When I was 25 years old, on a whim, I decided to quit my job and move to Costa Rica. Over the course of 2 years I went back and forth between Canada and Costa Rica 7 times dodging visa requirements and working short term contracts to bring in extra cash. While absolutely incredible, that was probably the most challenging experience of my life. Which meant it also taught me a lot about myself and the world. Ever since then, Costa Rica has held a special place in my heart.
This year I had a chance to bring Mike back to the community I used to live in. It felt like that last piece of me he didn’t know. After about a week travelling the country, I unexpectedly had this incredible sense of closure. That’s not to say I will never go back but I definitely got what I needed from that trip. It gave me a peace about the choices I have made.
Costa Rica is one of the most amazing destinations for those looking to get outdoors on an adventure. There is something absolutely magical about the mist rising over the jungle clad mountains every morning as the surfers wake up to the sound of monkeys and macaws. The locals travel barefoot through the small beach towns as the cowboys in the mountains travel by horseback from farm to farm.
Often referred to as “the living Eden”, this tiny country lays claim to over 5% of the world’s biodiversity in 12 key ecological zones.
Located South of Nicaragua and North of Panama, Costa Rica has become the business hub of Central America. Walking through the streets of Alejuela it could easily be mistaken for a North American city. Although Costa Rica is no longer “off the beaten path” it hasn’t lost its charm and authenticity. Many of the beach towns are still quite rustic, but it has become a lot easier to get around the country and find beautiful accommodations in the last 20 years.
Below is a list of must do activities when you go to Costa Rica. The beautiful thing is that these activities are widely available so you can focus on a specific region making your trip a bit more relaxing.
1.) Go surfing
The best places to surf in the country are along the Pacific Coast anywhere from Jaco – North. My favourite locations are Montezuma and Santa Teresa.
2.) Hike a volcano
With 6 active, and 61 dormant or extinct volcanoes in the country there is so shortage of stellar hikes that will challenge every level of fitness. Some of the more popular volcanoes to climb are Arenal, Poas, and Tenorio. I recommend heading to the town of Arenal where beginners and intermediate hikers can climb Arenal while more advanced hikers can hit neighboring dormant volcano Cerro Chato.
3.) Swim in a waterfall
Which waterfall you head to will depend which region you have been traveling in but there is also an abundance of gorgeous waterfalls throughout the country.
Bajos Del Toro Waterfall – located near Volcan Poas this waterfall is so powerful that after the 200ft. drop you can’t stand within 40 ft of the base without getting blown over. Visit if you’re staying in San Jose or Alejuela.
Rio Celeste – known for its almost unbelievably crystal blue waters. Visit if you’re staying in Tamarindo or Liberia.
Montezuma Waterfall – this series of 3 waterfalls in a row are smaller than the others at around 50 ft. It requires some water shoes and a sturdy foot to get to the base of this waterfall. You can also hike off the road near the top of the waterfall and use the rope swing into the pool at the top. Visit if you’re staying in Montezuma, Santa Teresa or Malpais.
La Fortuna Waterfall – located in the town of Arenal, this waterfall is well maintained for tourists with steps and paths to direct you down to the falls. Feel free to take a dip in the frigid waters at the bottom. Visit if you are around Volcan Arenal or Monteverde.
4.) Go ziplining
As an eco-tourism hub, Costa Rica attracts the type of traveler who likes to get out and experience nature. Nothing gets you quite as close as flying through the treetops at up to 60km/hr. Ranging from total adrenaline junkie to those who are scared of heights; there is a zipline (or canopy tour as they are commonly called) for everyone in Costa Rica. Almost every single town in the country has their own ziplining. If you’re looking for the longest and fastest visit those in Monteverde Cloud Forest. This is close to Arenal so a great half day trip if you’re staying in that area.
5.) Visit Tortuga Island
My absolute favourite place in Costa Rica is Tortuga Island (or Isla Tortuga). Only a short boat ride from the mainland, this island in the middle of the Gulf de Nicoya offers everything you pictured while watching Gilligan and the Professor wash up on shore; it is idyllic! White sands, crystal blue and green waters, soaring palm trees, tropical fish, this is truly a slide of paradise. Calypso Cruises offer daily catamaran tours to the island and will pick you up from hotels in San Jose, Manuel Antonio, Hermosa/Jaco or Monteverde.
For the more adventurous, I recommend renting a kayak for $14 for 3 hours at Curu Wildlife Refuge. From here it is about an hour paddle to reach the island. On the way we got to kayak under an over-water limestone archway and had manta rays jumping out of the water around our kayak. It was incredible! Not to mention all of the wildlife you see just between your car at the refuge and the waterfront. Rent snorkel gear at the refuge for $5 extra per person and explore the marine life around the islands.
7.) Soak in a hot spring
After a day of hiking there is nothing better than relaxing in hot springs. Due to the many volcanoes around the country, hot springs can be found in most major tourist areas. My favorite are located at The Springs Resort and Spa in Arenal. This stunning resort boasts 19 free-form hot springs, with waterfall features, lagoons and swim up bars. Set in the middle of a rain-forest looking out onto Arenal Volcano, this experience is as relaxing as it gets.
Non-hotel guests can purchase a two-day pass to The Springs for $60USD/person.
Most of the springs in Costa Rica are fed by natural springs by the rivers at the volcano bases. Which means if you’re on a budget, there is usually a “locals” version of the hot springs where you sit in the river bed.
8.) Visit a wildlife reserve
Approximately a quarter of the land in Costa Rica is protected and is teeming with wildlife including animals I didn’t even know existed until I saw them in person! This tiny Latin American country has over 615 wildlife species per 10,000km making it one of the most bio-diverse regions in the world. Regardless of where you stay, with 27 national parks, 58 wildlife refuges, 32 protected zones, 15 wetland areas/mangroves, 11 forest reserves, 8 biological reserves, and 12 conservation regions, you are bound to find incredible wildlife.
Check out govisit Costa Rica for more information on the countries National Parks.
My best wildlife tour yet was with Leo of Rainforest Adventure Lodge in Guapiles. We were using this as a stopover driving to the Caribbean coast but were pleasantly surprised when it turned out to be one of the highlights of our trip. We arrived after hours to find Leo had stayed up and kept dinner out for us. Since we were the only ones staying there, after helping us to our rooms, he offered to take us on a wildlife night tour before bed and then another one at 5am if we were interested. I’m not much of a morning person but how often do you get to go on a private jungle tour in Costa Rica?
Over the course of our tours we saw tapirs (which I didn’t even know existed before then), poison frogs, sloth, monkeys, butterflies and many more interesting creatures. It also turned out to be the 1 night every 7 years that the cicadas hatch!
This lodge is typically a stopover for large tours coming off of cruises so I imagine it gets quite busy during the day but staying overnight was truly an exceptional experience.
Since the lodge is only about an hour and a half from San Jose you could stay overnight here before flying out or for your first night in country. Alternatively it would be on the way to Tortuguero for turtle hatching.
9.) Go canyoning
I love jumping off of high things; bungee jumping, superman swinging, cliff jumping, so this activity was pretty much a dream come true. Since Costa Rica is a hub for thrill seekers, these tours can be found running from all major tourist destinations. However, if you don’t want to be driving for hours to get to your tour we suggest basing yourself out of Monteverde or Arenal for most of these activities. We signed up for the Desafio Gravity Falls Waterfall Jumping Tour for $125USD. We did everything from canyoning down a 100 ft waterfall to jumping off rock faces into rushing white water. This is definitely not a tour for the faint of heart.
10.) Try white water rafting
Costa Rica has 14 major river systems flowing from volcanic mountain regions to the oceans on either side which provide plenty of rapids for rafting tours. Here is a pretty good summary of the best areas to go rafting.
We signed up for a 3 days rafting tour on Paquare River with Rios Tropicales. They are a huge operation sending out dozens of boats on a daily basis. We were disappointed that when we went in July and the water was really low. Even though Paquare is supposed to have several class 4 or 5 rapids, we were rafting mostly on 2s, maybe 1 class 3. Since rainy season in Costa Rica runs June-December, if you want higher rapids you are better off going closer to the end of the year. Secondly, I would not recommend a 3 days tour.
You could easily do a 1 day tour with the ground we covered in 3 days. So if you are on a tight timeline and have things to see, opt in for the single day tour. However, if you have an extra day to spare, you might enjoy staying on the river for the night. Its incredibly relaxing and the rooms are all looking over the river.
I would recommend staying with Paquare Lodge which is quite a luxurious experience on the river compared to the Rios Tropicales Lodge which is more of a camp.
11.) Relax on the beach
With an abundance of long stretches of beachfront, there is lots of space for everyone to “tranquillo” on the playa. There is no better way to live the Pura Vida lifestyle than spending a few hours just taking in the surf, sun and maybe catching a few zzz’s in a hammock on the beach. Some of the best beaches in the country are Manuel Antonio National Park, Isla Tortuga, Santa Theresa, Playa Hermosa, Playa Samara, and Puerto Viejo.
12.) Watch one of Costa Rica’s famous sunsets
Nowhere in the world has sunsets quite like in Costa Rica. Everyone comes out to the beaches for sunset and either surfs, sits out on beach blankets, or sits around a campfire to take it all in. My favorite places to watch sunsets are Santa Theresa or Playa Hermosa (just West of Santa Theresa).
Tell us about your favorite spots in Costa Rica in the comments below 🙂