The only problem with a Costa Rica vacation is finding enough time to experience everything this adventurous destination has to offer. Spanning approximately 200 miles between the Pacific Ocean and the Caribbean Sea, it’s a country that offers a number of diverse ecosystems to explore within a short drive – everything from simmering volcanoes and cloud forests to rollicking rivers winding through lush rainforest and picturesque white-sand beaches.
It’s the perfect vacation for adventure and relaxation while enjoying easy access to some of Central America’s best wild places. Here are just a few reasons everyone should plan a Costa Rica vacation…
1) More than 30 National Parks
Costa Rica’s 32 national parks are a major draw for travelers and offer a unique view into the country’s individual ecosystems while protecting its incredible array of biodiversity.
In the north-central region, Arenal Volcano is a favorite with stunning views, plenty of wildlife and a temperate cloud forest. On the Pacific coast, Manuel Antonio National Park attracts people with its pristine sandy beaches, but is loaded with more than 100 species of mammals, including three-toed sloths and endangered white-faced capuchin monkeys, as well as nearly 200 types of birds. The park limits entrants, however, so show up early and bring your bathing suit to enjoy the expansive ocean views. Tortuguero National Park, which hugs the Caribbean coast, protects critical habitat for endangered sea turtles.
2) Remote Refuges and Reserves
The parks are amazing but the wildlife refuge zones and biological reserves add to Costa Rica’s protected landmass and offer visitors additional opportunities to explore outside of the parks. They are similar to Forest Service lands and National Wildlife Refuge areas in the United States because they are managed to protect the wildlife and ecosystems. In the northern part of the country, Caño Negro Wildlife Refuge, which is considered one of the top three most important wetland areas in the world, offers remote jungle habitat with incredible wildlife populations. Just watch your step, crocodiles are common along the river banks here.
Additionally, many of these zones are more remote and difficult to access, making them ideal for serious adventurers out there. For example, just outside of Corcovado National Park on the remote Osa Peninsula in southern Costa Rica you’ll find the Isla del Cano Biologica Reserve and some of the world’s most remote coastlines, well-suited for divers and exploratory anglers.
3) Wildlife Galore
Few places in the world offer such abundant and diverse wildlife viewing. Whether you’re hitting the trail, rafting or flying through the canopy on a zipline, every view gives a unique perspective into the local habitat.
Common monkey sightings include spiders, howlers, sloths and capuchins. The howlers are easily heard as they groan from the tree tops. The capuchins might try stealing your lunch so watch out for these incredibly intelligent animals. Spider monkeys are endangered and a joy to watch from a distance. The sloth is revered and adored by everyone. They blend well and are extremely difficult to spot, but local guides are helpful when trying to spot them.
Iguanas patrol the beaches and are often seen darting across the roads. Crocodiles occupy many of the rivers and the smaller caymans are also visible in numerous river systems. Colorful toucans and parrots patrol the skies and hang out in the canopy above them all.
The fish species are exceptional with sportfish being abundant on both coastlines. World-class tarpon are swimming around the Caribbean river mouths while monster marlin, dorado and roosterfish are found on the Pacific side. Head out snorkeling and you will see a rich aquatic world filled with colorful fish.
4) Two Coastlines and Countless Beaches
What more can anyone want? If you want to lay out on a white sand beach and listen to the waves rolling in, Costa Rica is lined with pristine beaches. In fact, you can find affordable hotels and rentals right on the ocean without looking too hard.
On the Pacific side, the surf town of Tamarindo on the Nicoya Peninsula is a popular stop. Manzanillo and Montezuma are also quaint little beach towns on the same peninsula. Skip down further south and stop in Jaco for horseback rides on the beach or take an ATV tour into the surrounding mountains. Jaco and the nearby beaches have excellent surf and many of the best surfers in the world frequent the area.
On the Caribbean side, Cahuita National Park is a must visit for its two incredible beaches, Playa Vargas and Playa Blanca. Bring your snorkel because the shoreline borders reef where crystal clear waters and aquatic life make things exciting.
5) Wild Rivers
Flowing down from the mountains of Costa Rica, rivers cut hard lines to the coast. Study a map of either coastline and you will see river mouths with surprising frequency. Some are seasonal but many offer year-round paddling.
The Pacuare is a favorite for whitewater rafting with great drops and Class III-IV rapids. It cuts through canyons with waterfalls cascading through the dense forests. The river is also world-renowned for its spectacular scenery.
The Rio Frio has flatwater with amazing wildlife viewing and the Corobici and Tonorio offer a mix of Class I-III rapids while also showing off the local critters. The flatwater trips are slow paced on the rafts, allowing you to have a close and personal view of the iguanas on the banks and monkeys foraging in the overhanging trees. It’s one of the best ways to view the local wildlife in their natural environment without spooking them.
6) World-class Coffee
Some of the best coffee in the world is produced in the rich volcanic soils of Costa Rica’s mountains where farmers plant 100 percent Arabica beans. So it should be no surprise then even the cup of coffee you order at a neighborhood cafe is top notch. Take a tour of a coffee plantation to see how the country’s major export is grown, harvested, dried, and processed. Or just hit a neighborhood cafe to sample coffee from local producers.
7) Epic Sunsets and Pura Vida
It seems like almost every evening in Costa Rica ends with an epic sunset – picturesque views of the sun dropping behind the horizon. Ruby red skies blanket the coastlines and the sun illuminates the volcanoes and lush, green landscape in the misty mountains. Sitting on a deck to catch the last hour of light is the best finale to an adventure-filled day here. It’s Pura Vida at its best.
Photos: Arenal Volcano – Zach Lazzari; Spider monkey – Rios Tropicales; Zip lining in Costa Rica – Rios Tropicales; Pacaure River rafting Costa Rica – Rios Tropicales