If you’re planning on taking a trip to Costa Rica, you’ve arrived at the right place: here are all my best spots ! I spent 6 months travelling there by myself and absolutely loved every second of my stay. When I left I knew almost nothing about this country and hadn’t planned anything. I followed my heart and my intuition and stumbled upon a bunch of great places to go to the beach, volunteer, hike or chill in cheap hostels.
Follow the guide (and click on the links to learn more about my experience in each place)
San José, capital city
You are going to land there. You have a great chance to spend at least one night there.
- Selina San Jose : that’s where I landed the night of my arrival. I stayed a few days here to figure out what I was going to do and study the map of the country. I felt at home right away. The hostel is pretty cheap (around 10-15$/night for a bed in a dorm) and has plenty of nice commun spaces to hang out.
There’s nothing special to say about San José, except that the city is way less dangerous than what people had told me. So don’t be afraid and visit a few stuffs while here :
- Mercado Central / Central Market : an outdoor market and indoor maze, this is a great place to get lost and dazzled by the diversity of local food, ingredients and crafts.
- Museo del Oro Precolombino : it is a must-see ! Even if it’s not always easy to find the museum itself, since it is buried under the Plaza de la Cultura. Those incredible animals and objects created with pure gold in the middle of the jungle some thousands years ago really moved me more than I imagined. The set design is not the newest, but the artefacts are truly fascinating. (I learned while writing this article that this museum is one of the three most important devoted to Pre-Columbian art, with the Gold Museum of Bogota and the Gold Museum of Peru. If you are not going to South America, you should better visit this one!)
- Barrio Escalante : Walking from Selina, I would often go explore the Barrio Escalante, a friendly neighborhood filled with trendy bars, restaurants and shops mixed among cute houses. That’s where you want to taste the food scene of San José -tips approved by the NY Times 😉
North Pacific Coast
- Playa Hermosa : I spent a dreamy and quiet week-end at Congos Hostel. I slept in the bedroom under the pitch roof, but there are also dorms and camping spots if you have your own tent. From the hammock in the garden, you can hear and observe the howler monkeys (congos!) and the beach is less than 5 minutes walking. The bottom floor of the main house is common : a place to eat, cook, read, or chill.
- Playa Cabuyal : This is a totally remote beach with very little inhabitants and a very bad road. I spent one month volunteering with a sea turtle conservation camp run by the American non-profit The Leatherback Trust. The camp is very rustic and makes you appreciate the true connection with nature and community living. I will never forget this magic experience and the night patrols ❤
- Tamarindo : A popular but rather pleasant surf town, Tamarindo is the Costa Rican version of Hossegor (France) to me. There are a lot of tourists and restaurants. Lots of young people travelling in groups, but also true locals and surf lovers. The place to go if you want to learn how to surf and meet beautiful people.
- The Nicoya Peninsula : I had a huge crush on this peninsula and was all ready to move in there after just one week in Montezuma. If you like surfing, tanning on remote beaches, hiking through the jungle or visiting the island-cemetery of Isla Cabuya, you want to dedicate a full week or more here, and explore along the cost : from Montezuma to Samara and Santa Teresa. How to go ? : Take the bus or drive to Putarenas. From there, take the ferry that crosses the bay (even better if you can time it so it’s sunset time!) and arrives in Paquera. Montezuma is one hour away. To sleep in Montezuma, the hostels Luz en el Cielo and Luna Llena are absolutely perfect places for never wanting to leave again…
South Pacific Coast
- Dominical : I heard about this little surf town from a family of American tourists (traveler’s rule : always ask for other traveler’s tips !) I stayed a week at the hostel Cool Vibes, whose name clearly reflected my stay: the quintessence of chill ! The hostel is pretty cheap and pretty crowded, but the beach is right there and the locals super welcoming. Here, as in the Osa Peninsula, the humidity level gets very high.. sometimes things just don’t dry, ever.
- Uvita : Right next to Dominical, Uvita is a tiny town that became an energy vortex for yogis and earth-minded festival-goers. Envision is a festival that takes place every year in February and is the jungle version of Burning Man. (I didn’t go to Envision because I wasn’t in a festival mood at that time but all the people I met who went there loved it).
- Puerto Jimenez : The small principal town of the Osa Peninsula, most southern point of Costa Rica. Here you are far away from everything and people often joke about the « Osa factor ». It’s the departure point for treks to Corcovado National Park.
- Intercambiamos : If you stop in Puerto Jimenez, you have to go visit my friend Allison. She created a sanctuary for radical spiritual activism in the jungle : a micro/macro healing project to build post-capitalism and exchange skills. She is passionate about the intimate and the political.
- Corcovado National Park : If you really want to see wild animals and tons of birds, don’t go to Manuel Antonio National Park (the only animals you’ll see are monkeys trained to steal in the tourists’ backpacks). Invest in visiting one of the largest reserves of biodiversity in the world. You will need a guide because the access is not permitted without. Go with Melvin, a local guide who is incredible (his contact is at the end of this article). He literally speaks with birds and knows the places and habits of animals like the back of his hand. You will not be disappointed!
If you take a look at my map, you’ll soon realize that I spent 95% of my time… at the beach! I couldn’t help but explore all parts of the coasts, which didn’t leave a lot of time to see the center of the country. But I spent one month near the Arenal Volcano and loved my stay.
- Arenal Volcano : the most famous volcano of Costa Rica. Caught in between lake and clouds, its silhouette is captivating and ever changing. The closest city is La Fortuna. If you like to hike, I recommend doing the Cerro Chato, a volcano located next to the Arenal hiding a milky blue lake in its crater. The natural hot springs coming from the volcano are also a must (here is a free access, since most of them are in hotels which charge an entrance fee).
- Butterfly Conservatory : Located in the teeny-tiny village of El Castillo where I lived for one month when I was volunteering as a « Butterfly Ranger ». The Butterfly Conservatory is a rainforest regeneration project. They have hundreds of butterflies (the Blue Morpho is the most iconic), deadly frogs, acrobat lizards and strange toads. You can either take a tour as a tourist or volunteer there like I did.
- Rancho Margot : Off the grid ranch & hotel, 45 minutes away from La Fortuna. It is an ecological resort, an organic farm and a scientific laboratory. An extremely inspiring and instructive place where you can stay (hotel), eat (farm-to-table restaurant), visit (guided tours) or even volunteer to get hands-on experience.
The Caribbean Coast
This coast is very different from its Pacific sister. The landscapes, the people and the culture are immersed in the Caribbean vibes. I think it’s important to see the two coasts to get a real idea of the country.
- Tortugero National Park : Tortuguero means « land of turtles ». A nature reserve located in the province of Limón, it is a nesting hotspot for marine turtles (Green turtles, leatherback turtles and Hawksbil) which are highly protected. Caught in between a network of rivers populated by crocodiles, birds and monkeys, and the ocean, this place is absolutely unique and magical.
- Estacion Las Tortugas : I volunteered for a few weeks in this research station run by a Costa Rican family. The Leatherback turtles come here to lay their eggs in the spring. They come out of the ocean, giant and prehistoric, crawling on the black sand of the Caribbean coast. It is an amazing experience to be so close to them (I talk more about this here).
- Puerto Viejo : Small and lively town, another supposed energy vortex in Costa Rica. A very welcoming mix of long-standing locals, newer locals, travelers and spiritual souls. I recommend you spend a few days exploring bars, restaurants and beaches. The easiest way to move around is to rent a bike and ride along the coast. To stay, I recommend the Roots Family, I met some awesome people there !
- Ponta Mona : « Center for Regenerative Design and Botanical Studies », this place is a retreat, a hotel and a community. They teach about permaculture, yoga and herbalism through classes or volunteering. I have never been but I can’t wait to visit next time I’ll be there.
- Finca Inti : Nestled in the heights overlooking Puerto Viejo, Finca Inti is a lush and productive « jungle food forest ». I lived there for 2 weeks with Tristan, discovering every day new jungle produces and ways of cooking them. A gastronomic and ecological retreat.
I hope this article will inspire you to plan your trip in Costa Rica.
If you have already been and have enjoyed the Pura Vida, please leave a comment on this article and share your good tips with people who want to travel differently !