The Most Underrated Towns and Cities to Visit in Costa Rica

Get off the beaten path and discover Costa Rica's lesser-known gems
Get off the beaten path and discover Costa Rica's lesser-known gems | © ARCTIC IMAGES / Alamy
Photo of Jenn Parker
2 September 2021

When in Costa Rica, most travelers tend to visit places like Tamarindo, Monteverde or San José. But there are so many underrated and overlooked destinations to incorporate into your future Central American adventures. From beach towns on the Caribbean and Pacific coasts to crafty Sarchí, here are our top recommendations.

Montezuma

Natural Feature, Architectural Landmark
Map View
Costa Rica, Guanacaste, Nicoya Peninsula, Montezuma, Montezuma Beach
© Jon Arnold Images Ltd / Alamy

Montezuma is a tranquil beach town with bohemian vibes on the Nicoya Peninsula. It’s a favorite among backpackers, yogis, surfers and those looking for an inspiring and peaceful escape. There are mangrove forests, lush tropical forests, tidal pools and several waterfalls to explore during the day. In the evening, there are bars and clubs to party in and watch the sunset from. For such a small beach town, there is great energy in the air and a variety of activities to enjoy.

Dominical

Natural Feature
Map View
Surfers on the beach with sunlight shining through the morning mist at Playa Dominical in Puntarenas, Costa Rica.. Image shot 02/2009. Exact date unknown.
© Carver Mostardi / Alamy

Dominical is a colorful beach town near Quepos and Manuel Antonio and south of Jaco. Many people either stop and stay in Jaco or continue on to Quepos, while missing Dominical – but those who visit are in for a treat. The waves are very consistent in Dominical, and there are several different spots geared towards surfers of all levels. There are beachfront bars, restaurants and local artisans selling their crafts along the cobblestone road parallel to the shore. From Dominical, there’s relatively easy access to Chirripó National Park, Manuel Antonio National Park and Corcovado National Park.

Palmar Sur

Natural Feature
Map View
Aerial view of boat in the mangrove Rio Sierpe river in Costa Rica deep inside the jungle.
© Christoph Lischetzki / Alamy

Palmar Sur is a small inland town situated on the Sierpe River in the southwest region of Costa Rica. Nature lovers and eco-adventurers will find this place to be truly heavenly. The Sierpe River actually leads to one of the largest mangrove forests in the world, and the plant and animal life in this area is extraordinary. There’s boutique and luxury accommodation alongside backpacker, budget-friendly spots, and a decent selection of restaurants and bars. Palmar Sur is a great place to spend a few days before continuing down into the Osa Peninsula.

Zacero

Historical Landmark
Map View
The San Rafael church with arched shrubs in Zacero, Costa Rica, Central America
© agefotostock / Alamy

Zacero is a picturesque and quaint town on the scenic path towards Arenal from San José – it might just be one of the loveliest small towns in Costa Rica. The landscape here consists of verdant rolling hills, coffee farms, sugar cane plantations and lush forests. It’s also much cooler up here than in other parts of Costa Rica, a nice change after traveling around the coastal zones. One of the most popular attractions is a topiary garden, which has over 120 hedge sculptures and archways. There are plant sculptures shaped like elephants, giraffes, dinosaurs, humans and even cars.

Turrialba

Historical Landmark
Map View
Scenic view of Turrialba Volcano in Cartago, Costa Rica
© Lindsay Fendt

Turrialba is awe-inspiring in its beauty and charm. The Central Valley highland town offers visitors exquisite views of coffee, macadamia and sugar plantations, rolling hills and deep valleys, and Turrialba Volcano National Park. There’s springtime weather all year – Turrialba is a perfect place to stay for both high-energy activities like whitewater rafting and volcano hiking, or for kicking back and relaxing. The town even has its own type of cheese, which is highly recommended.

San Isidro de El General

Historical Landmark
Map View
San Isidro Valle De El General Costa Rica
© Alexey Stiop / Alamy

San Isidro de El General is a truly unique place to visit in Costa Rica. The town is home to several traditional festivals, including Fiesta Civica – known for its bullfighting, live music and ceremony honoring the patron saint San Isidro. Attending one of these festivals is a wonderfully authentic cultural experience. San Isidro is also a bird lover’s paradise as the colorful, resplendent quetzal can be found here. It also happens to be a very important agricultural zone in Costa Rica, producing fruit – especially pineapple – sugar cane and coffee. There’s plenty of hiking and exploring to do around the town, and the weather makes it pleasant enough to spend the entire day outdoors.

Sarchí

Architectural Landmark
Map View
The crafts town of Sarchi famous for its decorative painting and ox carts , Central Highlands, Costa Rica
© Eduardo Blanco/ Alamy

The small town of Sarchí is famous for its crafts and painted oxcart wheels. If you’re looking for quality, handmade Costa Rican art and crafts, this is the spot – plus you can get to Sarchí as an easy day trip from San José. Photographers will have a field day here, as everything is so vibrant and colorful – plus there are magnificent views of the surrounding Central Valley.

Playa Chiquita

Natural Feature
Map View
A woman and her dog walk through the palm trees on Playa Chiquita on Costa Rica's Caribbean Coast.
© Jon Arnold Images Ltd / Alamy

Playa Chiquita is only 5 miles (8 km) from the town of Puerto Viejo on the Caribbean coast. This charming and gorgeous beach town is ideal for romantic getaways or family vacations. There are cute little cafes, a gourmet grocery store and a local farmers market once a week. Days can be spent soaking in a private tidal pool on a stunning beach dotted with palm trees. Playa Chiquita is also great for exploring the surrounding tropical rainforests and national parks and reserves.

Puerto Viejo de Talamanca

Natural Feature
Map View
Aerial view facing Playa Negra and the southern coastal Caribbean town of Puerto Viejo de Talamanca in Limon Province, Costa Rica.
© Carver Mostardi / Alamy

Overall, the Caribbean coast of Costa Rica is still underrated and less-visited compared to the Pacific coast. Puerto Viejo is a vibrant, laid-back yet lively beach town that should definitely not be overlooked. The town has a great selection of restaurants, some of the best nightlife and easy access to multiple beaches, great snorkeling and lush tropical rainforest. There are tons of exciting tours and activities to choose from, including rainforest hiking, surfing, snorkeling, zip lining, horseback riding and sea turtle tours.

These recommendations were updated on September 2, 2021 to keep your travel plans fresh.

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