Best of Activities
Last Updated: Apr 30, 2012
Whether you’re a nature lover, adrenaline junkie, or die-hard surfer, Costa Rica has something for everyone. Test your skills on Class IV-V whitewater rapids, relax on a sun-dappled beach, search the forests for the elusive resplendent quetzal, or rappel down a 200-foot tropical waterfall. When you’re pressed for time, choosing what to do in Costa Rica can be a tough decision. Based on years of travel experience, here’s our list of top Costa Rica activities and where to find them.
Bird & Wildlife Watching
Costa Rica represents only 0.03% of the earth's surface, yet it is home to more than 4% of the world's total species. Bird and wildlife watching is outstanding year-round. Depending on your vacation destination, planning may be necessary to spot a particular species. Head to the Osa Peninsula from July-November for Costa Rica’s best whale watching; swing by Monteverde between March and July for resplendent quetzal mating season; or take a turtle tour in Tortuguero March through October to witness nesting leatherback, hawksbill, loggerhead, and green sea turtles. If wildlife watching is your passion, we cannot overemphasize the value of a naturalist guide –a guide’s keen eyes are trained to spot even the best camouflaged creatures hiding in plain sight. Guided nature tours may be booked in advance or on-site at national parks and private reserves.
Canopy tours are perhaps the most iconic of Costa Rica’s adventure activities, and for good reason. You can fly like Superman, arms outstretched, over a river full of crocodiles; leap off 30-foot platforms into a pendulous Tarzan swing; or soar on a half-mile zipline next to fiery Arenal Volcano. A canopy tour is truly an unforgettable experience, and a must for the ultimate adrenaline rush. Canopy tours are available in almost every tourism hotspot, so you’re bound to find a great option wherever you go. Our favorite canopy tours are in Arenal, Monteverde and Rincon de la Vieja. These destinations are home to the most hair-raising canopy adventures we know, and it doesn’t hurt that the tours are surrounded by jaw-dropping scenery.
The unsung champion of Costa Rica’s outdoor thrills, waterfall rappelling deserves a spot on any adventure lover’s must-do list. Travel deep into a rainforest canyon, where you’ll descend a series of tropical waterfalls, some over 200 feet tall (that’s like rappelling down a 20-story office building!). Feel the rush of mountain water spraying your face, smooth rocks sturdy beneath your feet, and the sensation of freefall as you rappel beneath a roaring waterfall. Though canyoning is gaining in popularity, it’s not as ubiquitous as other adventure sports. In our experience, Arenal has the best waterfall rappelling opportunities, so head out to Costa Rica’s most active volcano to enjoy an exhilarating, safe trip down the side of a waterfall.
Costa Rica’s day spas sooth sore muscles and wick away pain with traditional healing, relaxing techniques, and a prism of aromatherapy and organic treatments. It’s easy to tailor your spa regimen to fit your destinations – luxuriate in a volcanic mud body wrap at the base of Arenal Volcano, relax with a coffee body polish in the Central Valley mountains, or sample a coconut oil massage on Costa Rica’s Pacific shores. After a long day of adventure tours, unwind with the ultimate pampering experience at one of our recommended day spas. Rest assured you'll find one at every stop on your vacation itinerary.
Bordering two oceans, home to countless rivers and a 20-mile long lake, Costa Rica offers exceptional freshwater and offshore sport fishing year-round. Serious anglers can plan their outings around fishing seasons, but the truth is there is always something biting every month of the year. Visit the Pacific coast from December-April, when sailfish are biting in Tamarindo and Quepos. Between May and September, mahi mahi, sailfish, tuna and marlin are common catches off the Osa Peninsula. And for the fight of your life, head to Barra del Colorado any month of the year for prize-winning tarpon (100 pounds plus) and fat snook. For a bit of freshwater fun, visit Arenal between May and July when the hard-fighting rainbow bass of Lake Arenal will hook you some solid bragging rights. Most sport fishing outfits promote “catch and release” practices in an effort to protect local fish populations
With warm waters and over 800 miles of coastline, Costa Rica offers excellent surfing opportunities for beginner and advanced surfers alike. Pacific waves are their best from June through December, while the Caribbean hits its stride December-March and June-July. Seasoned wave riders should head to Pavones, a South Pacific hotspot with the longest left point break in the world (3/4 of a mile long). Head up to Santa Rosa National Park, where Witch’s Rock promises one of the best right point breaks in the world. Travel east to the southern Caribbean, where Puerto Viejo’s Salsa Brava, the biggest surf break in Costa Rica, awaits experienced surfers. Just a mile south of Puerto Viejo, Cocles Beach promises consistent surf and calmer currents for less experienced wave aficionados.
Costa Rica’s refreshing rivers offer world-class whitewater rafting in beautiful surroundings. Water levels rise from July-December, so if you’re looking for serious rapids and an adventurous ride, book your trip during these peak months. Make your pilgrimage to Turrialba’s Class III-IV Pacuare River and Class III-V Reventazon River, regarded as two of the world’s best whitewater rafting rivers. For a slightly calmer ride, visit Puerto Viejo de Sarapiqui and tackle the Class III-IV Sarapiqui River. Or, make traveling more fun and raft your way from San Jose to La Fortuna on the Class II-III Balsa River or the more challenging Class III-IV Toro River.