The Best Snorkeling and Diving Spots in Costa Rica

Isla del Coco is home to an incredible array of marine life, including stingrays
Isla del Coco is home to an incredible array of marine life, including stingrays | © Norbert Probst / imageBROKER / Alamy
Photo of Jenn Parker
23 April 2021

The spectacular biodiversity and natural wonders of Costa Rica don’t stop on land. Beneath the waves offshore, there are vibrant coral reefs, flourishing atolls, volcanic rock formations, shark caves and shipwrecks, all teeming with aquatic life. You can find world-class scuba and snorkeling spots on both the Pacific and Caribbean coasts, letting divers with any amount of experience revel in the natural beauty. Here are the best.

Isla del Coco

Natural Feature
Map View
Shoal of Razor Surgeonfish, Prionurus laticlavius, Playa del Coco, Guanacaste, Costa Rica
© WaterFrame / Alamy

Isla del Coco was described by Jacques Cousteau as “the most beautiful island in the world”. A Unesco World Heritage Site 300mi (483km) southwest of Cabo Blanco, it’s Costa Rica’s most exquisite marine park and one of the top diving destinations in the world. However, it’s best reserved for experienced scuba divers with a truly adventurous spirit. The only way to access the island and its phenomenal dive sites is via a live-aboard boat excursion. Once you get there, Isla del Coco is famous for its scalloped hammerhead populations, as well as multiple other types of shark, whale, dolphin, ray and tropical fish.

Islas Murciélagos (Bat Islands)

Natural Feature
Map View
Seba's short-tailed fruit bat (Carollia perspicillata) flying at night in banana plantation, Costa Rica
© Ivan Kuzmin / Alamy

The Islas Murciélagos are located at the very tip of the Santa Rosa National Park off the coast of Playa Hermosa in Guanacaste. These remote islands host a fantastic array of marine life, including their most famous resident, the bull shark. Experienced divers come from all over the world to swim alongside them. The sharks don’t steal the whole show, though: turtles, giant rays and an impressive selection of tropical fish also make their home around these islands. There have also been sightings of whale sharks, pilot whales, humpback whales and dolphins. Due to the strong seasonal Papagayo winds, the best months to dive here are between March and November.

Islas Catalinas

Natural Feature
Map View
Bottlenose Dolphin Taking a Big Leap. Image shot 03/2014. Exact date unknown.
© Zoonar GmbH / Alamy

The Catalina Islands, made up of 20 small islands, are another Pacific Coast diving gem. This is a world-renowned scuba spot particularly famous for its diverse list of rays: giant manta rays, devil manta rays, bat rays, stingrays, spotted eagle rays, bullseye electric rays and cow-nosed rays. Pilot whales, sharks, turtles and dolphins are also commonly spotted around this island chain. The best months to visit are between September and March, as that’s when visibility is best.

Caño Island Biological Reserve

Forest, Park, Natural Feature
Map View
Scuba Diver over Coral Reef, Cano Island, Drake Bay, Costa Rica
© WaterFrame / Alamy

While the Caño Island Biological Reserve is great for snorkeling, it’s even better when you scuba dive. These pristine waters surround the tiny island off the coast of Drake Bay, and have been rated one of the best places for diving in Costa Rica. Some deeper spots contain the most impressive varieties of marine life. At El Bajo del Diablo, Paraiso and Cueva del Tiburon, you’ll see devil rays, white-tipped reef sharks and sea turtles almost every time.

Isla Uvita

Natural Feature
Map View
Christopher Columbus first anchored on Costa Rican soil at Isla Uvita during his final journey to the Americas.
© MostardiPhotography / Alamy

Just offshore from the Caribbean city of Limón lies Isla Uvita. This island, the first spot that Christopher Columbus landed at in 1502, has recently gained the recognition that it deserves as a premier diving destination in Costa Rica. Aside from the immaculate reefs surrounding the island, there’s also a shipwreck. The island doesn’t have any infrastructure for visitors, so you will have to take a boat out there from Limón. Fortunately, it’s only a 20-minute ride.

Gandoca-Manzanillo National Wildlife Refuge

Forest, Natural Feature, Park
Map View
Costa Rica, Limon Province, Caribbean coast, Gandoca-Manzanillo national wildlife refuge, Manzanillo, mirador Manzanillo, Miss may point
© Hemis / Alamy

The Gandoca-Manzanillo National Wildlife Refuge is one of the best snorkeling spots on the Caribbean coast. Here, white-sand beaches meet turquoise, crystal-clear waters to create a scene worthy of a postcard. Once you put your face into that ocean, an even more magical scene unfolds. The shallow coral reefs, little islands and protected bays host a colorful assortment of tropical fish and coral. Manatees, dolphins and sea turtles also sometimes visit this beautiful refuge.

Cahuita National Park

Forest, Natural Feature, Park
Map View
Washed up corals on the beach at Cahuita National Park, Cahuita, Limon, Costa Rica.
© Carolin Voelker / Alamy

The Cahuita National Park isn’t far from the Gandoca-Manzanillo National Wildlife Refuge, and the diving scene here is other-worldly. Based by the Punta Cahuita peninsula, you can just walk forward from the beach and start snorkeling. When you do, you’ll find 35 different types of coral, over 120 breeds of tropical fish, 120 varieties of mollusk and 40 species of crustacean. Brightly colored sea anemones bring vibrance to the reef, while sightings of adorable seahorses are common if you look carefully.

Isla Tortuga

Natural Feature
Map View
Tortuga Island Costa Rica
© Isla Tortuga

Snorkeling or scuba diving around Isla Tortuga is a marine adventure that the whole family will enjoy. The calm, crystal-clear waters are home to parrotfish, porcupine fish, angelfish, moray eels, turtles and eagle rays. Just off the coast of the island, dolphin, humpback whale, pilot whale and manta ray sightings are common as well.

These recommendations were updated on April 23, 2021 to keep your travel plans fresh.

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