17 Surreal Places That Locals Wish Were Kept Secret

© Juan Martinez/Flickr
© Juan Martinez/Flickr
Photo of Jenn Parker
2 June 2017

Costa Rica is a surreal place to visit. Between the abundant wildlife, multitude of national parks and reserves, over a dozen different ecosystems, and hundreds of beaches, Costa Rica is jaw-droppingly stunning and is the epitome of a utopian paradise. Here are places that locals have known about for ages and that visitors are discovering on their adventures to this magical country.

Isla del Coco

Isla del Coco is a mystical island located 340 miles (550 kilometers) off the Pacific coast of Costa Rica. It is the only island in the tropical eastern Pacific region that has a rainforest. Jacques Cousteau described Isla del Coco as the most beautiful island in the world. The protected marine area surrounding the island is teeming with sharks, rays, tropical fish, and dolphins. It is a diver’s paradise. Unfortunately, it is also a poacher’s paradise too.

Hammerhead hotspot | © Josh Hallett/Flickr

Isla Tortuga

Isla Tortuga is located off the southern edge of the Nicoya Peninsula. It is uninhabited by humans, but is host to a wide range of activities, such as snorkeling, bird watching, hiking, swimming and kayaking. The white-sand, palm tree-lined beaches make this island one of the most picturesque places to spend a day basking in the warm sun by the beautiful turquoise sea.

© Johan Guatemala/Wikimedia

Isla del Caño

Isla del Caño is located just six miles (10 kilometers) off the Osa Peninsula and is a favorite spot among divers and beach-lovers. This stunning, uninhabited island is rich in spectacular flora and fauna. Whales, dolphins, and turtles also love the surrounding waters here, and it is common to spot these special creatures while boating to and from the island. There are also great nature trails for hiking throughout the island.

Keep your eyes open for humpback whales | © Sylke Rohrlach/Flickr

Playa Marbella

Playa Marbella is a beautiful black-sand beach in Guanacaste. This is one of the few beaches in Guanacaste where there is very little development. It is a place right out of a postcard. The only establishment on the beach is the Tiki Hut, which is a fabulous place to grab an icy beer and eat fish tacos. The ocean here is pretty wild and not particularly ideal for swimming, but for experienced surfers, sometimes there are waves.

Dark sand beauty | © Kaitlyn Shea Photography

Playa Hermosa

Playa Hermosa is home to a very well-known surf break that locals wish they had all to themselves. The waves here can be truly world-class with the right swell and conditions. The black-sand beach and minimal development also makes this spot quite dreamy. Playa Hermosa is close to the popular beach and surf town of Jaco in the central Pacific region of Costa Rica.

The name is fitting | © Thomas Anderson/Flickr

Playa Carrillo

Playa Carrillo is situated next to the better-known beach, Playa Samara. This relatively secluded and palm tree-lined beach is an amazing place to take a beach walk, go for a swim, or watch the sunset. There aren’t many accommodation choices here, but Playa Samara is very close by and has plenty of options. If you are looking for a laid back beach spot to spend the day or week, this one is a surreal choice.

© m.prinke/Flickr


Playa Esterillos is a large, but very unpopulated beach located close to Playa Hermosa. The golden sand and almond trees create a captivating setting. The waters here are turquoise and calm. This is an excellent swimming beach that also sometimes has breaking waves for surfing. Due to the popularity of Playa Hermosa and Jaco, Esterillos has remained relatively untouched and is often completely overlooked.

Playa Uvita

Playa Uvita is a whale tail-shaped beach in the central Pacific region of Costa Rica. This gorgeous beach is ideal for sunbathing, swimming, surfing, snorkeling, and for whale and dolphin watching. It is such a beautiful coincidence that one of the most whale-populated areas of Costa Rica is also shaped like a whale tail. At low tide, you can walk all the way out to the “tail” of the beach.

Another beautiful beach in paradise | © W&J/Flickr

Tortuguero National Park

Tortuguero National Park is often referred to as the “Amazon of Costa Rica.” This incredibly dense and biodiverse area on the Caribbean coast is bursting at the seams with wildlife and exquisite plant life. The park is only accessible by boat or plane, but the journey is beyond worth it. For decades, the Caribbean coast received far less attention than the Pacific coast from visitors, but all that is changing now that people are realizing how incredibly special this zone really is.

Explore by boat | © Leonora Enking/Flickr

Manuel Antonio National Park

Manuel Antonio is famous for its national park, which is home to a rich diversity of plant and animal life, amazing hiking trails, and some of the most awe-inspiring and pristine beaches in the country. Over the years, Manuel Antonio has become a very popular destination for visitors, but remains one of the places that really shouldn’t be missed when visiting Costa Rica.

Permanent residents | © Tim Sackton/Flickr

Monteverde Cloud Forest

As little kids, most of us dreamed of touching clouds; well this is your chance. The cloud forests in Monteverde are truly unique. These special forests are also home to 100 species of mammals, 400 species of birds, 120 species of reptiles, and 2,500 different types of plants. It is this abundant diversity of life and the opportunity to explore it all while in the midst of clouds that brings nearly 70,000 visitors to this area every year.

Poas Volcano National Park

The Poas Volcano, which is still active even though there hasn’t been a major eruption since 1910, is considered one of the most spectacular volcanoes and national parks in Costa Rica. There are beautiful crater lakes, dense forests, abundant wildlife, and breathtaking viewpoints that can be reached by a variety of hiking trails.

What a view! | © Daniel Borman/Flickr

La Fortuna Waterfall

The La Fortuna Waterfall has an unbroken 230-feet (70-meter) drop at the base of the dormant Chato Volcano. The powerful cascade falls into a huge pool, which you can go swimming in after you have hiked down to the falls via a manmade trail that takes about 15 minutes to walk down. Surrounding the waterfall and pool is dense tropical rainforest. It is likely that you will encounter a multitude of birds and other wildlife during your hike to this magnificent waterfall.

Take a dip beneath the falls | © Dave Lonsdale/Flickr

Nauyaca Waterfall

The Nauyaca Waterfall has two different levels of cascading water that ends its high energy journey in the perfect swimming hole. The first cascade falls 200 feet (60 meters) down before flowing over into the second level. Visitors can access this astonishing site via horseback or by hiking down a well maintained trail that takes about an hour to complete. The sheer power of these falls is enveloping and a sight not to be missed.

Catarata del Toro

Catarata del Toro is a humungous waterfall that appears in the middle of a lush and very dense cloud forest. This cascade falls nearly 300 feet (90 meters). For being one of the most outrageously beautiful waterfalls, it is not typically crowded here. It is best to hike in from El Silencio Lodge, which is also an amazing place to stay. Catarata del Toro is definitely in the running for the most mystical place in Costa Rica.

Pure wow | © Steven Jervetson/Flickr

Rio Agua Caliente

Rio Agua Caliente is a free-access natural hot spring located near the Arenal Observatory Lodge. This is one of the few natural springs in the area that is not connected to a resort or privately-owned establishment. However, it is nonetheless a divine experience soaking in a hot tub that is heated up by Mother Earth in the midst of nature. For a long time, only locals knew about this spot. It is still way less crowded than the bigger hot springs in the area.

© El Coleccionista de Instantes Fotografía & Video/Flickr

Papagayo Peninsula

The Papagayo Peninsula is one of the most surreal spots in northern Guanacaste. There are 31 beaches along the 15 miles (24 kilometers) of coastline. The peninsula is home to the Four Seasons, a wide selection of luxury rental properties, a beach club, several other resorts and hotels, and a golf club. The peninsula has been taken over by “the finer things in life.” If you aren’t on a budget, the Papagayo Peninsula provides a quite luxurious vacation in Costa Rica.

© EQRoy/Shutterstock

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