Tips for getting off the beaten path in Costa Rica

written by Robert Schrader July 21, 2017
Arenal Hanging Bridges, La Fortuna Costa Rica

These days, it seems like everyone goes to Costa Rica. But for good reason – the Central American gem is home to rainforests, beaches, volcanoes and more.

The country recorded its highest tourism numbers ever in 2015, with a record 2.6 million international arrivals. That’s more than one tourist for every two ticos (Costa Rican locals)!

On the other hand, your trip to Costa Rica doesn’t have to be ordinary just because your neighbors went last month. From hidden beaches, to fluorescent rivers, to some surprising truths about the underrated capital, here’s how to transcend the typical Costa Rica trip.

Do “typical” Costa Rica in atypical ways

I had a leg up when it came to seeing a different side of a country so many people seem to know so well. My ex-partner is Costa Rican, and from the many periods I lived with him in his apartment in San Jose, to the delicious meals I shared with his family in his hometown of Turrialba, at the base of the volcano with the same name, very few of my experiences in Costa Rica have been what you can call typical.

Costa RicaOf course, you don’t have to date a tico (or tica) to see a different side of Costa Rica. Costa Rican food alone can help you discover the country in a more authentic way, whether you eat the rice-and-beans dish of gallo pinto every morning for breakfast, crash a beach party and sample some of the pork chiccarones that are sure to be frying up or simply become a connoisseur of famous Costa Rican coffee, be it in a coffee shop in San José or Liberia, or at coffee farms like Aquiares Estate and Los Titos.

But food is only the beginning. For example, upon arrival on the beaches of Manuel Antonio National Park, surfing is not your only option for recreation. Head up to the mountain village of Santa Juana, for example, where you can not only practice your español with local campesinos, but discover their culture and, yes, food.


Remember Costa Rica’s “other” coast

Speaking of Manuel Antonio (and the charming town of Quepos, the de-facto gateway to the park), it’s tempting to think that only the celebrated, picturesque Pacific Coast of Costa Rica is relevant to you as a traveler. The country should really be called “Costas Ricas,” however, because the Caribbean coast is every bit as magnificent as its occidental counterpart.

Costa Rica beachFrom the city of Limón, head south down the coast toward the Panamanian border, stopping at whichever place suits you best. If you want to discover a vibrant community that mixes locals and travelers, sleep in Puerto Viejo — which, be warned, can get a little rowdy on weekends.

If unadulterated nature if your priority, meanwhile, your best bets are the beaches of Manzanillo, Punta Uva and Cocles, which is also home to the Sloth Sanctuary of Costa Rica. Manzanillo in particular is a great place to chill out, whether you stay a couple of nights in one of the simple huts on the beach, or hike in the stunning Refugio de Gancoda de Manzanillo Wildlife Refuge.


Please, go chasing waterfalls

It’s not entirely fair to say that waterfalls take a backseat to beaches in Costa Rica, even if some of the most popular cataratas are often tag-ons to días en el playa. Nauyaca Waterfall, for example, is arguably as famous for its dramatic beauty as it is for its convenience to popular Dominical.

Rio Celeste Costa Rica

Rio Celeste

Some of Costa Rica’s waterfalls sit are standalone can’t-miss destinations, even if they are close to popular places you’re likely visiting anyway. The waters of Bajos del Toro, for example, thunder more than 300 feet into a crater and can be easily seen whilst visiting the ever-popular Poás Volcano.


Rio Celeste, meanwhile, is fluorescent blue due to the volcanic minerals that course through it. It’s a sight made even more vibrant when you see the waterfall at the end of the hiking trail, visible through the surrounding emerald jungle. Even better, you can easily see Rio Celeste on a day trip from La Fortuna or Monterverde Cloud Forest (both destinations the majority of our Costa Rica trips go to).

Arenal Hanging Bridges, La Fortuna Costa Rica

Arenal Hanging Bridges, La Fortuna

Hang with the cool kids

One of the most pervasive myths about Costa Rica is about its capital, San José. According to some the city is boring at best, and at worst a cesspool of danger and drugs. Neither of these wild allegations could be further from the truth, which is why you should absolutely spend a couple days in San José before or after your Costa Rica tour.

In addition to underrated tourist attractions like the Teatro Nacional and San José’s own Barrio China China town, discover lesser-known neighborhoods like super-cool San Pedro, which is becoming a hipster hub on account of the nearby University of Costa Rica.

Teatro Nacional, San José

Teatro Nacional, San José

Sip microbrewed craft beer, chow down elaborate burgers and see that “fashion in Costa Rica” can transcend cargo pants and athletic sandals in surprisingly avant-garde ways.

Speaking of myths, any you had about Costa Rica being a “typical” or well-trodden destination must be just about shattered at this point. So, crack open a cerveza Imperial and book that trip now! Your new Costa Rica bucket list certainly isn’t getting any shorter.

Tempted to visit this stunning Central American country? Check out our range of small group tours in Costa Rica.

(Image credits all c/o Robert Schrader except hero image c/o Intrepid Travel)

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