American naturalist Henry David Thoreau got it right when he said “We need the tonic of wildness,” and Costa Rica might be just the cure for big-city blues. A peace-loving pioneer in ecotourism, the country is an incredible place to explore. And, while it’s a country where nature rules, there's also the wonderful local culture of the easygoing Costa Ricans. Wherever you go, you’ll hear the phrase "Pura Vida," meaning "the pure life" and it won’t take long before you melt into the relaxed and happy lifestyle of Costa Rica.
National Parks, Beaches, and Reserves in Costa Rica
A jagged spine of mountains yields sublime diversity from the East to the West coasts and cradles 12 life zones, from wetlands to mountain forests and coral-rich reefs. In addition to biosphere reserves, wildlife refuges, and protected zones, Costa Rica offers 30 national parks – covering 25 percent of the country. Walk along the treetops in the Monteverde Cloud Forest, a biodiverse sanctuary, renowned for its collection of orchid species – more than in any other single place. Visit Arenal National Park and trek through the old lava rocks or along the Arenal Hanging Bridges to walk eye-level with the lush canopy, observe the monkeys, sloths, and chattering birds up close, and look out to see the towering Arenal Volcano.
Costa Rica may be small, just about the size of West Virginia, but it’s home to five percent of the world’s wildlife species, accounting for a staggering half a million species of plants and animals. Travelers can canoe lagoons and explore beaches and national parks, or walk along rainforest canopies keeping an eye out for jaguar, puma, great green macaws, tapir, toucans, hummingbirds, sloths, sea turtles, rare ocelots, howler monkeys, red-eyed tree frogs, and so much more. During the day, watch for the basilisk, known as the Jesus lizard for its walking-on-water ability. Bird watchers keep your binoculars and cameras ready - Costa Rica has over 900 species! You're almost guaranteed a couple of additions to your life list.
Our Top Places to Go & Wildlife Experiences in Costa Rica
Arenal Volcano National Park
There are more than 200 volcanos in the small nation of Costa Rica, although only five have erupted in the past 400 years. One of those, Arenal, entered a long-predicted resting phase and paved the way for eco-sensitive hotels and resorts to open among the surrounding jungle, many with hot spring pools and baths.
Within the foothills of Arenal’s near-symmetrical peak lies rainforest, waterfalls, and the country’s largest lake, all easily accessible on hikes through Arenal Volcano National Park. Arenal offers Costa Rica’s best suspension bridges. You’re guaranteed to see birds (watch for toucans) and monkeys everywhere.
Straddling the Continental Divide and covering 10,520 hectares of tropical rainforest, Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve has six ecological zones, 2,500 floral species, 100 types of mammals, 400 bird species, 120 reptilian, and amphibian variants – hence it was the natural choice for Costa Rica’s first private conservation center in 1972. Evenings here are particularly memorable: fireflies flicker in the gathering darkness, and clouds roll to the haunting chant of howler monkeys.
Tortuguero National Park, Costa Rica Sea Turtle Experiences
The Sea Turtle Conservancy Tortuguero Visitor Center is an educational center located in the heart of Tortuguero National Park, and one of the most important sea turtle nesting sites in the world for green turtles.
At popular northern Tortuguero, you can kayak jungle-lined rivers one minute – on the lookout for caiman and toucans – and pad along soft-sand beaches the next, perhaps to swim with manatees or glimpse endangered green sea turtles enjoying the western hemisphere’s most important nesting ground. Though you're not permitted to visit the turtles until they are laying eggs, if you're lucky, you can experience their habitat on an exclusive nocturnal tour, to walk with turtles as they waddle to the ocean after laying their eggs.
Costa Rica has 922 species of birds, some of which draw enthusiasts the world over. You won’t need binoculars to spot vivid rainbow-hued toucans, native scarlet macaws, or eye-popping resplendent quetzal, so turquoise you’ll think their plumage is painted on. You may, however, need to zoom in to see hummingbirds; four of the 50 species found here are endemic, making Costa Rica the world’s unofficial capital for these tiny birds. The Osa Peninsula’s remote Corcovado National Park, and the central Los Santos Zone, are bird meccas.
Tenorio Volcano National Park, Rio Celeste Waterfall
There is no shortage of waterfalls in Costa Rica, but perhaps the prettiest is Tenorio Volcano National Park’s Rio Celeste. An easy trail leads to the river. Suddenly, you see a turquoise waterfall right in front of you. Crystal-clear water transforms into light blues, like nature’s magic trick. Science offers a complicated explanation for the water’s eye-popping color – a phenomenon known as ‘mie scattering’ occurring when two very different rivers meet. Regardless, it looks like it belongs on a postcard.
Guanacaste, Costa Rica
With more than 400 miles of coastline, the region’s “Gold Coast” boasts a variety of beautiful beaches and cities to explore. The popular town of Tamarindo offers a wide variety of delicious international and local fare, as well as one of the best beaches in the area. Playa Tamarindo is a popular surfing destination, spread out beside the fast-growing beach town that was once a quiet fishing community.
The best thing to do in Guanacaste? R.E.L.A.X. The Costa Rican "Pura Vida" way of life is at its best here. Make like the sea turtle, and take it slow spending lazy days on white sandy beaches, bird watching, snorkeling, exploring mangrove forests, sampling fantastic food, and so much more. Guanacaste is always worth the trip.
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