales between July and November and then again from December to April. There are even whole reserves dedicated to protecting the whale migration routes along the Uvita coastline. Take a boat trip in one of those and sightings of the great beasts are all but guaranteed.
Corcovado National Park
The Corcovado National Park is a huge cut-out of the very remote Osa Peninsula in the south of Costa Rica. It’s famed for hosting one of the last remaining continuous tracts of lowland Pacific forest in the whole of Central America. That brings a truly formidable biodiversity to it all, so prep the binoculars, folks.
Creatures that are commonly spotted in this vast preserve include jaguarundi, ocelots, white-faced capuchin monkeys, spider monkeys – the list goes on. Corcovado also happens to be one of the best places to look for sloths, arguably the most iconic of CR’s native beasts. Flora wise, get ready to spy out strange purple heart trees, palm swamps, crabwoods, and more orchids than you can shake your surfboard at.
It’s possible to do day excursions or overnight visits, but all trips into the Corcovado National Park must be supervised by a certified guide. There are a few hiking paths on offer to take you into the depths of the reserve, the most popular being the accessible Sendero El Tigre route.
No guide to the best holiday destinations in Costa Rica could possibly be complete without a mention of San Jose. This is the ever-lively capital of the country; pretty much the only place you can go in this relaxed land of coconut husks and surfing to feel the true buzz of a metropolis. We probably wouldn’t recommend a whole vacation here, but a couple of days before you head to the beaches would be perfect.
There’s lots to do. You can drop into the impossibly grand Teatro Nacional Costa Rica to see philharmonic orchestras. You can delve into the Museo Nacional De Costa Rica to unravel the long and rich history of the nation and encounter strange pre-Columbian artworks. The Jade Museum is also pretty dazzling, with its priceless collection of more than 7,000 pieces of precious stone.
Then there’s the sleepless, lived-in side of town. Plaza cantinas offer endless people watching in San Jose, while the Central Market is the place to go shopping for local crafts, and there are coffee and chocolate workshops galore. Mmm.
Puerto Viejo de Talamanca
Puerto Viejo de Talamanca transports us over to the Caribbean coastline of Costa Rica in a flurry of reggae-playing surf shacks and coconut rum punches. This is the most Latin, most jazzy, most Carib of all the vacation hotspots in the country. It’s strung along a single roadway and extends just a few blocks inland, offering sandy eateries open to the balmy tropical airs and plenty of little drinking shacks overlooking the sea.
The truth is that Puerto Viejo de Talamanca is a bit of a hedonism hub. That’s developed with the surfing, which is considered some of the best dry-season surfing in the country. Warm weather systems come in from South America and bring great waves with them between December and March. We’re talking some of the most hardcore breaks in the region – Playa Cocles and slabby, barreling Salsa Brava to name just two.
We’d say Puerto Viejo is one of the best holiday destinations in Costa Rica if all you’re after is sun, sand, and sea. The waters aren’t as rough as the Pacific side of the nation, you can catch white-sand beaches, and the nightlife has plenty going for it to boot.