First Timer's Guide: Where to Go in Costa Rica, The Happiest Country in the World!
Costa Rica is a rugged rainforested and volcanic country in Central America known for its lush biodiversity, jawdropping scenery, friendly people, and no standing military. With coastlines on both the Caribbean and Pacific, it's no wonder they're also known for their beaches too. The capital city of San Jose is home to cultural institutions and most of its residents, but most visitors come for the natural environment. Roughly a quarter of the country is made up of protected jungle, teeming with wildlife including spider monkeys and quetzal birds. After many trips to Costa Rica over the years with various jumping off points and amazing experiences, we've learned a thing or two. But we'll always remember our first time. Here are trip ideas and recommendations if you're a Costa Rica virgin too!
This post may contain affiliate links: if you make a purchase through these links, we earn a small commission at no extra cost to you.
How to Get Around Costa Rica
NOTE: The capital city of San Jose is where you'll fly in and out of. There are TWO international airports here: Juan Santamaria Airport in Alajuela (the main international airport) and Pavas (Tobías Bolaños) in San Jose (the secondary airport that services flights to Panama among others.) Be sure you know exactly which airport you're flying into and out of, as they are not close together!
Rent a Car
We've rented a car with each trip to Costa Rica. Driving the country used to be adventurous, but now is fairly easy going, though some routes can still be bumpy! We've rented with Solid Car Rental (pronounced SO-lid) every time and highly recommend them!
Where to Stay Near Costa Rica Airports
Most visitors to Costa Rica - first timers or not - stay at a local hotel near the airport before heading out into the country, where most visitors want to be. The same is true coming back in. Allow yourself time to get back to the capital city, maybe even time to do last minute shopping at the Mercado Centrale, stay overnight and catch your flight out the next day.
Xandari Resort and Spa - a great place to treat yourself for the night with the most stunning view of the valley!
Hotel Don Carlos - A good overnight to jump off to the Caribbean coast, with basic but comfortable rooms.
Hotel Grano d'Oro - Our favorite place to stay in the "city" no matter what part of the country we're jumping off to!
Where to Go in Costa Rica & What to Do
NORTH: La Fortuna, Arenal Volcano and the Monteverde Cloud Forest
On our first trip to Costa Rica, we drove north to La Fortuna and the Arenal Volcano. With a few stops at the craft towns in between we reached La Fortuna in no time at all, with its active volcano and hot springs nearby. Our first morning in La Fortuna began at 4:45am with the chorus of howler monkeys which eventually woke up everything else. I grabbed my camera as soon as I first heard them, clicked on the video and sat quietly outside listening to the most amazing primal noise of the howlers. Welcome to Costa Rica!
Things to Do in La Fortuna: Stop at La Paz Waterfall Gardens an hour north of Alajuela. You'll also drive through the crafts town of Sarchi, where you'll see colorfully painted oxen carts. If you're lucky, you might find a local shop where craftsmen are painting. Explore the Poas volcano, hike La Fortuna waterfall and soak in the hot springs. Hikers should hit the trails in Arenal National Park for some of the most incredible views. Nature lovers could probably spend an entire trip exploring the biodiverse Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve.
How to Get to La Fortuna: Drive
Where to Stay in La Fortuna: Arenal Observatory Lodge & Spa; Arenal Paraiso Hotel & Spa - Centrally located, we loved the comfy room and clean pool. The grounds are full of beautiful flowers and birds galore.
EAST CARIBBEAN: Tortuguero
Tortuguero is Costa Rica's "region of turtles" as you may have guessed by the name, and the most important nesting site of the endangered green turtle in the Western Hemisphere. Leatherback, Hawksbill, Loggerhead and Olive Ridley turtles also come here to nest. After years of being hunted almost to extinction in the area, Tortuguero National Park was established and now protects 22 miles of nesting beach from the mouth of the Tortuguero River. The town here is small and quite charming with just one dirt street, so be prepared for a remote experience. That's the fun of it.
Things to Do in Tortuguero:
Visit in July, August, or September if you want to see turtles. Visitors can hike or take a river raft tour, kayak tour, nature or other sightseeing tour.
How to Get to Tortuguero: Public transportation. The village of Tortuguero is only accessible by boat, and the boat ride into town is a great way to see the wildlife!
SOUTHEAST CARIBBEAN: Limon, Cahuita, and Puerto Viejo
The Caribbean coast of Costa Rica has a very different feel than the rest of the country. Once you see it for the first time, you'll see what I mean. It's no surprise it has more of a laidback reggae vibe here given its West Indies roots, which is also - thankfully - evident in the food as well. Fresh, local, and delicious, you'll find everything here much more island-y and colorful!
What to Do in Puerto Viejo
Rent a bike to explore the colorful town. Stop at a local produce market for fresh fruit and head to the beaches at Playa Cocles or Punta Uva. Drive south toward Manzanillo for the day. For up close and personal wildlife encounters, visit Cahuita National Park, and the Jaguar Rescue Centre outside of Puerto Viejo is a must-see if you love monkeys as much as we do!
How to Get to Puerto Viejo: Drive - it's a beautiful scenic drive through the Braulio Carrillo National Park and along the coast.
Where to Eat in Puerto Viejo: Bread & Chocolate
Do the Panama Combo - Feeling adventurous? A visit to Puerto Viejo is made even better when you combine it with a few days in Bocas del Toro, Panama, the tropical archipelago just south of Caribbean Costa Rica and a stone's throw from Puerto Viejo. Best way to get there? Arrange a private transport with a company like Caribe Tours.
Where to Stay in Puerto Viejo: WE LOVE: Hotel Banana Azul - We've stayed at Hotel Banana Azul several times and love the property, the friendly staff, the lush gardens and the prime location on Playa Negra, one of the prettiest beaches in town. The food here is always scrumptious, and the property is LGBTQ friendly.
NORTHWEST PACIFIC: Nicoya Peninsula
The Nicoya peninsula on Costa Rica's northwest coast is all about the chill, surfer vibe. The weather here is drier than the southern Osa peninsula, but they do get their share of rain (and mud) in the green season. Nicoya is known for it's great beaches, and who could say no to that!
Things to Do in Nosara: Chill out! So grab a board and head to the beach. Yoga is the lifestyle here so take a class or bring your mat to the beach. The sleepy town of Ostional is a nature lovers dream with a beach that's home to thousands of nesting sea turtles each year. If you go, be respectful, and don't get too close or do anything that could hinder their nesting or their return to the sea!
Check out Playa Carrillo, one of the most beautiful beaches in Costa Rica about an hour south of Nosara, then stop for shopping and lunch in the town of Samara on the way back.
How to Get to Nosara: Drive, or Fly into the new international airport at Liberia
Where to Stay in Nosara: The most heavily touristed place on the Nicoya is Tamarindo, an uber popular beach town. If you want more peace and quiet, head further south to Nosara, Samara, or the funky beach towns of Manzanillo, Santa Teresa, or Mal Pais at the southern tip of the peninsula. (Check conditions if you're driving during the green season as roads may be impassable.)
WE LOVE: Harmony Hotel - Located on Playa Guiones - one of the best beaches in Costa Rica and the longest surf break on the coast. Harmony Hotel is a 2-minute walk to the beach in a quiet part of town. Known for its yoga programs and healthy, inspired cuisine, you can't help but get your Zen on while you're here.
WEST: Manuel Antonio and Jaco
Our first time to Costa Rica, we combined our first 3 days in Arenal with 6 days on the Pacific Coast to Manuel Antonio and the Osa Peninsula. Depending on how much time you have, you could drive the entire coast south and see some of Costa Rica's best.
The only road to get there takes you across the famous Rio Tarcoles (Crocodile River), home to monster saltwater crocs. Bring your camera and park along the road before the bridge and walk halfway down for the best view. Afterwards, grab a casado (lunch) or quick drink at a number of good local restaurants at the bridge.
Things to Do in Manuel Antonio
A funky coastal town, Manuel Antonio is touristy and laid-back. It's famous Manuel Antonio National Park has miles of amazing trails and is home to the endangered Mono Titi, or Squirrel Monkey. The town's slogan is "Still more monkeys than people", and we happily found that to be the case. The National Park sits on the ocean, and is a must-see while you're there. It's a great place to see wildlife of all kinds, and a nice break from the 'bustle' of Manuel Antonio. Keep your eyes open in the Park, as some of the wildlife you'll encounter may be right under your feet or close by.
How to Get to Manuel Antonio: Drive
Where to Eat in Manuel Antonio: Barba Roja, Cafe Aqua Azul
Where to Stay in Manuel Antonio: Villas Nicolas - In the middle of Manuel Antonio and walking distance to many restaurants. The rooms/suites are spacious, quiet, open-air, and have the most amazing views of the ocean from your hammock on the veranda.
SOUTHWEST PACIFIC: Dominical and Uvita
Further south, travel the infamous "bumpy road" - what an understatement! - which will take you to the southern surf towns of Dominical, Uvita, and the growing areas of Palmer Norte and Palmer Sur. The beaches are beautiful and people are so friendly. In the funky, surf town of Dominical, check out the surfer bar at the beach which promises you a free beer in exchange for your broken board and bruised ego - "You break 'em, we hang 'em", as the sign goes. There's even a shrine there to the King! Nope, there's no King in Costa Rica. I'm referring of course, to Elvis! If you're a fan, you HAVE to stop and check it out. I mean, how often do you get to see this on a beach in Costa Rica?
Things to Do in Uvita: Hiking and surfing are popular pastimes in the area. Funky beach shops are everywhere to stroll and shop.
How to Get to Uvita: Drive
Where to Stay in Uvita: The Lookout at Playa Tortuga - Individual spacious and clean cabinas surround the main hotel, pool, and common terrace (great for bird watching). Just a short ride from amazing beaches - we loved Playa Ventanas which is close by.
SOUTHWEST: Osa Peninsula
Leaving Uvita for Puerto Jimenez and the Osa, we traveled a road that's worse than the 'bumpy road' near Quepos! Crater-sized potholes filled with rainwater left no hint at their depth, and bridges with gaping holes and missing supports carried us further south. All part of the adventure, right? Lesson here: exercise caution and common sense. National Geographic calls the Osa Peninsula "the most biologically diverse place on Earth" and it IS truly amazing.
Things to Do in Osa Peninsula: Look for the famous pre-Columbian spheres near Sierpe and Palmar Sur and see if you can figure out where they may have come from. Most visitors to the Osa come here for the unparalleled nature, to dive the waters off Isla Cocos, or hike in beautiful Corcovado National Park.
How to Get to Osa Peninsula: Drive, or Fly into Puerto Jimenez or Drake Bay
Where to Stay in the Osa Peninsula:
WE LOVE: Iguana Lodge - Iguana Lodge is the perfect rustic beach chic hotel - it's super comfortable and charming with a secluded feel. The staff and owner are helpful and welcome you like old friends. They even downloaded my overloaded memory cards to a CD, and our small dinner group ended the evening with guitar playing and great company. And the food is fabulous! (Wish we had stayed much longer.)
WE LOVE: Bosque del Cabo - Before we ever heard the term glamping (glam camping), there was Bosque del Cabo - truly one of the most fabulous places on earth. It's not just a great place to stay - it's over 700 acres of well-maintained and well-preserved land on the southwestern tip of the Osa Peninsula. Committed to sustainable growth and preservation, the owners Phil and Kim and their staff share their love of the land with guests, inviting you to enjoy the peace and quiet, the sumptuous accommodations, the mouth-watering cuisine (fresh and local), and the incredible wildlife. At BdC, the wildlife takes center stage, and their naturalist programs, tours and network of integrated hiking trails showcase that in a big way. This may be the perfect family getaway in Costa Rica, with something for everyone to enjoy - whether you want to lounge by the pool, immerse yourself in the natural world, hike nearby Corcovado National Park, or hang out in a tidal pool on the beach.
Much of Central America is lush and green, with amazing wildlife and super friendly people, and it may be difficult deciding which country to explore first. But for us, Costa Rica has the best combination of eco-friendly opportunities with developed tourism infrastructure, perfect for first time travelers. Like every first trip to a new place, we had the usual nervous anticipation and didn't know quite what to expect from our first trip to Costa Rica. Even with all the stories we'd heard from online travelers and friends, we could not have imagined how much this amazing place would stay with us for years to come.