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
2 September 2021

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

Keen to visit Costa Rica but not sure where to start with your itinerary? Consider joining Culture Trip’s action-packed nine day Costa Rica trip, led by our Local Insider.

Surround yourself with butterflies at the Butterfly Conservatory

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

Dog Park
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

Natural Feature, Forest
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

Natural Feature, Park
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

Natural Feature

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

Natural Feature
© 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

Natural Feature
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.

Free Dive Costa Rica

Natural Feature
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

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 September 2, 2021 to keep your travel plans fresh.

Since you are here, we would like to share our vision for the future of travel – and the direction Culture Trip is moving in.

Culture Trip launched in 2011 with a simple yet passionate mission: to inspire people to go beyond their boundaries and experience what makes a place, its people and its culture special and meaningful — and this is still in our DNA today. We are proud that, for more than a decade, millions like you have trusted our award-winning recommendations by people who deeply understand what makes certain places and communities so special.

Increasingly we believe the world needs more meaningful, real-life connections between curious travellers keen to explore the world in a more responsible way. That is why we have intensively curated a collection of premium small-group trips as an invitation to meet and connect with new, like-minded people for once-in-a-lifetime experiences in three categories: Epic Trips, Mini Trips and Sailing Trips. Our Trips are suitable for both solo travellers and friends who want to explore the world together.

Epic Trips are deeply immersive 8 to 16 days itineraries, that combine authentic local experiences, exciting activities and enough down time to really relax and soak it all in. Our Mini Trips are small and mighty - they squeeze all the excitement and authenticity of our longer Epic Trips into a manageable 3-5 day window. Our Sailing Trips invite you to spend a week experiencing the best of the sea and land in the Caribbean and the Mediterranean.

We know that many of you worry about the environmental impact of travel and are looking for ways of expanding horizons in ways that do minimal harm – and may even bring benefits. We are committed to go as far as possible in curating our trips with care for the planet. That is why all of our trips are flightless in destination, fully carbon offset - and we have ambitious plans to be net zero in the very near future.

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