There are eight million blogs and articles out there sharing their endless Costa Rica recommendations, and if (ahem – when) you go, you’ll definitely want to do your research. But to make things simple for you, I’ve shared my top three highlights – the three stops (and what to do when you get there) that’ll give you a taste of all that diverse Costa Rica magic that’s been stealing tourists’ hearts since the beginning of time.
I’ve never known a person who didn’t light up when reminiscing about his or her travels to Costa Rica. In fact, I know plenty of people who dream of abandoning their professional lives to spend the rest of their days in that tropical country, people whose lives have been shaped by it, people who have found their spouses there, and people whose short-term vacations turned into long-term relocations after quitting corporate America from afar and finding a job at a sandwich shop on the beach. Costa Rica has a magic to it – in the air, in the oceans, in the people – that seems to infect every single foreign soul that steps inside its borders.
What struck me on my not-quite-week-long whirlwind road trip (with the kind of auspicious start that only precedes the best of adventures), was how diverse every new location was, yet how each place felt so distinctly “Costa Rica.” From the jungle-submerged rivers of the Cordillera de Talamanca, to the foggy rainforest-covered mountains of the Monteverde Cloud Forest to the white sand beaches scattered along the coasts, each facet of tropical scenery could itself entertain an adventurous soul for weeks. You’ll have the fortune of getting it all in one trip: the adventure, the relaxation, and the beauty, all served with a side of flavor-packed beans and rice.
Below are my top three Costa Rica highlights.
White Water Rafting at Pacuare River
For one of the very best days of my entire trip, I give full credit to my San Jose Airbnb host who rather assertively talked me out of a volcano day trip to make room for a rafting excursion with Rios Tropicales. The company will pick you up from and return you to San Jose after a rafting trip that will put all other rafting trips to shame, ranging from one to six days long. If time permits, I’d encourage you to stay for at least two days, giving yourself a night in their riverside eco-lodge and two days of Class III-IV adrenaline-pumping rafting on one of the top rivers in the world, all while submerged in thick green tropical rainforest. The rapids are exceptional, the monkeys and other wildlife are aplenty, the food will certainly not disappoint, and there’s no shortage of non-rafting activities that can fill your free time: rain forest hikes, zip-lining, waterfall rappelling, bird-watching . . . you name it. Whether you’re a rafting veteran or a nervous first-timer, I feel confident that this will end up being one of the highlights of your Costa Rica experience.
Monteverde Cloud Forest
Driving up into the clouds covering Monteverde is a pretty breathtaking experience. You may even feel like you’re driving into a sci-fi fantasy world, made even more elusive by the rocky unpaved roadways requiring lots of dedication as well as a hefty 4-wheel drive vehicle (for the love of God PLEASE GET A 4-WHEEL DRIVE VEHICLE). Once you’re in the clouds, I promise you won’t want to leave, which is fine because there’s a world of adventure up there waiting for you.
First things first, go zip-lining on the longest zip-ling tour in Costa Rica with 15 hair-whipping segments and a Tarzan swing that’ll propel you over a vast rainforest clearing as you scream your face off. While there, spend an hour or two walking around the canopy and searching for wildlife above a rushing creek on the forest floor below. Next, get caffeinated at a nearby coffee plantation, where the drink has rich chocolaty undertones and is served with a side of charming Costa Rica pride that looks down on the inferior beans from all other coffee-producing countries. I’d recommend Don Juan’s, where you’ll also get your fill of coffee liqueur, sugar cane, and some of the best chocolate I’ve personally ever tasted. For some authentic, mouthwatering Costa Rican cuisine, visit Soda la Amistad where you may be the only tourist (my recommendation is the melt-in-your-mouth casado con carne en salsa). Fall asleep to the eerie sound of howler monkeys echoing through the almost mythic fog and you’ll understand quickly why this is one of my all-time favorite places on the face of the planet.
Okay, there are about a million beaches you can choose to visit along either of Costa Rica’s coasts, and there are lots of strong loyalties out there regarding which ones are the best. If you have time, go visit every single one and then go visit them a second time. If you don’t, Playa Tamarindo is a pretty great one on which to land. Located in the northwestern Guanacaste region, Tamarindo may be infiltrated with tourism but it’s not so without very good reason: the warm Pacific Ocean waters, vast clean white sandy beaches, and the most beautiful sunsets you’ll ever see in real life. Plus, you’ll have access to plenty of fresh seafood and other more secluded beaches like Playa Flamingo and Playa Conchal if you feel the need to ditch the tourist crowds. Although there are tons of places to stay while there, I was grateful to have randomly pulled my car into the beachfront Tamarindo Diria where the rooms come with the most luxurious outdoor breakfast buffet, the poolside cocktails are made with fresh tropical fruit, and the pools are overrun with four-foot long iguanas and the occasional monkey. They’ll also help you set up surf lessons and snorkeling, kayaking, and scuba diving trips if you happen to be the more active kind of beach-goer.
No matter where you go and what you see while in Costa Rica, there’s about a 98% chance that you’ll leave wishing you could see more and do more. Hopefully these three recommendations will make planning your Costa Rica adventures a bit easier, and will give you a solid foundation on which to see all the diverse ecology and activity this truly unique country has to offer.