Once ruled by Spanish conquistadors in the 1500s, Costa Rica today evokes thoughts of lush, emerald rainforests, lofty, mist-capped mountains, and a bounty of some of the earth’s rarest and most fascinating wildlife. Travel from plunging river valleys to some of Central America’s most beautiful beaches to the cool-weather mountains in a matter of hours, creating an array of options across a swath of biologically diverse landscapes. From charming, colorful towns to volcanic landscapes and grounds scattered with nesting turtles, Costa Rica will rattle your senses in the most enchanting way.
9. Jaguar Rescue Center Foundation
Visiting the Jaguar Rescue Center Foundation in Puerto Viejo de Talamanca is an essential experience for anyone wanting to support the basic foundation of eco-tourism. Offering wildlife rescue services and a center, visitors can explore the trusted facility knowing animals aren’t used as entertainment but as an educational tool while being properly cared for and released back into the wild. Dedicated to the rehabilitation of orphaned, mistreated, confiscated and injured animals with the sole mission to rehabilitate and return animals to their natural habitats, the husband and wife duo who founded the center were moved to open it after receiving an infant jaguar whose mother was believed to have killed two goats on a local farm and was killed. Meet jaguars, ocelots, sloths, howler monkey, exotic birds, and many other native wildlife recuperating at the center.
8. Santa Elena and Monteverde
Smack dab in the center of two magnificent cloud forest reserves are the bordering towns of Santa Elena and Monteverde, front-runners in Costa Rica’s still-growing eco-tourism movement and an area attracting all backgrounds and social statuses, from wealthy retirees to low-budget hippies. There’s a fine balance here between the growing industry and natural backdrop yet a visit is still well worth the time. Approaching from main highway, most reach Santa Elena first, a flourishing town filled with attractions, restaurants, and low-cost hotels. On the west side, head down the dramatic stretch of (and heavily pot-holed) road toward Monterverde Reserva but not before exploring Cerro Plano neighborhood with its enchanting shops–Santa Elena is the preferred base from which to explore both cloud forests. Within the reserves, explore lush, virgin forests, see endangered birds, ride horseback, and absorb resplendent views from the continental divide.
7. Arenal Volcano National Park
This once-active volcano is still the centerpiece of Arenal Volcano National Park and a spectacular sight best viewed from one of the interior lodges offering viewing points from lofty terraces and decks. Though spewing hot lava no longer puts on the dramatic and glowing nighttime shows tourists saw more than six years ago, it’s still exciting to hear the low, deep rumblings and puffs of steamy smoke heaved out from the top–and one never knows when those natural volcanic performances restart and once again wow onlookers with avalanches of flaming rocks and fiery lava eruptions. Today, the conical site, reaching up into the sky, is most stunning at dawn or dusk when vibrant skies surround the peak. There’s no chance for boredom here: attractions include hiking, tubing and river rafting, natural hot springs, La Fortuna Waterfall, Lake Arenal, and Venado Caves–and that’s just the beginning.
6. Cabo Matapalo
Cabo Matapalo is another gateway into Costa Rica’s incredible mountains, coasts, rainforests, reserves, and other dramatic landscapes. Set in the south on the Osa Peninsula, Cabo Matapalo offers access to less-visited but equally beautiful outdoor sites including Golfo Dulce, Corcovado National Park, and Isla del Cano. Without prior knowledge of the town, it’s almost impossible to know it exists in its jungle-clad setting but for anyone seeking obscure locations for abounding natural treasures, Cabo Matapalo is the ticket. Less than 20 kilometers from Puerto Jimenez, the route to Matapalo isn’t entirely easy but what you’ll find is intrepid surfers and the surrounding lush, forested location where several clandestine luxury lodges are the only places to find amenities. Hundreds of kilometers of immaculate beaches and untouched wilderness unfold into an Eden for Costa Rica’s wildlife including a wealth of birds, wild cats, agouti, and an endless array of primates.
5. Tortuguero National Park
Unmatched in beauty, the elaborate, narrow plexus of canals winding through coastal wetlands and unspoiled jungle are highlights of Tortuguero National Park, located on the North Caribbean coast. Paddling this extensive and shrouded watercourse chain by canoe or kayak can lead to phenomenal wildlife sightings–it’s the best way to explore the park and its hidden treasures. Green Sea Turtles are the area’s biggest attractions, hence the name Tortuguero, meaning Land of Turtles. Hawksbill and Green Sea turtles nest along the park’s beaches between July through October with their peak nesting period in August, while Leatherbacks nest between February and April –even still, individual turtles are spotted all year round. Along the main beach, the noted trail offers views of nesting turtles but a paddle through is also highly recommended to see a host of other species including Howler and Spider monkeys, endangered Manatees, Capuchin Monkeys, and dozens of rare birds.
4. White Water Rafting
Costa Rica’s Central Valley is home to Turrialba, a town that doesn’t stand out in any way on a map but those in the know herald it for the incredible white water rafting opportunities it affords–in fact, incredible is an understatement. If you attempt to hit the white-capped rivers of Reventazón and Rios Pacuare be prepared to be white-knuckling it if you don’t have much experience paddling such intense rivers–nature intended this backdrop exactly for adrenaline junkies. Turrialba is the base camp for white water rafting and is conveniently just 50 kilometers from San Jose, the capital city, but the river is not the only benefit of visiting. Guayabo, a small collection of pre-Columbia ruins, is explored easily from town, which itself is really charming. Turrialba Volcano can be explored directly from town–climb to the top and enjoy views of Barva, Irazu, and Pos volcanoes in the distance.
Montezuma is an incurably laid back, bohemian town perched at the extremity of Peninsula de Nicoya. It’s one of the most dangerous places to visit in Costa Rica, for once you settle into the sand, sun, and sea, the rest of your travel plans can inexplicably disappear into oblivion while immediate bliss erases everything but the moment you’re in. Montezuma wins over most of the people who visit, urging the abandonment of vehicles and swiftly encouraging a surf, swim, or stroll just so as not to step foot away from it. Balmy temperatures and feral ocean are sidelong a resounding jungle backdrop, where unyielding waves crash into craggy waterfront, playing nature’s harmony and spinning irresistible charm. A global village resides here, even if just temporarily, infected by Montezuma’s beach culture via yoga classes, veg-friendly dining, volunteer organizations, and plenty of music–most especially the beguiling rhythm of the ocean.
2. La Fortuna Waterfall
In the Northern Lowlands region of Cost Rica just six kilometers outside of La Fortuna town, is one of the most striking waterfalls in the country and one of Costa Rica’s best water-based attractions. Nestled into the base of Chato, an old, dormant volcano, La Fortuna waterfall is a dreamy place to explore, relax, and swim alongside a backdrop of dense, musical rainforest–the location is one of the most inspiring in the region. Follow a hiking trail for less than half an hour, trekking through ambrosial rainforest until arriving at the almost-300-foot waterfall cascading into a sweeping pool of water perfect for cooling off. The waterfall itself is a great location and perfect place to spend a day but the area offers more to do including a visit and soak in the tabacon hot springs, horseback riding, and traversing several lofty hanging bridges.
1. San Gerardo de Dota
San Gerardo de Dota is in Costa Rica’s south central region, one of the finest areas for hikers and bird watchers. Tucked against soaring Talamanca Mountain Range, this Arcadian town is a rare find, set against a rushing, clarion river, hedged by thick, wooded hills, and deep-seated within a beautiful mountain valley–crisp air and a mountain backdrop bring welcome respite from the country’s steamier areas. Without permanent infrastructure, visiting nearby Parque Nacional Los Quetzales is an independent affair but access to trail heads is fairly simple from town where there are plenty of lodges providing accommodation. Also close by is Savegre basin where bountiful species thrive in high altitudes, drawing birders from around the globe. Within the basin and cool, alpine backdrop, is Quebrada Arroyo, where a 130-foot high suspended bridge hangs gracefully among a backdrop of misty waterfalls in a destination ripe with friendly locals.