Travel Tips for Costa Rica

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Travel Tips for Costa Rica

Things to See in Costa Rica

Wildlife - Costa Rica is world famous for having an incredibly high level of biodiversity throughout its tropical forests (this covers what you may hear referred to as rain forests, cloud forests, and dry forests). There are tropical mammals such as monkeys, sloths, tapirs, and wild cats as well as an amazing assortment of insects and other animals. There are many many birds (both migratory and resident) - more on that below. With 25% of the country being national parks and protected areas, there are still many places you can go to see the abundant wildlife and lush vegetation of the country. Just like anywhere, the farther you get off the beaten path, the more likely you are to see a wide variety of flora and fauna.

There is such biodiversity in Costa Rica not only because it's a land bridge between North and South America, but also because the terrain is so varied and there are weather patterns moving in from both the Pacific and Atlantic/Caribbean. There are impressive volcanoes, mountain areas, rivers, lakes, and beaches all throughout the country. There are many beautiful beaches - most of the popular ones are on the Pacific side but the Caribbean has many excellent beaches as well.

Bird Watching - One of the most wonderful activities for people who love nature is bird watching. You can enjoy bird watching in many areas of Costa Rica. Due to the great diversity of climates, temperatures and forest types in Costa Rica, there is a wonderful variety of birds, with over 800 species. Some helpful books available on bird watching are Birds of Costa Rica by F. Gary Stiles and Alexander Skutch (Cornell University Press) or An Illustrated Field Guide to Birds of Costa Rica, illustrated by Victor Esquivel Soto. These books can be found at certain bookstores in San José or before coming to Costa Rica. They are both heavy books; many people tear out the plates of the Stiles & Skutch book to carry into the field and leave the rest of the book in their car or room. Plastic cards with the most common birds are available for many areas and are sold at gift shops.

Costa Rica's list of birds includes:

  • 16 species of parrots including the fabulous scarlet macaw.
  • 50 species of hummingbirds.
  • 10 species of trogons with the resplendent quetzal as the jewel.
  • 6 species of toucans, including the keel-billed and chestnut-mandibled.
  • Half the bird species in Costa Rica are passerines including warblers, sparrows and finches.
  • 16 species of ducks, including the fulvous whistling, white-faced ruddy and American wigeon.
  • 13 species of falcons, including the peregrine falcon, merlin and American kestrel.
  • 36 species of prey, including the gray hawk, swallow-tailed kite, solitary eagle and northern harrier.
  • 6 species of cracidae which look like turkeys.
  • 8 species of new world quails.
  • 15 species of rallideas including the rufous-necked wood-rail, American coot and ruddy crake.
  • 19 species of owls including the black-and-white, Costa Rican pygmy, central American pygmy and striped.
  • 3 species of potoos including the great, northern and common.
  • 16 species of woodpeckers, including cinnamon, chestnut-colored and pale-billed.

The coastal list of birds includes:

  • 19 species of herons & wading birds such as the great blue heron, great egret, boat-billed heron, reddish egret and yellow-crowned night-heron.
  • 2 species of recurvirostraide which are waders and include the black-necked stilt and American avocet.
  • 2 species of jacans including the northern and wattled.
  • 34 species of scolopacidae including the short-billed dowitcher, spotted sandpiper, wandering tattler, surfbird, and red phalarope.
  • 9 species of gulls including the gray, Heermann's and ring-billed.
  • 14 species of sternidae (terns) including the gull-billed tern, Forster's tern, least tern and white tern.
  • 4 species of vultures including the king vulture.
  • 24 species of doves and pigeons.
  • 11 species of swifts including the black, spot-fronted and Costa Rican.
  • 6 species of kingfishers including the green, Amazon and American pygmy.
  • 5 species of threskiornithidaes including the roseate spoonbill and white-faced ibis.
  • 2 species of ciconiidae including the wood stork and jabiru.

Good Bird watching spots include:

  • Monteverde Cloud Forest has more than 400 species of birds, including resplendent quetzals.
  • Tortuguero National Park has 300 species of birds.
  • Santa Rosa National Park has more than 250 species of birds.
  • Cahuita National Park has toucans, parrots, rufous kingfishers; the park is on the beach.
  • La Sevla Biological Station in the northern lowlands has 420 species of birds.
  • Helconia Island has 228 species of birds.
  • Corcovado National Park has 400 species of birds and 1,200 scarlet macaws.
  • Huedal Nacional Terraba-Sierpe has a myriad of birds along the coast and swamps.
  • Carara National Park has 400 species of birds.
  • Tárcoles has 400 species of birds and great river tours highlighting crocodiles.
  • Whale Marine National Park has frigate birds, boobies, ibises and pelicans.
  • La Amistad National Park has 500 species of birds including resplendent quetzals.
  • Manuel Antonio National Park has 350 species of birds and three lovely beaches.

Most hotels, as well as tourist information centers, will provide bird watching guides, maps and other essentials for bird watching. Unless you are an experienced neotropical birder, it can be a lot more productive to go out with an experienced birding guide. Do not forget to bring a hat, rain gear, boots, binoculars and camera. In hot areas, an umbrella can be more useful than a poncho or jacket. Southern Costa Rica is generally considered the better option for bird watching.

Volcanoes - Costa Rica is one of the most seismologicly active countries in the western hemisphere, and as a result several volcanoes have sprouted over the years- most notably volcanoes Poas, Irazu, and Arenal.

Things to Do in Costa Rica


Costa Rica is a country with nothing to do, but regardless of your travel interests, you're going to want to spend time at one of the country's great beaches. The lion's share of beach tourism is concentrated on the Pacific side, in the Central Pacific region near San José, the Nicoya Peninsula, and in the dry tropical forests of Guanacaste. Less touristed, but no less beautiful are the beaches in the tropical rainforest of the southern Pacific coast near Corcovado National Park, or on the exotic, rastafarian, eco-tourism paradise of the Caribbean side.

While some of the best beach vacations will be found on tiny quiet beaches off the beaten path, or even at exclusive resorts, here's a quick list of the country's biggest and most popular beach destinations:

  • Corcovado - the main beach on Costa Rica's Osa Peninsula, with black sand beaches fronted by the thick Costa Rican tropical rainforest
  • Dominical - probably the biggest surfing destination in the country, with a good nightlife scene
  • Jacó - the party beach city right by San José, a surfer's paradise full of nightlife and casinos
  • Montezuma - the bohemian option, on the Nicoya Peninsula, full of dreadlocks, surfers, and what you would expect would come along with them (known as "monte fuma" by the locals)
  • Playa Santa Teresa - One of the most beautiful beaches in Costa Rica, located on the Western tip of the Nicoya Peninsula, known for its great surfing conditions, consistent all year round.
  • Playa Grande - this tranquil white sand beach is home to the largest nesting site for the leatherback sea turtle on the Pacific coast, as well as, one of the best surfing waves in the Guanacaste Province
  • Tamarindo - the upscale option, with beautiful beaches complemented by boutique shopping and high class dining
  • Tortuguero - the Caribbean side's most famous beach, which caters to eco-tourists looking to explore the rainforest and spot some manatees


Costa Rica is one of the countries with more rivers per square kilometer than anywhere else in the world. Nearly anywhere you go you will find some kind of river trip to enjoy nature from a very unique point of view.

There is a wide variety of exciting rafting trips offered in Costa Rica. For many years, the rafting Mecca of Costa Rica was Turrialba, a large town embedded in the mountains near the Reventazon and Pacuare Rivers, on the Caribbean slope of Costa Rica.

However, the Arenal Volcano area is now an increasingly-popular whitewater rafting destination with close access to the Sarapiqui and Toro Rivers, as well as the Class II-III Río Balsa which delight rafting enthusiasts in the Northern slopes of the country.

On the Pacific slope, the river with the largest volume, El General, is famous for multi-day adventures and for being an incredible playground for kayakers. The Coto Brus River is also part of this watershed. Further north, on the central Pacific coast, are the Savegre and Naranjo Rivers. In this area you have the opportunity to enjoy both half-day trips on the Naranjo River and 1-to-2-day trips on the Savegre River.

The Class III-IV Tenorio River near Canas, Guanacaste is a favorite among day-trippers from the beaches of Guanacaste, as well as part of shuttle-tour-shuttle services from the Arenal Volcano and Monteverde to the Guanacaste area. The lower section of the Tenorio River is widely-known for being an excellent nature float trip.

The Pacuare River (Class III-IV) is at the top of the list for 2- or 3-day adventures. If you are interested in similar trips, the Savegre River (Class III-IV) is an excellent alternative for an overnight rafting excursions.

If you want more adrenaline, the Chorro Section (Class IV+) of the Naranjo River, near Manuel Antonio, Quepos is one of the most exhilarating rafting trip of the country. This section is run from December to May.

As for nature-oriented trips, the Peñas Blancas River near the Arenal Volcano provides a great look at the tremendous biodiversity of the country.

Most likely, any of these rafting trips will be the highlight of your active vacations, so don’t miss your chance to paddle one.


Costa Rica has some of the best Sport Fishing in the world and is the first country to practice catch and release fishing. The Pacific side has incredible fishing for Sailfish, Marlin, Dorado, Tuna, Wahoo, Roosterfish, Snapper, and more. The Caribbean side and Northern regions of Costa Rica are famous for big Tarpon and big Snook. Over sixty-four world records have been caught in Costa Rica. Half day, Full day and Multi-Day Trips are available. They love to eat turtles.


Costa Rica has many surfing hotspots. The best time of year to surf is from November - August.

The Pacific coast, particularly in the Central Pacific and Guanacaste, has some of the best surfing in Central America.

In the Guanacaste there are several beaches to choose from if you intend to go surfing. Among them, Playa Negra and Playa Grande are two stand out breaks. Playa Negra breaks over a shallow lava reef producing fast hollow waves for advanced surfers only. Playa Grande is the most consistent break in the area with surfable conditions most days of the year. It breaks over a sandy bottom and is good for beginner and experienced surfers.

Tamarindo is a good beach to learn how to surf, whilst Playa del Coco offers advanced surfers the chance to surf at Witches Rock and Ollie´s Point. On the Caribbean side there are beautiful beaches, but limited surfing prospects.

The southern Costa Rica area has two very good spots for surf: Dominical and Pavones Beach. Pavones Beach has thick, heavy waves which consistently barrel and can get really big. It's little known, but picturesque and untamed; Definitely not for the light hearted.

In the southern tip of the Nicoya Peninsula, Montezuma has one of the most beautiful beach breaks in the area, called Playa Grande. It's a short eastward walk from Montezuma village. The break is great for all surfers.


Costa Rica has great mountain biking routes, particularly near Irazu, Turrialba and Arenal Volcanoes. There is popular dirt road that connects Irazu Volcano and the foothills of Turrialba Volcano that is perfect for mountain biking, as it traverses the mountain and presents great views of the Cartago Valley (weather permitting, of course).

The area around Lake Arenal is also a great spot to bike. You can circle the lake in one long day, or break up the ride in two sleeping in Tilarán or Nuevo Arenal. The use of mountain bikes is a must, since the southern shore of the lake is unpaved.

The Nicoya Peninsula also has great riding, particularly the stretch between Sámara, Puerto Coyote and Malpais. There is a coastal road that connects these three beachtowns.


Costa Rica is also know as a haven for some of the most lush, tropical golfing environments in the world. At any course, you can expect to an ensemble of exotic, indigenous animals; jungle; mountainous terrain; and a surreal, blue ocean painting a brilliant, seclusive experience.

Courses are located in 3 major areas of Costa Rica: Guanacaste, San Jose and Mid Pacific. Due to road conditions, you should check the driving times between courses.

There are many tournaments during the year that any traveler can participate in. Most courses offer shoe and club rentals.

Other Active / Extreme Sports

Wind surfing in the Tilarán area is some of the best in the world.

"Canopy tours" or ziplines are very popular tourist activities and are found all over Costa Rica. These typically cost between $30-$50 depending on the company and use a series of zip-lines to travel between platforms attached to the trees, through and over the forest canopy and over rivers. The person is secured with harnesses to the metal cords, as some go very high off the ground. Be sure to ask about the zipline certification before booking and be sure to take part in the safety briefing before participating.

Another form of canopy tour is via an aerial tram which are ski lifts modified for the rainforest. These trams are slower allowing the visitor to view wildlife in the canopy. Each tram has a guide who will explain the flora and fauna. The trams exist at adventure parks near Jaco Beach and just outside Braulio Carrillo National Park and are appropriate for all ages. The trams may be combined with ziplining and often have other attractions such as medicine gardens or serpentaria so guests may learn more about Costa Rica.

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