Where to go on a Costa Rica
adventure holiday

Costa Rica may be small, but it’s packed full of nature reserves, cloud forests and wildlife refuges, all sandwiched between the Pacific and Caribbean. The country’s highlights are popular (read: busy) for good reason. Arenal Volcano, Manuel Antonio and Tortuguero are blimmin’ amazing, especially if this is your first encounter with wild animals. But the real highlights of Costa Rica can often be found off the typical tourist trail. Explore in the Turrialba countryside and visit a family-run finca or opt for lesser-known, but still remarkable, animal-filled environments such as Cano Negro. Basically, join a small group or tailor a tour that will take you to the out-of-the-way highlights that beach resorts can’t reach.
Arenal Volcano National Park

1. Arenal Volcano National Park

Arenal Volcano National Park copes with tourism much better than Manual Antonio. It’s still popular, but feels less busy. It’s the best place to do zip lining, canopy walkways and soak in geothermal hot springs. The birdwatching here – and all over Costa Rica – is brilliant. There are loads of trekking trails to waterfalls and up the side of the volcano, as well as excellent white water rafting from May to November.
Cano Negro

2. Cano Negro

The best thing about Cano Negro is that there’s hardly anyone else there. This small wetland area just to the north of Arenal is like a mini Tortuguero, although it receives nowhere near the number of visitors. Boat trips to see sloths, turtles and a huge variety of native bird species are amazing. The environment is immaculate and if you’re not too bothered about ticking off Tortuguero, Cano Negro is a great alternative.
Manuel Antonio National Park

3. Manuel Antonio National Park

Manual Antonio National Park is very popular – and with good reason. The Pacific coast beaches are gorgeous and there are plenty of places to try surfing or go horse riding on the white sand. You can pretty much guarantee you’ll see a sloth here and there are also some excellent Grade 4 river rapids, if you prefer things at a faster pace. Explore in the areas either side of the park for a much quieter experience.
San Gerardo de Dota

4. San Gerardo de Dota

Tucked away within the foothills of the Cordillera de Talamanca, the misty mountain village of San Gerardo de Dota is a real treat for lovers of the great outdoors. This is where you can meet local folk on small-scale farms, as well as having access to the wealth of wildlife, waterfalls and walking trails in Dantica cloud forest. The birdwatching is fantastic, and you’re more likely to spot a quetzal bird here than in Monteverde.
Tortuguero

5. Tortuguero

If you’ve never been on an organised wildlife tour before, the wetlands and canals of Tortuguero will rock your world. Although remote, there’s a well-run hotel bus pick-up service and boat trip from San Jose. Visitor numbers always increase between July and November, as it’s turtle nesting season. Aim to visit outside of this busy period or opt to take a light aircraft for a more authentic experience.
Turrialba

6. Turrialba

Farming is very small scale in Costa Rica. Farms and plantations are much more like cottage industries for local towns and cities rather than nationwide distributors. Turrialba is a great place to experience acres of farmland. It’s well-known for its rural landscapes, as well as being a centre for white water rafting on the Pacuare River, where the rapids and scenery are amazing.

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Travel Team
If you'd like to chat about Costa Rica adventure or need help finding a holiday to suit you we're very happy to help.

Costa Rica adventure holidays advice

Amanda Marks is the founder and managing director of our Costa Rica holiday specialists Tribes Travel. Here’s what Amanda recommends if you’re looking for a tailor made adventure in Costa Rica.

Where to stay

“Costa Rica’s Leaf System is the best way to distinguish which accommodation is providing the most sustainable business model. Factors are based on conserving the environment as well as protecting traditional culture and supporting the local community. This is something that Costa Rica is very good at. They’re really focused on sustainable tourism.”

Peaceful Caribbean

“Surprisingly, Costa Rica’s Caribbean beaches aren’t as popular as those on the Pacific coast. It’s the Pacific that has the better infrastructure; it tends to be the coast favoured by American visitors. The Caribbean side of the country is a lot quieter.”

Tailoring a tour

“If you really want to see wildlife in Costa Rica then go with a private guide. You’ll always see more animals and you’ll have the undivided attention of a local wildlife expert. Many travellers simply don’t understand the need to keep quiet when watching animals. It can be very irritating being in a group when not everyone is as focused as you are. It’s all about picking the right trip to suit you.”

Avoid the crowds

“If you want to avoid the crowds in Tortuguero, you can fly there by light aircraft. It’s expensive but certainly gives you a much more authentic adventure as opposed to a day trip on a bus. Alternatively, Corcovado National Park on the Osa Peninsula is a lot quieter than Tortuguero but equally as impressive.”

Costa Rica by car

“We promote self drive holidays. There’s nothing more adventurous than driving somewhere new. It’s a great way to stop where you like and be a bit more spontaneous and brave. It’s the ability to accept things being unpredictable that make driving on your own in Costa Rica such a unique experience.”
Carmel Hendry is product manager for our Costa Rica adventure specialists Explore. Here’s Carmel’s advice on having an adventure in Costa Rica as part of a small group:

Off-the-beaten-track adventures

“Our walking and cycling tours take you off the beaten track where we visit little out of the way villages and eat out at local restaurants. We do a great walk to El Burrito waterfall where you have to travel by 4x4 to the reach the trailhead. You'd never reach the trail otherwise. We then swim in the waterfall before hiking back to the vehicle.”

Watching wildlife

“The Dantica cloud forest is accessible from the little-known town of San Gerardo de Dota in the mountain foothills of southern Costa Rica. Hardly any tourists visit here, although you’ve got the same level of nature and wildlife as you’ll find in the super popular Monteverde cloud forest reserve. Animals like the quetzal bird can often be spotted in Dantica, and the nearby Parque Nacional los Quetzales, although you might not be so lucky in Monteverde.”

Swap chain hotels…

“Because Costa Rica is such a small country a lot of tourists tend to just do day trips from their beach resort hotel. For example in Guanacaste, a beach location, it is easy to access national parks or experiences like rafting and wildlife watching while on an excursion booked through the hotel. This often means that the larger hotel chains get all the benefits of tourism without really benefiting local people.”

… for family-run hotels & lodges

“We prefer to visit a number of small family run and locally owned hotels rather than beach resorts. We stay for one or two nights in a lot of 3-star hotels and local lodges. Sometimes the places that our groups stay in are so small that we're the only guests in the entire property.”
Written by Chris Owen
Photo credits: [Page banner: UI International Programs] [Arenal National Park: Fabio Fistarol] [Cano Negro: Gerry Zambonini] [Manual Antonio National Park: jack_g] [San Gerardo de Dota: s9-4pr] [Tortuguero: m.prinke] [Turrialba: Everjean] [Amanda Marks: kansasphoto] [Carmel Henrdy: John]