As a Costa Rican with many international friends and visitors, I have always enjoyed taking on the role of tour guide and sharing all my best tips and insider information with those visiting my country. I feel very passionately, but not just because I am from here. Most likely, if you visit Costa Rica or know a Costa Rican, you have heard the phrase pura vida. Pura vida means pure life, and I think really embodies the way Costa Ricans see the world. We are really very kind people, incredibly family-oriented and enjoy being good hosts and welcoming our guests with the warmth of a friend. We also take a lot of pride in how we host guests, and have become a green-leader in tourism. One day soon, we also hope to leave fossil fuels completely for renewable energy.
The diversity of our ecosystems and flora and fauna are astounding. Though my country's size is equivalent to the US state of Vermont, we possess the highest density of biodiversity of any country worldwide! We have tropical rainforests, cloud, mangrove, and deciduous forests, Atlantic and Pacific coastlines. There are activities and experiences for every type of traveler old and young, family and solo. Sometimes, there is so much to do it can be overwhelming! So, I have come up with a fast and easy list of 10 of my favorite things to do. Most of these you can do from several different regions within the country. I hope this helps you find your own pura vida!
1) Eat at a soda
Costa Rican food has something for everyone, but if you really want to experience the flavor for an inexpensive price, you need to visit the sodas. A soda, as we called it locally, is a small restaurant serving home-style cooking and usually owned and operated by a family. One of my favorite dishes is the casados. This typical plate has rice, beans, and sweet plantains. Another worthy option is the picadillo, a dish made of chopped veggies (potato, squash, green beans, you name it!) sometimes with meat (chicken, beef, pork, or fish) and usually accompanied by a fresh fruit juice. In a soda, you can find breakfast, lunch and dinner all for a lower price than some larger restaurants and usually with bigger portions!
2) Take a night safari
If you don’t have one on your itinerary already, try to schedule one in-destination, at your hotel. You may be wondering why I would advise you to walk around outside in the dark! How could you even be able to see anything? However, during the night many of the forest animals really get active! Frogs, snakes, nocturnal mammals, and so many others are fairly easy to spot during the night. Of course, working with a reputable tour operator or hotel, you will be very safe too. If your experience is like mine, you will be very shocked at what your expert guide is able to locate in the dark! Most of these things I wouldn't even be able to see in the daylight!
See, cute not creepy!
3) Visit a national park
There's so much to say about our national parks! 26% of the country is protected either by a national park, biological or private reserves. We do a lot here to protect our country's unique flora and fauna, so you will find national parks are all over the country. Some are at the beach, some have volcanoes, some are known for hiking, bird-watching, culture, etc. If you really want to enjoy the local biodiversity, you must visit at least one! My favorite is Corcovado National Park!
Corcovado National Park
4) Try zip-lining
This adventure is all over the country and lots of people try it for the first time here. This is a thrilling experience from the short practice cables to the longest cables. Zip-lining is good for pretty much all ages, though it can depend on the intensity of the specific zip-line. Consult with your travel expert to get all the safety information.
5) Relax in some hot springs
Hot springs are my favorite part of the towns that are located close to volcanoes (did I mention that we have 6 active volcanoes?!). Hot springs are the product of geothermal heating. The heat produced by the volcanoes is responsible for these amazing and relaxing natural hot pools that we often find close to some volcanoes in the country. The most famous ones are in Arenal, but there are more in Bagaces, Ricon de la Vieja National Park, and Tenorio National Park. Some of these hot springs are inside of very nice hotels, which means you may have to pay for entering, but if you are more adventurous you can find some hidden free spots by asking the locals (me!).
6) Take an epic hike
There are so many options for epic hikes all around the country. Explore hidden falls and beaches, obscure peaks, or turquoise waters. My personal favorite is one of the most beautiful waterfalls in the country - Rio Celeste. This place is magical. Be sure to bring your hiking shoes! You will walk through the Tenorio National Park getting closer and closer to nature as you approach the meeting point of the two rivers, and perhaps you will even encounter some Tapirs on the way! This park is well known for being the home of the magnificent Rio Celeste; a magical looking body of water (and incredible waterfall!) with a particularly light blue color that is totally unique in its appearance. You can take a day tour to discover this rather mysterious occurrence or stay at one of the lodges nearby and get to know the towns of Alajuela and Bagaces a bit too.
Visiting Rio Celeste in 2015
7) Drink an Imperial beer, or if beer is not your thing, a fresh fruit juice
Imperial is one of the national beers ($2 per bottle), also known by the locals as aguilita for the eagle on its logo. An Imperial goes great with everything; lunch, appetizers, or if you are at a bar you should try to pair it with the famous chifrijo (rice, beans, fried pork, pico de gallo, lemon, avocado and chips).
If you prefer something non-alcoholic, try a fresh fruit juice. We are a fruit-lovers paradise and have many different types of fruits available you would not usually find all in once country! While at a soda, restaurant, or bar choose your favorite fruit (or perhaps one you have never tried before!) and ask to have it made into a glass of refreshing and very healthy juice.
8) Go rafting on the Pacaure River!
If you enjoy a good adventure, you need to choose white water rafting! There are many options in the country with many different levels of rapids, but if you love it as much as me, you should definitely consider the Pacuare River. You can choose a 2 day trip and stay at one of the lodges overnight or do the whole trip in one day. It’s going to be tiring but it is well-worth it! The Pacuare River it is great because it gives you the chance to enjoy nature and adventure at the same time. You don’t need to know how to swim to enjoy this activity either. Believe me, it’s the best!!!
9) Catch some waves in Central or South Pacific
Well-known for surfing, you will be able to find some good waves at either coast, though I prefer the Pacific side. Just one and a half hours away from San Jose, Jaco is the major surf town in the country and has fairly easily accessible waves with a big, wide and long sandy beach with peaks all along. Close by is Hermosa Beach, and has probably the biggest and most consistent breaks in the country. Other nice beaches for surfing are Palo Seco, Quepos, Manuel Antonio, Matapalo and Dominical. Check out our recent blog on great surfing spots!
10) Visit the central market in San Jose for cheap souvenir shopping
If you are planning to do some souvenir shopping and have some time to go to downtown San Jose, you need to visit the Central Market. This market is huge and will give you the best chance to find inexpensive souvenirs. This place is like a maze, but you will find many tiny aisles full of souvenir of stores, restaurants with inexpensive food, flower stores, craft stores, butchers, and so many other things. Whomever you need a gift for, I am sure you will find something here!
Our "Things to do in Costa Rica" series includes a section on what to do in Costa Rica.