Costa Rica's most common outdoor destinations are so sought-after for a reason: they truly are beautiful landmarks. But, for every popular attraction, there are plenty of lesser-known must-sees that'll treat open-minded explorers to an incredibly fulfilling and memorable adventure.

Overview

Small but vibrant, Costa Rica will keep you busy for as long as you'd like to stay. One week will introduce you to nature like you've never seen before: teeming with tropical wildlife, bearing brilliant colors, and bombarding you with the positive spirit of the locals. Two weeks may tempt you to dig deeper, luring you beyond the volcanos and zip lines and into the heart of the culture's rich art and history. Three weeks will have you embodying the peaceful, accepting, and overall happy way of life that Ticos lead!

Avoiding the crowds

Size-wise, Costa Rica can be compared to Denmark or West Virginia. That doesn’t seem very roomy, but high crowds can be surprisingly easy to avoid because over 25% of the land is protected as a national park, reserve, or conservation area. (There are 28 national parks and dozens more protected areas.) Additionally, many travelers feel that what is considered a big crowd in Costa Rica is manageable in comparison to larger countries' popular spots.  

National Parks

Waterfalls, volcanos, and zip lines running through the rainforest are often at the top of travelers' lists when they arrive in Costa Rica. To fulfill these plans, folks are commonly pointed toward Arenal Volcano National Park, home to the vibrant blue-green La Fortuna Waterfall, or Poas Volcano National Park, which hosts the largest active crater in the world.

Given that the land keeps approximately 100 formerly volcanos, five active ones, and up to 100 more ancient volcanic formations, there are plenty more to choose from.

Tenorio Volcano National Park

Rio Celeste in Tenorio Volcano National Park
Rio Celeste in Tenorio Volcano National Park

The volcano itself is quite the sight, but perhaps more impressive is the Rio Celeste running through the park. The river has its own gorgeous waterfall, which spills into a notoriously blue pool, colored by minerals from volcanic activity.

Turrialba Volcano

Turrialba Volcano
Turrialba Volcano

The several-hour trek to the top is not recommended for beginner hikers, but those who are willing and able make the climb will be rewarded with a quieter setting for contemplating those breathtaking views.

Beaches

Many think of beaches when they think of Costa Rica, which should come as no surprise given that it's hugged by both ocean and sea. While that perception paints an incomplete picture, it's also somewhat inaccurate. Many people are lured by the calm waters and often seen monkeys of Playa Manuel Antonio, while Playa Tamarindo appeals to vacationers seeking a surf lesson by day and a bustling nightlife scene by night. Similar activities and vibes are offered elsewhere, too, but with the benefit of less fellow tourists around.

Dominical, Uvita, and Ojochal

Sunset over Uvita Beach
Sunset over Uvita Beach

Dominical, Uvita, and Ojochal are three clustered surfer destinations along the Costa Ballena. Dominical, in particular, is often frequented by yogis, backpackers, surfers, of course, and others seeking that free-spirited, laid-back vibe. The benefit of each spot being so close to its neighboring towns is that day trip destinations with authentic experiences are close at hand. Up the hill from the small main drag in Uvita, a tucked-away swimming waterfall makes cooling down on a hot day delightful. Ojochal is a culinary hub. Don't miss hitting the beach for both sunrise and sunset.

Playa Conchal, Guanacaste

Playa Conchal, Guanacaste
Playa Conchal beach, Guanacaste

For those more interested in a resort setting, the white sands and turquoise waters of Playa Conchal might be the scene you seek. Its expansive resort includes all the bells and whistles, but it's tucked away from the beach so that a sense of the natural panorama can be maintained. 

Puerto Viejo de Talamanca

Puerto Veijo de Talamanca
Puerto Veijo de Talamanca

Yet another inviting ambiance is that of Puerto Veijo de Talamanca. This is a quiet beach town along the Caribbean coast, where you’ll find locals living with Afro-Caribbean culture. It's a good place to enjoy nightlife with a reggae or dance hall vibe and it's one of the few merciful Costa Rican destinations that typically remains sunny and dry during the rainy season.

Cloud Forests

Bring binoculars for this leg of your itinerary because there's an abundance of wildlife to be spotted. Monteverde Cloud Forest Biological Reserve is one of the world’s most biodiverse areas and a great example of a sustainable tourist location. It also tends to crowd up pretty quickly, so those seeking a quieter sightseeing situation might prefer one of the country's other cloud forests.

Los Angeles Cloud Forest Reserve

Hummingbird visits a Bird of Paradise flower in paradise
Hummingbird visits a Bird of Paradise flower in paradise

Los Angeles Cloud Forest Reserve is a private cloud forest that protects approximately 350 species including plants, birds, and other critters. It's often thought to be a more peaceful alternative to Monteverde, making it a great escape for couples or groups of adults. 

Bajos Del Toro Cloud Forest

Bajos Del Toro Cloud Forest offers that same lush goodness that all the other options do, but this one is centered around an eco-lodge where guests can enjoy a luxurious respite. Between stints of luxurious lounging, hikes to the hummingbird garden and treks to learn all about medicinal plants await! 

Festivals

With a country whose motto is 'Pura Vida!' — which translates literally to "pure life" but is more an expression of optimism and joy in all things — it's no surprise that there are celebratory gatherings throughout the year. Perhaps the largest gathering is Fiestas Palmares in January, which pulls out all the stops with carnival rides, rodeos, and the highest crowds you'll see all year. 

  • The National Orchid Show is held in San Jose in March. Over 300 types of orchids are displayed and a winner is chosen.
  • Mango Fiestas is exactly as delicious as it sounds! The town of Alajuela, nicknamed the City of Mangoes, hosts this holiday every July, complete with singing, dancing, and mango-centric indulgences. 
  • Fiestas de los Diablitos is the epitome of an authentic experience. Masked, costumed players reenact the battles between the indigenous Boruca tribe and the Spanish, using traditional song and dance to represent the unfolding of events and indigenous victory. This takes place in December and January. 

Museums

We all travel to learn, whether it's to discover renewed peace and rejuvenation or to gain a deeper understanding of the world we live in. Costa Rica's culture is defined by its thriving arts scene and easily accessible history. Tucking yourself into San José's Museo Nacional is a wonderful way to spend the afternoon, but it's also worth seeking out smaller displays that will further enrich your travel experience with insights into what makes the country what it is.

  • The Museo de Arte Contemporaneo displays work by local and international artists alike. The museum isn't huge, so spend a few hours examining its art, then hop over to a nearby park to contemplate what you saw.
  • A stop at the Museo de Cultura Popular is guaranteed to be laid-back and lighthearted, offering an authentic feel free of cost. Being that the artists' work is in direct response to Costa Rica's culture, it's a brilliant way of learning about events and happenings through a thoughtful lens.
  • El Sitio Museo Finca 6 is a rare find. It's an open-air archaeological museum build around pre-Columbian granite spheres with mysterious origins. Visitors agree it's worthwhile anomaly to explore.