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The BEST Places in Costa Rica to Visit: Costa Rica Destinations

Written by Tamarindo News

To make your travel planning easier, I’ve listed out the best places in Costa Rica to visit in this Costa Rica destinations guide. If you have no idea where to go in Costa Rica, this post will help your Costa Rica trip planning greatly!

**Please check our Costa Rica COVID-19 post for latest information and our tips for Costa Rica COVID-19 Travel*

Best Places in Costa Rica to Visit

Map

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Arenal & La Fortuna

This area is famous for Arenal Volcano National Park, Lake Arenal and the rain forest. La Fortuna is the town that sits at the base of the Arenal Volcano and Arenal refers to the area around the volcano. Most tourists know this area as Arenal.

La Fortuna and Arenal Volcano
La Fortuna town and Arenal Volcano

Distance and transportation times from SJO and LIR airport

  • By driving: Arenal/La Fortuna is 3-3.5 hours from both San Jose Airport and Liberia International Airport with fairly straight forward routes and doesn’t require a 4X4. Read about driving from Liberia to Arenal and driving from San Jose to Arenal.
  • By plane: You can take a local flight to La Fortuna which is about 20 minutes from San Jose and Liberia.
  • By bus: There is one bus from San Jose to La Fortuna that leaves at 6:15, 8:40 and 11:30, about 4 hours. From Liberia, you will first need to take a bus to Canas (one every thirty minutes from 8:30 AM to 3PM), then to Tilaran (one every hour from 5 to 10, 11:30, 13:00,15:30 and 17:00) and then to La Fortuna (7 AM and 12:30).
  • By shuttle: Take a shared shuttle for about $57 USD per adult with Interbus or book a private: ~$220 USD for 1-4 people total one way from SJO and LIR airport.
  • By boat: Get in from Monteverde by boating across Lake Arenal. Costs ~$35 USD per person.

If La Fortuna is your first destination, you can fly into either Liberia or San Jose International Airport as it’s around the same driving time.

Tourist friendly

La Fortuna is one of the most touristic destinations in the country making it one of the best places to visit in Costa Rica for all travelers. All the services and amenities such as banks, ATMs, souvenir shops and pharmacies are available in town.

However, if you are staying on the outskirts of Arenal, you’ll have to go to La Fortuna town for these services. Most of the restaurants in La Fortuna are sodas (local Costa Rican restaurants) and cafes.

Best things to do

Here is our list of the top activities in Arenal and La Fortuna. Our favorites are canyoning, hot springs, horseback riding, ziplining and hiking. Arenal is one of the best for adventure activities! Get our Arenal and La Fortuna tours discount here.

We stayed at an Airbnb in Arenal which we loved, perfect for big families and groups up to 12 people.

Bajos del Toro

This tiny rural farming village is a favorite for city Costa Ricans as it’s only a 2 hour drive from San Jose and offers a plethora of excellent hikes and beautiful waterfalls without many tourists. Bajos del Toro is perfect for any hiking lovers looking to “get off the beaten path” and the main attraction in the area is the Catarata del Toro waterfall.

Bajos del Toro
Bajos del Toro

Distance from SJO and LIR airport

Bajos del Toro is a 2 hour drive from San Jose and 4 hours from Liberia. The only way to get there is by driving as there are no public buses, shared shuttles or local flights to Bajos del Toro. Another option is to book a private shuttle which I’ll talk more below.

The road to Bajos del Toro via Route 1 is on a paved road however it is recommended to have a high car because it gets quite windy, narrow and curvy. The road goes along the mountain cliffs with no rails and being up in the cloud forest, it tends to rain and fog quite a lot so it can get slippery. For those not familiar with driving these kinds of roads, rent a 4×4/4wd, especially if visiting during rainy season!

You should fly into San Jose International Airport to get to Bajos del Toro.

Tourist friendly

Bajos del Toro is not very accommodating to tourists as there are no public buses, only a couple small convenience stores and no clinics, full pharmacies, big supermarkets or banks. All those are found in Zarcero, about a 30 minute drive from Bajos del Toro. It is a teeny tiny rural farming community. There’s not really a “town” as the main “downtown” is just a couple of small convenience stores, a small restaurant, the local school, a mechanic, church and houses next to each other.

Additionally, there are only a few actual hotels in the area. The rest are small houses, cabins or rooms. The main hotel in the area is the El Silencio Lodge and Spa, a luxury lodge with a spa, on-site waterfalls, restaurant, river and tour and transportation services. Bosque de Paz is another option that is not as expensive but doesn’t offer all services. Catarata del Toro Adventures Park has a few basic rooms for rent.

As for getting to Bajos del Toro, renting a car is the best way to visit this area. You can book a private shuttle if you are staying at El Silencio Lodge since they offer transportation and tours. If you are not staying at the lodge, you will have to rent a car to get anywhere: the hikes, waterfalls, supermarket, food, etc. You cannot really get around Bajos del Toro without a car.

It’s not the most family friendly destination for these reasons and we don’t really recommend it unless you stay at El Silencio Lodge. They do allow kids but if they are younger than 12, then you must book a private villa or two bedroom suite. Children older than 12 can stay at any room.

Best things to do

The best thing to do in Bajos del Toro is hike to waterfalls. As this town is surrounded by two national parks and a volcano, there are a ton of beautiful waterfalls and rivers everywhere. There are even blue waterfalls and rivers!

The main waterfall in the area is Catarata del Toro, a very tall, stunning waterfall in an extinct volcano crater. There are a handful of other lesser known ones with more difficult hiking such as Blue Falls, Tesoro Escondido and Catarata Caida del Cielo Finca Las Nubes.

If you don’t want to stay overnight in Bajos del Toro, some people will stop by on their way from San Jose – La Fortuna or Sarapiqui which is doable. You can easily visit Catarata del Toro on the way as it’s only about a 20-30 minute walk down to the waterfall. You can drive or private transportation companies can offer this but it is quite expensive (around $350 USD).

As I mentioned earlier, El Silencio Lodge and Spa is the main hotel in the area. Bosque de Paz is another beautiful lodge option. For more lodging options, you may need to stay in Zarcero.

Bijagua

As the closest town to Tenorio Volcano National Park where the beautiful Rio Celeste is, Bijagua is growing in popularity among nature lovers and birders. Although most people just pass through Bijagua to visit Rio Celeste for a day trip from Guanacaste or La Fortuna, a night or two in Bijagua offers an incredibly relaxing stay in the rainforest.

Bijagua

Distance from SJO and LIR airport

  • Driving: It is about a 1.5 hour drive from Liberia on a well paved road. It is about 3.5 hours from San Jose.
  • Bus: There is a bus from San Jose 6 AM, 10:15 AM, 3 PM, 3:45 PM and 5:15 PM to Bijagua everyday. There is an extra bus on Saturdays at 5:45 AM. There is a bus from Liberia Monday to Saturday at 12:30 PM and 2:15 PM.

You should fly into Liberia International Airport for Bijagua and the best way to visit is by car.

Tourist friendly

Bijagua is small but has all the basics for tourists: pharmacies, restaurants, a bank and hotels. The road is paved throughout the main road in town and to the Tenorio Volcano National Park. We would say Bijagua is more ideal for older travelers as there isn’t a night life or any good shopping so a lot of seniors and older visitors really like Bijagua. But if you’re looking for a quiet couple nights in the rainforest, Bijagua is a great option since it’s not far from Liberia and it’s easy to get to by car.

Families can visit Bijagua as there are some hotels with small houses and family rooms. But we do recommend renting a car in that case so you can easily get around. Most hotels do not have a full service restaurant or services on-site.

Best things to do

Although most people pass through Bijagua on a day trip to Rio Celeste, there are some nice things to do if you’re staying for a few nights.

  • Rio Celeste: This is the main attraction in the area, the sky blue river and waterfall in Tenorio Volcano National Park. Most people will visit Rio Celeste on a day trip.
  • Horseback riding: Ride around the rainforests
  • Birding and wildlife watching: This area is great for birding and wildlife. If you are staying in Guanacaste and want to see a sloth, you have a chance to see them in the wild in Bijagua. (Read about this Guanacaste sloth and rainforest day trip).

You will find modest lodges in Bijagua and there are two luxury hotels: Rio Celeste Hideaway and Origins Lodge. Celeste Mountain Lodge, Finca Verde Lodge and Casitas Tenorio B&B are also good options for nice comfortable places to stay. Casitas Tenorio B&B (get 10% off your booking in the link) is really nice for families because they have small houses with 2 bedrooms. La Carolina Lodge is a bit more rustic but offers a nice farming experience.

Rio Celeste Backpackers is a good option for backpackers and budget travelers.

Dominical

Dominical is a popular town for backpackers, surfers and solo travelers as it’s close to many stunning natural attractions. Likewise, this small hippie surfing beach town in the South Pacific is perfect for those looking for a chill beach vacation.

The beach is quite rocky and waves aren’t the best for beginner surfers but it’s a great home base to explore the South Pacific coast. Dominical, Uvita and Ojochal are collectively known as the “Costa Ballena.”

best places to visit in costa rica - domincal
Dominical beach

Distance from SJO and LIR airport

  • Driving: Dominical is 3 hours from San Jose via Route 34. This is on all well paved highways and roads.
  • Bus: Every day at 6 AM and 3 PM from Calle 5, AV 18-20 with Tracopa. This takes 7 hours
  • Shuttle: Private shuttles are the best way to get to Dominical but Easy Ride offers shared shuttles.

Something important to note is that you can get to Dominical with a sedan if you go via Route 34 and stay right in town. However, this area has many mountainous areas and unpaved roads so if your place of accommodation is up in the mountains or outside town, you will most likely need a 4wd/4×4. Additionally, many restaurants and attractions do require a high car. There are a lot of backpackers hitchhiking in this area but I don’t personally recommend it.

You should fly into San Jose International Airport to visit Dominical. You can also fly into the Quepos airport, pick up your rental car and then drive to Dominical.

Tourist friendly

This small town has all the basics like restaurants, bars and hotels right in town. However for big grocery stores, pharmacies and banks, they are located on the main highway outside of town (Route 34) so you will need to drive to get there.

Best things to do

  • Surfing: For intermediate and above surfers, Dominical has some pretty sweet waves. For beginners, there are some surf camps and schools that will take you to beaches more suitable for beginners.
  • Nauyaca waterfalls: This is a must see in the area! These two majestic waterfalls require a sweaty hike through the rainforest (4 km one way) but it’s so worth it. You can also go by horseback or 4×4 truck.
  • Hacienda Baru: This private nature park has hiking trails, a canopy tour, rooms and lots of wildlife.
  • Kayak or stand up paddle board the Baru River: Enjoy a fun day out in nature by kayaking or stand up paddling down the Baru River.

Dominical is in a great location because you’re close to Manuel Antonio National Park, Marino Ballena National Park, Uvita, Ojochal and many places in between. Another reason to book a car so you can explore more.

It is easier to find nice vacation rentals in Dominical since there aren’t a ton of hotels. Most of these rentals are in the mountains outside of Dominical.

For hotels in town, we stayed at Villas Rio Mar before which had nice basic rooms and apartments right by the beach. There are a couple of hostels in town like Cool Vibes.

Drake Bay

As part of the Osa Peninsula, Drake Bay has an immense amount of nature and wildlife, perfect for those wanting to experience the incredible biodiversity of the area. It’s quite an adventure to get to Drake Bay but it’s worth it!

Drake Bay
Drake Bay

Distance from SJO and LIR airport

The most common ways to get to Drake Bay is by boat or plane. You should fly into San Jose Airport.

  • Driving: Although there is a road to Drake Bay, it is not recommended to drive as it is unpaved, crosses several rivers and dangerous in the height of rainy season.
  • Plane: There are local flights from San Jose to Drake Bay with Sansa. It’s about 40 minutes one way. Gorgeous views.
  • Boat: Take the boat from Sierpe River which goes through the mangroves and out into the ocean. This boat ride is a lot of fun and has beautiful views. Takes about 1 hour depending on the tide. Read our guide on taking the Sierpe to Drake Bay ferry here.

Tourist friendly

Drake Bay is not the most tourist friendly destination as there are no banks or ATMs, large medical clinics or hospitals or full service supermarkets. It’s also not the most easily accessible destination.

Additionally, it has just a handful of hotels. There are a couple all-inclusive luxury resorts (one is adult only and another allows children ages 4 and up) and then there are a couple of hostels and decent budget cabins and rooms. Not much in between and not many family friendly places. It’s also not the easiest to get to if you do not fly so you really need to plan your trip to Drake Bay well.

For these reasons, we do recommend it more for couples, adults and older families rather than young families.

Best things to do

Drake Bay is best for a few nights to relax, get away from crowds and enjoy nature. You can go snorkeling at Caño Island, hike Corcovado National Park on a day trip, scuba dive and go off deep sea fishing. We spent a few nights in Drake Bay to relax and experience a part of Costa Rica very differen than where we live and we loved it.

We stayed at Tranquilo Lodge and provided all meals in their pricing so that was really nice. Our ocean view suite had air conditioning and a huge comfy bed. Another luxury all inclusive hotel is Copa del Arbol Beach and Rainforest Resort. There is also Drake Bay Backpackers Hostel for budget.

Flamingo

Playa Flamingo’s luxury beach community in Guanacaste is excellent for all travelers looking for a relaxing beach vacation. Additionally, Flamingo’s new marina will make it an even more well known fishing and scuba diving destination. The beautiful white sand Flamingo beach attracted many wealthy retirees and foreigners who built beautiful million dollar ocean view and ocean front homes and condos over the years.

best places to visit in Costa Rica - Flamingo
Flamingo beach

Distance from SJO and LIR airport

  • Driving: Flaming is 1 hour from Liberia International Airport and 4 from San Jose. You do not need a 4wd/4×4 for either routes.
  • Bus: There is a bus to Flamingo from Liberia everyday at 430, 6, 8, 11 and 6 PM with Transportes La Pampa. This takes about 2.5 hours. There is a bus from San Jose every day at 8, 1030 and 3 PM with Empresa Tralapa. This takes 6 hours.
  • Shuttle: A private shuttle from Liberia Airport to Flamingo costs around $90 USD one way for 1- 4 passengers. From San Jose, it’s around $220 USD.

You should fly into Liberia Airport to get to Flamingo.

Tourist friendly

Flamingo’s small beach community has all the basics for tourists: restaurants, convenience stores, banks, pharmacies, shops, hotels and car rentals. The “town” itself isn’t big with a small plaza and some beach front hotels and restaurants. Many tourists will rent a car so they can explore the area or a golf cart just to get around. There isn’t a very big supermarket in the area though so for full service supermarkets, it’s best to go to Huacas and Tamarindo.

Something to note is that Flamingo is more for luxury travelers, it’s not catered for solo travelers, backpackers or those on a tight budget. You need to stay in Potrero or Brasilito insteaed if you’re on a tight budget.

Best things to do

The best things to do in Flamingo is enjoy the beach, watch the sunset, partake in Happy Hour and relax! Right from Flamingo, you can also take catamaran sailing trips, scuba diving or snorkeling trips or fishing charters. This is a great place for scuba diving and off shore fishing.

There are a ton of vacation rentals in Flamingo, much more than hotels. Some like 360 splendor are full service with daily housekeeping and concierge services. Others are normal houses and condos for rent. You can find rentals on Airbnb, Homeaway and VRBO.

For hotels, check out the beachfront Margaritaville, Flamingo Marina Resort, and Paradise Flamingo Hotel.

Jaco

Jaco (pronounced ha-koh with emphasis on the koh) is must for surf lovers! It’s also very popular with locals since it’s only an hour and half drive from San Jose. Although it’s known for surfing, there are also plenty of other activities. It’s not the prettiest beach but it’s ideal for those who like developed areas, convenience and a good night life.

Best places to visit in Costa Rica for first timers - Jaco
Jaco

Distance from SJO and LIR airport

  • By driving: Jaco is only 1.5 hours driving from San Jose and about 3 hours from Liberia. Both routes have nicely paved roads that goes through the main highway.
  • By bus: Read how to take the bus from San Jose to Jaco in this article. From Liberia, first take a bus to Puntarenas and then a bus to Jaco which departs daily at 4:30, 5:30, 7:30, 9:30, 13:00, 15:00 and 17:30. This route takes 1.5 hours.
  • By shuttle: A shared shuttle from San Jose to Jaco is $47 USD per adult with Interbus, a private is around $120 USD for 1-4 people one way.

Fly into San Jose International Airport for Jaco.

Tourist friendly

Jaco has everything for tourists: banks, car rental companies, cell phone stores and frequent buses. If you love food, restaurants in Jaco are some of the best in Costa Rica with Argentinean grill, Italian and more. Costa Rica is not famous for their cuisine, but you can eat very well in Jaco. (Check out what our favorite restaurants in Jaco are.)

Jaco is not quite as family-friendly as other beach towns due to the fact it has a strong sex tourism industry and is well known for a crazy night life. You’ll see many guy groups or bachelor parties going on and there are prostitutes at some hotels and bars (avoid Hotel Cocal for these reasons). But there is a strong police prescence and Jaco has cleaned up over the past few years. Many local families like to visit Jaco.

Best things to do

  • Surfing: When it comes to the top activity in Jaco, it’s surfing. This beach is excellent to learn due to its constant waves. Since it’s a very long beach, there are spots for beginners and pros. Take a surf lesson or join a surf camp. For surf lessons, check with Room2Board, Selina, Surf Factory, Tortuga Surf School.
  • Crocodile Bridge: This river is only 20 minutes from Jaco and houses one of the biggest populations of American crocodiles in the country. Take a boat ride down the river to see birds and crocodiles up close. You can also stop by this bridge on your way to Jaco to see the crocodiles.
  • Waterfall exploring: Outside of Jaco are lots of hills and mountains and within those hills are hidden waterfalls. You can take a tour to explore these waterfalls or go yourself with a 4X4.

There are plenty more activities to do in and around Jaco. Read our post on things to do in Jaco for more ideas.

Jaco has everything from hostels on the beach to all-inclusive hotels on the beach.

  • Croc’s Casino Resort: This all inclusive resort has a Las Vegas style casino and is on the north end of Jaco. It’s right on the beach with beautiful views.
  • Selina Jaco: Selina on the beach in Jaco with surf lessons, private and shared rooms.
  • Hotel Doce Lunas: If you’re looking for a romantic quiet place in Jaco, this is the best for couples. It’s located right outside town in the jungle so it’s very peaceful and surrounded by nature. Only a 2 minute drive to town.

You can also join a surf camp which includes lodging and meals depending on the package. Most of these surf camps are in town such as School of the World, Room2Board and Surfer Factory.

Manuel Antonio/Quepos

Manuel Antonio is one of the most popular destinations in Costa Rica because of Manuel Antonio National Park, famous for its cute sloths and pristine beaches. It’s very touristic but for a good reason – it is downright beautiful. Quepos is the town near Manuel Antonio, Manuel Antonio is what is generally referred to as the hill from Quepos to Manuel Antonio National Park.

Manuel Antonio National Park is one of the most beautiful and most visited places in Costa Rica
Manuel Antonio National Park

Distance from SJO and LIR airport

  • By driving: About a 2.5 hour drive from San Jose and 4 hour drive from Liberia. This is a very easy route from both airports, no 4×4 required.
  • By bus: There is a direct bus from San Jose to Quepos that leaves every day at 6, 9, 12, 14:30, 18:00 and 19:30, takes about 3 hours and 45 minutes. There is a colectivo bus (stops a ton of places) from San Jose to Quepos every day at 7, 10, 14:00, 15:00, 16:00 and 17:00, takes about 4 and a half hours. From Liberia, take the bus to Puntarenas and then to Manuel Antonio, every day at 5, 7, 9, 11, 13:00, 14:30, 16:30 and 17:30 which takes 3 hours.
  • By flying: There is a local airport at Quepos. Flights from San Jose are about 10 minutes. From Liberia, flights normally stop in San Jose first and then Quepos.
  • By shuttle: A shared shuttle from San Jose is $57 USD with Interbus and a private is around ~$200 USD one way for 1-4 people.

Fly into San Jose International Airport to get to Manuel antonio.

Tourist friendly

Manuel Antonio is probably the most tourist friendly destination in the country, making it one of the best places in Costa Rica for first time visitors. You can find all the services like ATMs, car rentals, banks, tour desks and souvenir shops. There are many buses that go to the national park and to town. The only thing I would say is a bit of a pain to tourists is the hill as it’s steep and narrow with no sidewalks and limited parking.

Best things to do

  • Manuel Antonio National Park:Manuel Antonio National Park is the highlight of this area. There are four different beaches and various hiking trails with beautiful viewpoints. Read our guide to hiking Manuel Antonio National Park.
  • Night Walk: Manuel Antonio is full of wildlife and is an excellent place to take a night tour to see frogs, snakes, insects and other creatures of the night. Si Como No Hotel has their own private reserve offering night walks.
  • Beach: With beaches as beautiful as the ones in Manuel Antonio, you can’t pass up jet-skiing, snorkeling, sailing or parasailing over the ocean. The best beach for water sports is Playa Espadilla Norte.

For more ideas, check our post of fun things to do in Manuel Antonio. We also have small discounts for tours in Manuel Antonio, get it here!

Most of the hotels/hostels are scattered on the hill and there are a few near the national park. Want to splurge on your vacation? Manuel Antonio has some absolutely beautiful luxury hotels to do so!

  • Hotel La Mariposa: This gorgeous hotel has one of the best views of the national park. It has 2 infinity pools, spectacular views of the ocean and gardens and an on-site restaurant. Excellent for romantic getaways and luxury splurges
  • Tulemar: This vacation rental and resort has beautiful luxury homes and bungalows. Has a ton of wildlife on their property, offers a 24/7 personal concierge and has their own beach entrance.
  • Pura vida mini hostel: This hostel has a fully stocked communal kitchen, the bus stop is right outside and they have dorms and private rooms. No AC or hot water, but has free Internet access. Selina hostel is another good one.

Monteverde

Perfect destination for those who enjoy mountains, birding, adventure and hiking. Monteverde is home to one of the most unique forests in the world: the cloud forest. Additionally, Monteverde is where the first zipline in Costa Rica was set up!

Monteverde and Santa Elena
Monteverde and Santa Elena downtown

Santa Elena is the main town close to the cloud forest, Cerro Plano is the small community and Monteverde is the name of the entire region.

Distance from SJO and LIR airport

  • By driving: Monteverde/Santa Elena is roughly 3 hours from SJO airport and 3-3.5 hours from Liberia. High car/4wd/4×4 recommended. We do not recommend driving this route at night as it is very windy, not all paved and steep as it goes up a mountain.
  • By bus: There is one bus from San Jose to Monteverde that leaves at 6:30 and 14:30, about 5 hours. From Liberia, take the bus to Puntarenas which leaves at 5, 7:45, 8:30, 9:30, 10:30, 12:30, 14:30 and 15:30. Then from Puntarenas take a bus to Monteverde which leaves at 8:30, 13:30 and 14:15. Both routes are 3 hours. You can also take the same bus to Canas, then Tilaran and then Monteverde.
  • By shuttle: There are shared shuttles for $57 USD with Interbus or you can book a private shuttle, around $200-250 USD for 1-4 people total one way from San Jose and Liberia.
  • By boat: Take the taxi-boat-taxi from Arenal across Lake Arenal. Costs ~$25 USD per person.

You can fly into either San Jose or Liberia International Airport to get to Monteverde. Both routes take around 3-3.5 hours.

Tourist friendly

Santa Elena town is very tourist friendly. You can find all the services like banks, pharmacies, supermarkets, clothing stores and souvenir shops. However, there aren’t really any car rental companies in the area. You need to pick up your rental car before or get your car delivered for a very hefty fee (~$200 USD from La Fortuna which is the closest office). Hertz does have an office in the Camino Verde hotel but just very few cars.

There are a handful of excellent restaurants. There is a sushi place, an excellent steak house, a craft beer place and a couple of other international restaurants. For local food, Soda Sabor Tico is our absolute favorite.

Best things to do

  • Ziplining: The ziplines at Monteverde are some of the best in the country. Our favorite is Selvatura Park, 100% Aventura and Sky Adventures. If you only have 1 full day in Monteverde, Selvatura Park is highly recommended as they have the most activities to do in one day.
  • Hanging bridges: This is the best way to experience the cloud forest as some of these bridges are up to 5000 feet (1500 meters) high! You can walk the hanging bridges in the parks like Selvatura and Sky.
  • Birdwatching: Monteverde is one of the best places to see the Resplendant Quetzal, a prized bird for bird watchers. Head to Curi Cancha Reserve for the best birdwatching March – July.
  • Night Tour: On a night tour, you can see snakes, frogs, nocturnal mammals and insects you don’t normally see in the day.
  • Hiking: Choose from any of the 3 cloud forest reserves to go hiking and see wildlife: Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve, Bosque Nuboso Santa Elena or Children’s Eternal Rain Forest. Not sure which one to visit? Read our guide comparing the Monteverde cloud forests to help you decide. Our personal favorite is Santa Elena.

Most hotels lay on the outskirts of Santa Elena and the hostels are in town. You will find some beautiful lodges here.

  • El Establo Hotel: A beautiful hotel that has lovely views of the cloud forest. They have loft style rooms, their own zipline, a lake and a spa. About a 15-20 minute walk to town.
  • Senda Monteverde: Luxury hotel in Monteverde, close to downtown with gorgeous rooms and views.
  • Hotel Belmar: Another upscale lodge with views of the forest and peninsula.
  • Monteverde Country Lodge: A cozy lodge with balconies, about a 15 minute walk to town. Excellent for mid-range budget.
  • Hotel Poco a Poco: This hotel is located near Santa Elena downtown and is a city style hotel with a pool and air conditioning in some rooms.

Not sure if you should visit Monteverde or Arenal? Check our post comparing Arenal and Monteverde or check out our 5 day Arenal and Monteverde itinerary.

Montezuma

This small, Bohemian town in the Nicoya Peninsula is great for a relaxing beach vacation. Montezuma not only has beautiful beaches, it also has a stunning waterfall!

best places to visit in Costa Rica - Montezuma
Montezuma

Distance from SJO and LIR airport

  • By Driving: The best way to get from SJO Airport to Montezuma is to take the Puntarenas ferry. This takes around 4.5 hours including the ferry time. If you drive, you can go all the way via Route 18 through Nicoya. This drive takes around 5.5-6 hours. From Liberia Airport, it is around 4 hours.
  • By bus: There is a bus from San Jose to Montezuma every day at 6 AM and 2 PM. It goes by the ferry and takes around 6 hours. Costs around 7000 Costa Rican colones.
  • By shuttle: You can take shared or private shuttles to Montezuma from San Jose. It’s around $300 USD for a private and $57 USD for a shared.

The road to Montezuma is paved but it is extremely narrow and windy when you get close coming from Route 624. Be very careful when driving.

You can fly into either San Jose or Liberia International Airport. If you fly into SJO Airport, it is recommended to take the ferry as it is more fun than driving. Make sure to take the paved highway around the Nicoya Peninsula (Route 21 past Paquera and Tambor).

Tourist friendly

Montezuma has a small handful of hotels, vacation rentals and restaurants. However, it does not have everything for tourists. If you need a bank, you will need to go to Cobano, the bigger local town 20 minutes away. There is 1 ATM in Montezuma but runs out of cash often so bring plenty of cash (USD and local currency) as this is also a cash community. The closest rental car agency will be in Playa Tambor so it’s best to rent the car at the start of your trip and drive to Montezuma. Also best to stock up on medicines and OTC meds beforehand.

We would personally say Montezuma is better for adults, couples and solo travelers/backpackers. I don’t highly recommend it for really young families who are visiting Costa Rica for the first time.

Montezuma is a very popular destination for those who have a liking to marijuana and being a really small town, it is a bit more apparent than other touristic coastal towns. It also doesn’t readily have services like the public health clinics and pharmacies, you will have to go to Cobano for that.

Best things to do

  • Beach: Walk the long beaches of Montezuma, swim in the tidepools and watch the sunset. There’s a good chance you may have the beach to yourself if you continue all the way down south to Playa Las Manchas!
  • Turtles: In February, the Montezuma turtle conservation group releases baby sea turtles everyday at 4 PM.
  • Montezuma waterfall: Hike up the river in the jungle to the impressive Montezuma waterfall.

There are a handful of small hotels in Montezuma. This is also a really popular place for people to camp right on the beach in their tent.

  • Ylang Ylang Resort: The only beachfront resort on Playa Montezuma. A luxury resort with standard rooms, luxury tents and a tree top canopy house.
  • Hotel El Sano Banano: Budget hotel in town. Guests have access to the Ylang Ylang Resort property and pool.
  • Luz en Cielo B&B & Hostel: Hostel a bit outside of town. They have dorms, cabinas and a small apartment.

Nosara

Nosara’s gorgeous beaches, excellent surfing waves, laid back vibe and remote location attracts yogis, surfers and those interested in wellness. Nosara is a popular destination but not developed which keeps it more pristine and natural than other surfing beach towns in Costa Rica.

best places to visit in Costa Rica - Nosara

Distance from SJO and LIR airport

  • By Driving: Nosara is about 2.5 hours from Liberia International Airport and 4 hours from San Jose International Airport. It is recommended to rent a 4×4/4wd for Nosara due to the roads.
  • By Bus: There is a bus from Nicoya to Nosara Mon – Sat at 445, 10, 1230 PM, 3 PM and 530 PM. On Sundays at 10 AM, 1230 PM, 3 PM and 530 PM. From San Jose, there is a bus to Nosara everyday at 530 AM with Empresa Alfaro. If you are landing in Liberia International Airport, you will have to take a bus from Liberia – Nicoya – Nosara.
  • By Shuttle: A private shuttle costs around $150-200 USD from Liberia Airport to Nosara, but it depends on number of people and luggage. There are no shared shuttles directly to Nosara.
  • There is a local airport in Nosara that Sansa Airlines flies to.

Fly to Liberia International Airport to get to Nosara.

Tourist friendly

Nosara has all the basics for tourists: hotels, vacation rentals, surf shops, restaurants, car rentals and banks. It’s a small village with mostly unpaved roads surrounded by jungle and beaches, making it a surfer’s paradise.

I would say it’s more ideal for surfers and yogis and not quite as family friendly as other beach destinations since it’s more remote with not as much to do for families except surfing close by. The beaches are beautiful but not the best for relaxing swimming with babies or young ones. It’s a great destination for anyone looking for wellness, yoga or a vegan/vegetarian scene.

Best things to do

  • Surfing: You can find several surf camps for beginners and intermediates but Nosara has some wonderful surf spots for intermediate and expert surfers!
  • Turtles: Just about a 20 minute drive away is the Ostional Wildlife Refuge, one of the best places to see nesting turtles in Costa Rica.
  • Yoga: Take a lesson class on the beach
  • Sibu Wildlife Sanctuary: Learn about animals and conservation in Costa Rica
  • Explore beaches: This area has some gorgoeus beaches, all very low key and not overly touristic. Stay close and visit Pelada, Guiones, Nosara, Garza or Rosada. Drive a bit further to visit San Juanillo whicch is one of our favorite beaches.

You can find a handful of hotels, surf camps and vacation rentals in Nosara.

Ojochal

Ojochal is a very small town on the South Pacific coast and a favorite for retirees and expats thanks to its incredibly quiet and peaceful vibe surrounded by nature. There are a ton of luxury vacation rentals in this area with beautiful ocean views and it’s great for those who want to be in the South Pacific, near Uvita and Dominical but away from the action.

It’s also a good homebase for Osa Peninsula such as Sierpe, Palmar Sur and Palmar Norte. This area: Uvita, Dominical and Ojochal is known as the “Costa Ballena.”

Best places to visit in Costa Rica Ojochal

Distance from SJO and LIR Airports

  • Driving: It is a 3.5 hour drive from SJO Airport to Ojochal (228 km or 141 miles) via Route 34. Ojochal is a 5 hour drive from Liberia Airport.
  • There aren’t shared shuttles to Ojochal, a private shuttle is the only option.
  • You can fly to the Quepos airport, pick up your rental car and then drive 1 hour to Ojochal.

Fly into San Jose International Airport to get to Ojochal.

A 4×4 is not necessary to Ojochal downtown and the route is all on the highway. However, most of the rentals and hotels in the area are up in the mountains that do not have paved roads so it is recommended to rent a 4×4 for Ojochal and this area.

Tourist Friendly

Ojochal is a tiny community so it doesn’t have much. All of the services like full service supermarkets, banks and shopping are mostly in Uvita on the main highway. This area is definitely more for older visitors since it’s a lot quieter without nightlife, parties, etc.

There are only a few restaurants in Ojochal but the quality certainly makes up for quantity, although it’s not cheap. Citrus, the famous French restaurant is a fantastic gastronomical experience for those not on a budget. The Bamboo Room, Heliconia and Pancito Cafe also offer good eats.

Best Things to Do

As it’s in the South Pacific, with a car you can visit any of the attractions in the area like Marino Ballena National Park, Hacienda Baru, Alturas Wildlife Sanctuary, Finca 6 and Caño Island. You can also visit the beaches in the area such as Playa Tortuga and Playa Ventanas.

Hotels

There are a handful of nice, more on the high end boutique hotels in Ojochal and many vacation rentals. Not really any super cheap or budget hostels in the area (Domincial and Uvita are better for hostels).

Papagayo Peninsula

The Papagayo Peninsula is home to some of the most luxurious resorts and most beautiful white sand beaches in Costa Rica. Here you will find beachfront resorts like Planet Hollywood, Four Seasons, RIU and more. Ideal for honeymooners and luxury vacationers.

Best places in Costa Rica - Gulf of Papagayo
Gulf of Papagayo

Distance from SJO and LIR Airports

To get to the Gulf of Papagayo resorts, it is best to book a shuttle. Most guests are going to use the resort as a homebase and book day trips. If you are staying at the resort for just 1-2 nights and staying in other places in Costa Rica, it’s best to rent a car.

  • By Driving: It is about 4.5 hours from San Jose and 30-45 minutes from Liberia.
  • Bus: There are no direct buses that go to any of the resorts.
  • By shuttle: A private shuttle from Liberia International Airport is around $50-80 USD one way depending on number of passengers.

Fly into Liberia International Airport for the Papagayo Peninsula.

Tourist Friendly

Since there is no real town on the peninsula except for Playas del Coco, this area is more for people who want a resort vacation since you will have to rely on the resort for many aspects like food and tours. You will have to rent a car to drive out to town and out of the peninsula. The resorts however do have everything: restaurants, ATM, tour desk, taxi and transportation service and on-site medical care. For this reason, the Papagayo Peninsula is for those looking for a luxury beach vacation.

Best Things to do

The best things to do in the Papagayo Peninsula are relaxing, swimming, snorkeling, stand up paddle boarding, kayaking, surfing at Witch’s Rock, scuba diving and beach hopping.

In the Papagayo Peninsula, there are luxury resorts such as Four Seasons, Planet Hollywood, Andaz Papagayo, Kasiiya resort, Occidental Papagayo, Secrets and Riu.

Playas del Coco

Playas del Coco is the main beach town in the Gulf of Papagayo and is also a popular town for American and Canadian retirees. It used to be a small, sleepy fishing village and now it’s one of the most popular places in Costa Rica.

Playas del Coco view from a hill
Playas del Coco

Distance from SJO and LIR airport

  • By driving: Playas del Coco is 20 minutes from LIR airport and 4-5 hours from SJO airport. Both routes are fairly straightforward. From San Jose, take the InterAmericana highway through Liberia.
  • By bus: From Liberia, there is a bus every hour from 5 to 19:00 which takes one hour. From San Jose, there is one bus that departs 3 times a day at 8, 14:00 and 16:00. It takes about 5 hours.
  • By shuttle: From LIR airport, a private shuttle costs $55 USD one way for 1-4 people. From San Jose, costs around $220 USD for 1-4 people one way.

You don’t necessarily need a car for this area but it will be very convenient with one since public transportation is not frequent. If you want to explore, you will have to rent a car.

Fly into Liberia International Airport for Playas del Coco and the surrounding beaches (Ocotal/Hermosa/Panama).

Tourist friendly

Coco is extremely tourist friendly as one of the best places in Costa Rica for beaches. It’s only 25 minutes from Liberia airport with banks, supermarkets, bars and car rental companies. However, choices are slim for restaurants and hotels compared other tourist destinations. This area also lacks water so if you decide to stay in a vacation rental, water outages are common in February, March and April.

If you’re older or retired, you will love Coco as it’s full of retired expats and snowbirds. If you’re a young backpacker looking for other backpackers and a fun party atmosphere, go to Tamarindo. You won’t find a ton of that in Coco. Families love Playas del Coco too for its more laid back and small beach town vibe.

Best things to do

  • Fishing: Coco used to be a small fishing village so if you love fishing, you’ve picked the right destination. You can go kayak fishing, in shore fishing and deep sea fishing.
  • Boating/beach hopping: The Gulf of Papagayo has some of the most beautiful beaches in Costa Rica but many are only accessible by boat. Go boating in Playas del Coco to discover these gems.
  • Scuba diving: There are several islands out in the Gulf with excellent scuba diving. One of them is only a 20 minute boat ride from Coco!

Coco’s lodging options are sadly few. There aren’t really any hostels in town and there isn’t a large variety of lodging. Most visitors rent a condo on Airbnb or VRBO.

  • Toro Blanco: This is a nice hotel that’s a one minute walk to the beach and town. Mid range, comes with an equipped kitchenette, swim up bar and pool with pretty lights.
  • Hotel Chantel. Located up in the hills, has ocean views all around. Boutique hotel, mid to high range
  • Villa Buena Onda: Adult only luxury boutique hotel with amazing ocean views.
  • Laura’s House Bed and breakfast. Small B&B, two minute walk to the beach and five to town. One of the best budget options.
  • Hotel M&M. On the beach and has a hostel-like atmosphere, rooms don’t have AC.

Puerto Jimenez

This town in the Osa Peninsula is perfect for those who want to explore one of the most bio-diverse places in the world, Corcovado National Park. It’s close to several beaches and is an excellent home base for the South Pacific.

Puerto Jimenez main beach
Puerto Jimenez beach

To visit Puerto Jimenez, it does take a bit of planning on getting there because it is far, remote and rural. Below you will find more information.

Distance from SJO and LIR airport

  • By driving: From SJO airport, Puerto Jimenez is about 7 hours. From Liberia, it is about 8-10 hours depending which route you take.
  • By bus: From San Jose, there is a bus from Calle 14 that departs at 8 and 12. This takes 8 hours. From Liberia, it’s best to bus first to San Jose and then take the bus to Puerto Jimenez. You have to split it into two days though.
  • By flying: Puerto Jimenez has a local airport. A direct flight from San Jose airport is about 40 minutes.
  • By shuttle: A shared shuttle from San Jose is around $99 USD one way and a private can be around $500 USD one way for 1-4 people.

Fly into San Jose International Airport for Puerto Jimenez. Most people will then take a local flight to Puerto Jimenez since it’s a very long drive.

Tourist friendly

Many tourists use Puerto Jimenez as the home base in Osa Peninsula or as stopover for those who plan to hike Corcovado National Park. You can find all the services in town that you won’t in other places in the Osa Peninsula.This is also where you can find naturalist guides to hire for Corcovado, hardware stores for equipment, pharmacies and car rental companies. If you stay at one of the nicer lodges or hotels in Puerto Jimenez, you can use that as your homebase and do day trips from there.

Best things to do

  • Corcovado National Park: There are a few ranger stations near Puerto Jimenez so you can take a tour or go on your own.
  • Matapalo: Matapalo is the southern most tip of the Peninsula and you can take a day trip there to hike, go wildlife watching or surf.
  • See dolphins: Take a boat ride around the Golfito Bay to see huge groups of dolphins.
  • Surf: Surfing is excellent down in the Matapalo beaches.

Turtles also come to this area during certain times of the year to lay their eggs. You can take a turtle watching tour with Osa Conservation and they also take volunteers.

There aren’t a ton of hotels in Puerto Jimenez and there isn’t much in between high end and extreme budget. This is one downside to Puerto Jimenez that doesn’t make it the most tourist friendly. But this is because it’s a rural area so on the flip side, you get to experience the intense nature of the Osa Peninsula and rural Costa Rica. You can find some cheap local cabinas for rent.

  • Iguana Lodge: This hotel is ideal for those who don’t want to plan very much. They can put together a package for you which includes transportation, tours, dinners and lodging. They also offer yoga, SUP/boogie boards for guests. More on the high-end range.
  • Crocodile Bay Resort: Another high end resort that is great for fishing and can put together packages.

The Osa Peninsula is huge with a few different places to visit and stay, so make sure to read our Osa Peninsula guide to help you plan your trip.

Puerto Viejo

Known for its laid back, chill Caribbean vibes, Puerto Viejo is a destination unlike any other in Costa Rica. With pristine white sand beaches with crystal clear water, it’s a favorite for snorkeling and a relaxing beach vacation. Combine that with common sloth sightings, unique dishes and friendly locals, Puerto Viejo finds its way into every visitor’s heart.

Puerto viejo de talamanca downtown aerial picture
Puerto Viejo Downtown

Distance from SJO and LIR airport

  • By driving: It’s about 5 hours from San Jose and 8 hours from Liberia. This road goes through a national park and is fairly straightforward using GPS.
  • By bus: There is one bus from San Jose that leaves daily at 6, 10, 14:00 and 16:00 which takes around 4.5 hours. From Liberia, it is best to bus to San Jose and then take the bus to Puerto Viejo.
  • By flying: The closest airport is Limon. You can fly from San Jose to Liberia and then take the bus from Limon to PV, every day from 5 AM – 18:00 or take a shuttle.
  • By shuttle: A shared shuttle is $57 USD per adult with Interbus, a private is around $220 USD one way for 1-4 people.

Fly into San Jose International Airport to get to Puerto Viejo. Most people will land at SJO Airport, book a shuttle to Puerto Viejo, rent a car for their time there and then shuttle or bus back to San Jose (if they are only staying in Puerto Viejo).

Tourist friendly

Puerto Viejo town is small, but has everything for tourists. It’s the only and best place in Costa Rica to experience the Caribbean. If you venture outside of town or stay in a hotel at the neighboring beaches, you’ll have to go to town for those services. The entire Puerto Viejo area and the small barrios can be easily explored by foot or bicycle. One thing tourists should note is that this area doesn’t adhere to a strict rainy-dry season. It can rain all year long with October as the driest month.

Best things to do

  • Explore the beaches: Some of Costa Rica’s most beautiful beaches are near Puerto Viejo. Check out Cocles, Punta Uva, Negra or Chiquita.
  • Eat: Costa Rican Caribbean cuisine is completely different than the rest of the country. Indulge in rice and beans, pati and other unique dishes.
  • Cahuita National Park: Visit this national park to see wildlife and hike.
  • Jaguar Rescue Center: If you want to get up close with animals such as jaguars, sloths and toucans, head to the Jaguar Rescue Center. They take in injured animals and rehabilitate them.

Read about other things to do in Puerto Viejo here.

  • Hotel Banana Azul: Located in Playa Negra, Hotel Banana Azul has a beautiful property with a beach club, gardens and ponds and a delicious on-site restaurant.
  • TreeHouses lodge: 5 luxury treehouses on Punta Uva.
  • Villas del Caribe: This hotel is on Playa Chiquita. They have a pool and rooms are big enough for families with AC. About a 5 minute drive to town.

Samara

Samara is a very family friendly beach town in the South Guanacaste zone. It is an excellent town to see beautiful beaches, surf and experience a less developed area of Guanacaste. If you are flying into Guanacaste and Tamarindo sounds too touristy or too much of a party town for you, definitely check out Samara.

Best places in Costa Rica to visit - Samara
Samara beach

Distance from SJO and LIR airport

  • By driving: Samara is a 2 hour drive from Liberia airport and 4 hours from San Jose. From San Jose, you can take the Puntarenas ferry to Naranjo.
  • By bus: From Liberia, you need to first take the bus to Nicoya and then to Samara. From San Jose, there is one bus at 12 PM and 5 PM every day with company Alfaro. This route takes 5 hours.
  • By shuttle: From Liberia airport, Interbus has shared shuttles for $57 USD per person.

Fly into Liberia International Airport to get to Samara.

Tourist friendly

Samara is very tourist friendly with plenty of hotels, restaurants, info centers, banks and tour operators. It’s a small town and is a very family friendly with a low key, mellow atmosphere. Ideal for yogis and surfers too. Some businesses don’t accept credit card so make sure to have colones or USD with you.

Best things to do

  • Surfing: Samara has waves for beginners. You can take a lesson or rent a board.
  • Kayak and snorkel at Isla Chorro: Nice thirty minute kayak to the nearby island. Has decent snorkeling at the island
  • Playa Barrigona: Gorgeous beach close by. It’s quiet so nice place to get away from crowds at Samara. Sometimes has surfing competitions. Must need 4×4/4wd in rainy season.
  • Samara Waterfall: there is a small waterfall just outside Samara like 10 minute drive.

San Jose

Even though it’s the capital city, San Jose is not the most beautiful capital city. However, it’s small with several nice cultural and historical gems so it’s perfect for 1 or 2 nights to experience the Costa Rican city life. There are some excellent restaurants in Costa Rica and is one of the best places to visit in Costa Rica to learn about culture and history.

San Jose is the capital city of Costa Rica
San Jose

We don’t highly recommend staying in San Jose for your entire trip. However, it is possible as you can stay in the city and do day trips from there. This is a very easy way to visit Costa Rica.

Distance from LIR airport

  • By driving: From Liberia airport, it’s about a 4-5 hour drive.
  • By bus: There is a bus from Liberia to San Jose everyday at 5, 6, 7, 8, 10, 12, 14:00, 16:00, 18:00 and 20:00. This takes about 4.5 hours.
  • By flying: You can take a local flight to San Jose from all the other local airports.
  • By shuttle: A shared shuttle from Guanacaste to San Jose is $57 USD per adult with Interbus and a private is around $250 USD one way for 1-4 people.

Tourist friendly

Being the capital city, San Jose has absolutely everything for tourists. The only thing I’d say is not nice is the driving and traffic. It’s a bit crazy!

Best things to do

  • National theater: The national theater is the most beautiful building in Costa Rica. They hold plays and orchestras and you can tour it during the day.
  • Museums: The Gold Museum and Costa Rican Center of Science and Culture are two excellent museums.
  • San Jose city tour: Learn more about the capital city on this informative guided city tour.
  • Coffee tour: Coffee is readily grown in the outskirts of the Central Valley and you can take a tour to learn how Costa Rica processes their coffee.

Read our San Jose travel guide and post about day trips from San Jose. (We have a partnership with Expediciones Tropicales to give small discounts on San Jose day tours. Please click here to get it!)

Most hotels in San Jose are perfect for a home base and the airport.

  • Adventure Inn: A cozy boutique inn with a gym, office area and restaurant. It’s kind of halfway in between the San Jose airport and downtown so nice location. The furnishings and decorations are some of the most Costa Rican inspired I’ve seen. Get 10% off your booking in the link!
  • Gran Hotel: This hotel is excellent for a home base in downtown San Jose. You’re close to all the attractions and walking distance to pretty much everything.
  • Hotel Presidente: Another hotel in downtown San Jose, has a cafe/bar with a great view of the Avenue, perfect for people watching.

Santa Teresa

Santa Teresa’s vast beaches, excellent surfing waves and remote location is another beloved surfing, yoga and wellness destination in Costa Rica. Although Santa Teresa is a bit far from the airports, it’s worth the journey to visit this idyllic beach town in the Nicoya Peninsula.

best places to visit in Costa Rica - Santa Teresa
Playa Santa Teresa

Distance from SJO and LIR airport

  • By driving: From San Jose, it’s about a 5 hour drive with taking the Puntarenas ferry. It’s about 4 hours from Liberia International Airport.
  • By bus: There is a bus from San Jose to Mal Pais (ending in Santa Teresa) every day at 6 AM and 2 PM leaving San Jose. It costs around 7000 colones one way per adult and is a 5.5 hour ride. This bus goes by the way of the ferry and includes the ferry ticket.
  • By shuttle: You can find shared shuttles with Interbus from San Jose that costs around $57 USD per person. Private shuttles are around $250 USD depending on number of passengers.

You can fly into San Jose International Airport and then take the Puntarenas ferry to Santa Teresa. If you fly into Liberia International Airport, make sure to drive around the Nicoya Peninsula via Route 21 past Montezuma. 4×4/4wd required (road past Cabuyal is pretty bad).

Tourist friendly

Santa Teresa’s location makes it far from main services like hospitals but it has pretty much everything for tourists at least for hotels, tour desks and restaurants. Santa Teresa is a cash community so make sure to bring plenty of USD and Costa Rican colones because there is only ONE ATM servicing this entire community and it runs out of money often.

There are many hotels, vacation rentals, a bank in Mal Pais, restaurants, surf shops and cars/ATV/bike rentals. It’s a really popular destination for digital nomads, young adults, surfers and older families.

Best things to do

  • Surfing. Santa Teresa has great waves for beginners and intermediates. Stay at a surf and yoga camp to learn how to catch waves!
  • ATV. Rent an ATV (main mode of transportation) and drive around the beaches. So much fun!
  • Fish. Mal Pais is the main fishing hub in the area.
  • Tortuga Island and Curu Wildlife Refuge: For hiking and more beaches

Sarapiqui

The largest canton in Heredia has much to offer for nature lovers and sustainable travelers. Famous for agriculture, white water rafting, birdwatching and hiking, it’s also a popular destination for student groups. The capital of the Sarapiqui canton is Puerto Viejo city.

Sarapiqui
Sarapiqui

Distance from SJO and LIR airport

  • Driving: Sarapiqui is about a 2 hour drive from San Jose and 4 hours from Liberia. Sarapiqui has mostly paved roads throughout the canton (main roads) so a 4×4/4wd is not absolutely necessary. But make sure to ask your hotel/host first.
  • Bus: Everyday, there is a bus from San Jose to Puerto Viejo de Sarapiqui with Terminal del Caribe (Calle Central, Ave 15) at 630, 730, 10, 1130, 130 PM, 230 PM, 330 PM, 430 PM and 6 PM that takes 2 hours. The Vara Blanca Terminal Del Caribe has another bus from San Jose to Puerto Viejo de Sarapiqui at 630, 1 PM and 5 PM that takes 3.5 hours.
  • Shuttle: You can find shared shuttles from Puerto Viejo, La Fortuna and Guapiles with Interbus. A private shuttle is around $165 USD from San Jose.

Tourist friendly

Sarapiqui has it all for tourists since they are close to the capital city and they have all services like banks, pharmacies, ATM’s and clinics in Puerto Viejo. Since Sarapiqui is a large canton, the hotels are spread out throughout these districts: Horquetas, Puerto Viejo and La Virgen.

Additionally, hotels are built with a more eco-conscious theme in mind so that means only soloar-powered hot water (which tends to run out fast with a lot of people). Additionally, most hotels do not have air conditioning. Or if they do, those rooms cost more. Sarapiqui is more ideal for those looking for a non-touristic destination to connect with nature as hotels tend to be like modest nature lodges.

Something to know is that during the summer months (May – end of August), Sarapiqui gets incredibly busy with student groups. We visited in June and it was very noisy at the hotel, Many activities were already fully booked for the students.

Best things to do

  • White water rafting: The pristine Sarapiqui River offers Class 2 and 3 rapids, perfect for beginner rafters or those looking for a more chill outdoor adventure.
  • Cooking classes: All the hotels have their own garden and offer cooking classes.
  • Chocolate and pineapple tour: This area produces much of Costa Rica’s pineapples

We stayed at Selva Verde Lodge which we enjoyed and Hacienda Poza Azul which has tents (they are in need of an upgrade though). For a nicer hotel with air conditioning, check out La Quinta.

Tamarindo

Tamarindo is a popular beach town in Guanacaste with excellent surfing waves, perfect for beginners. Although very touristic, the beach is beautiful with stunning sunsets. It’s a favorite for families looking for a fun beach and convenience.

Best places to visit in Costa Rica for first timers - Tamarindo

Distance from SJO and LIR airport

  • By driving: Tamarindo is 1 hour from LIR airport and 4-5 hours from SJO.
  • By bus: There are 2 buses from San Jose to Tamarindo. The one that leaves from Calle 14 departs daily at 11:30 by way of Liberia and 15:30 by way of Tempisque. The one that leaves from Calle 20 departs daily at 7:15 and 16:00. Both routes take 5.5 hours. From Liberia, the bus leaves at 3:50, 4:30, 5:15, 6:10, 7:30, 9, 10. 11, 13:00, 14:00, 16:00, 17:00 and 18:00 which takes 1.5 hours.
  • By flying: Tamarindo has a local airport. From San Jose it is a 35 minute flight, from Liberia it is 10 minutes.
  • By shuttle: A shared shuttle from LIR airport is $20 USD a person with Tamarindo Transfers and Tours, minimum 2 people. A private is around $65-80 USD for 1-4 people one way.

Fly into Liberia International Airport for Tamarindo. You can also fly to SJO Airport and then take a local flight to Tamarindo.

Tourist friendly

Tamarindo has everything: an airport, car rental companies, hostels, banks, souvenir stores, pharmacies, tour companies and supermarkets. It’s a small enough that you can walk everywhere. They have a good selection of international restaurants.

One downside is that parking is limited and there are no secure parking lots in Tamarindo. Additionally, we don’t really like the pirate taxi drivers but there aren’t really any official taxis or Ubers in Tamarindo.

Tamarindo is also a party town and it can get fairly rowdy during national holidays and the high tourism season. The beach can get packed in December, March and April. The many bars downtown will play loud music on weekends. In January, Tamarindo is host to a couple of big electronic music festivals and it gets quite crazy during that time as well. It is important to note that Tamarindo is both a family friendly and party beach town.

Best things to do

  • Surfing: Tamarindo’s excellent for learning and there are tons of surf shops.
  • Sunset sailing: Sail into the ocean on a catamaran, snorkel with some fishies and then come back under a beautiful sunset.
  • Estuary boat ride: Take a leisurely boat ride through the Tamarindo estuary for wildlife watching.

There are a bunch of activities outside of Tamarindo such as ziplining, sport fishing and hiking. Read our post for more info on things to do in Tamarindo.

  • Hotel Mar Rey: This budget to mid range hotel is smack dab in the middle of town. It’s just steps from the beach and restaurants.
  • Coral Reef Surf Hostel: One of the best hostels in Tamarindo right in town. It’s next to some restaurants and only a 5 minute walk to the beach. Selina also has one in Tamarindo.
  • Jardin del Eden: This luxury adult only hotel is perfect for romantic getaways or group trips. Some rooms have balconies with ocean views and the hotel has their own beachfront area.
  • Diria: Luxury hotel on the beach with pools and restaurants.

There are a couple surf camps/vacations in Tamarindo such as Witch’s Rock and Iguana Surf.

Tortuguero

Although Tortuguero is in a remote area of the North Caribbean that is only accessible by boat or plane, it’s actually one of the best places in Costa Rica for first timers. And it’s actually not that hard to get to as people think! This area, nicknamed the “Little Amazon” of Costa Rica is one of the best for wildlife, nature and rainforest!

Tortuguero: a small village in the North Caribbean of Costa Rica, great for wildlife and nature
Tortuguero

Distance from San Jose and Liberia Airport

To get to Tortuguero, visitors must take a plane or drive to the La Pavona dock and take the boat. From San Jose, Tortuguero is around a 4-5 hour journey by bus and boat. The plane ride is only about 45 minutes. You can travel independently or book a Tortuguero package that includes roundtrip transportation (get our Tortuguero discount here!) and find out how to get to Tortuguero in our post.

We usually recommend to visit Tortuguero as your first destination after landing in San Jose because of the logistics. From Liberia, you have to stay a night in San Jose as it is too far to travel. It’s all the way from one coast to another.

Tourist Friendly

Tortuguero receives a good chunk of visitors (mostly Europeans) and is getting more tourist friendly. The small village just put in the first ATM and there are more hotel options. We always say that Tortuguero is an excellent first destination in Costa Rica because it’s such a lush rainforest with abundant wildlife.

It gives the best first impression and what people expect of Costa Rica: nature, jungle and wildlife. This area is quite small though with not a ton to do, so most people stay 1-3 nights in Tortuguero.

Best Things to Do

  • Turtle tour: Tortuguero is the best site in Costa Rica to see Green Turtles and Leatherbacks. May – November are the best times to see nesting turtles and babies.
  • Boat ride through the national park: Tortuguero National Park is made up of canals and sandbars, so taking a boat ride or kayaking is a must.
  • Hiking: The national park also has several trails for good hiking.
  • Evergreen Lodge, Aninga and Pachira: Lodges owned by Pachira that are next to the national park. All have a pool, restaurants, Wi-fi, bars and variety of rooms and bungalows. (Get our Pachira Tortuguero packages discount here!)
  • Manatus: Another lodge near the national park. Only hotel with AC.
  • Mawamba: Lodge with its own entrance to Tortuguero beach and village.

Turrialba

If you love mountain biking or river sports, Turrialba is the place for you to visit in Costa Rica. Famous for having some of the best mountain biking trails and exciting rivers in Costa Rica, Turrialba offers a great mix of outdoor adventure, culture and nature. It is also known for the very active Turrialba Volcano.

Despite its many natural attractions, it’s not an overly touristic city and is not as popular as other outdoor adventure destinations with a volcano like La Fortuna.

best places to visit in Costa Rica - Turrialba
Turrialba

Distance from SJO and LIR airport

  • Driving: Turrialba is about a 1.5-2 hour drive from San Jose and 5 hours from Liberia.
  • Bus: There are many buses from San Jose to Turrialba everyday with the company Transtusa. It takes 2.5 hours.

The best way to visit Turrialba is by car. You should fly into San Jose International Airport.

Tourist friendly

Turrialba is a small city with all services and facilities in town. There are several hotels, apartments rentals and lodges in town and in the surrounding neighborhoods in the mountains. It has paved roads and many fun things to do thanks to all the natural attractions.

Best things to do

  • Turrialba Volcano National Park: Although the park is closed, you can drive up to the entrance to see this incredibly active volcano.
  • Guayabo Monument: Learn about an ancient civilization on a guided walk through the remains of the Guayabo Monument.
  • White water rafting: Turrialba is close to many rivers for white water rafting and kayaking such as Pejibaye and Pacuare.

Turrialba is also a major farming town and you can learn how they make the famous Turrialba Cheese.

There aren’t many hotels right in town but we recommend to stay in a hotel up in the mountains for beautiful views. We stayed at Guayabo Lodge, close to Turrialba Volcano National Park so it was also a good location. Some other hotels are Casa Turire, Turrialtico Lodge and Hotel Villa Florencia.

Uvita

Uvita is a small coastal town in the south central Pacific, home to Marino Ballena National Park. This area is famous for humpback whales, Marino Ballena National Park, nature and wildlife.

Uvita
Uvita

This area is way less touristy than the North Pacific so perfect for those who don’t like crowds. However, there aren’t any white sand beaches down in the South Pacific and the snorkeling is not as good, except for Caño Island.

Uvita is incredible peaceful and filled with nature, thanks to its lush rainforests so you can see toucans, sloths, monkeys, macaws and many more animals in the area. It is only about a 15 minute drive from Dominical and Ojochal and these three towns together are collectively known as the “Costa Ballena.”

Distance from SJO and LIR airport

  • By driving: From San Jose, Uvita is about 3.5 hours depending which route you take (best route is through the Costanera Sur, Route 34). From Liberia, it takes about 5.5 hours.
  • By bus: From San Jose, there is a bus to Dominical and Uvita at 6 and 15:00 everyday that takes 7 hours. From Liberia, it’s easiest to take the bus to San Jose and then to Dominical. You’ll need to plan times accordingly.
  • By flying: The closest airport is in San Isidro de General with Sansa Air and then you’ll have to drive 1 hour to Dominical. You can also fly into the local Quepos airport and drive about 45 minutes to Uvita.

Fly into San Jose International Airport for Uvita.

Tourist friendly

Uvita has, albeit not much, everything for tourists: supermarkets, banks, tour companies, hostels and international restaurants. They are tourist friendly in the sense that the main road is very nice and there is plenty to do, however it is hard to get around if you don’t have a car. Dominical and Uvita are only 12 miles (19 km) apart but public transportation in this area is not the best. There is a bus that goes up and down the highway everyday but it doesn’t go to any attractions. If you want to explore the area and don’t have a car, you’ll have to hire a 4X4 taxi as many roads in this area require one.

There are actually several very good international restaurants but some like Jolly Roger require a 4X4. Most the banks and big supermarkets are outside Dominical and Uvita town. If you rent a vacation rental or book a hotel up in the mountains, those absolutely do require a 4×4. If you don’t have a car, I highly recommend finding a hotel that is in town. They can help you book tours, get a taxi and meet other travelers. You’ll also be close to the beach.

Best things to do

  • Marino Ballena National Park: This huge national park is famous for its beautiful beaches enveloped by a lush jungle and a unique rock formation in the shape of a whale’s tail.
  • Nauyaca waterfalls: The most popular waterfall in the area. It’s a 4 kilometer hike to the fall on a private property. You can swim in the pool and jump off the rocks!
  • Caño Island: Go snorkeling or scuba diving at Caño Island, a private wildliferefuge that is full of marine life. Snorkel or dive with turtles, dolphins, huge schools of fish and rays.
  • Whale watching: This area is one of the best in Costa Rica for humpback whale watching which occurs nearly all year round.
  • Surf at Playa Dominical: Dominical is a popular surfing beach with waves suitable for beginners.

Here are some more ideas of things to do in Dominical and Uvita.

Hotels are few in this area but what lacks in quantity makes up for in quality. You can find hotels with stunning ocean and jungle views, glamping tents, beautiful hostels and cabinas.

  • Manoas: They have glamping tents and villas/apartment rentals and their own river access. 4X4 required, only 2kilometers from Uvita town. Click here to read our review and get 10% off your booking. Go glamping for a unique experience.
  • Oxygen Jungle VillasAdult only hotel with individual glass bungalows, a stunning infinity pool and on-site waterfall trail. Get 15% off your booking.
  • Rancho Pacifico: Adult only luxury boutique hotel with the best ocean and mountain view with only 7 rooms, gourmet meals, spa and on-site waterfall. Luxury boutique at its best! Get 10% off with our code MyTanFeet on their booking site.
  • Flutterby House: Right behind the Marino Ballena National Park, more like a hostel and has a bar and restaurant, hammocks and surfboard rentals. Super relaxed and chill atmosphere.

Getting Around the Best Places to Visit in Costa Rica

The easiest way to reach most of these destinations is by renting a car. I will also list other transportation options and you can read our “How to get around Costa Rica” guide to find out more. Renting a car? Get our Costa Rica car rental discount here!

More Costa Rica Tips!

If this will be your first visit to Costa Rica, check our Costa Rica for first timers guide, it will help your trip greatly! Don’t forget to read our Costa Rica survival guide or check our sample Costa Rica itineraries for more ideas. And if you’re traveling with your family, plan your trip with our Costa Rica itineraries for families.

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