I’ve been all over Costa Rica, from the sandy beaches to the cloud forests; from simple hiking paths to extreme trails. I’ve soaked up my country’s unique culture at annual festivals, from the Palmares Fiestas to the Puntarenas Carnival. Basically, I’m a Costa Rica expert. I do still remember, though, what it was like when I first gave in to my wanderlust and ventured from home to become a constant traveler. Often, when I meet first-time visitors, they always want to tell me where they are going to see if they have left anything out. That is an impossible question! Costa Rica has so much to explore; with beaches, on both coasts, numbering in the hundreds, over 150 wildlife parks, reserves and refuges and many volcanoes – unless you are spending months and months here, you are likely to miss out on some of the adventures that my country offers.

I’ve put together a list of great, essential places for first-timers to visit. I recommend starting smaller, and building your trip either as you go, or through several visits. Don’t try to do everything on the list in one trip!

Santa Elena Nat. Park cloud forest sanctuary
Santa Elena Nat. Park cloud forest sanctuary


1.) Cloud Forest Reserves

Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve is stunning and distinctive, and you’ll be surrounded by an ecotourists’ dream – over 3,000 animal and plant species. You can go hiking at high altitudes in the forest, and enjoy your time outside of the forest in the small village just outside the entrance. The Santa Elena Cloud Forest Reserve is often overshadowed by its neighbor (see above), but it shouldn’t be written off. As the underdog, this forest reserve sees less foot traffic; it’s the spot that is less touristy. You can get all of the same amazing experiences as you can at Monteverde, but you can do so with less people around.

Corcovado National Park Sunset
Corcovado National Park Sunset


2.) Protected National Parks

Poas Volcano National Park is home to a magnificent and beautiful volcano. During the day, thousands of visitors admire wild landscapes and magical smoke eruptions.

Manuel Antonio National Park might not be the largest National Park in Costa Rica, but it is one of the country’s more famous and visited locations. It’s no wonder why either; this park has everything that a traveler could dream up: beaches, wildlife, forests, nightlife. With plenty of tour operations to keep you busy and eco-friendly accommodations offered, this is one place that I recommend you try to keep on your list.

Braulio Carrillo National Park is one of Costa Rica’s most extensive – geographically and ecologically. With amazing waterfalls, forests, mountains and volcanoes, this park is a great place to stay for several days of your trip.

Tortuguero National Park in the Caribbean coast, is most known for being a breeding and nesting ground for sea turtles. You can also keep your eyes out for the West Indian manatee, an endangered species, and explore the area’s rivers and lagoons.

Surfer's walking back after session at Santa Teresa
Surfer's walking back after session at Santa Teresa


3.) Surfing

There are many great surfing spots in Costa Rica, but if you’re going to just pick one, you should pick Santa Teresa. It is just a small village on the beach, but it hosts surfing that is ideal for both beginners and those that are advanced. This area of paradise is more secluded than other areas, so you may not even feel like a tourist while you are there – you’ll just be a person with a surfboard, looking for the perfect wave.

Palms on Montezuma Beach
Palms on Montezuma Beach


4.) The Most Beautiful Beaches

Obviously, there are beaches, and beaches, and more beaches in Costa Rica. I am able to just travel to any beach whenever I want, but it must be so hard for a short-term visitor to decide which ones to go to! Below are my top recommendations for the new visitors.

Montezuma is a great pick for those that are looking for a more hippie vibe. This isn’t just a town with a beach, this is a beach town. It isn’t one of the places in Costa Rica that is the easiest to get to, but it is worth it so it still made my list. I don’t recommend coming here first though; if you do, you might just get super comfortable and never leave to go to any of the other places on your itinerary.

Beautiful Playa Hermosa in Guanacaste
Beautiful Playa Hermosa in Guanacaste


Hermosa Beach is a great place to head to when you want to be surrounded by and immersed in the local culture, as this is a favorite spot for locals. Hermosa is also home to some of the largest developments in Costa Rica’s real estate. All those tall buildings don’t ruin the landscape though; they add to it!

Samara beach features white sand and offers a picture perfect turquoise water view. This area is a great place for families that are traveling with kids, since it offers many close-by restaurants. It is also a more quiet area also.

Chairs & umbrella on a empty beach in Tamarindo
Chairs & umbrella on a empty beach in Tamarindo


Tamarindo beach is not only a great place to relax, but also a place that can remind you how fragile our country is. Rapid expansion cause challenges for the environment, such as water quality, but intervention has helped the area preserve its natural beauty. The beach is clean and you can catch so seriously inspiring sunsets from the sand.

Beautiful Jaco Beach from the sky
Beautiful Jaco Beach from the sky


Jaco beach has also taken steps to preserve the land and biology and now enforces regulations that help control pollution. The beach offers great views of the surrounding area, and also of the high-rises that came as a result of development. Besides wonderful restaurants for dining, Jaco also offers one a nightlife that is exciting and vibrant.