Discovering Costa Rica

10 things to see and do

As a country devoted to preserving its environment, it is unsurprising that many of Costa Rica’s must see sights focus on the natural landscape and wildlife. However, the capital, San José, does have some things to offer in the way of history and more traditional attractions.

Discovering Costa Rica

Costa Rica’s geographical location between North and South America and coasts on both the Caribbean Sea and Pacific Ocean, means that there is natural diversity in abundance and plenty to explore.

Reserva Biológica Bosque Nuboso Monteverde - The Monteverde cloud forest , home of coffee plantations and monkeys, lies some 1,440m above sea level. The constant clouds provide the moisture to sustain the area’s diverse ecosystem; the forest boasts 420 species of orchids alone. Hiking can be tricky as the dampness makes the trails a little muddy, but tread carefully and the cloud forest will be an experience not to be forgotten. You can really get back to nature and there is even the option to do a tour at night and stay in one of the lodges. Buses leave the from the nearby village of Santa Elena.

Learn to surf - Costa Rica has some 1,290 km of coastline and consequently the opportunities for surfing are almost limitless. The Pacific coast is the more commercial of the two, so for a more laid back surf head over to the Caribbean shores. Puerto Viejo boasts the most contested and biggest waves in the country, most definitely one reserved for seasoned surfers. Pavones allegedly has one of the longest breaks in the world, with a ride lasting up to three quarters of a mile. Its position on the south Pacific coast means getting there can be a challenge but well worth it for those in search of an adrenaline rush.

Parque Nacional Volcán Arenal - Located on the mountainous spine of the country, once your standard dormant volcano, Arenal, came back to life in 1968, with an eruption that almost destroyed the local area. Until 2010, the volcano continued to be active but then stopped rather abruptly. Once the site of natural nighttime light shows, the volcano is now once again dormant, but the site is still well worth a trip and the park itself also boasts impressive trails through the foothills and there are even some hot springs nearby.

Go white water rafting - Costa Rica’s offerings for lovers of all things outdoors continues with its rivers and the chance to take on the white waters. The best rafting in the country is to be had on the Río Pacuare, in the east of the country, with its spectacular scenery. You will have the chance to steer past jungle villages and hear the calls of innumerable species of wildlife. For the less experienced kayaker, there is Reventazon river which also feeds into the Caribbean sea.

Teatro Nacional - Arguably the capital’s most cherished building, the National Theatre in central San José smacks of the prosperity that Costa Rica enjoyed thanks to its successful coffee exportation in the 19th century. Aside from the regular stage productions, recitals and orchestral performances, the building itself is a tourist attraction with its almost excessive use of marble and sumptuous furnishings.

Basílica de Nuestra Señora de Los Ángeles - Situated in the town of Cartago, some 25 km outside of San José, the basilica is the most highly regarded religious building in the whole of Costa Rica. Once the capital of Costa Rica, Cartago represents Spanish colonialism, which can be seen in the basilica itself. The legend of ‘La Negrita’ also comes from the site. It is said that a small statue depicting the Virgin Mary was mysteriously found there on the 2nd August 1635 and subsequently a shrine was built. Each year many people make the pilgrimage by foot from San Jose to Cartago on the 2nd August to visit the statue now housed in the basilica.

Llanos de Cortés - Although Costa Rica boasts numerous waterfalls, Llanos de Cortés is regularly cited as the best. Located near the town of Bagares in the north west, this hidden gem will take a little bit of navigating to get to, so it’s important to plan your route in advance. You are required to make a small donation at the manned gate, with the money goes to the local primary school. The major draw of Llanos de Cortés is the pool into which the waterfall descends, which is surrounded by a white-sand beach.

Museo Nacional de Costa Rica - The Costa Rican National Museum is adjacent the Plaza de la Democracia, a significant site in San José. Housed in a former fortress, the damage caused to the building it during the war of independence can still be seen on the outer walls. The museum mostly displays pre-Columbian artefacts.

Take a boat trip - For the more faint at heart, a less high octane way to enjoy the great outdoors in Costa Rica is to take a tour down one of its many rivers. The Sarapiqui River north of San Jose or the Rio Frio offer smooth sailing, giving you the chance to take in all the surrounding nature and wildlife.

Tortuguero - A major nesting site for numerous species of turtle in Costa Rica, the area of Tortuguero is contained within the national park of the same name. There are many tours you can take but one of the most popular is the night tour that runs between November and January, where you can see the newly hatched baby turtles head towards the sea for the first time.

Although, this can be an expensive trip, due to popularity and accessibility being only by water or air, it is a once in a lifetime opportunity. Take a hike up Turtle Hill, the highest point on the Caribbean coast which offers some excellent views.

Costa Rica’s geographical location between North and South America and coasts on both the Caribbean Sea and Pacific Ocean, means that there is natural diversity in abundance and plenty to explore.

Reserva Biológica Bosque Nuboso Monteverde - The Monteverde cloud forest , home of coffee plantations and monkeys, lies some 1,440m above sea level. The constant clouds provide the moisture to sustain the area’s diverse ecosystem; the forest boasts 420 species of orchids alone. Hiking can be tricky as the dampness makes the trails a little muddy, but tread carefully and the cloud forest will be an experience not to be forgotten. You can really get back to nature and there is even the option to do a tour at night and stay in one of the lodges. Buses leave the from the nearby village of Santa Elena.

Learn to surf - Costa Rica has some 1,290 km of coastline and consequently the opportunities for surfing are almost limitless. The Pacific coast is the more commercial of the two, so for a more laid back surf head over to the Caribbean shores. Puerto Viejo boasts the most contested and biggest waves in the country, most definitely one reserved for seasoned surfers. Pavones allegedly has one of the longest breaks in the world, with a ride lasting up to three quarters of a mile. Its position on the south Pacific coast means getting there can be a challenge but well worth it for those in search of an adrenaline rush.

Parque Nacional Volcán Arenal - Located on the mountainous spine of the country, once your standard dormant volcano, Arenal, came back to life in 1968, with an eruption that almost destroyed the local area. Until 2010, the volcano continued to be active but then stopped rather abruptly. Once the site of natural nighttime light shows, the volcano is now once again dormant, but the site is still well worth a trip and the park itself also boasts impressive trails through the foothills and there are even some hot springs nearby.

Go white water rafting - Costa Rica’s offerings for lovers of all things outdoors continues with its rivers and the chance to take on the white waters. The best rafting in the country is to be had on the Río Pacuare, in the east of the country, with its spectacular scenery. You will have the chance to steer past jungle villages and hear the calls of innumerable species of wildlife. For the less experienced kayaker, there is Reventazon river which also feeds into the Caribbean sea.

Teatro Nacional - Arguably the capital’s most cherished building, the National Theatre in central San José smacks of the prosperity that Costa Rica enjoyed thanks to its successful coffee exportation in the 19th century. Aside from the regular stage productions, recitals and orchestral performances, the building itself is a tourist attraction with its almost excessive use of marble and sumptuous furnishings.

Basílica de Nuestra Señora de Los Ángeles - Situated in the town of Cartago, some 25 km outside of San José, the basilica is the most highly regarded religious building in the whole of Costa Rica. Once the capital of Costa Rica, Cartago represents Spanish colonialism, which can be seen in the basilica itself. The legend of ‘La Negrita’ also comes from the site. It is said that a small statue depicting the Virgin Mary was mysteriously found there on the 2nd August 1635 and subsequently a shrine was built. Each year many people make the pilgrimage by foot from San Jose to Cartago on the 2nd August to visit the statue now housed in the basilica.

Llanos de Cortés - Although Costa Rica boasts numerous waterfalls, Llanos de Cortés is regularly cited as the best. Located near the town of Bagares in the north west, this hidden gem will take a little bit of navigating to get to, so it’s important to plan your route in advance. You are required to make a small donation at the manned gate, with the money goes to the local primary school. The major draw of Llanos de Cortés is the pool into which the waterfall descends, which is surrounded by a white-sand beach.

Museo Nacional de Costa Rica - The Costa Rican National Museum is adjacent the Plaza de la Democracia, a significant site in San José. Housed in a former fortress, the damage caused to the building it during the war of independence can still be seen on the outer walls. The museum mostly displays pre-Columbian artefacts.

Take a boat trip - For the more faint at heart, a less high octane way to enjoy the great outdoors in Costa Rica is to take a tour down one of its many rivers. The Sarapiqui River north of San Jose or the Rio Frio offer smooth sailing, giving you the chance to take in all the surrounding nature and wildlife.

Tortuguero - A major nesting site for numerous species of turtle in Costa Rica, the area of Tortuguero is contained within the national park of the same name. There are many tours you can take but one of the most popular is the night tour that runs between November and January, where you can see the newly hatched baby turtles head towards the sea for the first time.

Although, this can be an expensive trip, due to popularity and accessibility being only by water or air, it is a once in a lifetime opportunity. Take a hike up Turtle Hill, the highest point on the Caribbean coast which offers some excellent views.

Further reading

Does this article help?

Do you have any comments, updates or questions on this topic? Ask them here: