Costa Rica is a mélange of soaring mountains, volcanoes, beaches, jungles, waterfalls, hot springs– you name it. Every corner of Costa Rica’s diverse topography is beaming with natural treasures and hidden gems. There is something for everyone. For this New Yorker, it is a lush respite from the hustle and bustle of city life. A way to re-connect with the outdoors… Costa Rica is where I feel at home with nature! Here is a list of Costa Rica’s finest hidden gems from my comprehensive travels around the lovely country.
The very best part about Costa Rica, besides its natural wonders, is its Costa Rican people (“los Ticos“). Los Ticos I’ve encountered have been extraordinarily helpful and selfless people, never once asking for anything in return–Even when I’ve insisted. In the countryside, Costa Ricans welcomed me into their home for food and coffee and shared the exotic fruits growing in their backyards with me. When I got lost in cities, I was kindly helped by Costa Ricans, almost to a fault. “I think I got it. No, no, it’s OK. You don’t have to walk me there.”
Costa Rica’s highly cherished ecology along with the graciousness of its people make this country the perfect destination for a beautiful adventure and/or some much-needed relaxation. Whether you’re touring one part of the country or renting a car and open to exploring it all, Costa Rica offers a myriad of exploration options.
Below are the specials gems I’ve discovered; they are near and dear to my heart. Please travel mindfully!
Guanacaste: Puerto Carillo & Playa Carrillo
Nestled between dozens of surf beach towns along Guanacaste’s coastline is Playa Carillo. We reached this beach town via the roads from Tamarindo to Santa Cruz/Nicoya. The route to Playa Carillo alone was worth the trip. The road is adorned with mountainous hills, lush meadows, and quaint farms. We drove to the very top of the town of Puerto Carillo and had a wonderful picnic overlooking the mountains.
If you’re looking to enjoy a pleasant swim, the beaches along the Guanacaste Peninsula’s coast may not be for you. I tried to snorkel here, but it was nearly impossible with the dark waters and constant waves. But out of all the beach towns on the Pacific Coast, Playa Carillo won me over. And despite having the usual flow of tourism and modern re-imperialism by foreign expats, it still maintains pieces of local Costa Rican culture. For example: at the beach, we watched the sunset while taking part in a soccer game between local Costa Ricans. What is travel without local culture? Many other spots in Costa Rica are crowded with tourists and little Costa Ricans in sight.
The mellow town of Puerto Carillo itself is walkable and bustling with activities, restaurants, and shops.
Punta Arenas: Malpais & Santa Teresa
After moisturizing our pores in the wet jungles of Alajuela, we decided to head back towards the Pacific Coast, where the weather is usually drier. But where to? After a lot of ideas and debating, we brought our car onto a ferry and crossed the Gulf of Nicoya aiming towards Montezuma.
Instead, while stargazing on the ferry’s deck, we befriended a few travelers who invited us to a place called Mal Pais. With little idea of what to expect of this place, we drove across the Nicoya peninsula. The curvy dirt roads were dark, dusty and unpaved. Our hearts skipped beats whenever we had to turn dark corners or pass cars on one lane roads. Little did we know… the beauty that awaited.
The next morning our new friends took us to a remotely hidden beach behind a fisherman’s market and kept out of sight by two giant boulders. I have yet to ever see another beach quite like this. Upon catching sight of the turquoise greenish waters, I couldn’t take off my clothes fast enough. I ran into the soft waves like a turtle released from a fishing net. This beach was perfect for snorkeling and leisurely swimming.
Afterwards, we all headed to Santa Teresa, the bordering town to Mal Pais. We feasted at Restaurante Habaneros where I tasted my favorite margarita in the world, infused with Jalapenos and Pineapple. The food was diverse and delicious with a Cuban twist. But it was the oceans views that 100% perfected the experience.
Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve
Once you arrive at the town of La Junta, you must prepare for one of the toughest drives up swirly mountain roads without guardrails to reach the towns of Santa Elena and Monteverde. These towns are both at the top of the mountains, a short ride away from the Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve.
The Reserve and its mountain towns (Monteverde and Santa Elena) have several options for lodging, restaurants, gift shops, information centers, a lizard zoo, a frog pond, a bat jungle, and butterfly gardens. There are well-paved trails that run through the lush reserve, as well as trees for climbing, rope swings, suspension bridges (pictured above) and most notably, zip-lines. Zip lining in Costa Rica is arguably some of the best in the world. I am not a thrill seeker, but I knew I had to try zip-lining while in Costa Rica. Bucket list item checked!
Rio Negro Hot Springs, Rincon de La Vieja
Just 27 kilometers from the Liberia international airport is Rincon de la Vieja. This park spans over 34 thousand acres and includes a variety of rejuvenating nature sights and activities including an active volcano, cloud forests, hiking trails, zip lining, horseback riding, waterfalls, and natural hot springs. Oddly, there is little information on tourism sites about the Rio Negro Hot Springs here. But visiting Rio Negro Hot Springs was one of the top highlights of my time in Costa Rica. It is a complex of several pools with natural hot spring water flowing from the volcano.
Getting there you will cross over some hanging bridges that overlook the gorgeous layout of hot spring pools and the surrounding lush nature. The pools range from extremely hot to warm. At the bottom of the complex is fresh water river. There, you can lather your skin in volcanic mud and finish off with a cool swim in the river. I found the experience very soothing, especially after a long hike. My skin felted refresh, soft as if just leaving out of an expensive spa. You will feel pampered by nature.
Puerto Viejo, Limon
Puerto Viejo rests on the Caribbean side of Costa Rica, extremely close to the Panamanian border. A border so lax, that I had to wave down an officer to look at my passport as I crossed into Panama. This alone can tell you the strong influence the Puerto Viejo region gets from Panama and the rest of South America.
It’s easy to spend an entire day in Puerto Viejo sleeping on the beach, strolling the town, eating at the many delicious Afro-Carribean restaurants. There are a ton of things to do in Puerto Viejo and in its outskirts. While shopping for cacao and looking into yoga, we bumped into the famous travel blogger Camille Willemain of This American Girl. She explained there is a strong expat community from Europe in Puerto Viejo, which was a contrast to the American expat community you see on the Pacific side of Costa Rica.
The nightlife in Puerto Viejo has a unique cultural clash of Caribbean and European hippies with a dash of rent-a-rastas.
But the very best of all? Puerto Viejo has the most delicious food in ALL of Costa Rica.
Alueja, Bijagua, Volcan Tenorio Park
This here is how I picture heaven. Don’t tell any of the other destinations I’ve visited, but to me, this is the most beautiful place on planet earth. I know I’ve been using a lot of extremes in this post. But that’s just how strong of an affinity I feel towards Costa Rica. And this is the top Costa Rica hidden gem.
This particular place is not easy to reach. The roads up to the Celestial River are unpaved, full of boulders, craters, and slippery mud. I had to try THREE times to reach this waterfall. On one occasion we got stuck in the rain and had to turn around as a safety precaution. But the indescribable scenery makes up for the arduous drive: unique farmhouses, cattle, rivers, coffee plantations, and crop fields. I looked outside the window of a friendly coffee farmer’s house, pining for a home on this mountain one day.
Once you survive the drive and reach the park’s entrance, the hike itself isn’t easy. But it is completely worth the journey. We saw natural hot springs, natural fresh water springs to drink from, beautiful hanging bridges, celestial blue lagoons, cloud forest mountainous views, exotic flowers, spiders, and even snakes!
Beware: there are two ways to see the park, local and tourist. We bumped into Costa Ricans swimming in the river who offered to help us explore a new route on our way out. A route only locals know and take because it does not require the entrance fee. It turned out to be one of the wildest hikes of my life. We leaped over armies of biting ants and slid down steep, slippery mountain trails along cliffs overlooking natural magnificence. I felt connected. Looking up towards the misty, dense, foggy skies adorned by hundred-year-old powerful trees, I understood the hackneyed expression everyone kept repeating… Costa Rica is Pura Vida.
Request: While traveling through Costa Rica, please be as environmentally mindful as possible.
Extra Tips: For another perspective of other things to do in Costa Rica, check out this two-week sample itinerary of Costa Rica travel. And if you’re planning on backpacking through Costa Rica check out this budget backpacker guide. Check out this blogger’s post if you want to explore La Fortuna/Arenal.