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<a href="" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Go on a dolphin chase | © Deidre Woollard / Flickr</a>
<a href="" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Go on a dolphin chase | © Deidre Woollard / Flickr</a>

The Top 10 Things to Do and See in Costa Rica

Picture of Jenn Parker
Updated: 10 May 2017

There are so many different things to do and see in Costa Rica, from natural adventures (like zip lining, waterfall hiking, and surfing) to quite a few off the beaten path activities. This guide to the best 10 things to do and see will help you plan and enhance your next trip to here.

Take a mangrove tour

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 (27,114 hectares)  and is teeming with wildlife like crabs, caimans, crocodiles, boas, tree frogs, river turtles, iguanas, white faced capuchin monkeys, and an immense variety of birds. This serene and stunning habitat is one that can only be accessed by boat. Mangroves play a very important role in protecting the coastlines from the destructive force of big storm swells. You can take a tour with a certified naturalist who will be able to share with you all sorts of fascinating information about the mangrove forest and its inhabitants. Bahia Adventures Mangrove Nature Trip and Sierpe-Terraba Mangrove Tour are two excellent choices.

Float over Costa Rica in a hot air balloon

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 in the sky, and those seeking a more intimate and romantic experience can privately charter a hot air balloon. Serendipity and Centaura are two great hot air balloon tour companies.

See Costa Rica from the sky

Most people see Costa Rica from the ground, but seeing Costa Rica from above offers an entirely different perspective. HeliJet Aviation, a San Jose-based helicopter charter company that is based in, 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 natural wonders of Costa Rica is an opportunity like no other.

Surround yourself with butterflies

Costa Rica is home to over 1250 species of butterflies—more than 10% of the world’s species of butterflies flutter around this fairy tale-like country’s forests and fields, and its most iconic butterfly is the iridescent blue morpho. Spend time amid hundred of butterflies at the Butterfly Conservatory in Arenal, which houses 30 species of butterflies as well as moths and tree frogs. Take a guided tour and learn all about the butterflies, moths, tree frogs, and insects of Costa Rica, or take in the conservatory’s beautiful orchid exhibit and riverside walking trail.

Butterfly Conservatory, Millon – El Castillo, Costa Rica, +506 2479 1149

Go birdwatching

Over 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 Costa Rica is a bird utopia in comparison. It’s 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.

Learn to free dive

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 20–30 meters (65–100 feet) without scuba gear and holding your breath for upwards of three minutes may sound impossible without years of intense training, but learning to safely free dive with nothing but a mask, fins, and natural abilities can be done in a matter of three days. Freedive Costa Rica in Tamarindo is the one and only free diving certification program available in the country, but it is an incredible program led by a highly trained and professional free diving instructor.

Freedive Costa Rica, Plaza Conchal #B-8, Tamarindo, Costa Rica, +506 8353 1290

Be in the presence of giants

Between December and April, the Marino Ballena National Park in Uvita serves as the 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 have some special encounters out at sea.

Marino Ballena National Park, Uvita, Costa Rica, +506 8946 7134

Take a walk in the Land of the Strays

Territorio de Zaguates (Land of the Strays), a volunteer-run no-kill dog shelter in Santa Barbara, is home to over 900 dogs. The stray dogs lucky enough to find themselves here are treated with immense love and given the best care possible. Visitors are 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.

Territorio de Zaguates, Heredia Province, Alajuela, Costa Rica, +506 8815 2514

Learn to cook

Traditional Costa Rican cuisine is outrageously delicious. Everything from gallo pinto, corn tortillas, and tamales to arroz con pollo, sopa negra, and patacones will make your mouth water and your belly smile—and learning to make some of the traditional dishes is a wonderful cultural experience. Taking a cooking class in Costa Rica is a delicious way to learn about Costa Rican culture and food as well as skills to take home and share with friends and family. One of the best options is a cooking class offered through a local family in La Fortuna—a truly authentic Costa Rican experience.

Learn Spanish

A great way to spend some time in Costa Rica is by taking some Spanish classes at a local language institution. There are Spanish schools located in some really great spots in Costa Rica (Tamarindo, Turrialba, Puerto Viejo, Nosara, and Samsara). Signing up for Spanish school is a wonderful way to make new friends, engage in a number of cultural activities like salsa dancing and cooking lessons, and learn how to communicate with the wonderful local people of Costa Rica. This is a great choice for solo travelers, couples, and groups of friends.