All Articles Where to go in Costa Rica beyond the beach

Where to go in Costa Rica beyond the beach

Volcanic hot springs, jungle tours, and delicacies are all on the itinerary.

Devorah Lev-Tov
By Devorah Lev-TovOct. 24, 2022 7 minutes read
Scenic view of Arenal Volcano in central Costa Rica at sunrise
Volcan Arenal in central Costa Rica
Image: Alexeys/Getty Images

Stretching across two coasts and hugging the Pacific Ocean and the Caribbean Sea, the beaches of Costa Rica some of the world’s most stunning—and, for many travelers, reason alone to visit the Central American country. But the tropical destination is filled with so much more: active volcanoes, leafy jungles filled with wildlife, magical cloud forests, and lively cities with museums, restaurants, and markets. If you’re planning (or dreaming about) a Costa Rica vacation, here are five destinations beyond the beach to consider.

La Fortuna and Volcan Arenal

La Fortuna, Costa Rica
La Fortuna, Costa Rica
Image: Maximilian Müller/Getty Images

Located north of the capital San José, the charming town of La Fortuna sits beneath the country’s largest active volcano, Volcan Arenal, and the dormant Volcan Chato. There are hot springs at the foot of Arenal, on the thermal Tabacón River. Chato, meanwhile has a crater lake and rainforest trails leading to the gushing La Fortuna Waterfall and its natural pool.

Eat

Several traditional restaurants (called "soda restaurants") are scattered around town. Check out La Choze del Laurel and Restaurante La Parada. Other, slightly more upscale, restaurants fuse Costa Rican with, say, American, Italian, and Asian influences. Don Rufino is a steakhouse, Nene’s Restaurant La Fortuna has great hamburgers, and La Cascada offers dinner with a view of the volcano.

Stay

As one of the most popular destinations in Costa Rica, La Fortuna is filled with hotels at a wide range of price points. Many of them have their own hot springs as well, including longtime landmark Tabacón Thermal Resort & Spa, which has the largest array of natural hot springs around, and the trio of Nayara Springs, Nayara Gardens, and Nayara Tented Camp, which has family-friendly and adults-only options. The Royal Corin Thermal Water Spa & Resort is a boutique, budget-conscious option.

Play

This area is bursting with natural beauty. Visitors can ride aerial trams and walk across hanging bridges; there's river rafting, waterfall jumping, and more. You can also hike the volcano and the surrounding rainforests, which are filled with wildlife—keep your sloth-spotting eyes on high alert. Cap the day with a dip in the Tabacón hot springs, or head back out for a night hike where you’ll see red lava and spot some of the region’s dozens of frog species, among other nighttime creatures.

Tortuguero National Park

Brown-throated sloth in Tortuguero National Park, Costa Rica
Brown-throated sloth in Tortuguero National Park, Costa Rica
Image: Matthew Williams-Ellis/Getty Images

Calling all turtle lovers: This is the Caribbean’s premier nesting site for green turtles, which almost became extinct in the 1960s. Located in the Limón Province on the northern Caribbean coast, the area is only accessible by boat or small plane. Depending on the season, you might see females laying eggs or the eggs hatching. Tortuguero also has winding canals and dense jungles with plenty of other animal species, as well.

Eat

Although the village of Tortuguero is small, it’s a great place to sample some of the country's coconut-rich Caribbean-coast cuisine. While you can find Caribbean-style cuisine at nearly every restaurant in Tortuguero—and most are family-owned—you're in for a particular treat at Miss Junie's, a 100-year-old restaurant run by one of the first families to settle her. Try the Caribbean-style chicken, which is slow-cooked in herbs, spices, and coconut milk.

Stay

Most of the hotels here are eco-lodges, focused on preserving the local turtles’ natural habitats. Tortuga Lodge is situated on 146 acres of private land bordering the park; Mawamba Lodge is on a sandbar between the canals and the wild beaches of the northern Caribbean coast. At the luxury end, there's Manatus Hotel, which has a gardens, a private forest reserve, an art gallery, and more.

Play

With 11 different habitats, the national park is rich in wildlife like monkeys and sloths, as well as stunning vistas that visitors can explore via a guided boat or walking tour. You can also relax at Tortuguero’s black-sand beach and walk around the brightly colored village. But most people come for the turtles: About 22,500 female green turtles nest here every year; giant leatherback, hawksbill, and loggerhead turtles also nest here. Prime nesting season is between July and August, but you can also see the turtles hatch in September and October. To visit the beaches at night, when the most egg-laying activity occurs, you'll need a guide; to book one, simply visit the kiosk in the middle of Tortuguero village or arrange directly through your hotel.

San José

National Theater in San Jose, Costa Rica
National Theater in San José, Costa Rica
Image: John Coletti/Getty Images

While many travelers come to Costa Rica for its natural beauty, lovers of history and culture should flock to San José, Costa Rica’s capital city. Founded in 1737, today the sprawling city is filled with vibrant museums, restaurants, shops, and nightlife.

Eat

This is the largest city in Costa Rica, and the dining scene reflects that breadth. You can get top-notch Italian at Il Cavallino, Indian food at Zaika Indian Cuisine, and pan-Asian cuisine with a Costa Rican bent at Gallo Rojo. There's also Peruvian fusion at La Divina Comida and LIMA Picante. For local Tico food, visit La Granja or Chicharronera Cacique Acserí, which has been serving Costa Rican–style chicharrones since 1966, or book a table at Restaurante Silvestre, which serves modern spins on local fare. And don’t miss San José’s Mercado Central, which is packed with 200 stalls and shops and takes up an entire city block.

Stay

San José has a lot of chain hotels to consider, including the Hilton San José La Sabana and the Costa Rica Marriott Haciena Belen. Solid boutique hotels include the Gran Hotel Costa Rica or Grano de Oro Hotel in the city center or, for a splurge, Hotel Boutique Alta Las Palomas on the city’s western edge. There are also plenty of hostels and budget options in the city, including the Park Inn by Radisson San José and Hotel Culture Plaza.

Play

San José is filled with museums and art galleries, so if you’re a culture hound you’ve come to the right place. Plan to spend time at the National Museum of Costa Rica, the Pre-Columbian Gold Museum, the Jade Museum, and Museum of Costa Rican Art, to name a few. The National Theater (or Teatro Nacional Costa Rica) is one of San José’s most lavish buildings, filled with opulent decor and marble statues. And if you’re traveling with kids, the Children’s Museum is wonderful. A walking tour is also a great way to learn about and discover the city; San José Free Walking Tour has twice-daily free tours.

Guanacaste

Rio Celeste waterfall, Guanacaste, Costa Rica
Rio Celeste waterfall, Guanacaste, Costa Rica
Image: Matteo Colombo/Getty Images

Head further afield to this northwest province on the Pacific Coast, which has multiple magnificent volcanos, jungles, and waterfalls. It’s also a great area for wildlife sightings, with several sanctuaries.

Eat

For feet-in-the-sand dining, book a table at Mattis at Hotel El Mangroove, Autograph Collection, where you can dine on a variety of ceviches and grilled freshly caught fish. To feel like you’re dining in a treehouse, head to Ginger, which offers Asian-inspired tapas from the chef-owner Anne Hegney, who trained at Le Cordon Bleu in France. Head to Zarpe for craft cocktails made with fresh juice squeezed from locally grown fruits (and garnished with the same).

Stay

While most of the resorts are by the beach, the Borinquen Thermal Resort, outside of Liberia, is surrounded by rainforests; it sits right near hot springs in the shadow of Rincón de la Vieja Volcano. Rio Perdido in the San Bernardo Lowlands focuses on sustainability and has modern forest bungalows with ample outdoor space.

Play

Guanacaste has two volcanic national parks: Tenorio Volcano National Park and Rincón de la Vieja Volcano National Park. Tenorio boasts flora and fauna including palm trees, orchids, white-faced monkeys, anteaters, and pumas, plus exotic bird species. Rincón, meanwhile, has tropical dry forest, waterfalls, and volcanic activity from two volcanoes, and visitors can hike, horseback-ride, and camp. Go tubing or rafting on the Rio Celeste, a river that's a gorgeous shade of blue, thanks to the sulfur emitted by the surrounding volcanic activity. In Bagaces, you'll find the gigantic, cascading Llanos de Cortez, considered one of Costa Rica’s most beautiful waterfalls. Art lovers should make time for the towns of Guaitil and San Vicente, both home to more than 5,000 years of traditional ceramic work in the form of jars, flower pots, vases, and more.

Monteverde and Santa Elena Cloud Forest Reserves

Woman walking across hanging bridge in the Monteverde Cloud Forest, Costa Rica
Monteverde Cloud Forest, Costa Rica
Image: MB Photography/Getty Images

Only one percent of the world’s forests are defined as cloud forests—and these are often thought to be some of the most beautiful in the world. Offering something different than rainforests, Monteverde Cloud Forest is a must-visit for nature lovers. It’s also a prime place for ziplining. Nearby, Santa Elena offers smaller crowds. Both green oases have a cloud cover that hangs at the canopy and are home to dozens of bird species, including the rare quetzal.

Eat

The small town of Santa Elena is home to a clutch of restaurants, many offering a combination of Costa Rican and international fare. Restaurante Morphos is named for the famous blue morpho butterfly; its exterior walls are covered with images of the insect. Costa Rican specialties like casados (beans, rice, fried plantains, and choice of meat), and arroz con pollo (rice and chicken) are on the menu here, along with burgers, pasta, and seafood. For a unique dining experience, head to the Tree House Restaurant, which has hardwood floors and arched-beam ceilings surrounding a strangler fig tree. On the menu, you'll find casados and plenty of seafood; there’s also nightly live music.

Stay

For a boutique hotel with plenty of character and charm, book a room at Hotel & Spa Poco a Poco, which was started by a Costa Rican who decided to convert his own house in Monteverde’s cloud forest into a hotel. Today it offers a spa, warm-water pool and hot tub, and the onsite Otocuma bar and restaurant. Close to downtown, the Monteverde Lodge & Gardens has its own beautifully designed gardens and modern, minimalist rooms. And with its own farm that supplies its fantastic restaurant, Hotel Belmar is perfect for culinary explorers.

Play

Both cloud forests are incredible places to hike and spot wildlife, and you can also book horseback riding tours in the forests. Visitors looking for adventure should head to Sky Adventure Monteverde, a collection of hanging suspension bridges, ziplines, and a sky tram. There are other ziplining parks, and if you want to glide down the longest zipline in Costa Rica, you’ll need to go to 100% Aventura Adventure Park. There are also a number of waterfalls in the area; El Tigre Waterfalls consists of four large waterfalls and several smaller ones. Finally, if you’re a coffee lover, visit Café de Monteverde, a coffee plantation that runs daily tours.

Devorah Lev-Tov
Devorah Lev-Tov is a travel and food journalist who lives in Brooklyn with her husband, two sons, and pet shih-tzu. She's written about her travels around the globe in publications like The New York Times, Travel + Leisure, Afar, Vogue, Conde Nast Traveler, Food & Wine, National Geographic, and more.