Costa Rica Destinations Travel Guide

 

On this website, we give tons of detailed information on Costa Rica’s different destinations and attractions. Reading everything takes a lot of time, however. That’s the reason for this destinations summary guide. Below, we provide a broad overview of the major destinations in Costa Rica. We describe what each town is like, who it might appeal to, what it offers for activities, and where it is located. When you find a place that you’re interested in, click on our full article to read all the details to plan your visit. Keep in mind that we will be constantly updating this post with new destinations as we come out with more articles.

Atenas

Location: Central Valley

Just west of San Jose and set in the rolling countryside is Atenas. This small town has a distinct local feel with a bustling downtown set on a central park. Touted as having one of the best climates in the world, Atenas has gained popularity with foreigners over the years and grown a sizable expat population. Atenas is also a good stop for those looking to go west from the airport on their way to the Pacific coast or Monteverde.

 

La Casita del Café near Atenas Costa Rica

 

Popular activities in Atenas include:

  • Organic coffee farm tour
  • Botanical Orchid Gardens
  • Las Minas Waterfall and swimming spot
  • A weekly farmers market
  • Zoo Ave Wildlife Rehabilitation Center

Read our post Atenas: A Glimpse of Authentic Costa Rica for more information.

Drake Bay

Location: Osa Peninsula/Southern Pacific Coast

Drake Bay is a remote village set in the thick jungle of the Osa Peninsula. It appeals to nature and wildlife lovers due to its abundant animals and birds. Although the town is very small, it has a wide array of accommodations. Both luxury travelers looking for a relaxing escape and backpackers alike will enjoy Drake Bay. Drake Bay might not be the best destination for those who want all the conveniences or who are afraid of bugs and other creepy crawlies that live in the jungle. It is also more difficult to get to so plan to spend at least a few nights there.

 

Costa Rica Destinations Summary Guide - Drake Bay

 

Popular activities in Drake Bay include:

  • Hiking in the nearby Corcovado National Park
  • Wildlife watching
  • Beaches
  • Bird watching
  • Snorkeling and diving at Cano Island
  • Dolphin and whale watching
  • Rainforest night walks

Read our post Drake Bay: Costa Rica Unplugged for more information.

Dominical/Uvita

Location: Southern Pacific Coast

Dominical and Uvita are two neighboring towns on Costa Rica’s southern Pacific coast. They are surrounded by jungle and are less developed, although they offer a good selection of hotels, restaurants, and things to do. Dominical is best known for surfing. Uvita is a popular town among expats and is also home to Marino Ballena National Park (the National Whale Marine Park). The stretch of coastline that makes up the Costa Ballena hosts several beautiful, and all but deserted, beaches.

 

Costa Rica Destinations Summary Guide - Dominical and Uvita

 

Popular activities in the Dominical-Uvita area include:

  • Beaches
  • Surfing
  • Waterfalls, including the stunning Nauyaca Waterfalls
  • Hiking
  • Wildlife watching
  • Whale and dolphin watching
  • Alturas Wildlife Sanctuary
  • Horseback riding
  • ATV tours
  • Kayaking/SUP
  • Yoga

Read our post The Costa Ballena: Uvita, Dominical, and Ojochal for more information.

Jaco

Location: Central Pacific Coast

Jaco is one of Costa Rica’s most developed beach towns. Along the main strip fronting the beach are a myriad of shops, restaurants, bars, and tour operators. Some of the best restaurants in Costa Rica can be found in Jaco. The town has a big party scene if you’re looking for nightlife, but is also family-friendly. Jaco is conveniently located on the central Pacific coast, about 1.5 hours from San Jose international airport. Playa Jaco itself isn’t the most beautiful beach in Costa Rica, but there are other nice ones nearby.

 

Costa Rica Destinations Summary Guide - Jaco

 

Jaco has tons of activities. Some of the most popular include:

  • Crocodile river tour
  • Sport fishing
  • Hiking and birdwatching at Carara National Park
  • Surfing
  • Beaches
  • Horseback riding
  • Adventure activities like zip lining, canyoning (waterfall rappelling), and ATV tours
  • Waterfalls

Read our post Jaco: Costa Rica’s Booming Beach Town for more info.

La Fortuna

Location: Northern Zone

La Fortuna is located in the northern lowlands (inland but not quite in the mountains). It is one of Costa Rica’s most popular destinations. The main draws are Arenal Volcano and the natural hot springs. La Fortuna has a huge range of hotels, from backpacker hostels to five-star hot springs resorts. This makes it a great destination for solo travelers, couples, and also families. It is best explored with a rental car because the area is spread out. Those looking for a more off-the-beaten-path experience might find La Fortuna a bit touristy.

 

Costa Rica Destinations Summary Guide - La Fortuna

 

The most popular activities in La Fortuna are:

  • Arenal Volcano
  • Hot springs
  • Hiking
  • Waterfalls
  • Proyecto Asis Wildlife Center
  • Zip lining
  • Hanging bridges
  • Whitewater rafting
  • Lake Arenal
  • Horseback riding
  • Night tours

Read our post La Fortuna: What to Expect from Costa Rica’s Most Popular Destination for more details.

Mal Pais/Santa Teresa

Location: Southern Nicoya Peninsula/Pacific Coast

Mal Pais and neighboring Santa Teresa are surfer towns on the very southern Nicoya Peninsula. This is a remote destination and accessing it is an adventure along rough and dusty dirt roads. Once you arrive, though, you’ll find modern conveniences, including luxury accommodations and international cuisine. There are also plenty of places to stay and things to do for the budget-minded traveler. Although surfing is the main draw, people also visit for the beautiful sunsets, tranquil feel, and hidden-gem quality.

 

Costa Rica Destinations Summary Guide - Mal Pais and Santa Teresa

 

Things to do in Mal Pais and Santa Teresa include:

  • Surfing
  • Beaches
  • Yoga
  • Stand-up paddleboard (SUP)
  • Zip lining
  • Hiking at Cabo Blanco Nature Reserve
  • Horseback riding
  • ATV tours

Read our post Road Trip to Mal Pais for more info.

Manuel Antonio

Location: Central Pacific Coast

Manuel Antonio is a popular beach town nestled in the rainforest on Costa Rica’s central Pacific coast. Its main attractions are the national park and gorgeous beaches. In the park and throughout town, it is easy to spot monkeys, iguanas, and other wildlife. Manuel Antonio is a wonderful destination for first-time travelers to Costa Rica. There are family-friendly resorts, romantic villas for couples, and even gay-friendly hotels. Manuel Antonio is more touristy and can get busy during the high season (December to April).

 

Costa Rica Destinations Summary Guide - Manuel Antonio

 

Manuel Antonio has hundreds of different tours. Some of the most popular include:

  • Beaches
  • Wildlife watching
  • Manuel Antonio National Park
  • Zip lining
  • Whitewater rafting
  • Sport fishing
  • Catamaran and sailing tours
  • Canyoning (waterfall rappelling)
  • SUP
  • Kayak mangrove tours
  • Parasailing
  • Horseback riding

Read our post Manuel Antonio Trip Planning for more information.

Monteverde

Location: Northern Zone

Monteverde is one of Costa Rica’s most sought-after destinations. Its intriguing cloud forest and abundant wildlife draw thousands of visitors each year. Though this former Quaker town feels rural and pastoral, it has been built up for tourism over the years. Hotels are available for all budgets and are mostly lodge-style. Monteverde is in the mountains and more difficult to access so spending at least a couple of nights there is best. It is an especially good destination for families because of all the kid-friendly things to do.

 

Costa Rica Destinations Summary Guide - Monteverde

 

Monteverde offers a number of activities including:

  • Zip lining
  • Hanging bridges
  • Hiking
  • Night walks
  • Coffee tours
  • Birdwatching
  • Aerial trams
  • Wildlife exhibits (butterfly or hummingbird gardens, serpentariums, etc.)
  • Horseback riding

Read our post Monteverde: A Forest in the Clouds for more info. Also check out our Monteverde Hotel Guide for tips on where to stay.

Montezuma

Location: Southern Nicoya Peninsula/Pacific Coast

Located more remotely on the southern Nicoya Peninsula, Montezuma is a laid back beach town that draws mostly backpackers and young families. A lot of people come to Montezuma to just relax on the beach, but there’s also a lot to do. The biggest attraction is the Montezuma Waterfalls. Though the town is quite small, it is a good destination for foodies. Locally made craft beer and eclectic international cuisine fill restaurant menus. Hotels are mostly budget and mid-range, but there is a resort nearby and vacation rentals in the hills.

 

Montezuma, Costa Rica Destination Guide

 

Things to do in Montezuma include:

  • Beaches
  • Waterfalls
  • Hiking at Cabo Blanco Nature Reserve
  • Wildlife watching
  • Zip lining
  • Surfing
  • Yoga
  • Snorkeling at Tortuga Island

Read our post Montezuma: A Bohemian Beach Town for more info.

Nosara

Location: Central Nicoya Peninsula/Pacific Coast

Nosara has recently garnered the attention of influential media outlets and is an on-the-rise destination. In this community, you’ll find a mix of surfers, luxury travelers, families, expats, and yoga lovers. The town’s dirt roads connect different neighborhoods, each with their own beaches and distinct feel. Because Nosara is spread out, it is best explored with a rental car. Nosara is one of Costa Rica’s more expensive destinations.

 

Costa Rica Destinations Summary Guide - Nosara

 

Some of the most popular activities in Nosara include:

  • Surfing
  • Beaches
  • Yoga
  • Horseback riding
  • Kayaking/SUP
  • Zip lining
  • ATV and off-road vehicle tours
  • Turtle watching (seasonal)
  • Wildlife watching and wildlife rehabilitation tours

Read our post Nosara Trip Planning Essentials for more information.

Playa Brasilito

Location: Guanacaste Province/Northern Pacific Coast

Playa Brasilito is a small beach-side village that sits right between some larger tourist towns in Guanacaste, yet maintains a very local feel. The town is centered around a soccer field that fronts the beach. Although Playa Brasilito is a more off-the-beaten-path destination, it has a decent number of hotels, restaurants, and things to do. Playa Brasilito is a good option for budget travelers, as it less expensive than many of the popular beach towns in Guanacaste. One of the main draws of Playa Brasilito is that it is within walking distance to one of the country’s most beautiful beaches, Playa Conchal. 

 

Playa Brasilito: An Authentic Beach Town in Guanacaste

 

Visiting the area’s beaches is the main attraction in Playa Brasilito, but there are also other things to do nearby:

  • Horseback riding
  • ATV tours
  • SUP
  • Surfing
  • Jet skiing
  • Catamaran tours 
  • Sport fishing
  • Zip lining

Read our post Playa Brasilito: An Authentic Beach Town in Guanacaste for more information.

Playa Conchal

Location: Guanacaste Province/Northern Pacific Coast

Many consider Playa Conchal, in northern Guanacaste Province, to be Costa Rica’s most beautiful beach. The water is a stunning shade of turquoise and the sand is made of tiny crushed shells. Although Playa Conchal is a beach without much else around, it feels more like a destination because of a popular all-inclusive resort.

 

Costa Rica Destinations Summary Guide - Playa Conchal

 

Things to do at Playa Conchal include:

  • Beach – swimming, SUP, kayaking, snorkeling, jet skiing
  • Catamaran tours
  • Golf
  • Spa
  • Sport fishing
  • Horseback riding
  • ATV tours

Read our post Playa Conchal: The Allure of Shell Beach for more information.

Playa Hermosa (Guanacaste)

Location: Guanacaste/Northern Pacific Coast

Playa Hermosa is a quiet beach community in northern Guanacaste Province. It draws visitors looking for a relaxing escape. The beautiful main beach is popular for swimming and is known for its stunning sunsets. Although the town is smaller, it has a large selection of vacation rentals and condos. Playa Hermosa is a good destination for families due to the calm ocean waters.

 

Costa Rica Destinations Summary Guide - Playa Hermosa (Guanacaste)

 

Things to do in Playa Hermosa include:

  • Beach – swimming, SUP, kayaking, jet skiing, banana boat rides
  • Diving and snorkeling
  • Catamaran tours
  • Sport fishing
  • Horseback riding
  • ATV tours
  • Zip lining

Read our post Playa Hermosa (Guanacaste): Costa Rica’s Northern Beauty for more info.

Puerto Viejo de Talamanca

Location: Southern Caribbean Coast

Puerto Viejo de Talamanca is on the rainforest-rich southern Caribbean coast. This area of the country has several features that make it unique. Culturally, many of the locals are of Afro-Caribbean or indigenous descent. The weather is also different, with the best times to visit (September and October) coinciding with the rainy season on the Pacific coast. One of Puerto Viejo’s best attributes is its many stunning beaches.

 

Puerto Viejo Beaches

 

Puerto Viejo has many options for things to do. Some of the highlights are:

  • Beaches
  • Wildlife rehabilitation tours, including Jaguar Rescue Center
  • Chocolate tours
  • Hiking
  • Snorkeling/diving
  • Surfing
  • Indigenous culture tours
  • Horseback riding
  • Night hikes

Read our post Puerto Viejo: Caribbean Cool in Costa Rica for more information.

Puerto Jimenez

Location: Osa Peninsula/Southern Pacific Coast

Puerto Jimenez is one of two major towns on the Osa Peninsula (the other is Drake Bay, see above). It sits on a picturesque bay with some of the calmest water in the country. Although the town has a local feel, it has a decent selection of hotels and restaurants that cater to tourists. One of the biggest reasons travelers visit Puerto Jimenez is to explore Corcovado National Park. Tours and activities out of Puerto Jimenez tend to be more expensive as many take place by boat.

 

Costa Rica Destinations Summary Guide - Puerto Jimenez

 

Popular activities out of Puerto Jimenez include:

  • Day trips or overnight stays in Corcovado National Park
  • Kayaking
  • Dolphin and whale watching
  • Snorkeling
  • Sport fishing
  • Beaches
  • Osa Wildlife Sanctuary
  • Horseback riding
  • Chocolate tours

To learn more, read our post Puerto Jimenez: An Outpost to the Osa.

Samara

Location: Central Nicoya Peninsula/Pacific Coast

Many of the beach towns in Guanacaste Province are quite developed, but not Samara. It has more of a small-town feel. Along the few criss-crossing streets that make up the downtown, you’ll find one- or two-story hotels, restaurants, and shops. There are no high-rise condos or fancy resorts. Instead, the vibe is casual and laid back. Samara draws visitors of all ages and is a favorite among families because of its relatively calm water for swimming.

 

Costa Rica Destinations Summary Guide - Samara

 

The main activities in Samara are:

  • Beaches
  • Hiking
  • Surfing
  • Kayaking and SUP
  • Zip lining
  • Diving
  • Horseback riding
  • ATV tours
  • Waterfalls

Read our post Samara: Guanacaste’s Most Overlooked Beach Town for more tips and info.

San Gerardo de Dota

Location: Southern Zone

San Gerardo de Dota is a tiny village in the high-altitude mountains south of San Jose. With cloud forest nearby, San Gerardo offers a less busy alternative to Monteverde. Package tourists often visit San Gerardo in search of an elusive bird called the Resplendent Quetzal, but it is also a good destination for those wanting to go off-the-beaten path. Most lodges are more rustic and cabin-style, which fits in nicely with the quiet surrounds. San Gerardo is best for those seeking a peaceful escape.

 

Costa Rica Destinations Summary Guide - San Gerardo de Dota

 

San Gerardo de Dota offers a few things to do including:

  • Bird watching
  • Hiking
  • Waterfalls
  • Zip lining
  • Horseback riding
  • Fishing for trout

For more information, read our post San Gerardo de Dota: A Hideaway in the Cloud Forest.

San Isidro de El General

Location: Southern Zone

San Isidro de El General is located in the mountains of the Southern Zone. This small, but vibrant, city doesn’t draw very many tourists, but is quickly growing in popularity among expats. Here, you’ll find busy city streets filled with small local restaurants, clothing stores, and all the basics like hospitals, pharmacies, and grocery stores. San Isidro is a wonderful place to explore the culture and a good stopover for a night or two.

 

Costa Rica Destinations Summary Guide - San Isidro

 

Some activities around San Isidro de El General that may appeal to visitors include:

  • Hiking
  • Waterfalls
  • Farmers market
  • Bird watching

Read our post San Isidro de El General for more information.

San Jose

Location: Central Valley

Many people visiting Costa Rica get in and out of its capital city almost right away. Although San Jose isn’t really considered a tourist destination, this sprawling metropolis actually has a lot to offer. It is a great place to observe the local culture as it is where the majority of locals live. And with a vibrant art scene, fantastic dining options, and several cultural sites, you can easily spend a couple of nights.

 

Costa Rica Destinations Summary Guide - San Jose

 

Popular activities in San Jose include:

  • National Theater
  • Museums – National Museum (pictured above), Gold Museum, Jade Museum, Children’s Museum
  • Central Market
  • La Sabana Park
  • National Artisans Market
  • Art galleries

Read our post How to Spend 1 or 2 Days in San Jose for more information.

Tamarindo

Location: Guanacaste Province/Northern Pacific Coast

Tamarindo is the most developed beach town in Guanacaste. Here, you will find trendy boutique hotels, beachfront B&Bs, hostels, and a few condos and bigger developments. Tamarindo is a popular destination for surfing, but draws all types of travelers. Food lovers will enjoy the many awesome restaurants. Tamarindo has a vibrant nightlife and offers all the conveniences. Those interested in exploring the local culture may prefer another destination.

 

Costa Rica Destinations Summary Guide - Tamarindo

 

Keep in mind that many of the recommended activities for Tamarindo are located several hours away. Popular choices in the immediate area include:

  • Beaches
  • Surfing
  • Zip lining
  • Sport fishing
  • Catamaran and sailing tours
  • Estuary boat tours
  • Diving and SNUBA (snorkeling with an airline hose)
  • SUP
  • ATV tours
  • Turtle watching (seasonal)
  • Spa
  • Shopping

Read our post Tamarindo: Where Paradise Meets Convenience for more information.

Tortuguero

Location: Northern Caribbean Coast

Tortuguero is one of the best places in Costa Rica to see wildlife. Many people plan their trip around turtle season, where you can see green and other sea turtles come to shore to lay their eggs. Boat tours along the canals are also popular and can reveal wildlife like monkeys, crocodiles, and many types of water birds. Tortuguero is a remote destination on the northern Caribbean coast. It can be reached by boat or small plane. Higher end travelers can stay at one of the all-inclusive lodges. Shoestring travelers will prefer one of the small, family-owned hotels closer to town.

 

Costa Rica Destinations Summary Guide - Tortuguero

 

Activities in Tortuguero include:

  • Turtle watching (seasonal)
  • Wildlife watching
  • Bird watching
  • Boat and kayak canal tours
  • Night tours
  • Hiking

Read our post Tortuguero Off the Resort for more details.

 

As you can see, Costa Rica has destinations that will suit just about any type of traveler. The best thing about this relatively small country is that in a single vacation, you can explore several locations and get a completely unique experience in each one.

If you need help putting together an itinerary for your trip, check out our Itineraries page for some samples. We also have a book, Top 10 Costa Rica Itineraries, which can help you make sense of how these destinations can be paired. And, if you need more help, we would be happy to create a customized trip based on your interests. Read our Itinerary Help page for more information.

Looking for more info to jump-start your planning? You might like these posts: