A Guide To Exploring the Islands of Costa Rica

Island dreams
Island dreams | © Iqbal Osman / Flickr
Photo of Jenn Parker
7 May 2018

While a surprising number of people think that Costa Rica is itself an island, it is actually home to quite a few islands. Many of the islands of Costa Rica are uninhabited nature reserves, national parks, and sea bird sanctuaries. There are also a few that are home to indigenous tribes and local fishing communities. There are multiple tours and boat trips available for those interested in checking out some of these beautiful tropical islands. Here’s what you need to know about Costa Rica’s most famous islands.

Islas Murciélagos

The Bat Islands are part of the Santa Rosa National Park in northern Guanacaste. These islands are especially famous for their bull shark populations, among other predatory marine life. While this is not a novice diving spot, for more experienced and adventurous divers, the Bat Islands should definitely make your scuba diving destination bucket list. The marine part of the Santa Rosa National Park is also home to humpback whales, pilot whales, dolphins, rays, and sea turtles.

Brave the bulls | © Lwp Kommunikáció / Flickr

Islas Catalinas

The Catalina Islands are only 30 minutes from Playa Ocotal in northern Guanacaste. This uninhabited rocky archipelago offers some of the best scuba diving in this part of Costa Rica. They are especially famous for their frequent population of giant manta rays. It is also likely that you will encounter sharks, eels, turtles, and enormous schools of tropical fish. If you are not a scuba diver, you can snorkel or Snuba-dive these islands, too.

Graceful giants | © Brian Gratwicke / Flickr

The islands in the Gulf of Nicoya

The Gulf of Nicoya is home to upwards of a dozen named islands. The most popular islands to visit are Isla Tolinga, the main island of the Tortuga Islands, and Isla San Lucas, home to an infamous old prison and beautiful nature reserve. Isla Chira is the second largest island in Costa Rica and is inhabited by about 3,500 fishermen and farmers. The Negritos Islands, Guayaboo, and Pajaros are off limits to visitors because they are protected as seabird sanctuaries. Snorkeling, kayaking, catamaran cruises, and island tours are readily available to those who want to check out some of these beautiful spots.

Caño Island Biological Reserve

Caño Island Biological Reserve is located just off the coast near Drake Bay in the southern Pacific region of Costa Rica. A 45-minute boat ride from the coast will take you to an exquisite scuba diving and snorkeling destination. Whale sharks, dolphins, rays, whales, sharks, turtles, and more tropical fish than you can imagine frequent the waters around this island and reserve. You can also set foot on Caño Island and explore its pristine beaches and forests.

You never know who you are going to encounter in the sea | © Steve / Flickr

Isla Uvita

On the Caribbean coast of Costa Rica, just three kilometers off the coast of Limón, is Isla Uvita. Christopher Columbus actually first reached this island in 1502 and named it La Huerta. This small island is an important nesting site for the rare and beautiful hawksbill sea turtle, as well as home to the brown bobby and many other sea birds. A beautiful coral reef surrounds this island, which makes it an incredible diving spot, too.

Uvita Island visitor | © Matt Kieffer / Flickr

Isla Pajaros

Bird Island is a small mangrove island in the Tempisque River in the Palo Verde National Park. This unique island is a safe haven for an astonishing diversity of tropical wetland birds. Many of the Tempisque River resident birds nest on this island. A guided boat tour through Palo Verde National Park is a bird lover’s dream excursion, and this island is definitely a bird lover’s dream scene. You can also expect to see a large concentration of crocodiles, iguanas, and small mammals on your tour.

Cocos Island National Park

Natural Feature, Park
View over Wafers Bay Cocos Island Costa Rica.
© HakBak / Shutterstock
Located 550 kilometers off the Pacific coast of Costa Rica. Cocos Island is known as the only eastern Pacific island with a tropical rainforest. Surrounded by deep waters and counter-currents, it is a mecca for scuba divers, who travel the globe to visit one of the twenty dive sites and to come face-to-face with scalloped hammerhead sharks, rays, moray eels and dolphins. You can only explore this uninhabited island and national park aboard a live-aboard dive boat.

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