Updated: 12/20/2018 | December 20th, 2018
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.
It holds a special place in my heart.
I’ve been back to visit Costa Rica many times since then, 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 (but there are many ways to save money in Costa Rica), in my opinion, the beauty of the destinations below is worth the extra price.
Here are some of my favorite destinations in Costa Rica:
1. Puerto Viejo
Located on the Caribbean coast near Panama, Puerto Viejo 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. There is also a jaguar rescue center nearby that rehabilitates all sorts of local wildlife and releases them back into the wild.
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. 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.
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 draws to this area are the large numbers 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.
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, 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, great hiking, camping, and lots of marine life. It’s one of the best places in the country. To me, this is probably one of the best places in the entire country. Try not to miss it!
Sitting at an elevation of 1,670m, 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 for the last seven years). Fun fact: I got lost in the jungle around here.
The area has tons of wonderful activities: there’s awesome waterfall (La Fortuna), the national park with great hiking, sunset views over the lake, caving, rafting options, and famous hot springs. With so much to do, it’s no wonder it’s one of the most visited places in the country.
READ MORE: How to visit and explore Arenal
6. 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 great 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 $16 USD per person, though kids under 12 enter for free.
READ MORE: What to see and do in Manuel Antonio
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. 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. Witness it all on a zip-line adventure through the tree canopy or explore some of the sky bridges in the area. Expect to pay around $50 USD per person for zip-lining.
READ MORE: What to see and do in Monteverde
8. Poas Volcano
A great day trip from San José, Poas Volcano is an active stratovolcano with twin calderas filled with sulfur lakes. The lakes are so still, you’ll look at your picture and think you painted the color on. The volcanos last erupted in 2017, and have actually erupted 40 times since 1828! There are some small trails around the area too. Arrive early in the morning to avoid the clouds closing in and ruining the view.
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.
While everything in Costa Rica is a bit touristy and a wee bit crowded, I think the diversity of wildlife, natural beauty, white-sand beaches, amazing sunsets, and warm, clear water make it worth the price. There’s still so many unexplored and unvisted part of the country. Plus, the locals here are super nice and welcoming.
Be sure to visit Costa Rica – and use this list to start your planning!
Book Your Trip to Costa Rica: Logistical Tips and Tricks
Book Your Flight
Find a cheap flight by using Skyscanner or Momondo. They are my two favorite search engines because they search websites and airlines around the globe so you always know no stone is left unturned.
Book Your Accommodation
To find the best budget accommodation, use Booking.com as they consistently return the cheapest rates for guesthouses and cheap hotels. You can book your hostel with Hostelworld as they have the most comprehensive inventory. Some of my favorite places to stay in Costa Rica:
- Arenal Backpackers Resort – This is a luxurious, laid-back hsotel with a pool that’s great for hanging out and meeting people.
- Rocking J’s (Puerto Viejo) – The coolest hostel in all the country. This hostel located on the beach is the prime spot to meet other backpackers.
- Hostel Vista Serena (Manuel Antonio) – With great ammenities, staff, and a pime location, it’s the best place in the area.
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. I’ve been using World Nomads for ten years. My favorite companies that offer the best service and value are:
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 travel – and I think will help you too!
Want More Information on Costa Rica?
Be sure to visit our robust destination guide on Costa Rica for even more planning tips!