Costa Rica is proof that big things can come in small packages. Although this Central American gem is barely the size of West Virginia, it’s the most biodiverse country on the planet—and given its extensive coastlines and varied landscapes, it is arguably one of the most beautiful. This list will help you experience the best of it.

Each region of Costa Rica offers something special, so choosing which places to visit may be a challenge. Beach bums and surfers will find a slice of paradise at the Pacific Coast beaches. Adventure-seekers and adrenaline junkies should head for the hills to hike atop old lava flows, rappel along waterfalls, and zipline through the jungle. And those looking for fewer crowds and the best blend of Costa Rican and Caribbean culture should consider spending at least a few days on the rugged and colorful eastern coast. Here's what's in store.

The Pacific Coast Beaches 

White sandy beaches in Playa Conchal

Spend even one day lounging on a serene sandy beach or riding a Costa Rican wave, and you’ll understand exactly why this country is called the “Rich Coast.” The Pacific Coast, in particular, is renowned for some of the best stretches of shoreline in the region.

Head to Playa Hermosa, just 30 minutes from Liberia Airport in the northwestern region of the country, and you'll discover a mellow vibe and black sand beaches, typically frequented by more Ticos (native Costa Ricans) and howler monkeys than tourists. Continue further south to Playa Conchal, and you’ll find a postcard-perfect beach formed from the accumulation of tiny shells, where you can sip a tropical drink while the sun sets or watch local fisherman collecting their daily catch.

World-class waves await at Playa Tamarindo — playfully nicknamed “Tamagringo” thanks to the large number of visitors its surf and sand attract — and Playa Negra, located less than an hour south of Tamarindo. Playa Guiones on the Nicoya Peninsula is another popular paradise for surfers, and nearby Nosara village has become a health and wellness haven where you’ll find organic cafes, yoga retreats, and expats aplenty. Cruise still further down the coast to Playa Carillo and sleepy surf town, Samara, to enjoy a stunning strip of palm-lined shore and a taste of the sweet beach life.

Volcanoes

Views of the crater lake at Irazu Volcano

Costa Rica is home to around 200 volcanic formations — five of which are currently considered active. As volcanic conditions can change, be sure to check with our travel specialist or your guide before setting out to explore.

Iconic Arenal Volcano, located about three hours northwest of San Jose, offers more than the obvious photo ops. Trek the 1968 Trail and walk along the lava rock landscape that was formed by the 1968 eruption. Fly through the sky on a zipline tour or maneuver through the forest on a mountain bike. And be sure to save the best for last: a long soak in the mineral-rich hot springs is the ideal way to end an adrenaline-filled day.

Irazu Volcano, Costa Rica’s tallest volcano, is another favorite for visitors and locals alike. The road up to the peak is easily accessible by car and only about 45 minutes from Cartago — and it's incredibly scenic. Insider tip: Pack a jacket. Although Costa Rica has a tropical climate, as you climb further up the mountain, the temperature tends to drop several degrees.  

Keep an eye on Poas Volcano, one of the largest active volcanoes in the world. It’s frequently closed due to volcanic activity and sulfuric emissions, but if you’re lucky enough to arrive in Costa Rica when it’s open, be sure to save some time in your itinerary to visit Poas’s pair of contrasting and colorful crater lakes.

The Mighty Jungle

Capuchin monkey in Corcovado National Park

Costa Rica covers only 0.03% of the earth’s surface, yet holds nearly 6% of the world’s biodiversity. That means there is a lot of life to see in a relatively small space! No trip to this country is complete without a walk on the wild side. The national parks — covering about 25% of the land — are a perfect place to start. Pick a park and book a local guide that can offer insight into the wide variety of plants, animals, and insects you stumble upon.

Corcovado National Park is Costa Rica’s largest and also one of the most remote. It will take some time to reach this piece of paradise on the Osa Peninsula in the south, but once you arrive, the serene scene, swaying trees, and singing birds will remind you that it’s worth it. Hike to your heart’s content, and then make your way to Golfo Dulce for a chance to spot dolphins feeding and frolicking in the fjord-like waters. Keep in mind, car access in Osa is limited and there are no roads inside Corcovado National Park, so proper planning is a must.  

There are plenty of parks that offer easier access, but this may mean encountering more crowds. Birders flock to Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve in the mountains of northwestern Costa Rica for the chance to spot the colorful quetzal, while beachgoers and monkey lovers set their sights on Manuel Antonio National Park, a forested stretch of white sand beach located on the central coast. 

Only a couple of hours north of San Jose, a lesser-known but equally worthy rainforest escape awaits in Sarapiqui. While the region is economically poor, it's rich in biodiversity and genuine hospitality, and it’s home to some of the best-preserved rainforests in the country. Take a hike through Braulio Carrillo National Park, bird watch in La Selva for a chance to see some of the nearly 500 species of birds that roost in this rainforest, and spend a night (or three!) with a local family at tranquil Chilamate Rainforest Eco Retreat next to the Sarapiqui River. Wake up to the sounds of howler monkeys, and step outside to see toucans feasting on fruit trees and butterflies dancing in the breeze before you head off to sample organic sweets on a local chocolate tour.

The Caribbean

The lovely Caribbean coast of Manzanillo

Costa Rica’s Caribbean coast boasts much more than beautiful beaches. Watch baby sea turtles burst from their shells and scramble across the sand in Tortuguero — a protected national park accessible only by boat or plane. Dig into a bowl of coconut rice and beans or scoop fresh ceviche with fried plantains at an open-air restaurant in Puerto Viejo. Dive into the warm waters of Cahuita National Park and explore an underwater world. Laze in a hammock at nearby Punta Uva and perfect your own laid-back island attitude, or spend the night in a stilted eco cabin in the jungle at Selva Bananito. Experience Afro-Caribbean culture in the colorful village of Manzanillo, just south of Puerto Viejo. Whatever you do along the country’s eastern coast, you’ll find a medley of Costa Rican and island influences on language, culture, food, and attitude. And from Puerto Viejo, you’ll also be perfectly positioned to pay a visit to neighboring Panama.