There's no shortage of things to do in order to keep busy on your trip to Costa Rica. Which many find confusing. With so many alternatives and so many ads for tours and agencies popping up on your browser, you just can't get a handle on it all, and end up missing interesting and memorable experiences.
So here's a list of ideas of stuff you can do on your trip. It's by no means a complete list, but it does make planning activities a bit easier. After checking it out, you can start looking for agencies or tour operators to take you to your destinations, or sketch out the plan to tour on your own!
- Turrialba, the most talked about volcano in the past months. Active, and has sent a few ash clouds towards the Central Valley.
- Poas, one of the largest volcanic craters in the world. Nice, scenic trip and short hike an hour from San Jose.
- Irazu, famous for its ash dunes and large tropical vegetation. Also about an hour and a half from San Jose.
- Arenal, active volcano with lava flows that can be seen at night, and occasional smoke columns during the day. Near the volcano is the Arenal lake, which offers fishing and windsurfing. Around Arenal (La Fortuna and Guayabo) you can find many places offering hot springs you can swim in.
- Rincón de la Vieja, active volcano with a lot of geothermal activity. View steam jets and boiling mud pots as you're hiking around the park.
- Barva (see rainforest)
- Parque Nacional Braulio Carrillo, Quebrada González. A short rainforest hike, about an hour from San Jose.
- Parque Nacional Braulio Carrillo, Volcán Barva. For those looking to get a good hike, nothing like Volcan Barva. A 10-20 km hike through rainforests and pastures, with a view of the valleys below.
- Reserva biológica Monteverde. Monteverde is a collection of private and national reserves, offering a wide variety of trails and activities in the rainforest. Its suspension bridges over the forest are famous worldwide.
The beach and surfEdit
- Parque Nacional Manuel Antonio. A beach well known by surfers, with plenty of wildlife and monkeys.
- Parque Nacional Cahuita. Famous for its white sand beach, turquoise waters, and coral reef dives. Note: the town of Cahuita is not credit-card friendly. Most places will say they take credit cards on the Internet, and then when you get there "the machine broke this morning". So if you're going to Cahuita, take enough cash to cover your expenses. There's an ATM in town at the Banco de Costa Rica, but in high season you may find it runs out of cash at the worst moment.
- Parque Nacional Gandoca-Manzanillo: Gandoca-Manzanillo is located after Puerto Viejo, about 10 Km from the town center. There's a national park, as well as a public beach which is very popular. People rent bikes in Puerto Viejo and ride to Manzanillo, it's close enough, but beware of riding at night, since most bikes they rent aren't equipped with lights (or a helmet for that matter).
- Playas del Coco
- Playa Guiones
- Parque Nacional Naranjo
- Parque Nacional Cabo Blanco
- Puerto Viejo
- Bahía Drake
- Isla Tortuga: island in the Gulf of Nicoya, famous for its beach and the boat ride through the gulf.
- Jaco: Jaco is often cited as a popular tourist destination. It's a nice place, and gets lots of national tourists during the holidays, but it really went a bit downhill after the housing market crashed in 2009. You can still find many great restaurants there (try Los Amigos ). Jaco is a sex tourism destination, and can get kind of seedy after dark.
- Refugio de Fauna Ostional: a national wildlife reserve, where millions of turtles lay their eggs each year. Turtles arrive most of the year, but the peak arrivals occur from August to November. It's possible to be at the beach at night, and watch the turtles nest. The biggest and most numerous turtle arrivals occur here.
- Parque Nacional Tortuguero: another national park where you can find turtles, as well as a lot of river wildlife. In Tortuguero turtles arrive to lay eggs from july to september.
- Parque Marino Las Baulas: one more for turtle fans, a short distance from Tamarindo beach. Arrivals run from october to march.
- Parque Nacional Caño Negro: the largest collection of swamp and bog habitats in Costa Rica. Famous for its birds and lagoons.
- Parque Nacional Palo Verde: another collection of lagoons with abundant bird species. Bird species in this park include the Quetzal and Ara Macao.
- Parque Nacional Corcovado: Corcovado contains a collection of wildlife unlike any other park in Costa Rica. It's the largest primary forest reserve in the american Pacific, and has 10% of the mammal species that exist in the region. It's one of the places in Costa Rica where you can find abundant populations of danta, jaguars, boars, and hundreds of species of birds. The hikes through the park are famous not only for the wildlife and scenery, but also for their duration. Hiking the basic trails in Corcovado can take anywhere from 2 to 3 days.
- La Paz Waterfall Gardens: a reserve that not only features the La Paz waterfalls, but a wide variety of flora and fauna exhibits. See hummingbirds, toucans, wild cats, monkeys, frogs...
- Zooave : another private reserve, specializing in birds and butterflies.
- The Butterfly Farm: as it's name implies, it's a butterfly farm where they breed and actually package butterflies for export!
- Reserva Ecológica Danaus , Arenal.
- InBio : a private reserve, located 15 minutes from downtown. InBio is currently undergoing restructuring, due to financial difficulties, and is not as spectacular as it was a few years back. Their serpentarium is interesting, but you'll need to buy an additional ticket since it's not covered in the basic park admission.
- University of Costa Rica insect museum: a very large collection of insect species, located at the central campus.
- Downtown San Jose, don't forget to tour the capital downtown. There's a wide collection of historic buildings and architectural displays, along safe, police controlled pedestrial walkways.
- Mercado Central de San Jose: while you're touring downtown don't forget to stop for lunch at the central market. Non adulterated, non refined, just real costarrican food.
- Downtown Cartago: Cartago used to be the capital of Costa Rica, up until the war of 1823. It's a city full of history, and has two well known landmarks: the Basilica de los Angeles and the ruins of the Santiago Cathedral, both in the city center.
- Basílica de los Ángeles: one of the most prominent and well known catholic churches in Costa Rica. Famous for the annual pilgrimage every year on August 1st.
- Barva (Heredia): Barva is a city north of the Heredia downtown area, which is home to many sculptors and artists. Its central park is decorated with sculptures and works of art.
- Iglesia de Coronado: Coronado is a city to the east of the Central Valley, about 20 minutes from downtown San Jose. Its gothic cathedral is the only one of its kind in Costa Rica.
- Museo del Oro: downtown San Jose (map ). Located underneath the Plaza de la Cultura, next to the Teatro Nacional, features a collection of precolumbian gold artifacts.
- Museo de Numismática: downtown San Jose (map ). Located underneath the Plaza de la Cultura, next to the Teatro Nacional, in the Museo del Oro complex. A collection of historic bills and coins. Admission to Oro covers this museum as well.
- Museo del Jade: downtown San Jose (map ). At the corner of the INS central office bulding, this museum has one of the largest collection of jade artifacts in the world, as well as some precolumbian stone artifacts and spheres.
- Museo de Arte y Diseño Contemporáneo (MADC): downtown San Jose (map ). Located in the CENAC complex, usually has some kind of modern art exhibit going on. Mondays admission is free.
- Museo Nacional: downtown San Jose (map ). Located at the end of second avenue (the fort-like building), has exhibits relating to the general history of the country.
- Museo del Niño/Galería Nacional: downtown San Jose (map ). You'll need to cross a bad part of town to get here, it's a good idea to take a cab from the Teatro Nacional. This museum has exhibits relating to science and technology, and is oriented mainly towards kids. The National Gallery features exhibits by local artists, mainly paintings and photographs.
- Museo Dr. Rafael Angel Calderón Guardia: downtown San Jose (map ). A multiuse space, that has a room dedicated to expresident Rafael Angel Calderón Guardia. Exhibits vary during the year.
- Museo de Espacios y Formas: downtown San Jose (map ). A multiuse space, located at the Atlantic railroad station. Exhibits vary during the year.
- Museo de Arte Costarricense: downtown San Jose (map ). Located at the old airport building in La Sabana, this museum features works by costarrican artists. Exhibits vary throughout the year. In the back, you can find a sculpture garden with a work by famous marble sculptor Jorge Jimenez Deredia, as well as statues by other famous local sculptors.
- Museo del ferrocarril: Atenas, highway 27, about an hour from San Jose (map ). A museum dedicated to the history of the railroad system.
- Casa del Cuño: downtown San Jose (map ) located next to FERCORI (antigua aduana). Exhibits vary throughout the year, usually features a lot of photographs and paintings.
If you want to spend a day touring museums in the downtown area, a good walking route to follow is Espacios y Formas - Casa del Cuño - MADC - Jade - Museo Nacional - Oro - Museo de Arte Costarricense. That route will take you from end to end of the downtown area, and lead you through many parks and historical sites. There's a few museums that were left out of the sequence since they don't have any real popular exhibits, if you find them interesting as well you can add them to the route, they're nearby. For the last part, when you're walking from Oro to Arte Costarricense, take central avenue until it ends (at Hosp. San Juan de Dios), then keep going down Paseo Colón until you reach La Sabana. Total distance you'll walk is around 10 Km.
- Parque Nacional Santa Rosa: home to the battleground of the war of 1856, Costa Rica's most important war.
- Monumento Nacional Guayabo: the ruins of an ancient aboriginal town, declared of worldwide significance by the American Society of Civil Engineers.
- Ruinas de Ujarrás: a colonial church in Cartago, which was abandoned when the town was transferred to another location.
- Iglesia de Orosi: a colonial style church, restored, dating back to the 1700's.
- Ruinas de Cinchona: ruins of a modern era town, leveled by an earthquake in 2009. Best toured in the company of a geologist or engineer, that can point out specific details and evidence of the quake damage.
- Sanatorio Carlos Durán: an abandoned complex near the Irazú volcano, which was used as a hospital at the turn of the century. The spacious grounds and minimal restoration of the wooden building make it a scenic visit on your way to the Irazu volcano.
- Stone spheres: the weird stone spheres. They're all over the place, nobody knows what they're for, and nobody knows how they were made. You can see them at the Museo Nacional, University of Costa Rica, and many private and public dwellings throughout the country.
Arts, society and cultureEdit
- San Jose Art City Tour. Every two months, organized by the city of San Jose. A whole evening where all museums are free to enter, with bus service to and from each one. Check their page on Facebook for more info.
- San Jose nighttime bike rides and walks (Nocturbano). Every 2 to 3 months. Chepe Cletas is a group that organizes bike and walking tours through downtown San Jose, at night, accompanied by police and tour guides. Many times they're on the same date as the Art City Tour and include stops at the museums. Check their page on Facebook for more info.
- Veranos en el CENAC (March): arts festival organized by the Ministry of Culture, at the CENAC building downtown. Usually spans one or two weekends, with music, dance and theater performances by local artists.
- Transitarte (March-April): arts festival sponsored by the city of San Jose. Similar to Veranos en el CENAC (usually held a week after), and generally includes impressive theater and musical performances by international artists.
- Festival International de las Artes (FIA): also in April or May, the FIA is an international arts festival that runs for two weeks. It generally includes a wide variety of performances by local and international artists, and an impressive closing ceremony.
- Enamórate de tu Ciudad: every Saturday and Sunday at Parque Morazan and Parque España, workshops and performances by local artists.
- Festival de la Luz . Second weekend in December. A parade of lights through downtown San Jose.
- Independence Day celebrations. September 15th, all over the country. Parades usually start at 9 AM and run until noon.
- Anexión de Nicoya: July 25th in Nicoya, Guanacaste. A day celebrating the traditions of Guanacaste, with food, dance and typical costumes.
- Pilgrimage to Cartago: August 1. Every year on this date, about a million people walk from their homes to the Basílica de los Ángeles in Cartago. Streets are closed to traffic from downtown San Jose to Cartago, to make room for all the people.
- Good Friday processions: most urban parishes will have processions on Good Friday, loosely based on those in Sevilla, Spain.
- Photgraphic expos: several photographic expos run throughout the second half of the year, at Casa del Cuño and the National Gallery. The most awaited are organized by Fotoclub de Costa Rica , Phogrart and Expofoto .
- Cosplay, manga, comics, gaming and other geek stuff. There's no shortage of festivals and conventions with manga, gaming and scifi themes throughout the year. The largest are Matsuri, Kamen, Hero Fest, and Comic Party. Check their facebook pages for more info.
- Festejos Populares Palmares. Second week of January. The biggest fair and public celebration in the country. Palmares lasts for two weeks and has a carnival, horse parade, and international concerts on Saturdays and Sundays.
- Feria de la Frutas. March/April. If you want to sample the variety of fruits that Costa Rica has to offer, you should visit this event in Orotina every year.
- Feria Nacional del Pejibaye: September. Pejibayes are small, dry pods, that come from palms. The town of Tucurrique hosts a fair every year, where you can eat all sorts of recipes made from pejibayes, everything from soups to breads, and of course, pejibayes all by themselves.
- Festejos Populares Zapote. December 25th. Starting december 25th and for 3 weeks, Zapote (east of San Jose) becomes home to the end of the year fair, which is most famous for its bullfights and carnival rides.
- Bullfights : the most famous are at Festejos Populares Zapote. Not your usual bullfights!
- Parque de Zarcero: is a well known park north of Alajuela. The park is famous for it's shrubs and trees, carved by gardener Evangelista Blanco Brenes into figures and shapes.
Crafts and marketsEdit
- Sarchi: Sarchi is the place to go for wooden crafts, some of the best woodworkers in the country can be found here. Sarchi offers everything from small decorations to complete furniture in fine hardwood. It's famous for its oxcart factories, which still make and decorate carts by hand.
- Moravia: Moravia is a city east of downtown San Jose, about 15 minutes by car or 20 by bus. One block east of the park, you'll find a street full of gift and souvenir stores. These stores sell everything in crafts big and small. Clothing, leather items, wood, ceramics, and even fine jewlery.
- Cowboy bootmakers: two blocks north of the Torre Mercedes (Scotia Tower) building in San Jose, you'll find a series of shoemakers specializing in leather shoes. They're most famous for their cowboy boots, and boast Steve Tyler and the Aerosmith crew as one of their clients.
- San Jose Crafts fleamarket: if you're at the Museo Nacional, walk to the western end of the plaza. You'll find a fleamarket where you can get many great crafts and souvenirs. It's so popular, they even take credit cards now.
Sports, regular and extremeEdit
- Soccer: soccer is the most popular sport in Costa Rica, and there's usually major games going on the whole year, almost every weekend. Check the sports sections of the local papers for upcoming game news, or UNAFUT's website for the latest game calendars. If you want the greatest experience at a soccer match, try to catch LDA vs. Saprissa . If you want to try your hand at playing, check your neighborhood fields or visit La Sabana on weekends, you can normally find a match to take you in.
- NFL, basketball and baseball: NFL, NBA and Major League have a following in Costa Rica as well. Though the fanbase is usually quiet (you probably won't find a lot of people discussing NFL on Monday mornings), they're there. For major events, there will usually be gatherings at local sports bars. Chichis and Hooters are good places to go for the Superbowl or finals.
- Tennis: tennis is mostly played at sports and country clubs. Places like La Guaria , CRTC , and the Indoor Club have tennis courts. Indoor and CRTC are usually home to the most important tennis matches, like the Copa del Cafe in January.
- Golf: you can find golf courses in the Central Valley and on the Pacific. In the Central Valley try Costa Rica Country Club , and Cariari Country Club . On the Pacific are many world famous golf courses like Marriott Los Sueños , Reserva Conchal , Papagayo , and Los Delfines .
- Hiking: most hiking is done in National Parks, or in the mountain ranges in places like Pico Blanco, Pabellon or Cascajal. You can find groups of hikers on Facebook that organize trips. The University of Costa Rica also has a mountaineering group that organizes hikes.
- Bowling: the most popular places to go bowling are in the Central Valley: Boliche Dent in Los Yoses, and Bol Cariari in Heredia.
- Roller skating: Music in San Pedro is a classic style roller skating rink. There's also a skating track in La Sabana, which is used for speed skating, and Arenas' skate parks in downtown San Jose and Cartago.
- Bicycling: a whole lot of people ride bicycles in Costa Rica. Some tour operators offer bike rentals as part of their packages. But normally, if you want to ride a bike you'll have to buy one or borrow one from someone you know. Most department stores have the standard collection of department store bikes at low prices, or for something more elaborate check places like K-Bikes , Ciclo Guilly , Puro MTB , Bikestation , Newton or Biker . For specific routes to follow, check Endomondo .
- Running: there's races you can run almost every weekend, if you're into running. Check this section of the wiki for more info.
- Horseback riding: La Caraña is the most popular club for horseback riding. For lessons, try Del Sol , Los Sauces , Santa Anita, Yos-Oy , San Francisco , and Escuela Nacional de Equitacion.
- Rapelling and canyoneering: Outdoor Adventures offers several canyoneering tours, as well as rock climbing adventures.
- Bungee Jumping: there's several companies offering bungee jumping, the most popular trip is to the Colorado River bridge, where you jump off an 80 meter bridge, towards the river below. It's run by Tropical Bungee .
Off the beaten pathEdit
- Cerro Chirripó Grande: for hikers a trip to the Cerro Chirripó Grande, the highest point in Costa Rica at 3810m above sea level, is usually a good tour. Climbing involves a 8 to 10 hour hike starting at dawn, and ending at the base camp near the peak. For the next days, the park offers several trails which lead through rock formations, lagoons and finally end at the mountain top. The tour closes with the hike down, which can also take anywhere from 5 to 10 hours. Chirripó is one of the few places in Costa Rica where the paramo habitat can be seen, which offers a complete change of vegetation and climate.
- Isla San Lucas: an abandoned prison island in the Gulf of Nicoya. You'll need to find a boat to take you there. Usually if you ask around on the docks in Puntarenas, you'll find someone willing to take you there and come back for you a few days later. There's also a few tour companies which offer the trip to San Lucas, check with your hotel or tour operator.
- Cavernas de Barra Honda: underground caverns, a whole complex of which only 19 have been explored so far.
- Cavernas de Venado: another underground cavern complex. Offers several hours of exploration through an underground river.
- Cascajal - Las Nubes: above San Isidro de Coronado, frequented by mountain bikes and hikers. Offers views of the valley, a cool, moist climate and abundant pastures and streams.
- Pico Blanco: mountain peak located on the western side of San Jose, above Escazú. Frequented by hikers and climbers.
- Parque Nacional Braulio Carrillo: Bajo de la Hondura. Also part of the Braulio Carrillo park, this sector is closed to the public. However that doesn't deter weekend hikers, who make the trip down to the abandoned church, and sometimes will enter the rainforest here to come out on Route 32 a couple of hours later. If you decide to go all the way to Route 32, be sure to read up on safety in the rainforests.
- Isla Venado : Isla Venado is a small community located on an island in the Gulf of Nicoya. The island has several beaches, as well as wildlife trails. Above all, it offers a place to rest in a smal community, far away from the noise and crowds of the more popular tourist spots.
- Pabellón, Santa Ana: at the peak of the mountains above Santa Ana is a small town called Pabellón. It has no tourist attractions, and few people live there. However from the area you have a spectacular view of the Central Valley, and on a clear day the oceans.
- Tarbaca: on the other side of the Valley (southeast) you can find your way to Tarbaca, at the peak of the mountain range. Tarbaca has a wonderful view of the Valley, and many good restaurants, including the famous grill, Donde Alcides ... where no cut of meat is smaller than your plate.