A Guide to the Best Hidden Gems and Unique Places to Visit in Costa Rica

The Valley of the Waterfalls in the Dominical province has a dozen or so cascades to admire
The Valley of the Waterfalls in the Dominical province has a dozen or so cascades to admire | © Chris Rabe / Alamy Stock Photo
Photo of Cassam Looch
Editorial Manager3 September 2021

Costa Rica isn’t short of great places to visit, but tourists and first-time holidaymakers tend to flock to the same areas. We’ve taken a closer look at what the country has to offer and unearthed these hidden gems.

People who visit Costa Rica tend to know what they want, but not necessarily where they need to go to get it. We all know about the incredible rainforests bursting with diverse wildlife, and the pristine beaches, but where can we find these treasures? Perhaps just as important right now – where can we go to get the best experiences in the country without having to fight other travellers for space? We can’t guarantee you’ll be the only ones to visit these hand-picked destinations, but you’ll certainly enhance your chances of getting some alone time.

Keen to visit but not sure where to start with your itinerary? Consider joining Culture Trip’s specially curated small-group Costa Rica adventure, led by our local insider.

Rincon de la Vieja

Natural Feature
Costa Rica, Guanacaste province, Rincon de la Vieja National Park
© GARDEL Bertrand / hemis.fr / Alamy

An active volcano complex in the northwest corner of Guanacaste, Rincón de la Vieja National Park has all the dense rainforests and wild nature you could possibly want. There are waterfalls to discover on the many trails through the park, but the star attraction is the Rincón de la Vieja volcano itself. It’s one of only six active volcanoes in the country, and the one you should visit first. The geothermal pools and hot springs are highly recommended for those looking for a little more adventure.

Bajos del Toro

Natural Feature
Toro waterfall in the cloud forest of Bajos Del Toro Costa Rica near Poàs Volcano - J2JMYF
© Francesco Puntiroli / Alamy

This tiny town is a manageable two-hour drive from San José, which makes it a potential day-trip destination. The Catarata del Toro waterfall is one of the main reasons to visit, and there are many unspoilt official hiking routes that are all well maintained. The town itself isn’t geared up for mass tourism, so pack the essentials you need for a day out.

Gandoca Manzanillo

Botanical Garden, Natural Feature
Aerial view of the Caribbean coast of the Gandoca Manzanillo Wildlife Refuge in the Limon Province of eastern Costa Rica.
© Carver Mostardi / Alamy
The Caribbean side of Costa Rica isn’t as popular as the Pacific side, which means it’s easier to find a moment of solitude and there’s plenty to see without too many people crowding around. Gandoca Manzanillo National Park Refuge is a well-known nature retreat, and the cacao forests lead to sandy beaches along the coast.

Dominical Valley of the Waterfalls

Natural Feature
The top section of Nauyaca Waterfalls in Costa rica, a majestic cascading fall in Dominical province, Costa Rica - TW3W3W
© Chris Rabe / Alamy

The beaches of Dominical are pretty popular, but take a short hike into the forests to the Valley of the Waterfalls. There are a dozen or so impressive waterfalls that might not be the tallest in the world, but are secluded and devoid of crowds. You can climb and swim in the freshwater falls, and further exploration reveals even more natural features that local guides will be happy to point out.

Mal Pais

Natural Feature
Surfer at the beach of Santa Teresa, Mal Pais, Nicoya Peninsula, Costa Rica, Central America
© Oliver Gerhard / Alamy

Mal Pais (sometimes written locally as Malpaís) means Bad Land, but the name is misleading. Perhaps at one time the rocky beaches were compared unfavorably with the sandier shores of nearby Santa Teresa, where surfers love to spend time. A few resorts have cropped up at Mal Pais in recent years, making the most of the seclusion. The coastline here isn’t best suited to sunbathing or swimming, so exploration is the order of the day. Beachcombers have plenty to see and do, with regular boat tours taking snorkelers out to calmer waters. The best thing about a stay here is that you can dip into the party scene in Santa Teresa without having to give up the quiet life.

These recommendations were updated on September 3, 2021 to keep your travel plans fresh.

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