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

Answers from Our Experts (1)

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.

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