Where to Visit in Costa Rica

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Last updated Jun 21, 2023

When we first decided to visit Costa Rica in December 2020, we had no idea what all Costa Rica had to offer, what are the different regions or how to decide where to visit. We did some research and since we didn’t have much time to plan, we just picked a few locations and went with it. The trip was great, wouldn’t have changed anything except maybe add more time to spend in this amazing country.

In this post, I will break down all the seven regions and their main attractions in Costa Rica. This can help decide where to visit and how much time to spend in each region. For the tiny country that Costa Rica is its biodiversity is like no other, every region is a little bit different but equally beautiful. 

Where To Visit in Costa Rica
Map of Regions in Costa Rica | Where to visit in Costa Rica

table of contents

Where is Cost Rica Located
Alajuela & Heredia Province
Guanacaste Province
Puntarenas Province
San José Province
Cartago Province
Limón Province
Top 10 Destinations

Where is Costa Rica Located

Costa Rica is in Central America surrounded by the Caribbean Sea on the east, the Pacific Ocean on the west, bordering Panama on the south, and Nicaragua on the north. You can get to it by land, water, or air.

Costa Rica Provinces:

Alajuela & Heredia province

Alajuela and Heredia are inland regions located north of San José and home of Arenal Volcano. This is where the majority of breathtaking cloud forests are located. This region is lush green with coffee plantations all around, volcanos, hanging bridges, waterfalls, hot springs, many wildlife refuges, and crazy strangling Ficus trees. The main city to visit and a centralized location for different adventures is La Fortuna.

La Fortuna is home to the Arenal Volcano, Lake Arenal, and La Fortuna Waterfalls, but also a great location for day trips to Volcano Poas, Waterfall del Toro, Waterfall Hidden Treasure, La Paz Waterfall Gardens, Tenorio National Park among many others. The area is developed for visitors and there are many tourist agencies offering white water rafting, AVT tours, ziplining, horseback riding tour, nighttime wildlife tours, or hiking tours. However, if relaxing and soaking in hot springs is more of your thing there are plenty of nice resorts and hot springs where you can do this.

Things to do in Costa Rica

Heredia is also home to Café Britt, one of the most famous coffee roasting companies in the country. It has been open to the public since 1991 and is one of the largest attractions in the country.

Point of Interest in Alajuela & Heredia:

Arenal Volcano
Arenal Lake
Tenorio Volcano National Park
Caño Negro Wildlife Refuge
Poas Volcano
Catarata del Toro
La Paz Waterfall
Café Britt Tour
Braulio Carrillo National Park

Guanacaste PROVINCE

Located in the northwestern corner of Costa Rica it is home to some of the most beautiful beaches on the Pacific Coast. Tamarindo, the major city in the province, is nearly sunny all year long. And beaches vary from beautiful calm and secluded to surfing paradise.

Liberia is the capital city of Guanacaste province and the only other city with a major airport outside of San Jose. It is known as the White City (Ciudad Blanca) due to the white gravel of the surrounding soil.

Outside of the beautiful beaches, Guanacaste is home to some of the most unique national parks too. The first established national park in 1971 was Santa Rosa National Park located in Guanacaste Province. However, many visitors don’t venture to explore this beauty due to its accessibility. Roads are difficult and strong 4WD is necessary or come in by boat. Part of this national park is Bat Island, accessible only by boat and a great location for snorkeling or hiking.

Manuel Antonio Trails

On the eastern edge of the province is Rincón de la Vieja National Park great for hikers and adventure seekers. The visitor-accessible region of the park has 7 hiking trails, medium to difficult level which lead to waterfalls, mud pots, hot springs, and amazing viewpoints.

Point of Interest in the Guanacaste:

Beaches – Playa Hermosa, Playa Flamingo, Play Grande and many more.
Lake Arenal
Rincón de la Vieja National Park
Santa Rosa National Park
Cabo Blanco Absolute Natural Reserve

Puntarenas Province

Puntarenas is located on the Pacific Coast side south of Guanacaste, it stretches the entire length of the coast to the southern tip where Costa Rica borders Panama.

Puntarenas province is home to more beautiful beaches but also a surfer’s paradise. 2009 World Surfing Games were held at Playa Jaco and Hermosa and almost everyone is either a surfer or trying to be a surfer around here. If interested, you can take surfing classes while visiting. That’s what the Nicoya Peninsula is known for.

TIP: Every costal town/region has Playa Hermosa!

Further south on the coast is Manuel Antonio National Park. One of the smallest but busiest protected green spaces. Great place to spend a day with a family hiking or swimming and looking for wildlife. The next town down south is Uvita where Marino Ballena National Parks is and the famous Whale Tail Beach. Great centralized location for surfing, whale watching, snorkeling, and a lot of waterfall hikes.

Things to do in Costa Rica 

At the southern tip is the Osa Peninsula, one of the most biodiverse regions in the world and home to Corcovado National Park. Visit Corcovado National Park is only permitted with a licensed guide and you either need to hike for hours to get inside of the park or come in by boat from Drake Bay. An overnight visit to the park is highly recommended.

On the inland northern side of the province is Monteverde, the country’s major ecotourism destination. Santa Elena/Monteverde Area is home to some of the most breathtaking cloud forests. Monteverde does not have National Parks and all the reserves are privately owned. It is also home to a Quaker community that migrated from the US in the 1950s refusing to register for the war draft. Quakers played a huge role in conserving Monteverde’s natural beauty and protecting it from being destroyed or overdeveloped. The most popular cloud forests are Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve and Santa Elena Cloud Forest Reserve.

Extreme ziplining may be the second most popular thing visitors come to Monteverde for. You can zipline above cloud forests, bungee jump into the forest, Tarzan swings 45 meters (147 ft) down, or superman zipline. Ziplining will never be the same after this experience.

Hanging bridges are another amazing thing to do in this region. Selvatura Park has eight hanging bridges ranging anywhere from 170 to 560 ft long offering stunning views.

SAN JosÉ Province

San José province combines natural beauty with the modern convenience of a city. San José city is a vibrant and cultural city, with great restaurants and hiking/biking areas around the city that give you great views of the city in the valley. If the city is not your thing, there are a lot of other things to do in this province.

Costa Rica Provinces

Just less than half an hour from the city is Waterfall Ciudad Colón if you are up for a short but steep hike.  There are few hikes close to a city with great city and/or mountain views: Cedral Arriba, Pinos Poas Asseri, Calle El Armandillo. The highest peak in the country is Cerro Chirripo located on the southern tip of the province. It is a great overnight hike very strenuous with elevation gain, and most people try to get to the peak for an amazing sunrise.

About 50 miles south of the capital on HWY 2 is Los Quetzales National Park. It is a special area for bird watching especially, hence the name, Quetzal. The park’s terrain varies widely: lakes, mountains, rivers, cloud forests, and wildlife everywhere. There are several different trails in the park to different regions.

Points of Interest in San José:

National Museum of Costa Rica
Cerro Cedral
Cerro de Escazú
Laguna Don Manuel
Cerro Chirripó

Cartago Province

East of San José is Cartago province. Cartago city was the original capital of Costa Rica and now is a quiet colonial town. The largest Basilica de Nuestra Senora de Los Angeles in the city houses the Black Madonna which is rumored to have healing power. The largest and most important archeological site in the country is also in this province, Guayabo National Monument with indigenous settlement ruins, trails, and structures that date back 3,000 years.

Costa Rica Provinces

Sitting in the Central Highlands of Costa Rica is active Volcano Irazú. There are some great viewpoints from here where on a clear day you can see both the Pacific and the Atlantic Ocean.

Further south off the HWY 2 is Tapanti National Park in the middle of the Macho River Forest Reserve with some great hiking in the area.

Points of Interest in Cartago:

Cartago City
Coffee Plantation Tour
Volcano Irazú
Guayabo National Monument
Orosi
Tapanti National Park

Limón Province

This is the Caribbean side of Costa Rica that may not be as visited by tourists as the other parts of Costa Rica but is beloved by locals. With 125 miles of white-sand beaches on the east, it is an ultimate tropical paradise. However, with Central and Talamanca mountain ranges on the west and south side, it can feel like an isolated, remote place.

In the Tortuguero National Park, you can watch giant sea turtles lay their egg on the beaches, or go animal and bird watching in Cahuita National Park. Puerto Viejo de Talamanca offers some of the most challenging waves in the country. Its famous 20-ft. wave is called “La Salsa Brava” and it crashes ashore between December and March and June to July. This phenomenon as well as the Caribbean culture and social scene pulls in huge crowds and accommodations sell out quickly.

Costa Rica Provinces

Limón province has the highest portion of protected land in the country Wildlife Refuge Barra del Colorado in the north on the border with Nicaragua and Wildlife Refuge Gandoca-Manzanillo in the south on the border with Panama. Further inland with a crisscross of many rivers there are opportunities for great whitewater rafting adventures.

When it comes to culture Limón is the most diverse region of Costa Rica. It has a large, mostly Jamaican-descended Afro-Caribbean population and their influence can be felt in the food, music, and culture. There are also a few indigenous groups living near the border with Panama.

Points of Interest in Limón:

Talamanca Mountains
Whitewater Rafting on Pacuare River
Cahuita National Park
Tortuguero National Park
Wildlife Refuge Gandoca-Manzanillo
Wildlife Refuge Barra del Colorado
Puerto Viejo de Talmanca

Costa Rica’s unique beauty is spread through all the regions and wherever you choose to go will not disappoint you and that is mostly because of the hospitality of Costa Rican people. They always make you feel welcome.

Top 10 Destinations

  1. Monteverde – cloud forests and extreme adventure ziplining.
  2. La Fortuna – Arenal Volcano, La Fortuna waterfalls and whitewater rafting.
  3. Tenorio National Park – hiking, wildlife, and waterfall.
  4. Waterfall del Toro – hiking, birdwatching and waterfall.
  5. San José – experience city culture
  6. Jaco – beaches, nightlife, and surfing
  7. Manuel Antonio National Park
  8. Puerto Viejo de Talamanca
  9. Volcano Irazú and/or Poas Volcano
  10. Coffee and Chocolate Tour – anywhere

Other helpful posts…
10 Days in Costa Rica
Tenorio Volcano National Park
Manuel Antonio National Park Trails
Renting a Car and Driving in Costa Rica
Costa Rica COVID-19 Travel Restrictions

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