Things to see and do in Costa Rica
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Attractions in Costa Rica
Climb up to the treetops in Santa Elena
This little town right next to Monteverde Cloud Forest is a good base for a host of popular forest-based activities. One of the best is canopy walking, moving through the cloud forest on a series of rope bridges and platforms high above the ground, coming face to face with the wildlife and being rewarded with great 360° views.
Discover San Jose’s cultural treats
Costa Rica's capital has some treats to be discovered within its chaotic sprawl. Its Mercado Central is excellent, with some of the city's best restaurants nearby. Top of any visitor's architectural bucket list are the Teatro Nacional, the Legislative Assembly building and the Catedral Metropolitana, while the country's best museums are the National Museum and the Museum of Pre-Columbian Gold.
Escape to the empty beaches of the Osa Peninsula
Hard to reach by land, but worth it: the Osa Peninsula is reckoned to be one of the most beautiful places in Costa Rica, containing over half of its species of wildlife. The region's main attraction is Corcovado National Park: one of the most biologically diverse places on Earth, with miles of empty sandy beaches backed by dense tropical rainforest.
Get your head in the clouds in Monteverde
Straddling the Continental Divide, the vast Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve has its head – and feet – in the clouds. The constant humidity provides a home to an amazing array of wildlife. Trails, canopy walkways and a 91m (300ft) suspension bridge enable visitors to observe the fascinating flora and fauna from up close.
Go whale watching in Drake Bay
Down in the remote Osa Peninsula is Drake Bay, the best place in Costa Rica for whale watching, with the longest humpback whale season in the world. From August through to March, humpback whales migrate from both the north and south through Drake Bay, along with bottlenose and spotted dolphins. Most boat tours leave from the riverside town of Sierpe.
Go windsurfing on Lake Arenal
Whizz across the waters of Lake Arenal, one of the world's top windsurfing and kitesurfing spots. Situated at 5,580ft (1,700m) above sea level in northwestern Costa Rica, the lake offers its best windsurfing between April and December. Clustered around the lake's western shore are various agencies, where you can hire equipment and take courses.
Learn about Costa Rica’s indigenous roots
The Centro Neotrópico Sarapiquí is a superb museum, in the Northern Lowlands, dedicated to Costa Rica's neglected indigenous cultures. The museum collection includes pre-Colombian ceramics, weapons, clothing and other artefacts. The site also has an excellent eco-lodge and visitors can also explore the surrounding rainforest, with trips to the nearby river and waterfalls.
Mooch around in Montezuma
One of the southern Nicoya Peninsula's most bohemian but isolated areas, Montezuma is a minor mission to get to, but once you're here you might not want to leave. The beaches are glorious and excellent for surfing – careful of the current – and the hippy expat population gives the place a laidback vibe.
Paddle through the canals of Tortuguero National Park
The best way to explore Tortuguero National Park's is by boat through its canals and lagoons, so you can admire the rainforest quietly and up close to its resident wildlife. The multi-level forest ecosystem is easily identified from the waterways, and a guide can explain the ecology of each level and the various species, including sloths and monkeys.
Plunge into the white water
Costa Rica has some thrillingly turbulent rivers, where white-water rafters take the plunge through the rapids. Two of the country's best rivers for rafting are the Reventazón (class III) and Pacuare (class IV), with operators based at nearby Turrialba. The best times to go are from June to October, during the wet season, but with gentler conditions throughout the year.
Search for the sacred Quetzal
With its iridescent plumage and graceful tail feathers, the quetzal is the Holy Grail of Costa Rica's tropical birds, and considered the most beautiful bird in the Neotropics. The most popular place to see them is in the green haven of the Monteverde Biological Cloud Preserve, where nature guides lead tours to their feeding sites.
Take a cruise to Isla Tortuga
Boat trips to offshore islands offer a relaxing adventure for anyone in search of a tropical paradise. One of the best is the Calypso catamaran to Isla Tortuga, with day excursions from Puntarenas. This gorgeous island is rimmed with palm-shaded white sands shelving into turquoise waters, good for snorkelling and other watersports, with a beach barbecue to round out your day.
Take a twilight turtle tour
Costa Rica's Caribbean and Pacific shores are popular sites for marine turtles to lay their eggs in the soft sands. Guided tours take visitors out at night to witness hawksbill, green, loggerhead, Ridley and leatherback turtles, performing the ritual. Tortuguero National Park is one of the best places to go turtle spotting, with eggs laid from March to October, and hatchlings emerging up till November.
Trek up lofty Chirripó
Cerro Chirripó is the country's highest peak, some 3,820m (12,330ft) above sea level, with trails accessible to hardy walkers. All you need is stamina and the proper hiking gear, plus advance reservation through the national park office. After a night in a lodge near the summit, set off before dawn to reach the summit before the clouds close in.
Visit coffee plantations
One of Costa Rica's main exports is coffee and many plantations offer guided tours of the fields and processing factories. Heredia is one of the most important coffee regions, with local plantations showing visitors how their precious beans are picked and roasted, with some also providing farm-style accommodation.
Visit the volcanoes
Costa Rica is pockmarked by awesome, fiery volcanoes. Smouldering Poás is home to the country's only dwarf cloud forest, while the top of Irazú provides fantastic views over the Caribbean and Pacific on clear days. Arenal was once an active volcano and known to erupt up to 41 times a day but it is now in a resting phase, though you can still explore the old lava flow and enjoy a luxurious soak in one of the many hot sprints within the park. Alternatively, check out Rincón de la Vieja National Park in the Guanacaste Province, home to the still-active Rincón de la Vieja Volcano.
Zip through the forest canopy
Zipwire adventures have taken off all over Costa Rica in recent years, so harness up and be Tarzan for a day. You can swing through the rainforest on a canopying ecotour, enjoying the up-close views of tree-dwelling wildlife, including monkeys, iguanas and birds. Tours are available in several locations, including Rincón de la Vieja National Park in the northwest of the country.