In Spanish, Pura Vida means “pure life,” but in Costa Rica the term goes beyond literal translation. It’s representative of the entire Tico culture and lifestyle – a philosophy rooted in living life fully, gratefully, and joyfully.
Discovering the true meaning of Pura Vida in every day life in Costa Rica is easy – the country is immensely beautiful and brimming with natural wonder, and it’s people and culture are equally vibrant and enjoyable.
Visiting Costa Rica is all about slowing things down, celebrating the every day, and enjoying life to the fullest. Whether you find that appreciation for life in the country’s stunning beaches and national parks, in it’s eclectic laidback beach towns, or through it’s Latino-Carribean cuisine, this guide will help you discover the top things to do in Costa Rica and how to embrace the spirit of Pura Vida.
What to do in Costa Rica
It’s hard to include all that Costa Rica has to offer in one guide – there’s literally so much to do and experience, especially for active adventure-seekers. From exhilarating white water rafting and zipling through rainforest jungles, there’s plenty of outdoor activities to fill your Costa Rica itinerary.
Here are the 10 top things to do in Costa Rica.
1. Zipline in Monteverde Cloud Forest
There are hundreds of zipline canopy tours throughout Costa Rica, all with their own merits, but ziplining in the Monteverde Cloud Forest is especially good.
The Monteverde Cloud Forest is an important biological and ecological reserve and conservation area brimming with animal and plant life, located in Costa Rica’s Puntarenas and Alajuela provinces. It’s thick, mossy, fern-filled rainforest is perpetually permeated by damp rolling fog – it’s literally a forest among the clouds.
Canopy tours in Monteverde take you on beautiful forest trails, over suspension bridges with scenic views, and up elevated ziplining platforms to access the many cable systems throughout the park. You’ll be strapped in a harness and given tutorials before your tour (ziplining isn’t hard, and requires little athletic ability- anyone can do it!), and soon enough you’ll zipping high above the rainforest.
There’s also a ton to do beyond ziplining in Monteverde – ride the Sky Tram, horseback ride, take a guided tour, visit the orchid garden, or hike the Ficus Trails to see owls, bats, sloths, and more. You can also trek up to La Ventana, a scenic overlook where you can see the panorama created by the continental divide.
2. Chill on the Beach
If Costa Rica’s known for one thing, it’s amazing beaches. With over 700 miles of coastline along both the Caribbean and Pacific coasts, Costa Rica has everything from white sand to black sand to remote, wild beaches to sandy strips nestled up to laidback beach towns.
Beach goers looking for pure relaxation will be greeted with warm tropical waters and never ending sun, while surfers will find rolling waves and world-class surf. Many beaches are ideal for snorkeling or diving among the numerous coral reefs, and kayak and paddle board rentals are common.
For a more detailed list of where to go, read the Top 10 Must-Visit Beaches in Costa Rica.
3. Snorkel with Nurse Sharks in Cahuita
Cahuita National Park is located on Costa Rica’s northeast Caribbean coast, and is highly regarded as having some of the best snorkeling and scuba diving. The Cahuita coral reef is the largest reef system on the coast, and home to hundreds of different types of coral, tropical fish, octopus, and other marine life – including nurse sharks!
Don’t worry – Nurse Sharks are harmless to humans. Despite their unnerving size (up to 14 feet long!), Nurse sharks are slow-moving bottom dwellers that dine on fish, squid, and shrimp. Their jaws are very strong, mostly for occassionally crushing coral and shellfish, and they can bite in defense.
But, they’re mostly co-habitants on any snorkeling adventure and sighting one is an exhilarating experience that makes for a great travel story!
Cahuita is also great for lounging on the beach, taking a rainforest hike, and spotting monkeys, sloths, toucans, and other wildlife.
4. Visit an Active Volcano Crater
There are a quite a few noteworthy volcanoes in Costa Rica, but the summit at Irazú Volcano features an unearthly and almost toxic-looking green lake within it’s crater which reflects its still very active core. The volcano was known to the native Irazú tribe as thundering mountain, quite fittingly – Irazú famously erupted in 1963 during a visit by U.S. President John F. Kennedy, sending ash all the way to Nicaragua. It last erupted in 1994.
The tallest of Costa Rica’s volcanoes, it sits at 11,260 feet above sea level, and on clear days you can see nearby San Jose in the distance, or sometimes all the way to the sea.
Driving up to the summit you’ll witness the landscape change, from tropical, green fields dotted with local farms to more barren and windswept plains towards the top. The volcano summit at the very top resembles a moonscape – dry, barren earth and rock spotted with a few hearty vegetation.
There’s a $10 USD charge to enter Irazú Volcano National Park, and it will take about an hour to drive to the top. At the summit there are a few walking paths, benches, and scenic overlooks for taking great pics of the crater. Bring a light jacket as the elevation makes the temperature much chillier than typical in Costa Rica.
5. Go White Water Rafting
For adventure-seekers, Costa Rica has great white water rafting. There are a few different popular rafting rivers, which cut through dense tropical forests and wind through Costa Rica’s valleys and canyons, but the Pacuare River is one of the most scenic and accessible rivers that offers up to class IV-V rapids.
Voted one of the world’s top 10 river trips by National Geographic, it won’t disappoint.
Starting in the Talamanca Mountains and running 68 miles through Costa Rica’s south central region to the Caribbean Sea, the river courses through diverse terrain, past waterfalls, and over challenging and exciting rapids. Tours offer experienced and adventurous travelers day trips or multi-day overnight rafting excursions complete with professional guides, gear rentals, and training.
6. Relax in Natural Hot Springs
Arenal Volcano National Park is located in Costa Rica’s fertile northern region, and encompasses the well-recognized Arenal Volcano, rushing waterfalls, dense rainforest, the country’s largest lake, and the Tabacan Hot Springs and Baldi Hot Springs.
Spend a day or two at Arenal and take a relaxing dip in the hot springs, which are created when heat from the volcano warms underground waters, which then bubble to the surface in the form of geothermal pools rich with minerals. You’ll be surrounded by lush green tropical gardens in a serene and therapeutic atmosphere, with an amazing view of Arenal’s looming peak. There’s even water slides.
The Arenal area is home to many hotels and resorts ranging from moderately priced abodes to luxury spas. The area offers numerous hikes, kayaking or biking tours, waterfalls, and many more activities to try – or just spend your time treating yourself to warm baths, cocktails, and volcanic mud massages.
7. Go Horseback Riding
Costa Rica has many different types of terrain for incredible horseback riding – beaches, rainforest, countryside fields, national parks. No matter what your style, there are numerous tours available to experienced and inexperienced riders alike, as well as group and private rides with professional and knowledgeable guides.
Some of the best-known areas for great horseback riding include Manual Antonio National Park, Monteverde, Arenal, and Rincon de la Vieja. Find some tour options here.
8. Trek to a Waterfall
La Fortuna is one of Costa Rica’s most famous waterfalls. Located in Arenal Volcano National Park, the cascading waters drop about 245 feet into a crisp freshwater pool. Visitors can wade into the waters and attempt to fight the currents to get close to the falls (there’s a lifeguard on duty!).
Trekking to La Fortuna is short in length (about 10 minutes), but strenuous – you must work your way down a long flight of steep and slippery steps carved into the arduous hillside. But, the trek is well worth the effort to bask in the spray of the plunging falls and cool off in the fresh water.
The hike back is likely to take longer, as going up is always harder than going down!
9. Visit a Sloth Sanctuary
I mean, come on. Sloths are so CUTE.
And they’re native to Costa Rica, where both two-toed and three-toed species of sloth exist and thrive in the wild. You might be able to catch a glimpse of them in the rainforest regions or on guided tours.
But, many injured and orphaned sloths sloths make their home at the Sloth Sanctuary of Costa Rica, located near Puerto Limon on the southeast Caribbean coast. The Sanctuary is dedicated to rescuing, rehabilitating, researching, and re-releasing harmed sloths back to their native habitat, and the $30 USD entrance fee helps support these important efforts. Plus, you’ll get a tour, learn about the sloths, see tiny newborn sloths (!), and take a guided canoe ride to see them in hanging in the trees (light meal included).
10. Explore San José
San José may at first appear to be in stark contrast to the rest of Costa Rica – with it’s heavy urban concrete structures, noisy traffic, and fast pace, it’s a far cry from the remote and laidback coastal towns and the pristine nature of the majority of the country.
However, don’t discount San José. As Costa Rica’s capital city and cultural center, there’s tons to explore and experience that may not be accessible in other areas of the country. Once you find the best art galleries, museums, clubs, restaurants, and markets, you’ll quickly discover the city’s underrated charm and gain more insight into the multidimensional nature of Costa Rica’s society and culture.
Top Things to do in San José
Costa Rica’s museums possess robust collections important to Tico heritage, tradition, and culture. The National Museum of Costa Rica houses artifacts and important native archeological collections from the Pre-Colombian era, and holds over 120 years of vital happenings in the country’s history . The Jade Museum displays the largest collection of pre-Colombian jade in all of the Americas in a modern and beautiful setting. The Museum of Contemporary Art and Design is dedicated to showcasing Central America’s robust contemporary art movement, as well as modern art from across the world.
San Jose’s Mercado Central is a sprawling, covered market full of food vendors, souvenir stalls, vegetable and fruit stands, and coffee shops. Similar to a flea market, it’s frequented by both locals and travelers alike. Spend some time wandering the market’s narrow corridors, shopping for unique or every day items, and enjoy a cheap lunch at a local soda (cheap, family-run eatery).
Parque La Sabana is the largest and most significant metropolitan park in San Jose. Centrally located, it’s sometimes referred to as “the lungs of San Jose.” It’s a large green oasis in the middle of the city, complete with a lagoon, walking paths, sculptures, and benches – making it a lovely spot for a midday break between sights and a picnic. It’s also home to the National Stadium of Costa Rica – a sports arena home to Costa Rica’s beloved futbol team.
Exploring the streets of San Jose reveals much of contemporary tico life. Wandering or driving through it’s neighborhoods beyond the downtown area highlights the city’s complex urban history, with colonial-style mansions and gated communities in upscale areas amidst boxy, modest single family homes adorned with gated portillos in middle class communities. Do like the locals do by visiting the fruit stands, convenience marts, and hole in the wall eateries of the neighborhoods.
What were your favorite things to do in Costa Rica? Share your tips in the comments!
Photo credits: Arturo Sotillo / Cariberry / Mark Carter / realworldphotos / Chris Goldberg / Andrew White / David Galvan / Jessica Kandler / Guillermo A. Duran / Vinh Tran / hherbzilla / John Mendard / Scott Ableman / Kyle May / Matt MacGillivray / Randall Elizondo Lopez / Zhu