10 Non-Touristy Things to Do in Costa Rica

Away from it all | © Carlos Company Soler/Flickr
Away from it all | © Carlos Company Soler/Flickr
Photo of Jenn Parker
5 May 2017

In the past decade, Costa Rica has become an international sensation – it seems that everyone has been, is going, or wants to visit, and it’s easy to see why. The country has so much to offer as far as national parks, biodiversity, exquisite beaches, the whole spectrum of accommodation types, thriller-seeker approved activities, delicious traditional food, a peaceful and beautiful culture, and the loveliest local people. While you shouldn’t be turned off from tourist hotspots like Arenal, Monteverde, Manuel Antonio, and the Gold Coast (these are definitely places worth visiting), there are some great activities for those looking to take a trip off the beaten path.

Take a drive through the Central Valley

Once you get out of the busy urban areas of the Central Valley like San Jose, it is a very charming and picturesque zone. There are quaint little towns that offer an authentic insight into traditional Costa Rican life, expansive views of the mountains and nearby volcanoes, and refreshingly cool weather. There are also great little restaurants, markets, farms, churches, and places to buy handmade artisanal goods along the way. A great stop is the town of Zarcero. There is a famous garden here called the Parque Francisco Alvarado that has hedges shaped like dinosaurs, monkeys, and elephants. This region is also well-known for its dairy products and local produce – be sure to try the palmito cheese.

Tranquil towns | © Armando Maynz

See live music

The Jazz Café (there’s one in Escazu and one in San Pedro) is a local institution. It is one of the best places to go to see live music. It has a mixed vibe of trendy cool and laid-back artistry, and is also a great bar and restaurant. They showcase a range of local musicians and sometimes even big name international artists come through. There are also permanent art exhibits on display. Grab a table, order a drink, eat some appetizers, and enjoy the show.

Jazzy jams | © Mauricio Penaranda/Flickr

Jazzy jams | © Mauricio Penaranda/Flickr

Go full immersion

One of the best ways to learn Spanish and to truly experience a new culture is to live with a host family. Costa Rica is a great place to do this. There are several reputable organizations that help to set up foreigners with a local family. Most of the time, part of your program includes formal Spanish lessons and cultural classes such as learning to cook traditional Costa Rican food and how to salsa. Living with a Costa Rican family is a unique opportunity to learn and practise Spanish every single day, and to experience Costa Rican life and culture.

Take a workshop

There are some pretty amazing people doing some pretty amazing things for the environment in Costa Rica. The future of our planet depends on the collective effort to make changes in the way we build, produce food, consume, depose of waste, manage our natural resources, and protect the plants and animals. In Costa Rica, there are a few unique opportunities to join a workshop to learn about these things and so much more. Sustainable and permaculture workshops are a great way to spend some time while in Costa Rica – two in particular that offer an incredible variety of workshops throughout the year are Rancho Mastatal and Punta Mona.

Form a connection | © Courtesy of Punta Mona

Volunteer with animals

There are multiple sanctuaries and rescue centers located in all different parts of Costa Rica seeking big-hearted, compassionate, adventurous, and animal-loving volunteers to come and lend a helping hand. What better way to spend some time in Costa Rica than to be surrounded by nature and helping abandoned, sick, injured, or recovering animals? There are opportunities to work with baby sloths at the Sloth Sanctuary, care for homeless dogs in incredible numbers at the Territorio de Zaguates (must-watch video), or work with a number of native species like monkeys, birds, wildcats, and anteaters at the Alturas Wildlife Sanctuary or Jaguar Rescue Center.

Help a friend in need | © Jay Walt/Flickr

Go to a fundraiser

Fundraisers, which are attended predominately by locals and ex-pats, are a really fun and rewarding way to spend an afternoon or evening, as they usually have some sort of live music and entertainment, dancing, great food and drinks, and an auction. Some require a pre-purchased ticket, while others have an entrance fee at the door. You can find out about these local events by asking around and keeping your eye out for flyers and posters. In Tamarindo alone, there is an annual Robert August Surf and Turf Charity Event, International Surfing Day Event with The Surfrider Foundation, and a TIDE (a local school) fundraiser, just to name a few. These are all great parties for great causes.

Eat at a soda

The best way to experience authentic Costa Rican food is by eating at a soda; a small family-owned restaurant that serves up homemade traditional dishes. Each soda is different because each family’s recipes are slightly different, but most serve at least the basics, which are delicious. This is also a very affordable way to eat in Costa Rica, as dining at more tourist-focused restaurants can be pricey and more similar to the United States or Europe. Part of experiencing Costa Rica is experiencing the food.

Shop like a local

Most towns have some sort of weekly (sometimes even daily) farmer’s market. This is a great place to see the amazing variety of fruits and vegetables that are grown in Costa Rica. It is likely that you will encounter some new types of fruits and vegetables too. Most locals buy their produce, poultry, seafood, beans, and dairy products from their local farmer’s market, as it’s the most affordable way to shop for the week. Some markets are better than others, but it is a great way to experience local life and feel a part of the scene. It’s also a perfect place to practise your Spanish!

As fresh as it gets | © David Berkowitz/Flickr

Go to a fiesta

Costa Ricans are great at partying, and there are multiple fiestas, festivals, and celebrations that take place throughout the year and around the country. Local fiestas usually take place in the town center where a temporary bull ring, stadium-style seating, carnival rides, and food stalls are in place for several days – some of the best-known are the Palmares, Zapote, and Puntarenas fiestas, but every town has some sort of carnival or smaller fiesta during the Costa Rican summer months. Santa Cruz, Villa Real, and Liberia all have their own fiestas too. This is your chance to eat, drink, dance, and celebrate like a local.

Have a beach day

Costa Ricans love to gather up the family, pack up a delicious picnic, grab some beers, bring the music, and head to the beach for day, especially on a holiday or on the weekends. There are lots of well-known beaches in Costa Rica, but there are also a great deal of lesser-known or even semi-secret beaches in Costa Rica that with a little research you can map out directions to. Just make sure to leave the beach how you found it, or even cleaner.

Perfect picnic beach | ©Vytautas Serys/Flickr

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