If you could design a destination to be perfect for backpackers, it would look a lot like Costa Rica. The country’s unofficial slogan “pura vida” – pure life – perfectly describes its chilled-out spirit. Travellers flock to the coastlines to enjoy pristine beaches and epic surf breaks, while inland regions host incredible nature reserves, volcanos and wildlife galore. You could spend a year travelling the country, there are so many unique experiences to be had. It’s hard to narrow down, but here are the best places to visit in Costa Rica that’ll give you memories to last a lifetime.
This small community is the best place to visit in Costa Rica if you want to get in touch with nature. The region is a natural cloud forest – lush green year-round thanks to the low-hanging clouds supplying a constant water source. There’s plenty to do, especially if you’re an outdoorsy person. Take a hike through the forest, keeping your eyes peeled for rare bird species as well as monkeys, frogs, and the elusive puma or jaguar. Thrill seekers can zipline across the valley and through the trees, or you can take the tamer option and explore the skywalk route, which weaves through the canopy and offers amazing views. Monteverde is also a great place for foodies! The cool, wet climate is perfect for dairy farming, and the ice cream and cheese produced in this region is top quality. There are great coffee-tasting tours as well if you’re a fan.
How long to stay: 2-3 days.
How to get there: 5 hour bus ride from San Jose.
Where to stay: Camino Verde has amazing views of the surrounding forest.
2. La Fortuna
There are so many things to do around La Fortuna that you’d be nuts to miss it on a trip to Costa Rica. From the town, you can see the Arenal volcano looming over everything. Spend a day hiking up to the top, or go by horseback if you’re not in the mood for walking. You’ll find many hot springs resorts in the area, the naturally warm water coming from underground reserves near the volcano. Buy a day pass and spend the day swimming, soaking and relaxing at a swim-up pool bar. If you’re into hiking, you’ll want to spend at least a couple of days here. As well as the trails up to the volcano, there are plenty of rainforest walks leading to waterfalls where you can cool off. Take a day trip to the Rio Celeste, a dazzlingly sky-blue river that winds through the trees. Animal lovers should definitely walk the Bogarin Trail, as it’s one of the best places in Costa Rica to see sloths in the wild.
📍 Selina La Fortuna hostel 📷 @lizzie_inthesky
How long to stay: You could spend five days here and still not see everything, but stay at least two nights.
How to get there: 5 hour bus ride from San Jose.
Where to stay: Arenal Backpackers Resort has a lush pool and glamping tents.
Beach bums should put this location high up their priority list. First of all, there’s the amazing national park, one of the most beautiful in the world. Trails criss-cross through the pristine greenery, which is home to all sorts of animals including sloths and white-faced monkeys. Surrounding the park are three dreamy white-sand beaches, perfect for swimming, snorkelling, or just relaxing. If you’re up for some adventure, take a parasailing trip and glide over the beach and parkland for an incredible view.
Manuel Antonio is one of the best places in Costa Rica to watch the sunset, so take a late afternoon sailing cruise and toast to a stunning pink and orange sky. Keep an eye out for the dolphins that like to play around the boats. If you’re there during August and September, you might even see the humpback whales that migrate through this region. This area is popular, so prices can be pretty high compared to the rest of the country, but it’s definitely worth a day or two.
How long to stay: A couple of days.
How to get there: From the clifftop town of Quepos, catch the shuttle to the park and beaches.
Where to stay: Selina has a pool, yoga classes, and amazing views.
When to visit: September and October can get afternoon tropical storms, so try to visit in the dry season between December and April.
This small park on the north coast of the country is where the rainforest meets the sea. While the whole country is amazing, Tortuguero will definitely be one of the most unique experiences of your trip. It’s named for the masses of turtles who come out of the sea to lay their eggs on the beaches. Take a turtle tour and see some of these giant creatures – some up to six feet long – make their yearly pilgrimage. In the national park you can also take a boat tour along canals through the forest and get up close to some spectacular wildlife, or rent a kayak and explore on your own. It’s a pretty remote part of the country, and not easy to get to. But it’s wonderful to be in such a quiet, peaceful place, surrounded by nature on all sides.
How long to stay: A night or two.
How to get there: Take a bus to La Pavona, then a one-hour boat ride to the town of Tortuguero.
When to visit: Turtle nesting season is between June and October.
5. San Jose
While most people visit Costa Rica to explore its beaches and beautiful nature, it’s well worth checking out the capital, San Jose. It’s a bustling and colourful city with a thriving cultural and food scene. Spend some time walking through the main pedestrian area, a perfect spot for people-watching while enjoying street food from one of the many vendors. Speaking of which, foodies should definitely embark on a food tour through Barrio Escalante, then have a couple of drinks at the Beer Factory to try some local brews. It can be tempting to skip the busy cities, especially in a country so famous for its beautiful nature. But San Jose is the perfect place to get a taste of the country’s vibe. Also, there are plenty of day trips you can take from San Jose if you’re only in the country for a limited time and want to base yourself in one spot.
How long to stay: One night.
How to get there: This will probably be your first stop in Costa Rica, as it’s the arrival point of international flights and buses.
Where to stay: Capital Hostel de Ciudad has free breakfast and a sleek, modern design.
If you need a little chill time on a beach, head to this small coastal town. If you’re into diving, there’s an amazing site at a shipwreck just off shore. For an epic day trip, head to the nearby sloth sanctuary, or to the rescue centre for jaguars and other wildlife. Otherwise lounge on the beach, watch the surfers and drink cocktails in one of the many beachfront bars. If you get tired of the relaxing lifestyle, there are some cool day trips you can do in the region to get a better taste of Costa Rica. You could tour a cacao farm and see how chocolate is grown and produced…and of course, taste it for yourself! The nearby Gandoca-Manzanillo Wildlife Refuge is a wonderful place to get up close and personal with local wildlife, otherwise you could just rent a bike and roam around the small town. Cycle from beach to beach and make a whole day of it.
How long to stay: A night or two.
How to get there: A five hour bus from San Jose.
Where to stay: La Ruka is a funky hostel on the beach with laid-back Caribbean vibes.
When to visit: It’s great year-round, but September and October are best for snorkelling visibility.
Tamarindo is one of the best places to visit in Costa Rica. By day it’s a chilled out surfer town, and at night it comes alive with music and partying. Seasoned surfers will love the big breaks off the shore, while rookies will still be able to find areas with tame waves to learn on. The town is full of young travellers, drawn in by the chill vibe and good times to be had. Definitely take a surf lesson or two while you’re here, or rent a boogie board and get out on the waves. If you’re sick of the beach (firstly, how?!), the Tamarindo Estuary is an amazing network of canals which you can explore by kayak. Go with a guide who will help you spot birds and the occasional crocodile. Start every night by the water, where you’ll be greeted with an amazing orange and purple sunset. During the high season, there’s live music on the beach most nights.
How long to stay: Long enough to take a few surf lessons.
How to get there: An hour shuttle ride from Liberia airport, or six hours on the bus from San Jose.
Where to stay: La Oveja Negra is a party hostel with surf lessons and a bar.
8. Oso Peninsula
This peninsula in the south of Costa Rica is one of the most biologically intense places in the world, according to National Geographic. Think untouched beaches, wild nature, lush green rainforest and plenty of wildlife. The wild remoteness of it all means it takes a bit of planning to get to, but it’s seriously worth it. Base yourself in a small beach town like Puerto Jimenez or Drake Bay and explore everything on offer. Walk along forest trails that lead to waterfalls, swim and snorkel just off the beach, go dolphin and whale spotting, or take a day trip out to Cano Island. If you’re into wildlife, you can take an amazing night tour and see how the forest comes alive once the sun goes down. The peninsula is also home to the biggest mangrove in central America, which you can explore by boat or kayak. It’s the kind of place where animals outnumber people, and the pace of life is slow and cheerful. Take a break from travelling and lean into the relaxed vibes.
📍 Drake Bay 📷 @mroz
How long to stay: At least a few days.
How to get there: To get to Drake Bay, take a bus to Palmar Sur, a taxi to Sierpe, then a boat to Drake Bay. To get to Puerto Jimenez, it’s an 8-hour ride from San Jose. But it’s worth it!
Where to stay: Martina’s Place is a cute lodge that organises tours.
When to visit: The wet season from May to November sees high humidity and daily afternoon showers. Try to visit early in the year from January to April.
If you’re here to hit the waves, head to Jacó – one of the best places in Costa Rica for surfing. It’s pretty close to San Jose, so it’s perfect if you’ve got a limited time in the country. The rugged coastline here makes for some amazing breaks that expert surfers will love. It’s a popular destination, so don’t expect a quiet beach town. Late night bars and discos make it a fun place to be after the sun goes down, and everyone knows nothing cures a hangover better than a dip in the ocean. But it’s not just beaches that make Jacó a wonderful holiday spot. Just outside town you’ll find lush rainforest with plenty of hiking trails and waterfalls to jump in. Climb Miro Mountain and be rewarded with great views of the town and beach, then rent an ATV or go horse riding to explore the surrounding forest.
How long to stay: A night or two.
How to get there: A two-hour bus from San Jose.
Where to stay: Selina is a sustainable hostel with plenty of fun group activities like movie nights and yoga classes.
10. Santa Teresa
This sleepy fishing village is slowly gaining popularity as word spreads about what a beautiful place it is. It’s been touted as the next Tulum, so expect hippie vibes, yoga spots, vegan eats and cute cafes – you better visit before everyone else finds out! It’s got white sandy beaches and great swells that attract surfers of all experience levels. Bring a book and some sunscreen, because you’ll be spending your days lounging under coconut trees and nights sipping drinks on the beach.
Santa Teresa is a great place to rest and relax mid-trip, as it’s kinda like the Bali of Costa Rica. Take a surf lesson or start your morning with a yoga class, then refuel at one of the town’s many healthy cafes. If you get antsy sitting still for too long, take a boat trip out to Tortuga Island for snorkelling, swimming, and hiking. For a small town, Santa Teresa comes alive at night. Every Tuesday there’s live music and bonfires on the beach, and you’ll find great sunset happy hours every evening.
How long to stay: No matter how long you stay, you won’t want to leave!
How to get there: A six hour bus from San Jose, or a ferry and bus from Puntarenas.
Where to stay: Wavetrotter has a chill garden with hammocks and the occasional visit from a monkey.
Has this rundown of the 10 best places to visit in Costa Rica tempted your wanderlust? Well then hurry up and book that flight! And don’t forget to check out all our incredible hostels in Costa Rica while you’re at it…
Let us know in the comments if you’ve visited any of these epic destinations!
About the author:
Jemima Skelley is an Australian travel writer currently exploring Europe. Believes that the best way to discover a country is through their food, and is always on the hunt for a good coffee spot. Follow her on Instagram and Twitter.