Are you gearing up for your next spring break trip? If you’re set on taking a vacation that doesn’t require a passport renewal or long international flight, you can find plenty of popular U.S. vacation towns close to home. If your sights are set on a slightly more exotic destination, look south. Not too far south, but just beyond the gleaming waters of the Caribbean. There, straddling the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans, lies Costa Rica.
Costa Rica is a true diamond in the Central American rough. Situated between Nicaragua and Panama, it’s less than 100 miles wide in places – from the tops of the highest peaks, it’s possible to glimpse both the Atlantic and Pacific basins on a clear day.
Despite its small size, the country has more than 800 miles of coastline, and its tallest mountains rise more than 12,000 feet above sea level. In many cases, just a few miles separate dry tropical savannas and scrublands from montane grasslands, lush rainforests, and breathtakingly diverse marine ecosystems. The Costa Rican government protects much of this natural bounty from human development, having littered the countryside with national parks and wildlife reserves. Not surprisingly, Costa Rica has long been held in high regard as an ecotourism destination.
Whether your plans fit the technical definition of ecotourism or you’re simply planning a relaxing fitness vacation thousands of miles from your troubles and concerns, Costa Rica doesn’t disappoint. Here’s a look at Costa Rica’s top activities, in no particular order.
Top Activities in Costa Rica
1. Take an Aerial Zipline Ride or Forest Canopy Tour
Costa Rica has hundreds of privately run aerial conveyances designed to show off the country’s natural beauty, usually in rainforests or in higher (and even wetter) montane forests. According to Costa Rica Guide, these attractions come in several different forms:
- Super-fast, amusement park-style ziplines that can reach up to 40 miles per hour and stretch more than a mile
- Ground-based “ziprails” that traverse rugged forests in up-close-and-personal fashion
- Tree-to-tree ziplines that move more slowly than the amusement-style rides and provide more detailed views of flora and fauna
- Multi-sport ziplines that combine several different activities – for instance, kayaking and hiking up to a remote starting point, taking a zipline across a gorge, and then rappelling down the other side
Costs vary widely by conveyance type and what else is included, if anything, with the price of admission. Sky Trek, a popular option with two locations in Monteverde and Arenal National Parks, costs $77 per adult. Monteverde Extremo Park costs $50 per adult.
2. Sip a Coffee Tour
Costa Rica’s temperate Central Valley is to coffee as Bordeaux is to wine. Even for non-connoisseurs, coffee tours are fun and informative – a great way to spend a laid-back (or perked-up) few hours in what’s likely to be gorgeous weather.
Most Costa Rican coffee tours cover a single plantation, though it’s possible to string together several stops, just as in wine country, if variety is a priority. Each tour includes a walk through the plantation’s fields, a discussion of local coffee history and terroir, and a look at the processing facilities that turn coffee fruits into liquid enthusiasm. Fresh-made coffee is almost always available. Some tours allow participants to pick raw coffee fruits as souvenirs, depending on the season.
Popular coffee tours include Doka Estate, in Sabanilla de Alajuela; Espiritu Santo, in Naranjo; and Coopetoda, in Santa Maria de Dota. Tour prices typically range between $15 and $30, not including any coffee or souvenirs purchased onsite.
3. Nibble a Chocolate Tour
Coffee and chocolate (cacao, technically) go great together. They also grow in similar climates, so it’s no surprise that both are found in close proximity in Costa Rica. Most Costa Rican cacao plantations are in the country’s southern region, around Puerto Viejo. Some offer a glimpse into Costa Rica’s distant past: ChocoRart, an organic farm near Puerto Viejo, harvests and processes cacao in the millennia-old Mayan tradition, while Caribeans focuses on heirloom varieties not widely available outside Central America.
Like coffee tours, chocolate tours generally include plantation tours, looks at the post-harvest process, and tasting sessions. Costs are comparable to coffee tours, though getting in the door can be tough – many cacao plantations, including ChocoRart, are lean operations that only offer tours by reservation.
4. Experience Envision Festival
Have flexible travel dates? Schedule your trip for late February, when the annual Envision Festival comes to Rancho La Merced in Uvita, southern Costa Rica.
Envision describes itself as “a platform for different cultures to coexist in sustainable community, and inspire one another through art, spirituality, yoga, music, dance, performance, education, sustainability, and our fundamental connection with nature.” The festival features more than 60 musical performers, non-musical performance artists on display around the clock, world-class yogis, body healing workshops, static and dynamic art installations (art is truly everywhere you look), and much more. Dozens of composting toilets, zero landfill waste of any kind distributed, biodegradable disposables such as plates and utensils, and other sustainable initiatives set Envision apart from more wasteful events of its scale. Consider attending even if this type of environment is outside of your comfort zone; it can be a truly transformative experience that will stay with you forever.
Four-day general admission tickets start in the $300 range, not including add-ons such as car camping and airport shuttles. VIP tickets start in the $600 range. If you’re on a tight budget, check Envision Festival’s Facebook page for opportunities to win free or discounted tickets. Also, 2017 Envision tickets are currently on sale, so buy early because the festival sells out every year.
5. Visit Parque Nacional Volcán Arenal
For much of the late 20th and early 21st centuries, the Arenal volcano terrorized the predominantly agricultural communities at its base with frequent belches of caustic smoke, ash, and lava. A major eruption in the late 1960s killed scores and seriously damaged local infrastructure, but things have quieted down significantly – the volcano hasn’t seen much activity since 2010.
That’s great news for visitors to Parque Nacional Volcán Arenal (Arenal Volcano National Park), one of Costa Rica’s newest protected areas. Arenal is a striking, still-bare stratovolcano reminiscent of Japan’s Mount Fuji, sans snow. The park is renowned for its hiking trails through otherworldly landscapes including the beautiful Hanging Bridges, boating opportunities on Lake Arenal, breathtaking hot springs like the ones at Eco Termales, and stunning biodiversity – about half of Costa Rica’s land-dwelling species are found here.
6. Get Lost at the Teatro Nacional Costa Rica
Trade the humid Costa Rican jungle for the rare air of the Teatro Nacional Costa Rica, or National Theater, a stunning Neoclassical edifice in the heart of San Juan, Costa Rica’s economic and political capital. As Costa Rica’s foremost performance art institution, the National Theater puts on an eclectic array of shows, including orchestral performances, dance extravaganzas, mixed-media performance art, lectures, and more.
Consider incorporating a National Theater show into an organized San Juan tour, such as TripAdvisor’s Discover Costa Rica’s Capital City and Museums. For $70, the tour hits the Cathedral of San Juan, the Gold Museum, the National Museum, and the National Theater.
7. Lounge on the Beach
Despite its tropical setting and beautiful weather, Costa Rica is often overlooked as a beach destination. That’s too bad, because it has a pretty amazing roster of clean, uncrowded beaches. Generally speaking, the Caribbean side’s waters are calmer and slightly warmer, while the Pacific side is rougher and more temperamental. Both sides are stunningly beautiful, with broad beaches, lush forests, dramatic cliffs, and engaging marine environments.
If you have reliable transportation and ample time, aim for beaches off the beaten path. For instance, secluded Playa Avellana, where fighting for prime real estate is unheard of, is fairly close to the much more popular Playa Tamarindo, and Playa Manuel Antonio literally backs up into beautiful Manuel Antonio National Park. You’re more likely to see wildlife at these secluded beaches. Just be sure to obey all posted warnings, including wildlife warnings and “no trespassing” signs.
8. Hit the Breaks
While you’re at the beach, why not strap on a surf board and hit the waves? You don’t have to be an expert to tackle Costa Rica’s waves, particularly on the tamer Caribbean side. There, the December-through-March window offers reliable waves, particularly at beginner-friendly Westfalia and Playa Negra in Cahuita.
On the Pacific side, heavy surf is a year-round phenomenon. In fact, it’s advisable to check weather and surf conditions before venturing out, since offshore storms can create dangerous rip currents even when beach-side conditions appear fair. Boca Barranca is renowned for its half-mile wave breaks, while Playa Escondida is popular with novice and intermediate surfers. Board rentals generally start around $10 and range up to $20 or more for high-end options.
9. Raft a Wild River
Costa Rica is a narrow, mountainous, tropical country bounded by two oceans. Persistent storms unload huge amounts of rain at its higher elevations, forming a jumble of lively rivers that tumble their way to sea level in just a few dozen miles. It’s no wonder Costa Rica is renowned as a whitewater rafting and boating destination.
Experienced American whitewater rafters and boaters feel right at home in Costa Rica, with one major exception: no wetsuits. Unlike U.S. whitewater, which is generally fed by alpine snowmelt, Costa Rican rivers are much more temperate. This distinction reduces boaters’ prep time, broadens their range of motion, and increases their comfort. In fact, many of Costa Rica’s most exciting whitewater routes end within easy driving distance of a beach. As an added bonus, many routes go near – and sometimes over or around – spectacular waterfalls.
If you’re all in on whitewater rafting, consider an immersive, multi-day (two or three) tour, which can run anywhere from $300 to $1,500. For a lower-stakes excursion that provides VIP private service and the best bang for your buck, try gentle wildlife floats such as the one offered by Green Frog Adventures, or meet in the middle with a Class III (moderate intensity) day excursion. Green Frog is one of the top rafting companies that will escort you every stop of the way with top-notch guides, including food and transport to and from the river while also accommodating your flight or other travel plans. Popular rafting rivers include the Pacuare, Pejivalle, and Sarapiqui.
10. Jump Off a Bridge
Bungee jumping is a big business in rugged Costa Rica. In fact, Monteverde Extremo houses Central America’s largest bungee jump: 460 feet of sheer terror overlooking a stunning rainforest valley. For a slightly less terrifying experience, the Colorado River Bridge offers a 265-foot drop.
Costs range from $50 to $75 per jump and typically include complimentary GoPro footage of the experience. Since most jump points are fairly accessible by road, it’s definitely possible to work your jump in between other activities – though, after falling hundreds of feet toward a raging river, it’s not certain you’d want to.
11. Watch for Whales
Costa Rica’s Pacific waters are among the world’s best places to glimpse humpback whales in their natural element. They’re present roughly 50% of the year, in two distinct episodes: late July through November, and December through March. The most reliable sightings happen off the Osa Peninsula, in southern Costa Rica, where distinct populations from both hemispheres intermingle. You’re also likely to encounter bottlenose and spotted dolphins – about 25 cetacean species in all – in this area.
It doesn’t cost anything to stand on shore and scan the seas for whales and dolphins. If you’d like a closer look, consider taking an offshore whale watching tour. Bahia Aventuras, based a bit north of the Osa Peninsula, offers tours for $90 per adult.
12. Dive Deep
Costa Rica’s national parks and reserves aren’t confined to its land area. The country’s continental shelf is dotted with marine reserves housing hundreds of fish, amphibians, birds, and marine mammals, many found only in this part of the world. There’s no better way to experience this biodiversity than to dive for it.
Dive sites abound on both sides of Costa Rica, though the Pacific coast is more heavily trafficked. There, the area around Herradura Bay and Jaco has a number of relatively shallow, high-visibility sites that are appropriate for novices. On the Caribbean side, the area around Cahuita National Park is a hidden gem that sees just a fraction of the dive traffic of Pacific alternatives, and has sites appropriate for all skill levels. If you’re not already scuba-certified, enroll in a certification course through a local resort. These can be found for $200 to $400, depending on the location and nature of the course.
If you’re already certified and interested in a day dive, costs range from $75 to more than $200 per person, depending on the site’s location – some are offshore and require transportation by boat. It’s also worth checking out resort packages. Depending on the dates of your stay, some resorts may offer room-plus-dive packages starting at just over $200 per night.
Planning an international vacation, even a relatively low-stress jaunt to Costa Rica, is a logistical challenge. As you scramble to tick the most important boxes on your planning checklist and ensure that nothing major gets lost in the shuffle, you’re not likely to check the latest currency market action – but maybe you should.
Currency fluctuations can have an outsize impact on your overseas spending power. In the late 2000s, when the U.S. dollar was weak and the euro, pound, and Canadian dollar were all strong, it took lots of U.S. dollars to buy hotel rooms, transportation tickets, food, and souvenirs denominated in those currencies. For Americans, that meant traveling abroad was a pricey affair. British and European tourists flooded major U.S. cities and resort towns, snapping up hotel rooms and knickknacks at what seemed to them incredible bargains, while few Americans went the other way.
Today, the U.S. dollar is much stronger relative to most other world currencies. While that’s not such good news for American exporters, it’s a huge boon for Americans planning overseas trips. So, as you finalize your Costa Rica vacation plans, keep in mind that your tropical excursion could end up costing even less than you expect.
Have you ever been to Costa Rica? What’s your favorite thing to do there?