Costa Rica is a true tropical paradise. This small Central American nation boasts pristine beaches, jaw-dropping waterfalls, and rainforests crawling all manner of exotic wildlife from sloths to howler monkeys. And whether you’re heading South to lounge at a five-star resort or zip-line your way through an adrenaline filled eco-adventure, there’s something to suit everybody’s taste. The country’s biggest export (besides coffee) is its natural beauty, so if you’re looking to escape to a tropical paradise without breaking the bank (flights from the US are aggressively reasonable), Costa Rica might be the destination you didn’t know you had in mind. So dust off that Spanish dictionary and check out this list of can’t-miss destinations—good luck fitting them all into one trip!
San Jose – Costa Rica’s capital city is a great place to add a dash of color to your tropical adventure. The airport is just a short drive from downtown, where you’ll find five-star accommodations as well as plenty of short-term rental options. Catch a show at the National Theater, spend an academic afternoon wandering through the National Museum, or take your tastebuds on a tour in San Jose’s new and experimental gastro-district in Barrio Escalante. Increased tourism has brought international tastes (and chefs) to the city eager to capitalize on the country’s abundance of fresh ingredients and exotic flavors. After dinner, take advantage of the city’s vibrant (and sometimes seedy) nightlife, with casinos, dance clubs, and live music in sweaty bars that don’t close until sunrise.
Rincon de la Vieja National Park – Named for the active volcano at its center, Rincon de la Vieja National Park sits in the mountains of Northwest Costa Rica. It’s an eco-tourist’s paradise, with rope bridges that lead to jungle waterfalls, mud baths, and hiking trails for all ability levels. You can book a rafting trip down a river canyon in the morning and then spend the evening lounging in the area’s numerous mineral hot springs (tropical beverages recommended, but not required).
Llanos de Cortez –Some waterfalls require a long jungle hike to reach, but this one is just off the highway. A half hour south of Liberia, this is one of Costa Rica’s prettiest aquatic wonders, and one of the easiest to reach. There’s a fee to park your car, but the view is well worth the price, a quarter mile walk down a winding staircase into a canyon oasis carved by falling water. Buy a coconut from one of the vendors on the way in, and after you’re done splashing around under the falls, pay the local boys a few bucks to show you the secret swimming hole a few hundred yards into the jungle, where you can jump off a low cliff into cool black water while the monkeys and parrots watch.
Tamarindo –A surfing mecca in the northwestern province of Guanacaste, Tamarindo is the kind of white-sand paradise most people daydream about while hunched in their cubicles. It’s the type of sun-drenched beach town you can lose yourself in for a week, small enough that you’ll feel like a local as you stroll between your hotel, the beach, and the bar. Whether you want to catch some waves with a surfing lesson or just some rays from the comfort of your towel, Playa Tamarindo is just a couple hours by bus or rental car from the airport in Liberia, making it an easy destination to reach from most places in the US, even if you only have a couple of days to work on your tan.
Liberia – Liberia is the largest city in Guanacaste province and home to the country’s second international airport. If your vacation plans are concentrated along the west coast, Liberia is where you should fly. It isn’t as big as San Jose, but is still a great place to get a feel for Costa Rica’s culture and history before setting off for the jungle or the beach. The Museo del Sabanero will give you a feel for the country’s cowboy heritage, and the Museo del Guanacaste is an old military barracks filled with Costa Rican art and artifacts. Grab a jugo de caña (sugar cane juice) from a streetside seller while you stroll and take it all in.
Manuel Antonio – If you can’t decide between a jungle vacation and a beach vacation, Manuel Antonio is where they both collide. The town is perched on a hill overlooking the Pacific, with some hotels and hostels right along the world-class beaches and others nestled high up in the rainforest. The eponymous National Park is right next door, bustling with sloths, monkeys, tapirs, and all manner of colorful cawing birds that you can spot on a guided nature tour or while hiking along its many trails. This is a great place to bring the whole family, with sailing tours, zip-lining through the jungle, horseback riding, and wildlife spilling right into the town.
Tortuguero – Monkeys and sloths can be hard to spot, so if you want some guaranteed exotic wildlife sightings, Tortuguero should be high on your list. Situated on the Caribbean coast northeast of San Jose, the town sits in the middle of the jungle (it’s only reachable by boat or small plane), adjacent to a sanctuary and nesting grounds for a variety of sea turtles. There are nature tours along the beaches and through the local mangrove forests, and the town is close to recreational beaches. Nesting season for Leatherback turtles is in March and April, while the Hawksbill and Green sea turtles lay their eggs between July and October, so grab your binoculars and plan your trip accordingly.
Monteverde – The Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve is a rainforest dreamscape that draws visitors from all over the world to experience its spectacular biodiversity. Walk through the canopy on suspended bridges, where you can spot monkeys and colorful toucans, or tour the trails lower down to spot wild orchids, quetzals, and (if you’re very lucky) an ocelot or a jaguar lurking in the mist. The mountainous climate is also perfect for growing coffee, and there are plenty of plantation tours in the area which include the bean’s history, local culture, and a very caffeinated tasting.
La Fortuna – La Fortuna is a small town beneath the picturesque (and still active) Arenal Volcano. One of the most popular destinations in Costa Rica, the town is a hub for tourists looking to explore everything the rainforest has to offer, from zip-lining through the trees to hot springs and volcano tours in Arenal Volcano National Park (yes, you can see lava). The town’s popularity means there are all types of accommodation here, from backpacker hostels to five-star hotels, so you can wine, dine, and relax like a vagabond or a king after rappelling or whitewater rafting.
Jaco – Jaco is a beach and party town on Costa Rica’s central Pacific coast where you can shuffle in your flip-flops between the sand and some of the country’s best restaurants. By day, Jaco is a hub for surfing, sport fishing, and wildlife tours through the jungle. By night, you can dance and drink your cares away in the town’s vibrant clubs and bars. Jaco is less than two hours from San Jose, which makes it a great first stop on your Costa Rican itinerary.
Ryan Polhemus is a freelance writer based in Boston. When he's not scribbling about (or sampling) the local food and drink scene, he can likely be found on a cheap flight to a strange destination, where he will scribble about and sample somebody else's local food and drink scene.