Crystal sand beaches, lush jungle, and creatures you won’t see in any other country; a gap year in Costa Rica is something you’ll never forget.
Over 25% of the country is covered in rainforest, and it’s flanked by the tropical waters of the Pacific and Caribbean Seas. From treetops to volcanoes, there are so many things to do in Costa Rica, whether you’re into food, adventure or just hanging out with the locals to learn about a new culture.
The best way to get around for us backpackers is by local bus. It keeps costs down in what’s actually a relatively pricey country compared to the rest of South America. To make sure you’re hopping to all the right places, here are the top backpacker attractions in Costa Rica as recommended by fellow travellers.
Tortuguero National Park
Costa Rica’s epic array of wildlife is a big draw and, to make sure you see as much of it as possible, head to a national park. Here, the animals are protected and you can see the creatures in their natural habitats.
While Costa Rica has almost too many parks to choose from, Tortuguero is one of the favourites for one simple reason: it’s home to turtles and, come nesting season, the females lay their eggs here. A short while after, they hatch and enter the ocean – an incredible sight.
The park is a little hard to get to, located in the remote northeast, but you’ll be rewarded with all the crazy cute animals you get to see. You can explore the park while canoeing down the narrow canals or trekking with a guide, all the while keeping your eyes peeled for creatures like the three-toed sloth or toucan.
Depending on your timeline, you can even consider staying put and helping with the conservation of these rare animals.
You could almost believe this town was crafted purely for the wanderlust traveller. Santa Teresa is located south of the country’s capital, San Jose, at the bottom of the Nicoya coast. It takes just 6 hours to reach by bus for less than $20.
It’s a small, almost hipster town, giving off an anything goes and easy-living vibe. It has a pretty beach and a few authentic eateries, making it the perfect spot to lay down the backpack and pick up a board. The waves here are world-renowned and, with an abundance of surf shops and board rental places, you’ll soon find someone willing to give you a quick tutorial.
It doesn’t take long to see that, for many, a few days in Santa Teresa have transpired into a few weeks, so be warned.
Costa Rica has a pure pull of adventure and no end of natural phenomena to photograph. Volcán Arenal is one of the more surreal places to visit.
Despite the fact it hasn’t been an active volcano for the past few years, it’s still an impressive site. You’ll find it north of the country sitting back from the rainforest near neighbouring Nicaragua.
However, it’s not just something pretty to look at. This mountain of wonders has hot springs hidden at its base as well as winding rapids, waterfalls and underground caves to explore.
When all that gets too exhausting, the nearby town of La Fortuna is worth a little investigation too.
Manuel Antonio National Park
Manuel Antonio National Parkis on the country’s Pacific coast and a short ride away from the city of Quepos. It’seasily accessible by bus and ideal for those on a limited timescale.
As well as the lush and leafy rainforest, the park has dreamy beaches of powder soft sand and colourful coral reef. You’ll get to see a snippet of all the country’s best features in one place. It’s also the smallest of the country’s parks, meaning less ground to cover, but still incredible to see.
After all the treetop exploring, a chill out in one of the country’s best beach areas is ideal. Playa Jaco is one of the more developed seaside areas, pairing white-sand bays with a buzzing night scene. Combine this with a few budget hostels and it makes for the perfect gap year destination.
By day you can ride the waves and sprawl out on the 4km stretch of beach, and come evening you can sample the eclectic mix of reggaeton and dance hall in the strip’s bars and clubs.
As with anywhere in Costa Rica, you are never too far from the vibrant and intriguing species of tropical creatures. Just a short drive from Jaco is the Carara Biological Reserve. A little quieter, it’s here you may be able to get a glimpse of those elusive macaws, armadillos and crocodiles.