Top 10 things to do in Costa Rica

As one of the most biodiverse areas on earth, Costa Rica’s stunning natural beauty makes it Central America’s biggest travel destination. With habitats from rainforests to virgin beaches and active volcanoes, the country is an ecological marvel that is ideal for adventurous travellers.
Rafting on the Pacuare River, Costa Rica. Photo: Shutterstock
Rafting on the Pacuare River, Costa Rica. Photo: Shutterstock

Article updated in November 2021

Costa Rica is a spellbinding destination and a natural paradise for travellers. From palm-fringed beaches to lush rainforest and steaming volcanoes, there are wonderfully varied landscapes in which to experience the country’s biological diversity and abundant wildlife – and many different ways in which to discover them. Here is our guide to the top 10 things to do in Costa Rica.

1. Wildlife watching 

Costa Rica's natural wonderland is an incredible destination for wildlife watching. The relatively small space that the country occupies on the earth’s surface is home to five percent of all its scientifically identified plant and animal species – including more than 850 species of birds. Observing Costa Rica’s abundant birdlife in its natural habitat is truly a sight to behold. Birdwatching trips with an expert guide are the best way to pick out all sorts of birds that you might otherwise miss. You can spot rare species including the tropical kingbird, barred becard and Amazon kingfisher on an outing to Los Quetzales National Park as part of Insight Guides' Costa Rica's Wild South trip

Some of the most famous Costa Rican animal inhabitants to look out for include jaguar, puma, crocodile and tapir. The country is also perhaps the best destination in the world where you can encounter sloths. Just north of the capital San José, at the Toucan Rescue Ranch, a number of resident rescued sloths are usually undergoing rehabilitation. You can watch them working on their climbing skills, as part of their slow and steady journey towards independence. In addition to sloths, the centre also cares for other wildlife such as toucans, spider monkeys and sea otters. A visit with the ranch's inspirational staff is sure to be memorable.

2. Canopy tours and skywalks 

Costa Rica is well-known for its outdoor adventure activity opportunities. Zip-lining as part of a canopy tour, is the most readily accessible adventure sport in the country. Tour operators offer visitors the chance to get a close-up look at wildlife in the forest canopy, as well as to take in panoramic views of the forested mountain scenery. However, zip-lines are primarily focussed on providing thrilling fun. Sky Trek offers the highest and longest zip-lines available in both Arenal and Monteverde. Having arrived at the top of the mountain after a ride in an open-air gondola, you will begin your descent down the zip line course. Cables reach great heights and lengths – never fear, you will be safely harnessed to the cable throughout the tour – crossing mountain valleys, above forested slopes, and occasionally even through the clouds. 

Zip-lining is an exciting way to experience Costa Rica’s rainforest and taking your first step into thin air is certainly a thrill. For those who may feel a certain amount of trepidation about taking that step, the tour guides at Wingnuts Canopy Tours, based in Sámara in Guanacaste Province, are adept at catering for and calming apprehensive youngsters and adults.

Hanging bridges in cloud forest at Monteverde, Costa Rica. Photo: Shutterstock


3. Horseback riding

To enjoy a slower change of pace, head inland for a horse riding tour on one of Costa Rica's tucked away farms or seemingly untouched local trails. Bajos del Toro to the west of Poás Volcano is a particularly beautiful destination, with pastoral landscapes stretching along the volcano’s heat-etched slopes. You can take in views of misty mountains and cascading waterfalls, while riding along the trails also offers the chance to meet local communities. Guanacaste also comes highly recommended as a horse riding destination. The working cattle ranches (haciendas) clustered in the area cater for travellers, offering horse hire as well as bed and breakfast accommodation.     

Horseback riding on trails in Costa Rica. Photo: Shutterstock

4. Walking and hiking

Numerous walking and hiking trails criss-cross the Costa Rican countryside. Many of these routes offer the opportunity to pass through verdant river valleys with stunning waterfalls, jungle regions or volcanic landscapes. Hiking and mountaineering enthusiasts can climb all four of the Central Valley’s active volcanoes in just two days and will be able to see lava flows and evidence of previous eruptions. Or you might prefer to simply stroll along a beach or tackle one of the many well-maintained national park trails. Remember to make sure you take sturdy shoes or hiking boots, as well as a lightweight rain jacket for the trip.  

Hiking one of Costa Rica's many trails. Photo: Shutterstock

5. Visit an ecolodge

Given Costa Rica's biological abundance and the nation's enlightened and dedicated conservation programme – 26 percent of the country's land is protected as national parks – it isn't surprising that eco-tourism is hugely popular. Staying at an ecolodge demonstrates why. Travellers can experience nature at its best, as most lodges are both relatively remote and near to a national park. Establishments such as Lapa Rios Eco Lodge in Puntarenas Province, provide excursions for travellers to learn about the surrounding area. You can take a local medicine tour, hike through the forest to the waterfalls, or help contribute to the Lapa Rios reforestation programme by transplanting a tree in an emerging forest area. 

6. Climb trees in the rainforest

What better way to experience the lush, awe-inspiring rainforest than by doing so high above the trees? At Hacienda Baru Lodge in Puntarenas Province, travellers can scale a towering tree in the rainforest – one as high as a 10-storey building – all the way to the top, with the help of an expert guide. But not before warming up with a 40-minute hike through a national wildlife refuge through overgrown cacao plantations.

7. Try your hand at river rafting

For more daring travellers, white water rafting is one of the most exciting things to do in Costa Rica. The country is home to a multitude of rapids, which thrill seekers can negotiate in rubber dinghies along with up to eight other people, including a guide. During the run, rafters are surrounded by lush mountains, palm plantations and jungle gorges. No experience is required, but the river rapids can certainly be challenging. Fortunately, there are a variety of options available graded by the level of difficulty desired. Aguas Bravas is one of the longest established rafting tour specialists in Costa Rica. They operate throughout the country offering rafting adventures on the Balsa, Sarapiquí, Pacuare and Chirripó rivers.

Costa Rica river rafting. Photo: Shutterstock

8. Downtime at the beach

While Costa Rica offers a vast array of outdoor activities, there are also some sublime beaches to relax on and enjoy some downtime. Apart from expansive stretches of mangrove swamps, Costa Rica’s coastline consists largely of expansive beaches – some of which have dark volcanic sand – dotted with rocky outcrops and a small number of islands offshore. Some of the most beautiful beaches in Costa Rica include Playa Manuel Antonio, backed by the protected rainforest of Manuel Antonio National Park, and Punta Uva on the Caribbean coast in Limón Province. 

Manuel Antonio National Park, Cost Rica. Photo: Shutterstock

9. Climb a volcano

For centuries, Costa Rica has been a hotbed of volcanic activity. Today, the Central Valley alone has four active cones. Those who like to travel on the wild side can explore a volcano on foot in Arenal Volcano National Park in La Fortuna. A visit here gives you the opportunity to see the area destroyed by the 1969 eruption, which is now undergoing a regeneration process, and to pass through the forest to view any recent lava flows. Explore volcanoes in Costa Rica as part of Insight Guides' Beaches and Volcanoes trip

10. Give water rappelling a try

For travellers looking for serious adventure, Hacienda Guachipelin in Guanacaste offers tours that feature water rappelling. This involves (securely) stepping backward from the top of a waterfall. With the help of safety ropes and professional guides, you then follow the flow of the waterfall down to the bottom. This exhilarating adventure sport, also known as waterfall canyoning, guarantees an adrenaline rush for those daring enough to try it.

Water rappelling in Costa Rica. Photo: Shutterstock

Ready to take a trip to Costa Rica?

Our local experts can help you to plan, organise and book fantastic tailor-made trips to Costa Rica. Simply contact us with details of your ideas for the trip and when you would like to visit. We will then prepare a personalised itinerary especially, based on your preferences. You can amend it until you're happy with every detail before you book. Seek inspiration in our existing Costa Rica itineraries, and keep in mind that all of our pre-planned itineraries can be fully tailored to suit your specific needs.