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Jetsetter Guides

Costa Rica 12 Ways

For thrill seekers, beach bums, nature fiends and honeymooners alike, Costa Rica is a freewheeling adventure playground. Writer and resident Ashley Harrell explains where travelers of all stripes can find their perfect slice of this sun-drenched, eco-obsessed destination.

See recent posts by Ashley Harrell

Woman enjoying a fun zip line tour in the jungle while on vacation

Best for Adventure: Northern Zone

Amid some of the country’s most magnificent volcanoes, visitors to the Northern Zone can zip around the canopy, horseback ride through the jungle, and even soar above the clouds in a hot air balloon. More extreme adventurers can also canyon down the mountainside, tube the Arenal River and mountain bike over old, rocky cattle roads. From November to April advanced windsurfers and kitesurfers blow in to the Lake Arenal area, where the consistent breeze powers world class riding. Tico Wind offers quality equipment and lessons for all skill levels, and the nearby Lake Arenal Brewing Company is a perfect spot for an après-surf craft beer.

STAY: Nayara Hotel, Spa & Gardens


Best for Nature: Osa Peninsula

Costa Rica is one of the most biodiverse countries on earth, and the Osa Peninsula is by far its wildest region. Sloths and monkeys dangle from trees, tapirs cool off in jungle mud baths, and crocodiles bask on the shores of Corcovado National Park, which any nature lover must explore. Day trips from the region’s numerous eco-lodges to Sirena Ranger Station are available, but multi-day hiking and camping excursions within the park are far more rewarding. Off the coast, safaris at sea have grown popular with the superyacht set, offering encounters with giant manta rays, migrating whales, and super pods of dolphins.

STAY: Blue Osa Yoga Retreat & Spa

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Best for Hiking: Chirripó

At 12,500 feet, Costa Rica’s highest peak offers views of both the Pacific and Caribbean coasts on a clear day. But the true reward for summiting Chirripó is the journey through the Talamanca’s misty mountain cloud forest, where incredible creatures such as the resplendent quetzal can be spotted. For nature aficionados with a bit less stamina, there’s the nearby Cloudbridge Nature Reserve, a private 700-acre reforestation project with free hiking trails, an exotic plant garden, and a picturesque waterfall. 

STAY: Monte Azul Boutique Hotel


Best for Families: Monteverde

If you have kids, you already know they’d like a side of ice cream with their nature. Monteverde can make this happen. Founded by a group of friendly Quakers, this mountain town brims with family-friendly accommodations and activities. With more than a thousand acres of natural wonderland, the Monteverde Cloud Forests will have your children darting from tree to twisting tree, spotting monkeys and sloths and tiring themselves out in the process. Adventurous families will also thrive at the Selvatura Adventure Park, where you can pass a day zipping through the canopy and wandering among butterfly, hummingbird, and reptile gardens. At the end of the day you’ll deliver on the promise of ice cream in the best way possible: They’ll eat it in the Villa Blanca Hotel & Reserve.

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Best for Partying: Nicoya Peninsula

For those looking to party all night and sleep it off on the beach all day, this freewheeling, sun-soaked peninsula is the spot. Down south, the Mal País/Santa Teresa area attracts young travelers to imbibe and dance in the sand, then recover over a delicious breakfast at Aremis Cafe. Up the coast in Playa Sámara, the party goes all night at Tabanuco and even continues the next day at beachfront bars that double as taquerias. The more health-conscious beachgoer should head farther north to Nosara, where visitors can eat gluten-free, stretch themselves silly at Nosara Yoga and sip cucumber cocktails at Harmony Hotel.

STAY: Hotel Punta Islita


Best for Beach: Central Pacific

There's a certain kind of traveler who flies into San José and wants only to get to the nearest beach. Playa Jacó is that beach. It’s not particularly scenic, as the bustling shops, restaurants, hotels, and casinos are front and center in this busy enclave. But there is plenty of partying to be done here at venues like Space, a new club “where no one can hear you scream.” With this kind of evening on the agenda, you'd be wise to begin with a decent meal, and the coffee-encrusted steak at Graffiti, one of the best restaurants in the country, is a winning choice. A bit farther down the coast, hamlets like Playas Hermosa and Esterillos Este are far more laid-back, offering more than a few super-chill beach bars.

STAY: Casa Mono Loco

Pool leading to the beach at Preserve at Los Altos

Best for Romance: Manuel Antonio

Nowhere else in Costa Rica can you find the sheer opulence of Manuel Antonio, where dozens of show-stopping cliffside hotels overlook the vast Pacific Ocean. In addition to the raft of luxe accommodations, romantic restaurants, picturesque beaches, and invigorating spa treatments make this destination a top choice for lovers, particularly those who appreciate nature. Home to Manuel Antonio National Park, this is a destination where monkeys swing by at breakfast and iguanas bask with guests by the pool. Thrill-seeking honeymooners will also be satisfied, as all the requisite Costa Rica adventures—ziplining, whitewater rafting, kayaking and more—can be found just down the road.

STAY: Los Altos Beach Resort & Spa


Best for Wellness: Arenal

The eruptions of the Arenal Volcano have come to an end, but deep underground the volcano still heats up the nearby rivers, which then cascade down the mountain and through Tabacón Thermal Resort, perhaps the country’s most romantic attraction. Here, visitors climb behind toasty, roaring waterfalls, sip cocktails in private cabanas, and soak in dozens of hot and cold pools. Other high-end resorts and hot springs abound in this lush, scenic region, as do mouthwatering restaurants (try Ginger Bread) and adventure activities, including one of the country’s most astounding ziplines, SkyTrek.

STAY: Tabacón Thermal Resort

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Best for Foodies: Caribbean Coast

Costa Rica has a reputation for bland, uninspired food, and in many areas of the country that is the case. Not so on the Caribbean coast, where Afro-Caribbean, Spanish, and indigenous cultures have blended to create a unique hybrid cuisine. Classic dishes include spicy patí (meat pastries) rondón seafood stew and the ever popular rice and beans, a mouthwatering version of gallo pinto—the beloved national breakfast—prepared with coconut milk, thyme, and peppers. Rice and beans is often paired with slow-cooked chicken in a Caribbean sauce, or whole snapper and fried plantains, aka patacones. Some of the most popular Caribbean restaurants include Selvin’s in Punta Uva and Stashus con Fusion and Koki Beach in Puerto Viejo.

STAY: Hotel Banana Azul

cowboy in costa rica, ridding a horse thru a country road in the mountains

Best for Culture: Guanacaste

For a classic taste of Costa Rica, head to cowboy country. The sabaneros throw one crazy rodeo, complete with carnival rides, cross-dressing clowns, and meat on a stick; the area’s most famous bull, Malacrianza, has become a national celebrity. On holidays and sometimes just for the hell of it, Guanacastecos celebrate with horse parades and dancing in the street. If indigenous culture is more your style, ride out to the village of Guaitil, where Chorotega Indians still make clay pots the same way their ancestors did 800 years ago. Art lovers will also want to stop at Hidden Garden Art Gallery, where some of the country’s most renowned painters have their work displayed.

STAY: Hotel Bosque del Mar

Pavones surfbreak, the 2nd longest left in the world

Best for Getting Off-Grid: Southern Zone

Nobody said the best waves would be easy to get to—and really, what fun would that be? Reachable only by a one-hour jaunt down potted dirt roads, the small southern outpost of Pavones is home to the longest left break on earth, attracting wave chasers by the dozen. There’s not much else to do here other than surf, eat, and watch other people surf. The slightly less diehard pull off a few hours early in Dominical, a grungy, unpaved beach town where big waves are the main draw, and a good meal at Por Que No? and cold drink at Maracatu attract the post-surf crowd. Be wary of riptides, however: They drag a few unlucky souls out to sea every year.

STAY: Playa Nicuesa Rainforest Lodge

surfer carving a tight turn

Best for Surf: Tamarindo

Endless Summer legend Robert August recently hunkered down in this raucous, sprawling settlement on the Pacific, where he shapes boards and teaches young admirers the ways of “pura vida.” From there, they hop on a killer right break in the middle of town, or head for a left near the river mouth (beware of crocodiles). There are plenty of surf schools here, some of which are run by former professionals, but more advanced surfers will find larger and less crowded waves at the nearby beaches of Langosta and Negra. Playa Avellanas—also considered a top spot for experienced surfers—is home to a fantastic café, Lola's, complete with a large pig, who enjoys waves crashing over her.

STAY: JW Marriott Guanacaste



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