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Costa Rica Bucket List: 17 Top Places & Must-Do Experiences

Costa Rica Bucket List: 17 Top Places & Must-Do Experiences

Planning a trip to Costa Rica and wondering what are the top places to visit and best experiences not to miss on your first visit? In this guide, we share some of the must-dos in Costa Rica that should be on your bucket list. Find out!

Costa Rica is one of the most unique destinations in Central America. The country is best known for its natural wonders and wildlife, but it also boasts a wide variety of amazing experiences for all types of travelers.

From misty cloud forests, majestic waterfalls, and impressive volcanos, to sandy beaches, geothermal springs, and an array of adventurous activities, Costa Rica is surprisingly diverse. Whether you want to explore lush rainforests, hope to see some exotic wildlife, soar above the canopy on ziplines, or simply relax amidst breathtaking landscapes, Costa Rica offers all of this and so much more.

But where to go and what to do in Costa Rica if you have limited time and want to experience the VERY BEST that the country of Pura Vida has to offer?

Rather than overwhelming you with 129 things to do in Costa Rica, in this guide, we only focus on top places and most special experiences that are absolute must-do for first-time visitors. These are all experiences that make it worth traveling to Costa Rica even if you are coming from the other side of the world as we were.

This list is based on our extensive research, personal experience, and what we feel is worth your time and money the most. We listed our family’s absolute favorites at the top.

I hope that this list will help you narrow down your Costa Rica bucket list so that it’s actually doable in one short trip while at the same time giving you a chance to experience all kinds of different facets of this beautiful country. Find out!

READ ALSO: Costa Rica Itinerary for 2 Weeks

Traditional oxcart (carreta) in Costa Rica
Traditional oxcart in Costa Rica.

These are the best things to do in Costa Rica:

1. Zipline Canopy Tours

Zip-lining above the forest canopy should be at the top of any list of the best things to do in Costa Rica. When I asked my family to rank their favorite experiences from our recent trip, everyone indicated zip-lining in their top-2 (without knowing what others chose). I was actually quite hesitant to do ziplining at first, but I gathered all my courage and I am so glad I did – it was amazing!

There are many places in Costa Rica where you can find ziplining experiences, but there is a big difference between simply ziplining and canopy tours.

By far the best place for ziplining in Costa Rica is Monteverde. Here, you can experience the true meaning of canopy tours that not only give you the thrills of ziplining itself but also allow you to enjoy the most spectacular scenery. As you soar above treetops, you can enjoy a bird’s-eye view of the beautiful surroundings. You might even find yourself flying through the clouds here. It’s such a unique experience!

Good to know: There are several places where you can go zip-lining in Monteverde. If you are simply looking for the best-value zipline experience, check out 100% Aventura (this is the tour we took and highly recommend). It includes the longest zip line, Superman experiences, and a Tarzan swing (most other places charge extra for these).

If you want an all-in experience including zip lining, hanging bridges, and more, check out all the different options offered by Selvatura Park.

The second best location for zip lining in Costa Rica is the La Fortuna – Arenal area. Also here, there are quite a few options. One of the best places with great views is Sky Adventures Park.

Zip lining in Monteverde - best things to do in Costa Rica
Zip lining in Monteverde.

2. El Tigre Waterfalls

El Tigre Waterfalls is my personal favorite of all the places we visited in Costa Rica. The whole family, including the kids, listed it in their top-3 so I guess that says it all. If your trip brings you to Monteverde and you can spare a couple of hours, don’t miss this beautiful place!

Located on private land, El Tigre boasts a series of waterfalls (4 big ones and 4-6 smaller ones) that can be reached by hiking through a forest. Along the way, you also pass several hanging bridges. In addition, they also offer a Zipline Bike experience and a local lunch (the views from the restaurant are phenomenal!).

The hike to the waterfalls is mostly downhill with some up-and-down sections. It takes about 2-2.5 hours and the trail can be muddy and slippery, so it’s not a simple walk in the park. That said, it should be doable for most people (wear good shoes!). Plus, you can save yourself the uphill hike by taking a horse or a 4×4 ride at the end of the hike.

The price of the experience depends on what exactly you opt to do and you can book it via their website or on Viator. You can upgrade to Zipline Biking on the spot if you feel like it.

Good to know: Just like most roads around Monteverde, the road to get to El Tigre is quite steep and bumpy and you will need a 4WD vehicle to get here. If you book this experience via Viator, most tours usually include a transfer from Monteverde hotels.

TIP: We recommend the all-in experience that includes the waterfalls hike, a horseback ride, and lunch at their beautiful restaurant (+ hotel pick-up/drop-off).

El Tigre Waterfalls in Monteverde - top places in Costa Rica
El Tigre Waterfalls.

3. Manuel Antonio National Park

Manuel Antonio National Park on Costa Rica’s Pacific coast is the most popular national park in the country and for a good reason. This small park has several stunning beaches and an easily accessible rainforest with a surprisingly wide variety of wildlife.

If you want to spot wildlife in Costa Rica without too much effort, this is the place to be!

You can expect to see capuchin monkeys, sloths, iguanas, howler monkeys, and all kinds of colorful birds. With some more luck, you will likely see many more animals, some of which you may have never even heard of.

Good to know: Due to its popularity, Manuel Antonio National Park is sometimes dismissed by repeat visitors to Costa Rica as too touristy and overrated, but don’t let this put you off. There is truly no better place in Costa Rica where you can see so many wild animals with so little effort. The park is easy to reach, the pathways and boardwalks make it simple to explore, and there is an abundance of wildlife.

PRO TIP: Entry tickets are sold via the official national parks’ website SINAC and have to be booked well in advance. In addition, we highly recommend visiting here with a local guide. You will miss 90% of the animals if you go on your own! We booked this private tour and it was great.

Important! No matter which tour/guide you book, you still need to reserve the park tickets yourself. Also, we highly recommend visiting first thing in the morning – that way, you will avoid the crowds and will likely see more animals too.

LEARN MORE: Tips & Tricks for Visiting Manuel Antonio National Park

Capuchin monkeys in Manuel Antonio National Park Costa Rica
Capuchin monkeys in Manuela Antonio National Park.

4. Hot Springs of La Fortuna

La Fortuna area around Arenal Volcano is known for its natural geothermal hot springs. The entire area here is dotted with thermal pools. Many hotels have hot springs and they are usually beautifully set up in a rainforest with the volcano as a backdrop (if you are lucky to visit when it’s not hiding in the clouds).

If you love soaking in the hot geothermal waters, you may want to consider booking an accommodation that has some hot springs on site (e.g. the luxury thermal resorts like Tabacón or Baldi, mid-range resorts like Los Lagos or Chachagua Rainforest Hotel, or budget-friendly options like Relax Thermalitas, to mention just a few). Most of the hotels also offer day passes, so you can also check out different hot springs every day.

While it’s usually so warm in Costa Rica that the idea of jumping in a hot pool might not sound too appealing, the Arenal area is often quite cloudy/rainy making hot springs really enjoyable. Plus, most places have pools with different water temperatures for you to choose from.

La Fortuna hot springs - must do in Costa Rica
Relax Termalitas Hot Springs in La Fortuna.

5. La Paz Waterfall Gardens Nature Park

La Paz Waterfall Gardens Nature Park is located about 1-hour drive north of San Jose and about a 1.5-hour drive from La Fortuna. This makes it a very popular destination for day trips from the capital city or a great sightseeing stop when driving to/from La Fortuna.

We didn’t expect much and only stopped here because we had a few hours to fill before heading to the airport from La Fortuna. But wow, if there is one place in Costa Rica that exceeded all our expectations, it’s the La Paz Waterfall Gardens.

This park is like the best of Costa Rica all in one. Set in the rainforest high up in the mountains, the park boasts stunning views and gives you access to a series of impressive waterfalls. But there are so many reasons to visit here that the waterfalls are just a cherry on the cake. You can enjoy beautiful gardens and see all kinds of (rescued) animals and birds that are not always easy to spot in the wild.

We came here at the end of our trip, after seeing lots of wildlife in national parks and forests all over Costa Rica, so we thought we would be hard to impress. But the way this park is built and the animal encounters they have exceeded all our expectations. We could walk between sloths and toucans, see dozens of hummingbirds, snakes, frogs, and stand eye-in-eye with leopards and pumas. It’s not the same as seeing animals in the wild, but it’s also not a zoo.

La Paz gardens are well-maintained and manicured and not something you can compare to a wild nature destination, but it’s so well done that even the biggest skeptics will be impressed. I would have never thought I would say this, but it’s definitely one of the top places to visit in Costa Rica. Even our teenagers who were not thrilled about us stopping here quickly changed their minds and afterward ranked this place in their top 5!

Good to know: Count at least 2 hours for a visit, 3 if you also want to have lunch here. You can book entry tickets in advance on Viator, but we were able to visit just like that. Just like all the attractions and tours in Costa Rica, a visit here is not cheap (and was the main reason we were hesitant if it was worth it). But it is worth it way more than many other places/tours which we did during our 2-week trip.

PRO TIP: If you have a night or two free in your itinerary, consider staying at the Peace Lodge here. This hotel is amazing and guests get free access to the gardens.

Toucan in Costa Rica
Toucan at La Paz Waterfall Gardens Nature Park.

6. River Tubing in Rio Celeste

If you are looking for more adventurous things to do in Costa Rica, then you cannot go wrong with river tubing! The best place to do this is at Rio Celeste (famous for its azure-blue waters and a stunning waterfall – more info about it further below).

River tubing in Rio Celeste is so much fun and the waters are indeed as blue as in the pictures. The river is quite calm and has a combination of more adventurous sections with river rapids but also calmer waters where you just float. There are also several opportunities to go swimming, including over-the-water rope swings that our kids just couldn’t get enough of.

Often, you can also see all kinds of animals on tubing tours. For example, we saw a sloth and tons of monkeys as well as many birds.

Good to know: River tubing is adventurous, but not scary and the river isn’t deep at all. It’s an activity that the whole family can enjoy. A lot will also depend on the water levels when you visit. Also, if you float on your own, you will always go faster and spin more than when you hold on to each others’ tubes and float as a small group. So you can make it more or less adventurous based on your comfort level.

TIP: Book river tubing in advance (even if just a few hours before) because there are no ‘offices’ by the river where you can walk in and book on the spot. In most cases, they will drive you to the river and back to your car at the end of the tour. We did this highly-rated tubing tour and really enjoyed it.

River tubing in Rio Celeste - top experiences in Costa Rica
River tubing in Rio Celeste.

7. Nauyaca Waterfalls

Whether you are looking for impressive waterfalls or just like the idea of swimming and jumping off cliffs (be careful though!), don’t miss Nauyaca Waterfalls in southwestern Costa Rica. This stunning waterfall is located close to the Quepos area (Manuel Antonio National Park) and is therefore easy to include in any trip itinerary.

Just to be clear, there is no shortage of waterfalls in Costa Rica and you will be spoiled with the choice of which ones to visit. However, there is just something special that makes Nauyaca Waterfalls one of the best places to see in Costa Rica, so don’t miss this one!

I have a friend who calls Costa Rica her second home and spends several weeks there every year and she keeps on telling me that Nauyaca Waterfalls is her absolute favorite spot in the country. So if you visit just one waterfall, make it this one.

We visited Nauyaca Waterfalls at the end of the dry season after weeks and weeks with no rain and the falls were still impressive. I have seen pictures of them during the rainy season and it’s even more spectacular.

Good to know: There are several waterfalls here – the upper one is more scenic, and the lower one is better suited for swimming. Don’t forget to take your swimwear. Water shoes are recommended as well.

The waterfalls can be reached by hiking or you can opt to travel by horse or a 4×4 shuttle (reservations recommended, especially for horse riding – see the official site for more info). The hike is about 2.5 miles (4 km) one way and the trail is quite hilly with little shade. It’s more expensive to take a 4×4 but believe me, it’s worth it.

TIP: Avoid weekends and arrive early in the morning if you want to enjoy the swim without too many other people around. If you don’t have a car, you can easily visit the waterfalls with tours or private transfers.

Kids jumping off the cliffs at Nauyaca Waterfalls in Costa Rica
Nauyaca Waterfalls.

8. Hanging Bridges in Monteverde Cloud Forest

Monteverde Cloud Forest is one of the most unique places in Costa Rica. Some of our absolute favorite activities (ziplining at #1 and El Tigre Waterfalls at #2) can be found here. But there is more!

No visit to Monteverde would be complete without visiting the actual cloud forest and walking through the clouds (or at least at treetop level if you are exceptionally lucky with the weather).

The ‘official’ place to visit is the Monteverde Cloud Forest Biological Reserve, with hiking trails, birds and wildlife, etc. But it’s not always well organized, can get crowded, and often has a long wait. Plus, if you want to see some wildlife, it’s best to visit with a guide, and this park only has one hanging bridge.

Alternatively, you can also opt to visit other – private – reserves in the same area. That’s what we chose to do.

After spending hours and hours researching the best spots to enjoy the scenery in Monteverde, we were left with two final choices: Treetopia (previously Sky Adventures) and Selvatura. They both also offer zip-lining experiences and more, or you can just opt to do the treetop walk and enjoy the scenery. Based on recommendations from the locals that I found in different online forums and Facebook groups, we chose Selvatura.

This park borders the cloud forest and is located higher up than most others. Their treetop walk also has 8 hanging bridges and the scenery is spectacular. I can’t compare it to others from personal experience, but I can definitely say that it didn’t disappoint! More than that – we LOVED the hanging bridges of Selvatura! Ziplining also looked amazing here, so if your time in Monteverde is limited, just book a combo deal and do everything in one place.

Good to know: No matter which hanging bridges you decide to visit, most roads around Monteverde are really bad and you need a 4×4. If you don’t have a car, you can easily book tours that include transfers.

READ ALSO: Best Things to Do in Monteverde

Selvatura hanging bridges in Monteverde Cloud Forest Costa Rica
Selvatura hanging bridges in Monteverde Cloud Forest.

9. Rafting in La Fortuna

La Fortuna is often called the Adventure Capital of Costa Rica and one of the most popular adrenaline-rushing experiences here is rafting. In fact, if you want to go rafting in Costa Rica, there is no better place to do that than in La Fortuna!

There are two main rivers for rafting in La Fortuna: Balsa and Sarapiqui. Sarapiqui is wilder (including class 4 rafting), whereas Balsa has two sections – the lower one with class 2-3 rafting and the upper one with a bit more adventurous 3-4 class rafting. So you can easily find a rafting experience that you are comfortable with.

Here are some of the best La Fortuna rafting tours for different levels:

  • If you want a fun rafting trip without too many challenges and steep drops, then choose a class 2-3 rafting tour on the Balsa River. It’s also suitable for families (ages 6+). We recently did this rafting tour and the whole family (including 13-15 year-olds) enjoyed it. The first part was wild and fun and the second one was more relaxing with tons of wildlife sightings from the boat.
  • If you are not sure which rafting option to choose, then opt for the class 3-4 rafting on the Upper Balsa (ages 8+). It’s more adventurous than Class 2-3 but not as extreme as Sarapiqui Class 4.

READ ALSO: Best Things to Do in La Fortuna

Rafting in La Fortuna - must do in Costa Rica
Rafting in La Fortuna is really a must-do in Costa Rica!

10. Ballena National Marine Park in Uvita

Uvita is a small beach town located about 1 hour drive south of the famous Manuel Antonio National Park. It is best known as home to the Ballena National Marine Park and its Whale’s Tail Beach (which looks like the tail of a whale from above).

The best thing to do here is simply to walk on the beach and enjoy the views. In season, you might get lucky to see whales in the sea (+- December to March and July to November). There are also some crocodiles, caimans, and water birds at the river mouths (don’t go swimming here!) and all kinds of wildlife in the rainforest.

The scenery at Playa Uvita is stunning, the beaches are gorgeous, and you can also go swimming if you like. Just be careful with your belongings as some cheeky monkeys (or people) can run away with them.

Good to know: Contrary to most other popular national parks in Costa Rica, Marino Ballena doesn’t require reservations (but there is a small entry fee). What you can see/do will also depend on how high the tide is. Either way, prepare to walk through some water, so it’s best to wear sandals.

TIP: While you can easily visit Uvita from Quepos (Manuel Antonio), we recommend staying here for a few days. The town has such a nice authentic vibe and it’s also a great base for excursions to some of the best places in Costa Rica (see the next two points!).

Sunset at Ballena National Marine Park in Uvita Costa Rica
Sunset on Uvita Beach.

11. Corcovado National Park

Corcovado National Park on the Osa Peninsula is the best place in Costa Rica to see wildlife. This park is home to 3% of the world’s biodiversity, which means that 3 out of 100 animal species worldwide can be found in this rather compact area.

If you want to see some truly unique animals in Costa Rica, then Corcovado should be very high on your bucket list!

So why is this unique and untouched place not at the top of our list of the best things to do in Costa Rica, you might wonder…

It’s mainly because of its more remote location, far away from the most popular tourist destinations. Furthermore, it’s not simple to get here so it requires more time to visit.

If you are only going to Corcovado for a day as we did, the journey takes about as much time as sightseeing. Plus, you only get to see a tiny part of the park. So if you have more time, plan a longer stay in this area! I promise you, it will be worth it! Even with just a few hours in a park, we saw a tapir, several different species of monkeys, a group of coatis, and tons of other wildlife that we didn’t see anywhere else during the trip.

Good to know: We had limited time in our itinerary so we visited Corcovado on a day tour from Uvita/Sierpe. A better way to do this would be by staying in Drake’s Bay for a few days and taking day tours from there (like this one), or by booking a multi-day tour to this stunning area.

There are also overnight stays possible inside the park itself, if you don’t mind a rather basic shared accommodation and want a real rainforest experience.

Coati in Corcovado National Park Costa Rica
Coati in Corcovado National Park.

12. Rio Celeste Waterfall

Rio Celeste Waterfall is one of the most picturesque waterfalls in Costa Rica. It’s not that much the waterfall itself that attracts the attention, but the bright turquoise color of the water in the river.

This remarkable river and the waterfall are the main attractions of the Tenorio Volcano National Park in Guanacaste Province in the northern part of the country. In addition, you might spot some wildlife here, but it’s not comparable to the species you get to see at Corcovado or Manuel Antonio.

TIP: Combine a visit to Rio Celeste Waterfall with the earlier-mentioned river tubing. If you prefer something less adventurous, there are also sloth tours and night tours in the area.

Good to know: If you don’t have a car, you can easily visit Rio Celeste with day tours from La Fortuna. However, most of these tours do not include tubing.

Rio Celeste Waterfall in Costa Rica
Rio Celeste Waterfall.

13. Snorkeling at Caño Island

Caño Island is one of the best places to go snorkeling in Costa Rica. If you want to see colorful fish, sea turtles, stingrays, and maybe even small sharks, this is the place to be. On the way to the island, you may also get lucky to spot some dolphins and – in season – also whales.

Just like the nearby Corcovado National Park, Caño Island is located quite remotely and requires some extra effort to get to. The two places are rather close to each other, so many people visit here from Drake’s Bay, or as part of multi-day tours that combine the two.

We visited Cano Island on this day tour from Uvita. It’s quite a long boat ride to get there, but snorkeling itself was impressive enough to make up for it. The kids loved snorkeling with sea turtles!

Snorkeling with sea turtles at Cano Island in Costa Rica
Snorkeling with sea turtles is definitely something to add to your Costa Rica bucket list!

14. Night Tours

There is one more thing that you really have to do in Costa Rica at least once and that’s taking a night tour. Many animals are nocturnal and are only active in the dark, so it’s difficult to see most of them on day tours.

Think of the famous Red-eyed tree frog (and most other frogs), snakes, and scorpions, but also mammals such as tapirs, agoutis, opossums, armadillos, or kinkajous…

There are many places where you can do night tours, all over Costa Rica. What you get to see will highly depend on where you take a tour and you will find different types of animals at lower elevations than in the mountains.

We booked this night tour in Monteverde and saw some animals we had never seen before – kinkajous, opossums, golden beetles, spiders, certain types of frogs, and many others I don’t remember the names of.

Good to know: If you want to see the iconic Costa Rica red-eyed tree frog (awake), then book a night tour in the Manuel Antonio area or around La Fortuna.

Red-eyed frog on a night tour in Costa Rica
A frog on our night tour in Monteverde. For the famous red-eyed tree frogs, you have to be at lower elevations.

15. Volcanos

Costa Rica is home to quite a few volcanos, including 6 active and over 60 dormant ones. So you may want to add a visit to a volcano to your list of things to do.

The most famous volcano in Costa Rica is undoubtedly Arenal. However, it’s often hiding in the clouds and we were told that only about 25% of visitors actually get to see it in its full glory. Furthermore, there are no roads to get to the crater or such, just a few hiking trails over lava fields.

If you want to see a volcano crater without too much effort, then you can visit either Poás Volcano or Irazú Volcano. In both cases, you can drive all the way to the top and the walk to the crater itself is just a few minutes.

Both – Poas and Irazu Volcanos are just about 1-hour drive from San José, which makes it quite simple to add a visit to one or both of them to any Costa Rica itinerary. However, they are located in different regions quite far from each other, so you will have to plan separate trips if you want to see them both. Whether it’s actually worth going to both, depends on your interests and overall itinerary.

Good to know: For both volcano craters, you have to reserve timed entry slots via the SINAC website: here for the Poas Volcano and here – for Irazu. Alternatively, you can also visit the volcanos with guided day tours from San Jose, in which case, they will take care of the tickets.

Keep in mind that temperatures here can be a lot cooler than at lower elevations, so – depending on the weather forecast – you may need to wear a sweater or even long pants and a jacket.

READ ALSO: Costa Rica Packing Essentials

Irazu Volcano in Costa Rica
Irazu Volcano crater.

16. Tortuguero National Park

Tortuguero National Park is another place that should be on your Costa Rica bucket list, especially if you are visiting in late summer – early fall. This is the prime green sea turtles nesting season and the beaches of Tortuguero are a great place to see them.

July and August are the prime months for turtles, but Tortuguero National Park is well worth a visit at any time of the year. Its remote location accessible only by boat means that nature here is still unspoiled so you can expect to see lots of wildlife.

Here, you can find a big variety of birds and frogs, but also different types of monkeys and sloths, iguanas, and even jaguars.

Good to know: Getting to Tortuguero National Park requires some effort since you can’t just drive to it. On the other hand, it’s not too far from San Jose and you can even visit on a day tour. However, just like in Corcovado, the better way to visit would be by taking a multi-day trip and staying a night or two in the area.

Turtle in Tortuguero National Park - top places in Costa Rica
Turtle in Tortuguero National Park.

17. Coffee & Chocolate Tours

And finally, no list of the best things to do in Costa Rica would be complete without mentioning chocolate and coffee tours. After all, this is where cacao trees and coffee beans grow.

If you want to learn more about coffee – from growing to harvesting and roasting or discover the secrets of really good chocolate, then it’s well worth visiting one of the plantations that organize guided tours. It’s a deliciously immersive experience that also gives you a chance to discover some local culture.

Good to know: There are many places in Costa Rica where you can find coffee and/or chocolate tours, so it’s easy to find one that fits your plans. La Fortuna area is a good place for chocolate tours and Hacienda Doka near San Jose is one of the best places to do a coffee tour.

We did this 3-in-1 coffee, chocolate, and sugar cane tour in Monteverde and it was quite interesting (and delicious ;)).

Chocolate tour in Costa Rica
From cocoa beans to chocolate – we learned so much on the coffee and chocolate tour!

So, this sums up our list of must-dos in Costa Rica. As you can see, the country has a lot to offer!

From wildlife spotting in the rainforest, swimming in breathtaking waterfalls, or soaking in relaxing hot springs to adventurous activities such as ziplining, river tubing, or rafting, there are so many amazing places to visit and things to do in Costa Rica!

Good to know: In this article, we only focus on the VERY BEST places and things to do in Costa Rica. Even so, you will need at least 10-12 days to do all of this in a somewhat relaxing way. If you are in a hurry, you could do it all a bit faster as well, but remember that Costa Rica is the land of Pura Vida! So if your trip is shorter, you may want to visit fewer places and explore them deeper rather than trying to see ‘everything’.

If you are wondering how to plan a trip so that you can cover most of these top spots and activities in Costa Rica, take a look at our recommended itinerary for first-time visitors via the link below!

READ ALSO: Costa Rica Itinerary for 2 Weeks

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Best things to do in Costa Rica
Costa Rica must do experiences and top places to visit

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