The Top Things to Do in Costa Rica

Costa Rica's unique natural beauty makes it well worth a visit
Costa Rica's unique natural beauty makes it well worth a visit | © Etienne Delorieux / Unsplash
Photo of Jenn Parker
9 October 2020

From outdoor adventures such as zip lining, waterfall hiking and surfing to butterfly- and whale-watching, there are many different things to do in Costa Rica. Here’s our guide.

Surround yourself with butterflies at the Butterfly Conservatory

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Costa Rica is home to more than 1,250 species of butterflies – more than 10% of the world’s species flutter around the country’s forests and fields, the most iconic of which is the iridescent blue morpho. Spend time amid hundreds of these beautiful creatures at the Butterfly Conservatory in Arenal, which houses 30 species of butterflies as well as moths and tree frogs. Take a guided tour to learn more, or take in the conservatory’s beautiful orchid exhibit and riverside walking trail.

Take a walk in Territorio de Zaguates, the Land of the Strays

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Land of the strays
© tommyzippo / Stockimo / Alamy Stock Photo
Territorio de Zaguates (Land of the Strays), a volunteer-run, no-kill dog shelter in Santa Barbara, is home to more than 900 dogs. The stray dogs lucky enough to find themselves here are treated with immense love and given the best care possible. You’re encouraged to spend time playing with the dogs and can even schedule a dog walk with all 900 dogs through the valley. This is an absolute must for dog lovers.

Take a mangrove tour

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Aerial view of Delta Sierpe River Terraba, Corcovado National Park, Osa Peninsula, Puntarenas Province, Costa Rica. December 2014.
© Nature Picture Library / Alamy Stock Photo

While there are mangrove forests located up and down both coasts, the Sierpe Terraba mangrove forest on the Osa Peninsula is the biggest in Costa Rica. The flooded forest stretches 67,000 acres (27,000ha) and is teeming with wildlife such as crabs, caimans, crocodiles, boas, tree frogs, river turtles, iguanas, white-faced capuchin monkeys and a wide variety of birds. This serene habitat, which can only be accessed by boat, plays an important role in protecting the coastlines from the destructive force of big storm swells. Take a tour with a certified naturalist who will share information about the mangrove forest and its inhabitants. Bahia Adventures Mangrove Nature Trip and Sierpe-Terraba Mangrove Tour are two excellent choices.

Be in the presence of giants at the Marino Ballena National Park

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Humpback whale breaching in Marino Ballena National Park, Costa Rica
© Claude Huot / Alamy Stock Photo

Between December and April, the Marino Ballena National Park in Uvita serves as a base for humpback whales migrating from Antarctica. Killer whales and pilot whales (both of which are actually in the dolphin family) also spend time in these rich tropical waters. Whale-watching tours in Costa Rica have fallen under the radar for years but are gaining popularity in places like Uvita. There are so many whales and dolphins during these months that there will most definitely be some special encounters out at sea.

Float over Costa Rica in a hot air balloon

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See the volcanoes, forests, valleys, towns, coastal areas and even wildlife of Costa Rica in one exhilarating tour. Lift off at sunrise with a highly experienced certified pilot who will take you on an incredible tour; and if you’re seeking a more intimate experience, you can even privately charter the hot air balloon. Serendipity and Centaura are two great hot air balloon tour companies.

See Costa Rica from the sky

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© Alex Ip / Unsplash

Most people see Costa Rica from the ground, but seeing it from above offers an entirely different perspective. HeliJet Aviation, a San Jose-based helicopter charter company, was one of the first companies to offer helicopter sightseeing tours; choose from four tour options (explore the city and surrounding Central Valley, the volcanoes, the beaches and crocodiles or the rainforests) or create a customized tour. Having a bird’s-eye view of the magnificent landscape and its natural wonders is an unmissable opportunity.

Go birdwatching

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Costa Rica. San Gerardo de Dota, Resplendent quetzal bird (Pharomachrus mocinno) // Costa Rica. San Gerardo de Dota,Quetzal resp
© Thierry GRUN / Alamy Stock Photo

More than 800 species of birds call Costa Rica home – around 600 permanent residents and 200 migratory species. All of North America has just over 900 species of birds, so this is truly a bird utopia, and an incredible place for bird lovers to see some exotic and exquisite species, including the resplendent quetzal, scarlet macaw, toucan, roseate spoonbill and 50 different types of hummingbirds. The best spots for birdwatching are San Gerardo de Dota, Curi-Chancha Reserve, Tortuguero National Park, Rancho Naturalista, Manuel Antonio National Park, and La Selva Biological Reserve.

ClassLearn to cook
From $49 per person
2 hours 30 minutes
4.5 (8)
Traditional Costa Rican cuisine includes everything from gallo pinto, corn tortillas, and tamales to arroz con pollo, sopa negra and patacones – and learning to make some of them is a wonderful cultural experience. Take a cooking class to learn about Costa Rican culture and food, not to mention skills you can take home. One great option is a cooking class offered by a local family in La Fortuna – a truly authentic experience.

Free Dive Costa Rica

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Sunrise on Tamarindo beach, Costa Rica
© emma1119995 / Stockimo / Alamy Stock Photo
Free diving, the exhilarating and peaceful practice of spending time beneath the surface of the sea, is a unique and useful skill to learn for divers and ocean lovers. Comfortably diving to depths of 65ft-100ft (20m-30m) without scuba gear and holding your breath for upwards of three minutes may sound impossible without years of training, but learning to safely free dive with nothing but a mask and fins can be done in three days. Freedive Costa Rica in Tamarindo is the only free diving certification program available in the country, led by a professional free-diving instructor.

Learn Spanish

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A great way to spend some time in Costa Rica is by taking Spanish classes at a local language institution, including the Morpho Spanish School. There are Spanish schools in Tamarindo, Turrialba, Puerto Viejo, Nosara and Samsara, to name a few. Make new friends, engage in cultural activities such as salsa dancing and cooking lessons and learn how to communicate with the wonderful locals. This is a great choice for solo travelers as well as groups.

If you’re looking for things to do on Costa Rica’s coastline, then check out our article on things to do on the Caribbean side of Costa Rica

These recommendations were updated on October 9, 2020 to keep your travel plans fresh.