My Favorite Destinations in Costa Rica

By Nomadic Matt | Published March 10th, 2011

Costa Rica is one of the most visited countries in Central America. American tourists have been flocking to the country for years and it has become a hot spot for retirees and expats due to its cheap living, great weather, amazing beaches, and friendly locals. I’ve been to the country twice and have absolutely loved it both times. It’s actually one of my top five favorite places in the world. Because it’s not as cheap as its neighbors, many budget travelers skip over Costa Rica. But, in my opinion, the beauty of the destinations below are worth the extra price:

Puerto Viejo
puerto viejo Located on the Caribbean coast, this city is popular with young people and backpackers because of its great beaches, surfing, and party atmosphere. The town is very lively and you’ll find something going on every night. It’s probably the most popular destination on the Caribbean coast. There are also many quiet beach hotels around for those who are looking for some peace and quiet.

READ MORE: How to explore Costa Rica’s beautiful Caribbean coast

Cahuita
puerto viejo
Cahuita, a tiny town situated right next to a stunning national park with the same name, is about an hour north of Puerto Viejo. Cahuita is a place to relax. There’s one bar in town that gets lively (sometimes it is half full!) but for the most part, after a day of hiking, animal spotting, swimming, or surfing, most people just sit around and read.

Torteguero
puerto viejo
Tortuguero, the Costa Rican version of the Amazon Rainforest, dominates the northern coast. This massive area is a series of rivers and canals that crisscross the jungle. The biggest draws to this area are the large numbers of turtles (hence the name Tortuguero) that come to nest along the shoreline. The best time to see them nesting is in April and May, but if you’re visiting during the off-season, you’ll still be able to go hiking and participate in canal cruises. There’s lots of wildlife to see year-round.

Corcovado
puerto viejo
Corcovado National Park is on the remote Osa peninsula in southwestern Costa Rica. Though more popular than it used to be, it’s still a very rugged, quiet, and off the beaten path destination in a country where almost everything is on the beaten path. The peninsula is not easy to get to (which helps keep tourists away) but your efforts will be greatly rewarded with deserted beaches, tons of wildlife, great hiking, camping, and lots of marine life. It’s one of the best places in the country.

Arenal
puerto viejo
Arenal, one of Costa Rica’s many volcanoes, still erupts from time to time. If you’re lucky, you’ll be able to see lava flowing down the volcano. (Don’t worry! The lava just oozes. It’s not like huge explosions. It’s completely safe to visit.) The area also has a great waterfall (La Fortuna), a national park with great hiking, sunset views over the lake, outdoor activities, and famous hot springs. With so much to do, it is no wonder it is one of the most visited places in the country.

READ MORE: How to visit and explore Arenal

Manuel Antonio
puerto viejo
A popular beach destination on the Pacific coast, Manual Antonio’s wide, white sand beaches and warm blue waters are not the only attractions that people come for. A nearby national park with great hiking trails, a number of secluded beaches to choose from, and the chance to view three different kinds of native monkeys are all additional reasons for visiting this beautiful area in Costa Rica.

READ MORE: What to see and do in Manuel Antonio

Monteverde
puerto viejoThe nation’s premier cloud forest is the home to the elusive Quetzal birds. Most people come to Monteverde for a glimpse of this rare bird. Monteverde, which rests right on the continental divide, experiences high winds and unusual weather patterns. The entire area is very green and wet. Witness it all on a zip line adventure through the tree canopy or explore some of the sky bridges in the area.

READ MORE: What to see and do in Monteverde

Poas Volcano
puerto viejo
A great day trip from San Jose, Poas Volcano is a dormant volcano with twin calderas filled with sulfur lakes. The lakes are so still that you’ll look at your picture and think you painted the color on. There are some small trails around the area too. Arrive early in the morning to avoid the clouds closing in and ruining the view.

Santa Theresa
puerto viejoAt the bottom of the Nicoya coast is the hippie backpacker town of Santa Theresa. This “town” is really nothing more than a beach with a road lined with eateries, yoga centers, surf shops, and hostels. Everyone gets up early to hit the waves, so the overall atmosphere in town is pretty relaxed. You won’t find a lot of crazy parties here. Santa Theresa is a good place to lay on the beach, hang out with people, and relax. Because of the “chill” vibe, many people end up staying in Santa Theresa for weeks, and even months, on end.

Everything in Costa Rica is a bit touristy but despite the crowds, Costa Rica is a land filled with diverse wildlife and great natural beauty. The two times I’ve been here won’t be the last. I never get tired of jungles, white sand beaches, amazing sunsets, and warm clear water.

If you are planning your trip to Costa, visit my guide to planning a trip there. You’ll find everything you need in one place.

comments 59 Comments

I had always heard of Costa Rica being great, but since I always go to Mexico (where my family is), I haven’t really given it much thought. I will definitely have to add it to my to-go list. I like the fact that it seems to not be overrun by American hotels and resorts sort of the way Mexico is.

NomadicMatt

There are many places where it is overrun with Americans but there are also many places where you can check into quiet little bungalows away from the crowds.

Awesome! I might be going there with my family in Dec. so I will have to use all your posts esp. this one as a guide :) Also, starting Spanish classes in April, so will have to practice!

NomadicMatt

Bien. En Costa Rica, nesicitas espanol porque mucho personas no hablan ingles bien.

NomadicMatt

That photo is one of my favorite photos ever.

did you stay at Rocking Jay’s in Puerto Viejo? I spent a week completely lounged out there with my wife and brother, snorkeling and spearfishing by day. Manuel Antonio was amazing for the consistency of the waves for body surfing…we spent 3 weeks in a cabana body surfing, eating ceviche and sneaking into the national park!

NomadicMatt

I did stay at Rocking J’s though that place was not rocking when I went there. I could see the potential but it was very quiet.

We were going to skip through Costa Rica as it’s expensive (compared to the rest of Central America) but after talking to the Globetrotter Girls we’ve decided to head to Puerto Viejo next week. Looking forward to exploring the quieter beaches outside of town and walking in the Cahuita national park. To be honest it doesn’t look much more expensive than Bocas del Toro in Panama, where we currently are.

NomadicMatt

Bocas is pretty expensive. Did you see the Globtrotter Girls there? We spent some time traveling together when I was down there. Great people.

Can’t tell you how I miss it also, on your recent travel there have you noticed a higher number of expats living there?

NomadicMatt

Yeah, there were a lot more expats living there than the last time I was there. Still a great destination.

Wow…what a volcano!!! Superb perspective…

I’m one of those fools who sees the cute monkey in Cahuita and thinks the whole place is a giant petting zoo. The best places to visit involve lush vegetation that includes fascinating (and hopefully friendly) wildlife.

NomadicMatt

Just don’t feed the monkeys! It’s bad for them on many levels!

Did you visit Aviarios Sloth Sanctuary in Cahuita? Anyone interested in volunteering with sloths for 2 weeks or more there, should check out my blog or contact me! Cahuita is a very nice town, great National Park and be sure to do a horseback ride on the beach! Ahhhh Costa Rica

NomadicMatt

I didn’t make it there.

Can’t believe you got to see Arenal – it stubbornly stayed behind the mist while we were there!

NomadicMatt

I got lucky for sure! The clouds came back late afternoon though.

Salka

what is the best place to fly into?

NomadicMatt

San Jose

I like the “towns” of backpackers. I normally am a “daytripper” but it happend to me to stay some times in these places. It was a very nice experience. All friendly persons, tents all open for everybody, etc etc I was very impressed that there is a place so as it has to be…

Wow…This is a beautiful travel blog. Glad that I found you here. Love the pictures.

Very nice pics mate!

Nice to see you pointing out the gems Matt. Many people are talking about how developed Costa Rica is these days, but there are so many great spots, and actually there are great rural community and farm experiences to be had too, to expose people to the culture. I’ve spent a lot of time in the country so I’m partial to it myself and want people to know what’s good there. Also, if you want to be guaranteed to see the Quetzal, Savegre – another cloud forest area in the south-central part of the country (between San Jose and Dominical) is the best place to see it. But Monteverde is an amazing cloud forest experience not to be missed.

Amazing photos! I want to make it there one of these days… looks so nice!

Great list of destinations! I traveled all over Costa Rica before finally settling here in Playa Hermosa, Guanacaste, in 2005. I’ve been blogging about it ever since. Pura vida!!

danielle

my partner and i would like to retire there what made you choose playa hermosa?

Great blog. Just adding a few thoughts from my personal experience in Costa Rica

1. Corcovado: Yes, worth it, but to my (unpleasant) surprise, most of the trails are through secondary, not primary rain forest.

2. Monteverde: beautiful but you are herded through a narrow, cordoned single one way track/walkway, so very much a sanitised feel to the experience. For the best nature experience nothing beat Carara National Park (very few people, you can go off trail, etc).

3. Arenal: was shrouded in mist down to the base: couldn’t see a thing. The guide cheerily informed us no one else had either for the past few months. The clouds apparently clear only when ‘the moon aligns with mars and jupiter is in the seventh house’ : rarely to never.

ms t

Where is a nice and safe place for a older single lady to stay. I love rain forest, hiking. I’m active.

Great list. I lived there for 5 years and explored the entire country. It is hard to narrow down a list that is for sure! Monteverde and Puerto Viejo although quite different from one another are on the tops of my lists as well!

Kaylee

All of my husbands family have moved to costa! My brother in-law lives in Cahuita (incredibly happy to see that it is featured on your blog) Cahuita is one of my most favorite places to visit! It is gorgeous, peaceful, and very few tourists. They have a variety of delicious restaurants, and the authentic jamaican pattys (I believe only on the weekends) at the street cart are phenomenal! Can’t wait to go back!

Shannon

I am a 46 yr old woman who works in the public school system. For the past couple years I have desired to live in a different country each summer while I am not working. My plan is to start next summer. In preparation, I am taking a 12 day trip with my middle son (who is 20) to Costa Rica this summer. We will be staying in 4 different places over the 12 days and doing everything from lazy beach days to rappeling down waterfalls,stand up paddle boarding, snorkeling, kayaking, canyoneering, canopy ziplines, 4 wheel adventures, and thermal hot springs. We will be staying at Arenal Springs Resort and Spa (LaFortuna), Hidden Canopy Treehouses Boutique (Monteverde) , Villas Playa Samara (Samara), and finally Hotel Ramada Plaza (San Jose). I realize we are going the “tourist” route and likely paying much more than we really need to. My hope is to get connected with someone I can trust so that next summer I can go back with my 20 yr old and my 9 yr old and live there for 6-10 weeks, rent a car (or take public transportation) and have an adventurous, lazy, “local” experience. The plane ticket is about $1000/per person (round trip) so we will need to live a little more on the cheap while we are there next summer. If anyone has suggestions for someone I could work with to actually live there with one minor and one adult child that would be much appreciated.

Kristen

Headed to Costa Rica with 2 teenagers in the spring. We will be going to Monteverde and Manuel Antonio. I’m concerned about the touristy aspect of Manuel Antonio and wonder if there are any good places to head in the area away from the crowds – or maybe a better beach area to visit…

Hi Matt,
do you have any suggestions for places to explore for a home base, like renting a home and near a good town? Also, do you know if one can travel there on a one way ticket? What’s the best way to get around? busses, or do they have trains? I will only have about 3 weeks there, which two places on your list are closest together? I feel like I’d like to choose a couple of places and get to know them well.
Thanks! L

Tim

Just recently got back from a trip to Guanacaste in the Northwest section of Costa Rica. We also took a day trip to Nicaragua – what a trip. Would definitely go back to Costa Rica!

TShetty

Hey Matt,

We are planning on a romantic getaway to CR coming January and this would be our first visit to CR. I would like to know which places you suggest we cover in our first visit. It seems highly impossible to cover all the great places in CR in span of 7 days. I would love to do the adventure sports and the jungle tours there. What do you suggest?

P.S
Fabulous job on the travelogs and thanks a lot! Glad to have found your site…

Dee

Are there any places for snorkeling ? Not all your followers are young. My friends and I are in our 50′s and we are looking somewhere to go where its tropical with jungle style and then also ocean where you can snorkel and find clear calm water. Is this the place or is there another place you can suggest besides Hawaii. Can’t afford it’s prices.

NomadicMatt

I’m not sure what youth has to do with this list??? Anyways, there’s a lot of snorkeling in Costa Rica. I’d try the Corcovado region of the country.

Natalie

Hi,

Great list! Thank you for taking the time to
put that together. Very informative.

I was wondering how you got around. Did you
rent a car or take taxis? Are taxis safe? Just don’t
want to get ripped off by taxi drivers. I’m fluent in
Spanish (Colombian mother) and am hoping that
helps.

Thanks,
Natalie

Hey Matt, I have an internet based business and can work from my laptop. I want to go to Costa Rica in February of 2014, and find a place within a short walk to the water, with strong internet so I can work from my spot. I am looking to rent a place for a month, any suggestions as to which town would be friendly to my needs here? I will also be bringing my guitar, singing and playing music, so am looking for a place to stay that is relatively private so as to not bother anyone.

Mike Martin

Hey Matt,
My wife and I are celebrating our 10th wedding anniversary in Feb. and planning to go to Costa Rica. We have a week and want to split our time between 2 hotels, one in Tortuguero and the other in Puntarenas on the total other side. My question will it be easy to travel across and not waste to much time and should we rent a truck? 2 part question. Thanks for the help..

Chuchi

I’m from Costa Rica. I recommend you to go to Guanacaste instead of Puntarenas. It has the most beautiful beaches of the country.

So, this way, Costa Rica is #1 country for Eco Tourism.

Laura

Matt,
Hi! thanks for everything! we are planning to visit panama-costa rica with a low budget and we have seen that it is possible in your blog but we think that maybe the Caribbean part of Colombia is cheaper. Is it?? We don’t know what to do. Last year we went to Ecuador and we found it cheap. we are from Argentina!

Hi Matt, thanks for this great list! I’ll be going to Monteverde next year for the first time. I’m struggling to figure out the best way to really experience it. Any thoughts on taking a guided walk vs. zip lining vs. hanging bridge walk? There are so many options!

Mari Z

Ignore this post and ask a local. You will miss out on A LOT based on this little post. Go to couchsurfing.com and ask us Costarricans ;)

NomadicMatt

There’s a lot more to anyplace than a simple list. These are just my favorite spots. What are yours?

Jennifer

I have always wanted to come to Costa Rica. This year has been a major struggle. I would like to come and do some soul-searching. I love the beach, love seashells! Not real big on tourists but don’t want to be isolated completely. I am planning to spend a month there. Where would you recommend I go?

kate

Hey Matt! Do you have any recommendations for places to stay in Santa Teresa? Everything I’ve found so far has been above my budget, even hostels. I know that this place has blown up in popularity so maybe that’s just what things cost now, but wondering if you know of anything that works for a shoestring budget. No luxury or fanciness required.

NomadicMatt

I don’t know what the current prices are. I think I paid about $15 for a dorm room.

PK

We’re heading to the Osa Peninsula for a few days. Do you recommend the Carate side or the Puerto Jimenez side?

Kate

Hey Matt! I have been silently reading your blog for months now, thanks for all the great advice! I am spending a month in Costa (primarily Pacific side) this summer, and was curious how easy you found the accommodations-finding to be. I usually never book ahead except for the city I’m flying into, but I’m nervous that with small towns + beach the cheaper places could go easily. Any suggestions/ personal experience would be greatly appreciated!

NomadicMatt

It’s every easy to find last minute accommodation in the country.

Hello Matt. Without a doubt all the places you mention qualify as “must visit” destinations in Costa Rica. I live in Costa Rica and personally love vacationing around Puerto Viejo, to be more specific, I like the area called Playa Chiquita. It is less crowded than downtown Puerto Viejo and there the reefs form a lot of natural pools which offer nice bathing areas, but also result in great scenery.

Nicky

Hey Matt

I was hoping you could help, I am travelling Costa Rica for a month so I can go anywhere I like, lots of adventures I hope but I’m stuck for the start. After arriving in San Jose I didn’t want to stay there, I will do a couple of days at the end, but where do you think the best place to head to first is? I can’t seem to find other people’s itinerary as such, just places they like and I’m unsure where to head to first! Thank you!!!

Austen Matranga

Hey,

Me and my fiance are traveling to Costa for our honeymoon, in October. It will be our first time, and pretty much first time out of the US in general. We are so confused as to what and where to go. It is a 6 night vaca. So far, we are flying in to and getting picked up at SJ at 10:30am day 1. We travel to Puerto Viejo and stay for 3 nights. We are then heading to Arenal (with the Pauco whitewater tour on the way) and staying for our remaining 3 nights. We leave Arenal at 6am and head to the SJ airport to come home. I feel like we are going to spend the majority of time driving ( ie SJ-PV, PV-Arenal, Arenal-SJ). Should we add an extra night?? if we do should it be in PV or Arenal?

Austen Matranga

Forgot to mention our flight leaves SJ to come back home at 1pm. We will be at Arenal the night before. If we add a night should we add it in SJ so we dont have to wake up so early to leave Arenal? Or is there another cool destination between Arenal and SJ, so lessen the drive time the day of

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