In Part 1 we talked about getting around Costa Rica on a budget. In Part 2, we’ll discuss the top attractions you MUST see while you’re in the country.
What are the top attractions that a new visitor to Costa Rica must experience?
Arenal Volcano and Hot Springs – The active Arenal Volcano is probably the #1 attraction in Costa Rica. You can take guided hikes along several trails in the surrounding National Park to safe observation points from which to view the volcano’s lava flows. With all the volcanic activity, this area also offers several fantastic hot springs properties. Tabacon is probably the best hot springs property in the area and I would definitely recommend a visit. A smaller, slightly cheaper Ecotermales is also one of my favorite hot springs.
To visit Arenal, base yourself in the town of La Fortuna. You can also do some adventure activities from here – white water rafting, rappelling, zip-lining and riding (horseback or mountain bikes), so it’s a great versatile base to do plenty of activities from without having to change hotels.
Monteverde Cloud Forests – Monteverde is located pretty high altitude, over 4500ft, and is very humid. So the main attraction here is the cloud forest. The main reserve in the area is the Monteverde Biological Reserve, and there are guided tours offered in the reserve. You can get a chance to see some small wildlife and birds, and also just the unique beauty of the cloud forest itself.
The best place to base yourself here is in the small town of Santa Elena. The Monteverde Biological Reserve is about 3.5 miles southeast from Santa Elena – you can take a taxi pretty easily.
Selvatura Park, Monteverde – Though I mentioned Monteverde Reserve above, I included Selvatura Park because it is really one of my favorite places to visit in Costa Rica. This is located close to the Monteverde/Santa Elena Cloud Forest. Selvatura offers several attractions including a system of “hanging bridges” at tree canopy level, zip-lining, a hummingbird garden, butterfly garden, an insect museum and a reptile and amphibian exhibition. They also have a restaurant on-site. They offer scheduled shuttle transportation from local hotels in and around Monteverde and Santa Elena so getting there is pretty easy.
There is another similar attraction called Monteverde Sky Adventures very close to Selvatura. They also offer the hanging bridges and zip-lining as well as an aerial tram system. So you have that option too.
Tortuguero National Park – Located on the North Caribbean coast, this national park mainly consists of a maze of canals that flow to the Atlantic. Very rich in biodiversity. Best way to explore the National Park is by a guided boat tour. This is also a major nesting ground for Green Turtles, so during the nesting season between July-October hotels offer guided night tours to watch the turtles nesting or the eggs hatching. The ocean here is not safe for swimming – has very strong rip currents.
You can only reach Tortuguero by boat or airplane. Most hotels in Tortuguero operate their own transfers from/to San José. Need a pretty early start – usually leaving San José around 6.30am – 7am. They take you by vehicle up to one of the piers on the Parismina River, then board the hotel’s taxi boat for another 1-1.5Hr ride. Total travel time is around 6 hours from San José. Or you can fly with NatureAir and the hotel will pick you up at the Tortuguero airstrip.
Accommodation in Tortuguero is usually offered as a full board package including a couple of nights’ stay, all meals and a 2-hour boat tour if the park with a small tour group.
Osa Peninsula / Drake Bay (Corcovado National Park + Caño Island) – The South end of Costa Rica is for the serious nature-lovers, or if you are interested in snorkeling, scuba diving or whale- and dolphin-watching. I would stay out of Osa unless you are going in the dry season – or latest before mid-May. When it rains here, it rains cats and dogs! The main attractions here are the Corcovado National Park – where you can do guided hikes – which is one of the few places you might get to see a jaguar (they are very elusive, so it’s really up to luck), lots of Scarlet Macaw, Tapir etc. in addition to the more common wildlife. Another reason people come here is to dive or snorkel offshore from Caño Island. There are some fantastic dive sites here and you can see rays, reef sharks and just a beautiful under-water world. Dolphin watching is pretty easy here because the bay is home to lots of them. You can also see Humpback Whales here – pretty much all year except April through June. Plan to spend at least 3 nights here, otherwise a visit is not worth it.
You can fly into Drake Bay Airstrip from San José via domestic flight and the hotels will pick you up and take you by boat. Or you can take a transfer/drive from Manuel Antonio to Sierpe, and then join the hotel’s boat transfer. Accommodation is usually on full board and transfers included.
Beaches – The Pacific side has the best beaches so is more developed for tourism. Great beaches here are Manuel Antonio in the Central Pacific – with the small Manuel Antonio National Park along the coast with nice easy hiking and some small wildlife – and Tamarindo which is the main beach on the North Pacific. To the north and south of Tamarindo along the coast there are many other beach towns. You can do a lot of beach and ocean related activities – from surfing to sailing to snorkeling or diving – from many of these beaches, and accommodation options range from hostels all the way up to 5 star luxury hotels.
If you want to check out the Atlantic side, Cahuita is a great place to go. The Cahuita National Park has a lot to offer – great beaches, coastal rainforest and nice coral reef to explore just offshore. Hikes here are light and easy. You can see many birds and monkeys, sloth, coati etc. (On a side note about the monkeys – there’s a troop of monkeys that beg for food. Please don’t feed them; and watch your belongings… those little suckers are known to steal if they get a chance! XD). Snorkeling at the reef here is best between March to May and September to December. You can snorkel pretty much right off the beach. There are equipment rental shops in the area that makes things easier. But you don’t really get any big resorts and hotels in Cahuita so accommodation options are limited.