Last Updated: 2/22/24 | February 22nd, 2024
Costa Rica is one of the most visited countries in Central America. American tourists have been flocking to the country for years, and it’s become a hot spot for retirees and expats due to its cheap living, great weather, amazing beaches, and friendly locals.
I love Costa Rica. It was the first place that inspired me to travel and holds a special place in my heart.
I’ve been back to visit many times since, falling in love with it over and over again. But, because it’s not as cheap to visit as its neighbors, many budget travelers skip over Costa Rica.
And, while that’s true (though there are many ways to save money in Costa Rica), in my opinion, the beauty of the destinations below are worth the extra price.
Here are some of the best places to visit in Costa Rica:
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Sitting at an elevation of 1,670 meters (5,480 feet), Arenal is one of Costa Rica’s many volcanoes. It still erupts from time to time, and if you’re lucky, you’ll be able to see lava flowing down the volcano. (Though, it’s less likely to happen as the volcano has been dormant since 2010). Fun fact: I got lost in the jungle around here.
The area has tons of wonderful activities: there’s an awesome waterfall (La Fortuna), the national park with great hiking, sunset views over the lake, caving, canyoning, rafting options, famous hot springs, and wildlife spotting opportunities, such as on a bird-watching tour. With so much to do, it’s no wonder it’s one of the most visited places in the country.
MY FAVORITE HOSTEL IN ARENAL: Arenal Backpackers Resort – A fun, social hostel with a pool (and wet bar), hammocks, and gorgeous views of the nearby volcano.
READ MORE: How to Visit and Explore Arenal
Tortuguero (which means ‘Land of Turtles’) is the Costa Rican version of the Amazon rainforest. It dominates the northern coast, with Tortuguero National Park spanning over 77,000 acres. This massive area is a series of rivers and canals that crisscross the jungle.
The biggest draw to this area is the large number of turtles (hence the name) 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. However, there’s lots of wildlife to see year-round.
If you want to get off the grid, you can take a three-day guided tour of the national park with Destiny Travel Costa Rica for around $600 USD.
MY FAVORITE HOSTEL IN TORTUGUERO: Aracari Garden Hostel – With free Wi-Fi, a big kitchen, hot showers, and comfy beds, this hostel is a little slice of paradise just a stone’s throw from Tortuguero National Park.
READ MORE: Tortuguero Travel Guide
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’s half full!), but for the most part, after a day of hiking, animal spotting, swimming, or surfing, most people just sit around and read. If you feel ambitious, take a full-day guided tour of Cahuita National Park. You’ll get to really explore the area and learn a lot about the wildlife here.
The region is known for its Afro-Caribbean influences, which you might notice in the food and local culture as you chill out with some dessert crepes or grilled chicken.
MY FAVORITE HOSTEL IN CAHUITA: Estilo Hostel Hakuna Matata – This laid-back hostel has plenty of outdoor common space to relax in, a pool, and plenty of hammocks. It’s just a short walk from the beach as well.
4. Puerto Viejo
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. There is also a jaguar rescue center nearby that rehabilitates all sorts of local wildlife and releases them back into the wild.
MY FAVORITE HOSTEL IN PUERTO VIEJO: Pagalu Hostel – A spacious and clean hostel located right in town so you can easily get around. They have hot showers too!
The 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, which has beautifully vivid green and red feathers. The area is one of the largest eco-tourism hubs in the country, and over 250,000 people visit every year.
Monteverde, which rests right on the continental divide, experiences high winds and unusual weather patterns. The entire area is very green and wet and like La Fortuna, there are a lot of adventure activities here. Witness it all on a zip-line adventure through the tree canopy, explore some of the sky bridges in the area, or go on a guided night walk through the cloud forest to spot nocturnal wildlife.
MY FAVORITE HOSTEL IN MONTEVERDE: Sloth Backpackers – This quiet, clean hostel has free Wi-Fi, a tasty breakfast, and free coffee and tea all day. The location is great and the staff can help you book all kinds of fun tours.
READ MORE: What to See and Do in Monteverde
Corcovado National Park is on the remote Osa Peninsula in southwestern Costa Rica. Established in 1975, the park covers an area of 424 square kilometers (163 square miles), making it the largest park in the country.
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, hiking, camping, and lots of marine life.
To me, this is probably one of the best places in the entire country. Try not to miss it!
MY FAVORITE HOSTEL IN CORCOVADO: Corcovado Foundation BioHostel – This off-the-beaten-path ecohostel is a great place to unwind and disconnect. There’s a bar on-site, a yoga deck, vegan and vegetarian food, and gorgeous views of the lush landscape.
7. Manuel Antonio
A popular beach destination on the Pacific coast, Manuel Antonio’s wide, white-sand beaches and warm blue waters aren’t the only attractions people come for. The nearby national park, which opened in 1972, sees over 150,000 visitors annually and is home to hiking trails, a number of secluded beaches, and offers up the chance to view three different kinds of native monkeys.
It’s become a lot more crowded and developed over the years. It’s definitely not the park I first visited in 2006. That said, you’ll still see a lot of wildlife and the beaches in the area have been kept surprisingly pristine! Admission to the park is $18.08 USD per person, or you can take a guided tour for $59 USD (includes park admission).
MY FAVORITE HOSTEL IN MANUEL ANTONIO: Pura Natura Lodge Manuel Antonio – Offering stunning ocean views and a colorful interior, this chill hostel is right near the rainforest and the beach, making it a prime place to stay for a relaxing visit.
READ MORE: What to See and Do in Manuel Antonio
8. Poas Volcano
A perfect day trip from San José, Poas Volcano is an active stratovolcano with twin calderas filled with sulfur lakes. The volcanoes last erupted in 2019, and have actually erupted 40 times since 1828!
The lakes are so still, you’ll look at your picture and think you painted the color on. Arrive early in the morning to avoid the clouds closing in and ruining the view. There are some small trails around the area, or you can take a tour with Destiny Travel, which costs around $199 USD and includes a visit to the La Paz Waterfall Garden and a local coffee plantation.
MY FAVORITE HOSTEL IN SAN JOSE: Stray Cat Hostel – A clean hostel conveniently located near the bus station, the staff here go out of their way to ensure you have an amazing visit.
9. Santa Teresa
At the bottom of the Nicoya coast is the hippie backpacker town of Santa Teresa. 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 Teresa is a good place to lie on the beach, hang out with people, and relax. Because of the “chill” vibe, many people end up staying in Santa Teresa for weeks, and even months, on end.
MY FAVORITE HOSTEL IN SANTA TERESA: Lost Boyz – A chill and social eco-friendly hostel with a bar on-site, a restaurant (that serves wood-fired pizza), and pool, this is a fun hostel for travelers looking to relax and meet people. It’s near the beach too.
While Costa Rica can be a bit touristy and crowded, I think the diversity of wildlife, natural beauty, white-sand beaches, amazing sunsets, and warm, clear water make it worth the price. There are still so many unexplored and unvisited parts of the country.
No matter what you’re interested in — hiking, adventure activities, wildlife, beaches — you’ll be able to find a spot that’s perfect for your needs without breaking the bank.
Don’t skip Costa Rica. It’s one of the best countries I’ve ever been to!
Book Your Trip to Costa Rica: Logistical Tips and Tricks
Book Your Flight
Use Skyscanner to find a cheap flight. They are my favorite search engine because they search websites and airlines around the globe so you always know no stone is left unturned!
Book Your Accommodation
You can book your hostel with Hostelworld as they have the biggest inventory and best deals. If you want to stay somewhere other than a hostel, use Booking.com as they consistently return the cheapest rates for guesthouses and cheap hotels. My favorite places to stay are:
- Arenal Backpackers Resort (Arenal)
- Selina Puerto Viejo (Puerto Viejo)
- Pura Natura Lodge Manuel Antonio (Manuel Antonio)
Don’t Forget Travel Insurance
Travel insurance will protect you against illness, injury, theft, and cancellations. It’s comprehensive protection in case anything goes wrong. I never go on a trip without it as I’ve had to use it many times in the past. My favorite companies that offer the best service and value are:
- Safety Wing (best for everyone)
- Insure My Trip (for those over 70)
- Medjet (for additional evacuation coverage)
Looking for the Best Companies to Save Money With?
Check out my resource page for the best companies to use when you travel. I list all the ones I use to save money when I’m on the road. They will save you money when you travel too.
Want More Information on Costa Rica?
Be sure to visit our robust destination guide on Costa Rica for even more planning tips!