Non-Touristy Things to Do in Costa Rica

Eat like a local by heading to a soda, an affordable restaurant serving traditional dishes
Eat like a local by heading to a soda, an affordable restaurant serving traditional dishes | © Thornton Cohen / Alamy
Photo of Jenn Parker
3 September 2021

Costa Rica has so much to offer – national parks, exquisite beaches, thrilling activities, delicious traditional food, a peaceful and intriguing culture and the loveliest people. But if you want to see the less touristy spots, here are our top tips.

While you shouldn’t be turned off from tourist hotspots such as Arenal, Monteverde, Manuel Antonio and the Gold Coast (they’re all worth visiting), there are also some great activities if you’d prefer to take a trip off the tourist trail. Whether you’re looking for live music at Jazz Café, animal experiences at the Alturas Wildlife Sanctuary or fundraising events in Tamarindo, here are the best non-touristy things to do in Costa Rica.

For a truly unique experience, book yourself on our epic nine-day trip to Costa Rica; avoid the tourist crowds and savour the surf of Tamarindo and the clouded canopy of Monteverde rainforest.

Take a drive through the Central Valley

Once you get out of the busy urban areas of the Central Valley (San Jose, for example) you’ll find delightfully picturesque surroundings. There are quaint towns that offer an insight into traditional Costa Rican life; expansive views of the mountains and nearby volcanoes; and refreshingly cool weather. There are also great restaurants, markets, farms, churches and places to buy artisanal goods along the way. A great stop is the town of Zarcero. There’s a garden here called the Parque Francisco Alvarado that has hedges shaped like dinosaurs, monkeys and elephants. This region is also known for its dairy products and local produce – be sure to try palmito (a cheese similar in texture to mozzarella).

Stop by Parque Francisco Alvarado to see the animal topiary, including the elephants in front of Iglesia de San Rafael | © Carol Barrington / Alamy

See live music

The Jazz Café in Escazu is a local institution and one of the best places to see live music in Costa Rica. It has a mixed vibe of trendy, laid-back artistry, while also being a great bar and restaurant. They showcase a range of local musicians and sometimes big-name international artists. There are also permanent art exhibits on display. Grab a table, order a drink, eat some appetizers and enjoy the show.

Go full immersion

One of the best ways to learn Spanish (and to experience the culture) in Costa Rica is to live with a host family; there are several reputable organizations that set up foreigners with a home. Most of the time, the program includes formal Spanish lessons and cultural classes, the latter of which often includes learning to cook traditional Costa Rican food and how to salsa.

Learn about Costa Rican cooking and culture through a homestay program | © Kumar Sriskandan / Alamy

Take a workshop

The future of our planet depends on the collective effort to make changes to the way we build, produce food, consume products, dispose of waste, manage our natural resources, and protect the plants and animals. In Costa Rica, you can join a workshop to learn about these things, and so much more. Sustainability and permaculture workshops are a great way to spend time in Costa Rica: two that offer an incredible variety of activities throughout the year are Rancho Mastatal and Punta Mona.

Stay at the off-grid permaculture farm, Punta Mona, for workshops on sustainability and ecofriendly living | © Courtesy of Punta Mona

Volunteer with animals

There are multiple sanctuaries and rescue centers across Costa Rica, seeking big-hearted volunteers to lend a hand. What better way to spend time in Costa Rica than to be surrounded by nature while helping abandoned, sick, injured or recovering animals? There are opportunities to work with baby sloths at the Sloth Sanctuary; care for homeless dogs at the Territorio de Zaguates; or work with several native species including monkeys, birds, wildcats and anteaters at the Alturas Wildlife Sanctuary or Jaguar Rescue Center.

Baby sloths are among the animals cared for at the Jaguar Rescue Center | © Minkimo / Alamy

Go to a fundraiser

Fundraisers, which are attended predominately by locals and immigrants, are a fun and rewarding way to spend an afternoon or evening, as they usually have 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 the annual Robert August Surf and Turf Charity Challenge; the International Surfing Day Event with the Surfrider Foundation; and the TIDE (a local school) fundraiser, to name just a few. All great parties for great causes.

Join the annual Robert August Surf and Turf Charity Challenge for surf and golf fun | © Thornton Cohen / Alamy

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 homemade traditional dishes). Each establishment is unique, because each family has different recipes, but most serve the basics – which are delicious. This is an affordable way to eat in Costa Rica, as dining at more tourist-focused restaurants can be pricey – expect similar costs to those in the United States or Europe.

The sodas in Costa Rica serve traditional, affordable, homemade local delicacies | © Marco Lissoni / Alamy Stock Photo

Shop like a local

Most towns have a weekly (sometimes daily) farmer’s market. These are great places to see the amazing variety of fruits and vegetables grown in Costa Rica. Most locals buy their produce, poultry, seafood, beans and dairy products from their local 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 practice your Spanish.

The downtown San Jose farmer’s market is held every Friday from May to December | © Hemis / Alamy Stock Photo

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. 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 a carnival or smaller fiesta during the Costa Rican summer months. This is your chance to eat, drink, dance and celebrate like a local.

The Zapote Festival is the biggest rodeo of the year in Costa Rica | © Lindsay Fendt / Alamy

Have a beach day

Costa Ricans love to gather the family, pack a delicious picnic, grab some beers, bring the music and head to the beach for the day – especially on a holiday or weekend. There are lots of well-known beaches in Costa Rica, but there are also many lesser-known spots that (with a little research) you can visit. Just make sure to leave the beach how you found it, or even cleaner.

Montezuma Beach, in the Nicoya Peninsula, is one of many beautiful beaches in Costa Rica | © Matthew Williams-Ellis / robertharding / Alamy

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