Costa Rica is a country with an extraordinary wealth of activities, but whatever your interests, you will want to spend time on one of the country’s many great beaches. The main beaches on the Pacific coast are in the Central Pacific region, on the Nicoya Peninsula and in Guanacaste. Less visited, but no less beautiful beaches can be found in the rainforest of the southern Pacific coast, near the Corcovado National Park, or in the exotic ecotourism paradise on the Caribbean side of the country, in the province of Limón.
In general, the Caribbean region of Costa Rica is characterised by the diversity of its aquatic ecosystems and its beautiful white and black sand beaches, which provide an ideal environment for activities such as sport fishing, snorkelling and sunbathing. The Pacific coast concentrates large tourist centres and its beaches are very popular for surfing; for example Esterillos, Jaco, Hermosa, Boca Barranca. In the Golfito region, surf lovers will find the famous “long left wave” of Pavones.
Here is a short list of the biggest and most popular beach destinations in the country. Ask locals about small, quiet beaches away from the tourist crowds nearby:
- Manuel Antonio – one of the most famous destinations in Central America, whose main feature is a beautiful, small national park with clear water beaches and lots of wildlife.
- Jacó, the “surf city” of Costa Rica, hosts national and international tournaments. It is close to beautiful natural areas such as Carara National Park in the north and Manuel Antonio in the south. It is also known for its nightlife and restaurants.
- Corcovado – one of the most diverse and dense areas of Costa Rica, the main attraction of the Osa Peninsula, with its black sand beaches bordered by the dense Costa Rican rainforest.
- Dominical – small town for surfing with good nightlife at the northern end of the South Pacific.
- Montezuma – the bohemian option, on the Nicoya Peninsula, full of dreadlocks, surfers and what you would expect from them (called “monte fuma” by the locals).
- Playa Grande – this quiet white sand beach is home to the largest leatherback nesting site on the Pacific coast, as well as one of the best surf waves in Guanacaste province.
- Tamarindo – the upmarket option, with great beaches, shopping and upmarket restaurants.
- Tortuguero – is for ecotourists who want to explore the rainforest and see manatees, monkeys and birds. Tortuguero is both a small town that can only be reached by boat and the name of the national park nicknamed “the Amazon of Central America”.
- Puerto Viejo – the main Caribbean centre in southern Costa Rica, has a relaxed atmosphere with small hotels and beautiful, clear sandy beaches. Nearby are Cahuita National Park and the Manzanillo Wildlife Refuge, attractive protected coastal areas.
Costa Rica is one of the countries with the most rivers per square kilometre in the world. Almost everywhere you go, you will find some kind of river trip to enjoy nature from a unique perspective.
Costa Rica offers a wide range of exciting rafting tours. For many years, the rafting mecca in Costa Rica was Turrialba, a large town nestled in the mountains near the Reventazon and Pacuare rivers on the Caribbean side of Costa Rica.
However, the area around Arenal Volcano is now an increasingly popular destination for whitewater rafting, with close access to the Sarapiqui and Toro Rivers and the Class II-III Río Balsa, popular with rafting enthusiasts on the country’s northern slopes.
On the Pacific side, the highest volume river, El General, is famous for multi-day adventures and as an incredible playground for kayakers. The Coto Brus River is also part of this watershed. Further north, on the central Pacific coast, are the Savegre and Naranjo rivers. In this area, you have the option of half-day tours on the Naranjo River and one to two-day tours on the Savegre River.
The Class III-IV Tenorio River near Canas, Guanacaste, is a popular day-trip destination from Guanacaste’s beaches and is part of the shuttle service from Arenal Volcano and Monteverde to the Guanacaste region. The lower section of the Tenorio River is widely known as an excellent nature boat trip.
The Pacuare River (Class III-IV) is at the top of the list for 2- or 3-day adventures. If you are interested in similar tours, the Savegre River (Class III-IV) is an excellent alternative for an overnight rafting trip.
If you want more adrenaline, the Chorro section (Class IV+) of the Naranjo River, near Manuel Antonio, Quepos is one of the most exciting rafting routes in the country. This section operates from December to May.
For nature excursions, the Peñas Blancas River near Arenal Volcano offers an excellent overview of the country’s enormous biodiversity.
Chances are that one or more of these rafting trips will be the highlight of your active holiday, so don’t miss your chance to paddle one.
Costa Rica has some of the best sport fishing in the world and is the first country to practice catch and release fishing. The Pacific side offers incredible fishing for sailfish, marlin, dorado, tuna, wahoo, roosterfish, snapper, etc. The Caribbean side and the northern regions of Costa Rica are famous for their large tarpon and snapper. More than sixty-four world records have been caught in Costa Rica. Half-day, full-day and multi-day trips are available. They love to eat turtles.
Costa Rica has many hot spots for surfing. The best time of the year to surf is from November to August.
The Pacific coast, especially in the Central Pacific and Guanacaste, offers some of the best surf spots in Central America.
In the Guanacaste region there are several beaches to choose from if you want to surf. Among them, Playa Negra and Playa Grande are two notable breaks. Playa Negra breaks on a shallow lava reef and produces fast, hollow waves that are only suitable for experienced surfers. Playa Grande is the most consistent break in the area, with conditions suitable for surfing most days of the year. It breaks on a sandy bottom and is suitable for both beginners and experienced surfers. Playa Nosara is another option for beginners and advanced surfers. The waves might be a bit overwhelming for a complete novice, but for someone who knows the technique well, it’s a nice place with a good local scene.
Tamarindo is a good beach to learn to surf, while Playa del Coco offers advanced surfers the chance to surf at Witches Rock and Ollie’s Point. There are some nice beaches on the Caribbean side, but surfing opportunities are limited.
The southern region of Costa Rica has two very good surf spots: Dominical and Pavones Beach. Pavones Beach has thick, heavy waves that roll over constantly and can get very big. It is a little-known but picturesque and wild spot that is definitely not for the faint-hearted.
At the southern end of the Nicoya Peninsula is Montezuma, with one of the most beautiful beaches in the area, Playa Grande. It is a short walk east of the village of Montezuma. This beach is ideal for all surfers.
Costa Rica has some excellent mountain bike routes, especially near the Irazu, Turrialba and Arenal volcanoes. A popular dirt road connecting Irazu Volcano with the foothills of Turrialba Volcano is perfect for mountain biking as it crosses the mountain and offers great views of the Cartago Valley (weather permitting, of course).
The area around Lake Arenal is also a great place for cycling. You can cycle around the lake in one long day or split the trip into two nights in Tilarán or Nuevo Arenal. Mountain bikes are a must as the south shore of the lake is not paved.
The Nicoya Peninsula also offers excellent hiking opportunities, especially the stretch between Sámara, Puerto Coyote and Malpais. A coastal road connects these three places.
Costa Rica is also known as a paradise for some of the most lush and tropical golf environments in the world. On each course you can expect an array of exotic and native wildlife, jungle, mountainous terrain and a surreal blue ocean that makes for a brilliant and secluded experience.
The courses are located in three main regions of Costa Rica: Guanacaste, San Jose and Mid Pacific. Due to road conditions, you should check the travel times between courses.
There are many tournaments throughout the year in which every traveller can participate. Most courses offer shoe and club hire.
The windsurfing in the Tilarán region is some of the best in the world.
Canopy tours or ziplines are very popular tourist activities and can be found throughout Costa Rica. They usually cost between $30 and $50, depending on the company, and use a series of ziplines to move between platforms attached to trees, through and over the forest canopy and across rivers. The person is attached to the metal cables with harnesses as they sometimes float very high above the ground. Inquire about the certification of the zipline before booking and be sure to attend the safety briefing before participating.
Another form of canopy tour is the ride on a cable car adapted to the rainforest. These trams are slower and allow visitors to observe the flora and fauna in the treetops. Each tram is accompanied by a guide who explains the flora and fauna. Trams are available at the adventure parks near Jaco Beach and outside Braulio Carrillo National Park and are suitable for all ages. Trams can be combined with ziplining and often include other attractions such as medical gardens or serpentaria so visitors can learn more about Costa Rica.