What are the best things to see and do in Costa Rica?

Michael Bond

Though choosing just a few spots to encapsulate such a large and diverse country as Costa Rica is tough, our Forbes Travel Guide editors have narrowed down their five favorites for the best things to see and do in Costa Rica for first-time visitors.
 
1. Wildlife-spotting at Manuel Antonio National Park. It may be the smallest national park in Costa Rica, but that’s not for lack of things to see and do here. Sloths, iguanas, toucans and three types of monkeys fill the rainforest around the park’s hiking paths, ending in some of the country’s most breathtaking white-sand beaches. A guided tour and a seashore full of monkeys can easily fill a day, with the road from Manuel Antonio to nearby Quepos lined with evening options like fresh seafood, nightlife and ocean-view hotels.
 
2. Hot Springs in La Fortuna. While Arenal Volcano may no longer be spurting lava into the air, it still casts an impressive visage against the Guanacaste sky and continues to heat the natural springs that surround it. Spas and hotels have taken advantage of its geothermal warmth, building outdoor pools to soothe weary travelers — from the five-star elegance of Tabacon to the nightclub atmosphere and poolside bars of Baldi. Horseback riding, hiking, ziplines and hanging bridges offer daytime adventures, with scenic Lake Arenal providing more water-based fun.
 
3. Surfing in Mal Pais. Take a ferry or speedboat to the southern tip of the Nicoya Peninsula and you’ll find a different side of Costa Rica — less developed, less crowded and with an eclectic mix of luxury resorts, surf camps and backpacker hostels lining the rocky dirt roads. Surfers are drawn to Mal Pais for its famous waves and slow pace of life, and there’s a variety of instructional options for beginners and experts alike. Locals will point out movie star mansions and private helipads in the hills, and it’s not hard to see why the area has become a destination for both the rich and not-so-rich — its pristine beaches and quiet seclusion make it seem like a hidden secret.
 
4. Beaches on the South Caribbean. Costa Rica’s Caribbean coast seems at times to be a different world from the rest of the country, with a heavy influence from island immigrants that reveals itself with sweet, spicy foods and an easygoing, ‘rasta’ atmosphere. The funky town of Puerto Viejo serves as the entrance to the coast’s best beaches, and offers a beachfront nightlife tailored to backpackers and reggae fans. The town’s black-sand shorefront may not be too impressive, but heading south, there’s a string of beautiful, easily accessible beaches with crystal-blue waters all the way to the Panama border; Punta Uva, Playa Cocles and Manzanillo stand out as the best.
 
5. Sportfishing around Playa Herradura. The Central Pacific coast is not only a short drive from San Jose, it’s also home to some of the world’s best sportfishing. Sailfish, marlin, roosterfish, tuna and dorado fill the waters off the coast year-round, with charter boats offering a variety of options for hooking the big one. Most dock in Herradura, where the massive Los Suenos Resort and Marina attracts both yachts and inland vacationers, but they can also be found at the tourist spots of Jaco and Quepos (outside of Manuel Antonio). Not surprisingly, these are also some of the best spots for fresh seafood along the coast.

  • On August 16, 2012
    Michael Bond answered the question: Michael Bond

    Should visitors see the Caribbean or Pacific Coast of Costa Rica?

    The Caribbean and Pacific Coasts of Costa Rica each offer fantastic options for eating, lodging and more, but the atmosphere is very different for each, say our Forbes Travel Guide editors. The Caribbean Coast is best suited to the more adventurous, laid-back traveler; a beautiful but at times trying three- to four-hour drive from the airport in San Jose leads you to miles of pristine beaches south of the port city of Limon. Far less developed than the Pacific Coast, it offers visitors a rare chance to come face-to-face with nature in Costa Rica. Puerto Viejo and the areas south offer plenty of fun, surfing, nightlife and reggae-tinged “Pura Vida,” with sleeping options ranging from hammocks to four-star resorts. Share a beer with the backpackers you met surfing that morning and settle in for a relaxed vacation with no need for a watch. The Caribbean tends to be drier when the rest of the country is in its September/October rainy season, but it’s also more isolated — it’s easier to reach Panama’s sights (like Bocas del Toro) than San Jose’s.
     
    Costa Rica’s Pacific Coast offers a more varied range of options. You can reach the water in a little more than an hour’s drive from the airport, and the extensive shoreline offers everything from exclusive private resorts with spas and golf (Tamarindo, Jaco, Manuel Antonio) to small fishing towns offering hostels and cozy bed and breakfasts (Esterillos, Quepos, Montezuma). The roads are better paved and marked, but this isn’t to say that there isn’t nature and adventure to be had — the Pacific Coast boasts half a dozen national parks along its shores. Those looking for high-end lodging and upscale dining will be more than thrilled with their options here, but the overdeveloped beach towns and tourist prices can be a bit much for travelers seeking a more rustic getaway.
  • On August 16, 2012
    Michael Bond answered the question: Michael Bond

    What is the best thing to bring home from Costa Rica?

    One of the best things to bring home from Costa Rica is decorative wood, which comes in many beautiful varieties. You’ll probably find a wide range of options for sale during your trip; the size and quality can vary greatly, but for the very best, our Forbes Travel Guide editors say it’s hard to go wrong with a visit to Biesanz Woodworks. Nestled in the hills of San Antonio de Escazu, their beautiful bowls, humidors and boxes are made from eco-friendly fallen wood that’s collected by Barry Biesanz himself; they’re guaranteed for life against breaking. The workshop offers short but enjoyable tours of their private gardens and artists’ studio, and is a convenient 30-minute drive from San Jose and the airport. Taking a well-crafted bowl back home with you will put you in the esteemed company of four U.S. presidents, Pope John Paul II and the Queen of Spain — not bad for a souvenir.
  • On August 16, 2012
    Michael Bond answered the question: Michael Bond

    What are the best Costa Rica food experiences?

    Costa Ricans like their food straightforward and direct — and once you try their fresh ingredients, you’ll see why. Our Forbes Travel Guide editors’ entire list of the best Costa Rica food experiences features simple pleasures, done right.
     
    1. Batidos/Refrescos Naturales. Order a simple lunch and it’s all but assumed that you also want a Batido, or Refresco — the Costa Rican term for freshly squeezed fruit juice. It’s a testament to the abundance of fresh fruit here that the same raw juice that you splurge for at the gym or Whole Foods is cheaper than soda, not to mention more healthy. It’s hard to go wrong with sandia (watermelon) or piña (pineapple), but be sure to also try some of the flavors you can’t get back home: tamarindo, guanabana and maracuya.
     
    2. Chifrijo. Costa Ricans often joke that they’ll eat anything, as long as it’s rice and beans, but the existence of the chifrijo makes us wonder why they eat anything else. A portmanteau of chicharrones (fried pork belly), frijoles (beans) and arroz (rice), this bowl of hearty goodness is usually topped with pico de gallo salsa and sometimes another scoop of vigorones (fried pork rinds) to boot, with tortilla chips for scooping it all out. The mixture works perfectly, and while fairs and outdoor events are your best bet to catch a bowl in the wild, you can also find it served at roadside stands or as an appetizer in casual restaurants.
     
    3. Fresh fish. The Central Pacific’s abundance of sportfishing, especially near the port town of Quepos, makes it the perfect spot to enjoy fresh-caught fish. The best restaurants serve it direct from that morning’s catch, whether it be red snapper (fried or grilled whole), mahi mahi, corvina or our favorite, fresh tuna. For those accustomed to their tuna coming from round cans or the freezer section, a fresh tuna steak, seared rare, is a near-religious experience. Sushi lovers should do their best to track it down as sashimi, as you’re not likely to find it better, fresher or cheaper anywhere else.
     
    4. Gallo Pinto. Again, we’re back to rice and beans — but this time, as the traditional breakfast of Costa Rica, gallo pinto. Spanish for “spotted rooster,” every family and restaurant has their own specific take on this mix of black beans, white rice and Lizano sauce, a sweet cumin condiment found on nearly every table in the country. Adorned with an over-easy egg or sweet fried plantains, you’ll be surprised at how quickly you’ll take to this most tipico dish.
     
    5. Coffee. If you’re like most, your very first exposure to Costa Rica’s culinary culture has been while standing in line at Starbucks; coffee is still the country’s main export, and its dark green bushes cover much of the country’s landscape. As the demand for high-quality java has increased in recent years, the country has become famous for its gourmet beans, with a focus on organic and single-origin blends. While simply buying a local bag from the market may impress casual drinkers, real coffee connoisseurs will want to catch one of the country’s many coffee tours — from the Central Valley’s Doka Estate to Finca Christina, on the slopes of Irazú Volcano.
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  • On August 16, 2012
    Michael Bond answered the question: Michael Bond

    Where is the best nightlife in Costa Rica?

    Nightlife in Costa Rica means dancing, with salsa and reggaeton clubs that look empty before midnight, but then fill up with young locals sweating until the break of dawn. San Jose has its own scene, centering around El Pueblo, a massive complex with more than a dozen clubs, and San Pedro, the University of Costa Rica’s suburban home, but travelers may find the larger coastal towns more their pace. Jacó and Tamarindo are both (in)famous for their party atmosphere and bar-lined beachfronts, and it’s easy to follow the line of taxis to the hotspots at night. Unfortunately, the influx of tourists has also made them home to a seedier element — if the ladies getting out of those taxis look like a casting call for Pretty Woman, it’s best to move on to the next spot. The backpacker havens of Puerto Viejo, Dominical and Montezuma all offer a more relaxed take on beachfront nightlife, with a younger crowd and chilled-out reggae as the soundtrack.
  • On August 16, 2012
    Michael Bond answered the question: Michael Bond

    What is the best way to see Costa Rica?

    For visitors to Costa Rica with little time to waste, Forbes Travel Guide’s editors recommend getting out of San Jose for a day trip to Irazú Volcano. Just a scenic hour’s drive outside of the capital, Irazú’s lagoon-filled crater is easily accessible by car and, on a clear day, you can see both the Atlantic and Pacific oceans from its peak.
     
    If you’ve got more time in Costa Rica, head the other way, toward the Central Pacific coast. Some of the country’s best beaches are hidden away at resorts less than an hour and a half from the airport — check out Villa Caletas and Punta Leona for the absolute quickest routes from seat to sand.
  • On August 16, 2012
    Michael Bond answered the question: Michael Bond

    Where is the best shopping in Costa Rica?

    While Costa Rica isn’t an international destination for high fashion, what you will find in here is shopping that runs the gamut — you can buy ornamental gourds and handmade chocolate direct from the indigenous Bribri tribe in the morning, while browsing Carolina Herrera at the Multiplaza Mall that afternoon. Somewhere in the middle lies the small town of Sarchí, Costa Rica’s most famous crafts center. Well-known for its long history of producing quality wood furniture and leather goods, the tiny burg is bursting with more than 200 family-operated stores. The most colorful of the bunch is the Joaquin Chaverri Oxcart Factory, built in 1902, and the birthplace of oxcart painting in Costa Rica. Their elaborate style of painting “carretas” has become a Costa Rican symbol, and the factory store offers a wide range of souvenirs, as well as the chance to see the artisans at work.
  • On August 16, 2012
    Michael Bond answered the question: Michael Bond

    What are the best things to do with kids in Costa Rica?

    If your children are into wildlife, they’re going to be easy to please in Costa Rica — and it’s easy to get back in touch with your own sense of child-like wonder in a land of volcanoes, jungles and giant lizards. Here are some of Forbes Travel Guide’s editors’ picks for kids both young and old.
     
    1. The Sloth Sanctuary of Costa Rica. On the Caribbean Coast, a small family-run wildlife reserve north of Cahuita National Park began gaining a reputation as a place where locals could bring injured animals. However, their lives were changed when a crippled sloth was dropped at their door; they quickly fell in love with the slow-moving tree-dwellers. Now the sanctuary focuses almost entirely on the health of injured or orphaned sloths, and opens its doors daily to visitors who want to meet the friendly mammals up close. Best of all is their adorable cast of baby sloths — try and get there in the late morning to see them at their lunchtime best.
     
    2. La Paz Waterfall Gardens. In the foothills of the Poas volcano, and only an hour from the airport, La Paz (as well as its luxury boutique hotel, the Peace Lodge) offers a more straightforward take on Costa Rican flora and fauna, built around a series of five waterfalls and surrounded by pristine cloud forest. The zoo-like setup and short, paved trails can be a shock to those used to the wildlife in Costa Rica being a little more untamed, but it also means kids are guaranteed to see animals rarely glimpsed outside a cage, like jaguars, ocelots and marmosets.
     
    3. The “Crocodile Bridge” at Tarcoles. For parents looking for a break on the road from San Jose to the Central Pacific beaches, the sight of a bridge covered with tourists looking downward is their lucky break. In the water beneath, there’s almost always dozens of crocodiles swimming and sunning themselves in the Tarcoles river — a free, fun glimpse into the wilderness surrounding you. Nearby stands offer refreshing coconuts with straws to drink their water (“pipa fria”), as well as fresh fruit and assorted snacks.
     
    4. Ziplining at Los Sueños. Ziplining is big business in Costa Rica, with nearly every tourist destination offering some sort of dash through the treetops to thrill-seeking visitors. Vista Los Sueños (north of Jaco) is not only one of the biggest and best, but also offers guided rides to children as young as four. The fifteen-platform zip through transitional rainforest is not only an exhilarating ride, but also a great way to see the canopy and ocean from a different angle.
     
    5. Sabana Park. San Jose may not have a lot to offer the younger set, but Sabana Park, on the city’s western side, is a prime exception. The enormous park, built over what used to be the city’s airport, is a favorite among locals looking to run or skate on its outdoor tracks or just grab lunch in the shade of its colorful eucalyptus forest. Kids are sure to enjoy the climbable dinosaur bone sculpture jutting out into the park’s artificial lake, as well as the pony rides trotting along the perimeter. Overhead, the Urban Canopy Tour runs an eight-cable zipline through the treetops, while vendors on the ground sell fresh fruit juice and granizados, a fruity snow cone made with sweetened condensed milk. Make sure to visit the park’s dual museums of Contemporary Art and Natural Sciences and, if you’re lucky, the new National Stadium (located on Sabana’s western edge) — the true center of culture for most Costa Ricans — will be hosting a soccer game.
  • On August 16, 2012
    Michael Bond answered the question: Michael Bond

    What are the best things to see and do in Costa Rica?

    Though choosing just a few spots to encapsulate such a large and diverse country as Costa Rica is tough, our Forbes Travel Guide editors have narrowed down their five favorites for the best things to see and do in Costa Rica for first-time visitors.
     
    1. Wildlife-spotting at Manuel Antonio National Park. It may be the smallest national park in Costa Rica, but that’s not for lack of things to see and do here. Sloths, iguanas, toucans and three types of monkeys fill the rainforest around the park’s hiking paths, ending in some of the country’s most breathtaking white-sand beaches. A guided tour and a seashore full of monkeys can easily fill a day, with the road from Manuel Antonio to nearby Quepos lined with evening options like fresh seafood, nightlife and ocean-view hotels.
     
    2. Hot Springs in La Fortuna. While Arenal Volcano may no longer be spurting lava into the air, it still casts an impressive visage against the Guanacaste sky and continues to heat the natural springs that surround it. Spas and hotels have taken advantage of its geothermal warmth, building outdoor pools to soothe weary travelers — from the five-star elegance of Tabacon to the nightclub atmosphere and poolside bars of Baldi. Horseback riding, hiking, ziplines and hanging bridges offer daytime adventures, with scenic Lake Arenal providing more water-based fun.
     
    3. Surfing in Mal Pais. Take a ferry or speedboat to the southern tip of the Nicoya Peninsula and you’ll find a different side of Costa Rica — less developed, less crowded and with an eclectic mix of luxury resorts, surf camps and backpacker hostels lining the rocky dirt roads. Surfers are drawn to Mal Pais for its famous waves and slow pace of life, and there’s a variety of instructional options for beginners and experts alike. Locals will point out movie star mansions and private helipads in the hills, and it’s not hard to see why the area has become a destination for both the rich and not-so-rich — its pristine beaches and quiet seclusion make it seem like a hidden secret.
     
    4. Beaches on the South Caribbean. Costa Rica’s Caribbean coast seems at times to be a different world from the rest of the country, with a heavy influence from island immigrants that reveals itself with sweet, spicy foods and an easygoing, ‘rasta’ atmosphere. The funky town of Puerto Viejo serves as the entrance to the coast’s best beaches, and offers a beachfront nightlife tailored to backpackers and reggae fans. The town’s black-sand shorefront may not be too impressive, but heading south, there’s a string of beautiful, easily accessible beaches with crystal-blue waters all the way to the Panama border; Punta Uva, Playa Cocles and Manzanillo stand out as the best.
     
    5. Sportfishing around Playa Herradura. The Central Pacific coast is not only a short drive from San Jose, it’s also home to some of the world’s best sportfishing. Sailfish, marlin, roosterfish, tuna and dorado fill the waters off the coast year-round, with charter boats offering a variety of options for hooking the big one. Most dock in Herradura, where the massive Los Suenos Resort and Marina attracts both yachts and inland vacationers, but they can also be found at the tourist spots of Jaco and Quepos (outside of Manuel Antonio). Not surprisingly, these are also some of the best spots for fresh seafood along the coast.
  • On July 24, 2012
    Forbes Travel Guide Inspector answered the question: Forbes Travel Guide Inspector

    What are the best places to eat in Costa Rica?

    Costa Rica may lack the distinctive cuisine of a Mexico or Peru, but it makes up for it with ingredients — it’s difficult to improve on grilled mahi mahi or a ripe mango right off the tree. A steady flow of transplants from around the world have picked up the slack and taken these fresh ingredients to exciting new places (without forgetting the ubiquitous beans and rice). Here are five of Forbes Travel Guide’s editors’ favorite places to eat in Costa Rica.
     
    1. Restaurante Colbert. Authentic French cuisine may be one of the last things you expect to find in the foothills of a Central American volcano, but Restaurante Colbert is a welcome surprise. It’s probably the only place in Costa Rica where you’ll be greeted at your table by an actual French chef (owner Joël Suire), and it’s easy to make a wonderful lunch out of no more than their fresh bread, paté and preserves, all made by hand in their kitchen. Add in a bottle of wine and some mousse for dessert and it’s a perfect post-crater feast.
     
    2. The Falls Garden Café. Manuel Antonio offers some of the best dining in the country, with its close proximity to the fishing town of Quepos bringing in fresh seafood each morning. While it’s hard to go wrong with the fresh tuna at nearly any restaurant along the road to the park, The Falls has continually impressed us every time we’ve dined there. Located in the front of the resort that shares its name, its open atmosphere is elegant enough for date night, but still maintains a certain beach town charm. Their fusion menu blends Thai, Caribbean and European flavors without forgetting to put fresh Costa Rican ingredients at the forefront — especially the fish.
     
    3. Plaza España. The affluent canton of Escazú spreads up the mountains southwest of San Jose, and contains a disproportionate amount of the Central Valley’s best dining, from the tipico Casona de Laly to the wood-fired pizza at Bar Cerro’s. However, our favorite is a small tapas restaurant on the outskirts of San Antonio, a small town famous for its yearly oxcart festival. Located in a renovated house with a sweeping view of the central valley, Plaza España boasts a fantastic menu of Spanish favorites in small-plate and entrée portions. Call ahead for their fantastic paella, or just show up and debate what to dip your bread into first — their creamy gazpacho or sizzling garlic sautéed shrimp.
     
    4. Maxi’s. The nature of Costa Rican food changes the closer you get to its Caribbean coast — the spices get stronger, the flavors bolder and sweet coconut milk begins to appear in everything, even the classic rice and beans. The area’s large amount of Jamaican immigrants gives the Limon province its own unique cuisine, and Maxi’s is the best place around to sample its island zest. Located in the center of the small beachfront town of Manzanillo, Maxi’s is literally the end of the road — try and go any further south, and you’ll end up in the forest surrounding the Panamanian border. Here the dining is deeply casual, with a menu to match its ocean view: lobster, red snapper (grilled or fried whole) and on weekends, ‘Rondon’ — a rich seafood stew made with coconut milk and a mix of starchy vegetables. The portions are huge, but be sure to save room for their coconut flan at the end.
     
    5. Mercado Central. At the heart of authentic Costa Rican food is the soda — the small homestyle restaurants, often staffed by one person, that can be found on nearly every street corner. Menus are the exception, rather than the rule, with many simply serving one specific dish a day, but nearly all offer some variation on the casado, a ‘marriage’ of rice, beans, meat, plantains and salad. Everyone has an opinion on which soda to visit for the best casado, but for the adventurous tourist, it’s best to head to the source. Mercado Central, in the heart of San Jose, is a sprawling, dense maze of vendors hawking spices, souvenirs, fresh fish and more over an entire city block. It’s been active since the 1800s, and inside you’ll also find a huge selection of sodas among the market’s clamor, all competing for your lunchtime business. Start with something simple, like arroz con pollo (chicken with rice), or just dive straight into the olla de lengua (beef tongue stew) if you’re feeling particularly bold — it doesn’t get much more authentic than eating meat next to peddlers selling it by the kilo.
  • On July 24, 2012
    Forbes Travel Guide Inspector answered the question: Forbes Travel Guide Inspector

    What are the best places to stay in Costa Rica?

    Finding a place to stay in Costa Rica can be a daunting task, but it’s not for lack of options — it’s not uncommon to find $300-a-night luxury resorts down the street from hostels offering hammocks to rent for $5, with every imaginable option in between. You get what you pay for is a good rule of thumb, but Forbes Travel Guide’s editors have chosen five places to stay that give extraordinary value for their price.
     
    1. Four Seasons Resort Costa Rica. Located in the resort development of Papagayo on Costa Rica’s west coast, this full-service resort manages to deliver something for almost every kind of traveler, from serious golfers (there’s an Arnold Palmer-designed course) to spa-lovers, families to honeymooners. Spy monkeys in the trees surrounding this lodge-like resort, or take part in one of the many complimentary activities, like sea kayaking and guided hikes.
     
    2. Hotel Belmar. High in the mountains around Monteverde Cloud Forest lies this rustic hotel, one of the first to bring tourism to Monteverde. The area has since become a destination for peace-seeking hikers and nature lovers drawn to its unique high-altitude climate. The hotel’s recent renovations have earned it the highest sustainability distinction possible in Costa Rica, paying tribute to its long history of preserving and conserving the cloud forest’s natural environment.
     
    3. Silencio del Campo. This collection of free-standing cabinas in the shadow of Arenal Volcano is our favorite in the area. Its on-ground hot springs may not be as large as Baldi’s (across the street), but they’re free with your stay and only footsteps away — not to mention less crowded and with reasonably priced poolside drinks. Best of all is the complimentary breakfast, which offers variations on the Costa Rican classic of ‘gallo pinto’ that are better than you can find in town for any price — all while sitting next to the hotel’s friendly pet parrot.
     
    4. Posada El Quijote. Evening flights to San Jose mean a lot of travelers scramble to find a hotel near the airport before heading to the beach, and usually they find themselves in one of the chain hotels lining the road outside Alajuela. Escazú, a prosperous suburb southwest of San Jose, offers another option in the hills overlooking the Central Valley. The higher you go, the better the views, but our favorite is Posada El Quijote, a bed and breakfast in between the hustle and bustle of the capital and the quiet countryside in the mountains that surround it. Built in a Spanish colonial style and a mere 20 minutes from the airport, the inn offers spacious rooms surrounded by the best dining and shopping options for miles.
     
    5. Villas Oasis. The road from Quepos to the Manuel Antonio Park is hotel after hotel, with roads leading back to a wide selection of vacation homes in the surrounding jungle — but our favorite place to stay combines the best parts of both. Villas Oasis bridges the gap between rental house and boutique hotel, with three suites that sleep anywhere from two to 14, as well as an onsite concierge available to take care of your every need. Its lush gardens makes it feel secluded even though it’s within walking distance to some of the area’s best restaurants, while well-stocked kitchens in each suite mean you can skip going out and simply grill the fresh fish you caught earlier. All this and a beautiful pool make it the perfect place for larger groups and families, or those looking for a more personal touch than a hotel or house rental.