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BlogTravel tipsThe best places to visit in Costa Rica all on one trip (from Caribbean shores to rainforest canopies)
Travel tips

The best places to visit in Costa Rica all on one trip (from Caribbean shores to rainforest canopies)

Mar 18, 2024 by The Go Ahead Tours Team

Costa Rica may be a relatively small country, but nestled within its compact borders lies a wealth of captivating destinations, each offering its own unique charm and allure. From the urban energy of San José to the tranquil water of the Rio Negro Hot Springs, Costa Rica is home to an abundance of intriguing locales just waiting to be explored. When you join us on our Costa Rica tours, you won’t just observe staggering volcanoes, diverse rainforests, and charming villages—you’ll glide beneath the volcanoes in a kayak, plant trees in the rainforest, and share meals with locals. And if you’re ready to explore the top destinations in Costa Rica, you can see them all on one trip when you join our Grand Tour of Costa Rica: From the Caribbean to the Pacific.

Jump ahead to...

San José

Cartago

Turrialba Region

Guayabo National Monument

Puerto Viejo de Talamanca

Sarapiquí Region

Caño Negro

Arenal Region

Guanacaste Coast

Rincón de la Vieja

1. San José

San José, Costa Rica’s capital city, is a cosmopolitan hub of culture, history, and activity. The city’s bustling patchwork of modern and colonial buildings is nestled into Costa Rica’s Central Valley, a fertile basin of verdant land surrounded by soaring mountains. The city boasts spectacular museums, like the National Museum of Costa Rica and the Jade Museum, the latter of which is home to the world’s largest collection of American jade and one of our favorite places to spend a free hour or two on a trip to San José. San José is also one of the best places to visit in Costa Rica to sample the country’s cuisine. Spend a free afternoon strolling through the downtown Mercado Central, snacking on local specialties, like casado, empanadas, or agua fresca (a refreshing fruit drink). Or, join the Costa Rican Folklore Dinner excursion on our Grand Tour of Costa Rica: From the Caribbean to the Pacific to enjoy a meal of traditional foods—and learn a few regional dance steps set to the tunes of a live band.

When you visit San José on our Grand Tour of Costa Rica: From the Caribbean to the Pacific, you’ll venture outside the city and visit a family owned coffee farm to taste and learn about one of Costa Rica’s most famous exports. The estate cultivates its coffee through traditional methods, which help in its mission to protect and preserve the local environment. After savoring rich, fragrant sips of the caffeinated brew, visit the nearby Toucan Rescue Ranch to learn more about Costa Rica’s biodiverse ecosystem. The ranch, one of our top destinations for responsible wildlife experiences, is a nonprofit organization dedicated to the rescue, rehabilitation, and release of native wildlife.

Explore San José on tour

2. Cartago

The former capital of Costa Rica, the 16th-century city of Cartago was the first colonial settlement established in the country. The city is around 250 years older than the Republic of Costa Rica itself and is full of stunning architecture, like the elegant Basílica de Nuestra Señora de los Ángeles, a Roman Catholic basilica built in 1639. When you visit Cartago on a tour of Costa Rica, stroll through the Santiago Apóstol Parish Ruins. The unfinished 150-year-old church now serves as the fairytale setting of a public park.

Cartago sits at the foot of Irazú Volcano, and when you join our Grand Tour of Costa Rica: From the Caribbean to the Pacific, you’ll venture to Irazú Volcano National Park for a stroll around the towering volcano to see the mossy green lake at the center of its main crater. Irazú Volcano is the tallest active volcano in the country (at more than 11,000 feet above sea level) and is known locally as “El Coloso” or “The Colossus.”

Visit Cartago with us

3. Turrialba Region

Central Costa Rica’s Turrialba Region is an area marked by natural beauty, rugged, volcanic landscapes, and rustic charm. It’s one of the best places to visit in Costa Rica to participate in the country’s conservation efforts and to gain insight into the rural Costa Rican way of life. Join us on our Grand Tour of Costa Rica: From the Caribbean to the Pacific to help plant native trees as part of a local effort to combat deforestation. “There were so many itinerary highlights, but planting trees at the Heliconia Ranch in Monteverde was very special to me,” said staffer Lauren, who participated in a similar program on our Costa Rica: Rainforests, Volcanoes & Wildlife tour. “Everyone got to plant a tree to work toward offsetting our carbon footprint. The holes were already pre-dug for us, which was super helpful, and it felt great knowing we were doing something good for the planet. It was also cool seeing all the other trees that were planted by past travelers and how they’ve grown.” She cited the experience as one of her top reasons to love Costa Rica.

Costa Rica’s fertile farmland sustains not just its lush forest but its economy as well. When you visit the Turrialba Region on our Grand Tour of Costa Rica: From the Caribbean to the Pacific, join the Turrialba Chocolate Workshop & Lunch excursion to visit a family owned chocolate farm planted on the site of a formerly deforested pasture. Learn about the history of Costa Rican cacao production and try your hand at making your own chocolatey treats in a workshop that will satisfy your creativity as much as your sweet tooth.

Discover the Turrialba Region

4. Guayabo National Monument

Just north of Turrialba, on the slopes of a volcano, sits the mysterious Guayabo National Monument. This archaeological site covers just less than a square mile and is thought to be the remains of a once powerful pre-Columbian city. The settlement was founded in 1000 B.C. but was abruptly abandoned in 1400 A.D. for unknown reasons—Guayabo National Monument’s only current residents are a host of hummingbirds, coatis, and butterflies.

Visit Guayabo National Monument on our Grand Tour of Costa Rica: From the Caribbean to the Pacific to explore the remnants of homes, tombs, bridges, and aqueducts to learn about the daily lives, culture, and technological advancements of the indigenous population that inhabited the area thousands of years ago. It’s one of the best places to visit in Costa Rica to gain a unique insight into the lives of the country’s pre-Columbian indigenous population.

Explore Guayabo National Monument

5. Puerto Viejo de Talamanca

Puerto Viejo de Talamanca is a colorful beachside town on Costa Rica’s Caribbean Coast. Its palm tree-lined beaches and laid-back atmosphere make it one of the best places in Costa Rica to visit for a little rest and relaxation. Revel in the Afro-Caribbean and salsa music wafting through the town’s bohemian streets and hit the dance floor with your fellow travelers to learn some basic steps. You might even opt to demonstrate your rhythm and play some beats during a traditional drum lesson.

When you visit Puerto Viejo de Talamanca on our Grand Tour of Costa Rica: From the Caribbean to the Pacific, you’ll have ample free time to relax on idyllic beaches, like Playa Cocles or Punta Uva, spend an afternoon surfing or snorkeling, indulge in fresh seafood and tropical cocktails—or all of the above. If you’re seeking cultural immersion, join the Bribri Indigenous Village & Lunch excursion to tour the village of Meleruk, home to the indigenous Bribri people. Get to know the local way of life, learn about their traditions, and sit down with a Bribri family for a traditional lunch. Breaking bread with the locals is one of our favorite ways to get to know local cultures on tour.

Relax in Puerto Viejo de Talamanca

6. Sarapiquí Region

The Sarapiquí Region is a lush, diverse paradise in northern Costa Rica. The meandering Sarapiquí River winds its way through the region’s dense rainforests, which are home to howler monkeys, sloths, and more than 500 species of colorful tropical birds. In the heart of the jungle, you’ll find the Tirimbina Biological Reserve, an eco-lodge and research station committed to conservation and providing free environmental education to local communities. Here, you can walk the reserve’s many trails (keep an eye out for local wildlife) and cross Costa Rica’s longest suspension bridge for breathtaking views of the rainforest canopy and Sarapiquí River below.

It’s no secret that many of our favorite Costa Rica destinations involve the country’s perfect marriage of scenic beauty and delicious treats. When you visit the Sarapiquí Region on our Grand Tour of Costa Rica: From the Caribbean to the Pacific, you’ll tour an organic pineapple farm and see how the sweet tropical fruit is cultivated using eco-friendly practices. Taste a slice of the fruit fresh off the plant and sip a refreshing piña colada as you explore the farm’s expansive fields. “The experiences at the local farms taught me so much about how fruits are grown and where chocolate and coffee come from,” said traveler Laura after joining our Costa Rica: Rainforests, Volcanoes & Wildlife tour. “The pineapple was amazing! The country is absolutely beautiful.”

Head to the Sarapiquí Region

7. Caño Negro

Caño Negro is a remote and pristine wetland area in northern Costa Rica, near the border with Nicaragua. The richly diverse Caño Negro Wildlife Refuge encompasses a vast network of rivers, marshes, and flooded forests and is one of the best places to visit in Costa Rica to spot wildlife. Here, you’ll find rare and endangered species, like the Jabiru stork, anhinga bird, giant anteater, and emerald basilisk. The refuge’s initiatives, like its annual “Pájaro Campana Count,” an event where they observe and record population numbers of the three-wattled bellbird, help promote habitat research and rehabilitation.

Board a boat in Caño Negro Wildlife Refuge on our Grand Tour of Costa Rica: From the Caribbean to the Pacific to cruise through the wetlands and spot local flora and fauna with help of an expert guide. Keep an eye out for jaguars, migratory birds, and iconic green iguanas. A boat ride through the untamed wilderness is one of our favorite ways to immerse yourself in nature on a trip to Costa Rica.

Cruise through Caño Negro

8. Arenal Region

The Arenal Region is one of the best places to visit in Costa Rica for postcard-worthy sites, like thundering waterfalls plunging into aquamarine rivers and the perfect pyramid of a volcano sprouting from a rainforest canopy. The imposing Arenal Volcano dominates the skyline throughout the region and is surrounded by biodiverse rainforests, scenic lakes, and hidden hot springs. “The Arenal area was by far my favorite, which is saying a lot since I love, love, love the beach!” said traveler Stacy after visiting on our A Week in Costa Rica: San José, Arenal & Guanacaste tour. “It is just breathtakingly beautiful!” The area is also home to Tenorio Volcano National Park, where you’ll find the sky-blue Rio Celeste River and its dramatic waterfall—a can’t-miss site in Costa Rica.

Fully immerse yourself in everything Arenal has to offer on our Grand Tour of Costa Rica: From the Caribbean to the Pacific. Take a relaxing dip in the area’s geothermal hot springs, enjoy a farm-to-table lunch made with locally grown produce, and paddle around the base of the volcano on our Kayaking in Arenal Volcano National Park excursion. Traveler Jacqueline loved the variety of sites and experiences in Arenal. “The Arenal region of Costa Rica is lush with vegetation, animals, and a volcano,” she said after visiting the area on our A Week in Costa Rica: San José, Arenal & Guanacaste tour. “We had an opportunity to hike a path [around] the volcano, visit an eco-farm for farm-to-table cuisine, and enjoy the hot springs.”

Enjoy the Arenal Region

9. Guanacaste Coast

The Guanacaste Coast is home to some of the most beautiful beaches in Costa Rica and is one of the best Costa Rica destinations if you’re seeking sun, sand, and surf. After all, soaking up the heat like a local on a beautiful beach is one of our top travel tips for Latin America. The beach’s golden sand stretches between lush, emerald jungle and cool, turquoise water. “The beach in Costa Rica [is] top notch and one of the best I’ve ever been to—and I’ve been to a lot of beaches,” said traveler Laran, who visited on our Highlights of Central America: Costa Rica & Panama tour.

Spend a day lounging in the soft sand or hiking through the cool shade of the coastal forest. Or, join the Guanacaste Sailing & Snorkeling with Lunch excursion on our Grand Tour of Costa Rica: From the Caribbean to the Pacific for a morning of sailing and snorkeling off Guanacaste’s sparkling shores. Be sure to keep an eye out for marine life, like dolphins, sea turtles, and humpback whales, as you lounge on the deck of the sailboat.

Explore the Guanacaste Coast

10. Rincón de la Vieja

The rugged terrain and tropical dry forests of Rincón de la Vieja make it unlike other Costa Rica travel destinations. You’ll find waterfalls and wildlife in the UNESCO-protected Rincón de la Vieja National Park, but you’ll also spot bubbling mud puddles and vents spouting volcanic vapors. “Rincón de la Vieja is like no other Costa Rican national park,” said staffer Tom. “The walk around Las Pailas feels more like the Southwest of the United States, or even Yellowstone, paired with Costa Rica’s wildlife. One moment, you’re looking into mud pots, steam vents, and other evidence of the park’s volcanism, and then a group of white-faced monkeys will scurry past you in the trees. The park is a great contrast to the wetter, more tropical areas of Costa Rica.”

Join us on the Rincón de la Vieja extension of our Grand Tour of Costa Rica: From the Caribbean to the Pacific to explore the region’s volcanic terrain and visit the Rio Negro Hot Springs. The complex is nestled within a leafy forest, and its mineral-rich waters are warmed by the thermal activity of Rincón de la Vieja’s volcanoes. It’s the ultimate way to relax and unwind at the end of a tour of Costa Rica.

Visit Rincón de la Vieja

Join us on our Grand Tour of Costa Rica to see the best of the country all on one trip!


About the author | The Go Ahead Tours Team
We’re a team of passionate travel experts, dedicated to helping people explore the world. From inspiring stories to tips for an amazing trip, the topics we cover are all about getting you out there and making discoveries.

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