We just returned from another trip to Costa Rica and already are plotting our next journey through this lush, beautiful land that is teeming with wildlife viewing, hiking, fishing, swimming, surfing and other opportunities for adventure. Here are some recommendations for what to see and do based on our experiences.
You will likely spend at least a night or two in San Jose at the start or end of your journey through Costa Rica. San Jose might not be the prettiest Central American capital, but it definitely has some charm. The absolute best place to stay is the Gran Hotel Costa Rica, which is part of the Hilton’s Curio Collection. The hotel is comfy, classy and perfectly located in walking distance to the best sites in the city. We recommend visiting the Central Market, the Pre-Columbian Gold Museum and the Pedestrian Mall.
We have also stayed at the Hotel Presidente, which is nice, less expensive than the Gran Hotel, and still close to the sites you’ll want to visit. Park Inn by Radisson has lovely, spacious rooms and an onsite restaurant and a pool, in case you’re not venturing out while in San Jose. The location isn’t as walkable but is super affordable and still just about a 10-minute walk or quick ride to everything you’ll want to explore downtown. We had a beautiful corner suite at Park Inn for $115 USD.
We had an unforgettable 2-night adventure to Tortuguero, which is a more-remote area on the northern side of the Caribbean coast (the journey requires a long bus ride followed by a 90-minute boat ride—but it’s totally worth it). Tortuguero National Park is the nesting site for certain sea turtles. Even if you are visiting outside of the turtle nesting season (like we did) there is still plenty to see. This area is known as the Amazon of Central America—and having been to the Amazon jungle, we understand why! Exploring the canals offers a once-in-a-life-time experience. We saw plenty of birds, caiman, howler and spider monkeys, sloths, crabs, and electric blue butterflies.
The area is only accessible by boat or plane, so we opted to book a guided trip through Pachira Lodge, which was fantastic. The price included our roundtrip shuttle transfer from San Jose, all meals, a boat tour, a trip to the Sea Turtle Conservancy in town and a jungle walk on the property’s pathways. We had plenty of time to relax by the pool and the bar and watch the monkeys swing through the trees on the property. In hindsight, we may have booked an extra night and added a kayaking trip and some onsite spa services to the agenda. The property has plenty of lodge-style rooms, but we highly recommend reserving a private bungalow. So peaceful and beautiful. Note that there’s no air conditioning—but we’ve rarely had A/C at a jungle lodge. The nights were chilly, and the sounds of the howler monkeys were hauntingly cool.
Doka, Poas and La Paz
In addition to wildlife and beaches, Costa Rica is known for coffee plantations, volcanoes and waterfalls. You can visit all three on a day trip from San Jose—or you can spend the night at the posh Peace Lodge at the La Paz Waterfall Gardens Nature Park or another close by and more-budget-friendly accommodation. The park has a wildlife sanctuary with animals (including jungle cats) rescued by the Costa Rican Wildlife Ministry that can’t be reintroduced to the wild.
A short distance from La Paz is the active Poas Volcano, which has an excellent viewing area. You can also tour the Doka Estate coffee plantation, which is located about 45 minutes south of Poas and 30 minutes north of the San Jose airport.
Quepos and Manuel Antonio
If you are trying to decide whether to rent a car in Costa Rica, you’ve probably read that it’s not for the faint of heart. This is 100 percent true! But the drive from San Jose to Quepos is quite a bit smoother than other journeys (we’re looking at you, Monteverde).
Quepos is a cute town along the winding road to Manuel Antonio National Park. We loved Manuel Antonio so much that we went out of our way to return on our second trip. Bring a bathing suit and beach gear into the park if you want to go for a swim—the beaches inside the park are world renowned. We recommend getting there at 7:00 am, as soon as the park opens, and having a wander around to spot wildlife before the crowds come in. On one trip, we explored the park on our own at dawn and that was a much better experience than going with a guide who spent two hours on the main entrance trail looking at every single bug and bird through a telescope (maybe that’s your thing, but we really enjoyed wandering though the beautiful park at our own pace).
There are plenty of hotels right at the park’s entrance, so you may want to stay there for a night to quickly enter the park in the morning. You can also check out Playa Espadilla, which is a short walk away.
In Quepos, the lovely Gaia Hotel and Reserve has a wonderful restaurant, La Luna, with gorgeous sunset views. We also enjoyed some R&R with massages at the tranquil Raindrop Spa. Plus, our kayaking trip through the mangroves was absolutely unforgettable.
Monteverde Cloud Forest
A trek through the misty Monteverde Cloud Forest is an extraordinary experience and was one of the highlights of our time in Costa Rica. Just as we did at Manuel Antonio, we awoke early and got to the park as soon as it opened, which made for a mystical experience as we wondered the foggy paths and listened to the sounds of the jungle at dawn with very few other humans in sight.
We stayed at the Monteverde Lodge & Gardens, which offered a fantastic nighttime nature walk and a great restaurant. The staff were super friendly and patient with us, as we opted to practice our Spanish instead of speaking English.
Note that the drive up to Monteverde includes some rough roads up a mountain with a steep drop. So check the conditions and the best routes before you go.
La Fortuna and Arenal
Arenal Volcano is a top attraction in Cost Rica for good reason, and you should definitely carve out some time to explore the national park. We were on a tight budget on our first trip to the country 7 years ago and found this adorable little bungalow at Arenal Montechiari for less than $100 a night. The property offered a pool and gorgeous views of Arenal Volcano, as well as an included delicious breakfast. We could walk into the downtown area of La Fortuna from there and highly recommend Kappa Sushi for a great dinner.
While in the area, you should visit some local hot springs. We got a day pass to the lush Tabacon Thermal Resort & Spa. You can stay at the resort, too, if your budget allows. The La Fortuna Waterfall is also worth a visit. (Prepare for the steep uphill walk back to your car, though!)
Tamarindo and the greater Guanacaste Province has some beautiful beaches. If this is your primary destination, you can fly into the Liberia airport instead of San Jose. We stayed at Playa Flamingo, which is a less-crowded, white-sand beach north of Tamarindo. We loved our little resort, which is now the Margaritaville Beach Resort Playa Flamingo and much more expensive that it was on our visit.
The Nicoya Peninsula is also a popular tourist destination for those looking for adventure and white-sand beaches—but we have yet to explore that region.
We admit that Jaco is not our favorite destination in Costa Rica. We can see the attraction for surfers, backpackers, fishers and those looking for a quick trip from the San Jose airport, but there are much better beaches to explore. If you do stay in Jaco, we suggest getting a condo with a pool that overlooks the beach—that may be a more tranquil way to pass the time. We generally prefer natural beaches to well-manicured spots at touristy resorts, but the beach here is pretty rocky and just not that pleasant for lounging. The sunsets are really spectacular, though, and the Jaco Walk has some great restaurants, especially, Graffiti Restro Cafe and Wine Bar. We enjoyed our stay in Jaco but aren’t racing back. We hear that Playa Hermosa to the south of Jaco is a nicer alternative for surfers—just be aware that there is more than one Playa Hermosa in Costa Rica!
We can’t wait to go back to Costa Rica. Next time, we want to explore more of the Caribbean coast, such as Punta Uva, Cahuita National Park and Puerto Viejo. What are your favorite spots in Costa Rica? Let us know in the comments.