Best places to visit in costa rica for first time

Costa Rica, , a land of unparalleled beauty and adventure. With its lush landscapes and vibrant culture, it’s no big surprise why it’s one of the top destinations for the travelers. A tiny slice of emerald paradise snuggled between Nicaragua and Panama, waving you over with its jaw-dropping natural wonders, diverse wildlife, and chill Pura Vida vibe. It’s like a dream come true for explorers!

Imagine lush rain forests bustling with all sorts of colorful critters, towering volcanoes reaching for the heavens, and beaches so pristine they look like they’re straight out of a postcard. Yep, Costa Rica’s got it all. But here’s the thing: With so much awesomeness packed into one place, it’s easy to feel a tad lost on where to begin your adventure, especially if you’re a first-timer.

So, where do you even start?

Cocos Island Public Park

Cocos Island National Park, also known as Treasure Island, is a World Heritage site in the Eastern Tropical Pacific, covering 202,100 hectares off the Costa Rica mainland. The island, also known as Isla del Coco, is the only landmark of the vast submarine Cocos Range and supports the only humid tropical forest on an oceanic island in the Eastern Tropical Pacific.

The remaining 199,700 hectares protect diverse marine ecosystems, mostly pelagic, and the most diverse coral reefs of the entire Eastern Tropical Pacific. The park is part of the Eastern Tropical Pacific Marine Corridor, a marine conservation network that includes World Heritage properties in Colombia, Ecuador, and Panama.

The park is among the most important sites in the Eastern Tropical Pacific for the protection of large pelagic migratory species, such as the endangered Scalloped Hammerhead Shark and the near-threatened Silky Shark and Galapagos Shark. The island’s land portion hosts a remarkable degree of endemism across diverse taxonomic groups, including three endemic bird species, two endemic freshwater fish, and two endemic reptile species.

Cocos Island National Park is of irreplaceable global conservation value, reminding us of what parts of tropical oceans historically looked like. This diamond of biodiversity, pronounced a World Legacy Site by UNESCO, is a heaven for nature darlings. Plunge into its perfectly clear waters and wonder about hammerhead sharks, dolphins, and stingrays. With huge timberland regions and dazzling cascades, it’s a sanctuary for natural life fans.

cocos island national park
cocos island national park

Costa Rica’s National Museum

The National Museum of Costa Rica, located in San José, is a cultural institution dedicated to preserving and showcasing Costa Rica’s rich history, archaeology, and natural wonders. Established in 1887, the museum houses vast collections in the former Bellavista Barracks, a military fortress built in 1917.

The bullet holes on the walls are a stark reminder of the 1948 Costa Rican Civil War, a pivotal moment in the nation’s history. In 1950, the barracks were transformed into a cultural haven, symbolizing the country’s commitment to peace and education.

The museum offers visitors a captivating journey through Costa Rica’s past, showcasing pre-Columbian artifacts, intricate goldwork, colonial era, and political evolution. It also showcases Costa Rica’s diverse natural world, including lush rainforests and majestic volcanoes. Visitors can immerse themselves in the vibrant tapestry of Costa Rican flora and fauna through expertly curated exhibits.

A butterfly paradise is also present within the museum grounds, offering visitors a delightful surprise – a butterfly garden. The National Museum of Costa Rica offers an enriching experience for visitors of all ages and backgrounds, offering a deeper appreciation for Costa Rica’s unique cultural heritage and commitment to environmental conservation.

Malpaís Beach

Malpaís Beach, located on the southern tip of the Nicoya Peninsula, Costa Rica, is a unique and dramatic landscape that is a favorite among surfers and those seeking a more secluded escape. The name Malpaís translates to “badlands” in Spanish, but its rugged beauty, characterized by rocky shores, volcanic black sand coves, and hidden tide pools, creates a captivating atmosphere.

Malpaís Beach is renowned for its consistent waves, making it a haven for surfers of all levels. The long beach break and rolling waves offer ideal conditions for both beginners and experienced surfers. Several surf camps and schools cater to those who want to learn or improve their surfing skills.

Beyond the surf, Malpaís Beach offers other activities such as tide pooling, where visitors can discover a variety of interesting marine creatures in the shallow pools left behind by the receding tide. Compared to the more developed and lively Santa Teresa, Malpaís Beach offers a peaceful and laid-back vibe, allowing visitors to unwind and soak in the natural beauty of the surroundings.

Luxury fringed vegetation provides ample opportunities for hiking and exploring the surrounding wildlife, such as playful monkeys swinging through trees or colorful birds perched on branches. Malpaís Beach is the perfect destination for those seeking a balance between relaxation and adventure.

Puerto Viejo

Puerto Viejo de Talamanca is a charming coastal town in Costa Rica known for its laid-back atmosphere, rich Afro-Caribbean culture, and stunning beaches. The town’s unique charm is a blend of indigenous Bribri culture, Jamaican influence from 19th-century immigrants, and a recent influx of Europeans and North Americans. Puerto Viejo’s colorful architecture, lively reggae scene, and delectable cuisine reflect this cultural fusion.

Embrace the Pura Vida Lifestyle in Puerto Viejo, where the pace of life slows down and the focus is on enjoying simple pleasures. Enjoy pristine beaches, explore lush rainforests, and indulge in delicious local fare. Playa Cocles, known for its soft white sand and turquoise waters, is perfect for swimming, sunbathing, and stand-up paddleboarding.

Playa Negra, known for its dramatic black volcanic sand, is a haven for experienced surfers. Playa Punta Uva, nestled within a protected wildlife refuge, offers tranquility and stunning natural beauty.

Explore the wild side of Puerto Viejo, including Cahuita National Park, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, where you can hike through the jungle canopy and observe sloths, monkeys, and colorful birdlife. The culinary scene in Puerto Viejo is a delightful fusion of Caribbean and Costa Rican flavors, featuring fresh seafood dishes, hearty rice and beans meals, and local fruits like pineapple and mango.

Nightlife in Puerto Viejo is lively with live reggae music, attracting locals and visitors alike.

La Fortuna City

La Fortuna, also known as La Fortuna Town or Villa Fortuna, is a charming and adventurous town located at the base of the Arenal Volcano in Costa Rica’s Northern Highlands. The town’s transformation from a quiet agricultural community to a popular tourist destination is deeply tied to Arenal Volcano’s dramatic eruption in 1968. La Fortuna serves as an adventure hub, offering hiking trails, cascading waterfalls, and boiling hot springs.

The town offers various activities such as trekking Arenal Volcano, exploring the Arenal Hanging Bridges, taking a refreshing dip in the La Fortuna Waterfall, and enjoying the hot springs surrounded by the rainforest. Beyond the thrills, La Fortuna offers cultural delights, such as the town’s central park with colorful gardens and friendly vendors, and relaxation in the ecological gardens of Mistico Arenal Hanging Bridges Park.

La Fortuna caters to various budgets and travel styles with a wide range of accommodation options, including luxurious eco-lodges, family-friendly hotels, and budget-friendly hostels. The town is also a paradise for nature lovers, with lush rainforests containing exotic wildlife like monkeys, sloths, toucans, and butterflies. Birdwatching enthusiasts can spot over 600 bird species in the region.

La Fortuna strikes a perfect balance between adventure, relaxation, and cultural immersion, offering an unforgettable experience in the heart of Costa Rica’s breathtaking natural beauty.

Calling all experience lovers! La Fortuna City is your jungle gym, offering adrenaline-siphoning exercises like rappelling, boating, and zip-lining. Subsequently, loosen up in the space’s popular warm waters and absorb the excellence of La Fortuna cascades.

Manuel Antonio Public Park

Manuel Antonio National Park, located on Costa Rica’s central Pacific coast, is a must-visit for nature enthusiasts. Established in 1972, the park covers over 680 hectares of land and 25,634 hectares of marine area, offering a breathtaking panorama of lush rainforests and turquoise Pacific Ocean waters. A network of well-maintained trails winds through the park, offering opportunities for exploration at all levels.

Playa Manuel Antonio, with its soft white sand and calm waters, is ideal for swimming, sunbathing, and stand-up paddleboarding. Espadilla Sur Beach offers a livelier scene with vendors selling snacks and surfing lessons. The park also boasts vibrant coral reefs, making it a haven for snorkelers and scuba divers.

Wildlife encounters are abundant in the park, with three-toed sloths hanging languidly in trees, playful white-faced capuchin monkeys swinging through the canopy, and a variety of colorful birdlife flitting amongst the branches.

To protect the park’s delicate ecosystem, daily visitors must be purchased online in advance. To minimize impact on the natural wonder, visitors should follow sustainable tourism practices, such as using reusable water bottles, avoiding single-use plastics, and staying on designated trails.

Manuel Antonio National Park offers a unique blend of rainforest exploration, beachside relaxation, and underwater adventures, making it Costa Rica’s most popular national park.

La Sabana Park

La Sabana Metropolitan Park, also known as Parque Metropolitano La Sabana, is the largest and most significant urban park in San José, Costa Rica. It is a sprawling green space, known as the “lungs of San José” by Costa Ricans. The land was donated in the late 17th century by Manuel Antonio Chapuí, the parish priest of San José, to favor Costa Rica’s interests. Over the years, the area has been used for recreation and sports activities, and it was also home to San José’s first international airport until the 1950s.

Today, La Sabana Park offers a welcome respite from the urban buzz of San José, with over 72 hectares of lawns, forests, walking paths, and lakes. Recreational activities include exercising, sports, picnicking, family fun, and visiting the Museum of Costa Rican Art. The park features a designated running/skating track, soccer fields, tennis courts, baseball stadium, and basketball court. The park also features playgrounds with slides, swings, and climbing structures, as well as a lake where visitors can spot ducks, geese, and fish.

La Sabana Park is a vibrant hub for locals and visitors, providing a place to relax, recharge, and connect with nature amidst the urban landscape of San José.

Irazu Volcano

Irazú Volcano, Costa Rica’s highest active volcano, is located in the Cordillera Central near Cartago. The name “Irazú” is believed to come from the indigenous language “ara” and “tzu” meaning “place of thunder” or a corruption of Iztarú, an indigenous village on the volcano’s flanks. The volcano has a long history of eruptions, with the most recent major ones occurring between 1963 and 1965. These eruptions caused significant damage to nearby towns and cities, including flooding caused by ash damming a river.

Today, Irazú is a popular tourist destination with a paved road leading to the summit craters and a weekly bus service. Hikers can hike to the top, offering breathtaking views of the Atlantic and Pacific coasts. The volcano has five craters, the most important being the Main Crater and the Diego de la Haya Crater.

The Main Crater is 980 feet deep, while the Diego de la Haya Crater is a green crater lake with variable depth. Irazú Volcano National Park was established in 1955 to protect the volcano and its ecosystem, home to a variety of plant and animal life. Climb through its rough territory and wonder about the stunning perspectives from the pit’s edge, a demonstration of the country’s volcanic legacy.

Santa Rosa National Park

Santa Rosa National Park is a national park in Guanacaste Province, Costa Rica, established in 1966 to protect the site of the Battle of Santa Rosa. The park covers an area of approximately 495 square kilometers and is part of the Area de Conservación Guanacaste World Heritage Site. It is divided into four sectors: Sector Las Pailas, which is the driest part, home to dry tropical forest and the Hacienda Santa Rosa, the site of the Battle of Santa Rosa.

Sector Santa Rosa, located in the transition zone between dry and wet tropical forests, is home to a variety of wildlife, including monkeys, sloths, and deer. Sector Murciélago, the wettest sector, is home to wet tropical forest and the Congo Trail, leading to a beautiful waterfall. Sector Playa Naranjo, located on the coast, is a popular destination for swimming, sunbathing, and surfing.

The park is a must-visit for travelers to Costa Rica due to its rich history, diverse wildlife, beautiful beaches, hiking and camping opportunities, and the opportunity to learn about conservation. Visitors can also visit the Hacienda Santa Rosa visitor center to learn about the park’s history and its significance in Costa Rican history.

Step back in time at this World Legacy Site, where history and nature merge. Investigate the recreation area’s tropical dry woodland and submerge yourself in its rich social heritage, a demonstration of Costa Rica’s legacy and biodiversity.

Visiting Costa Rica is something beyond an excursion; a remarkable encounter will remain with you for eternity. From its sea shores and timberlands to its volcanoes and culture, Costa Rica is an otherworldly and essential spot ready to be investigated.  Anyway, what are you hanging tight for? Gather your sacks and leave on an undertaking that could only be described as epic in Costa Rica, where nature, experience, and entertainment anticipate every step of the way.

About the author
Jane Miller