Ecotourism in Costa Rica is a robust industry because the country was one of the earliest adopters of connecting nature/wildlife conservation with responsible travel.
Costa Rica has been ranked among the world's best ecotourism destinations on more than one occasion, and became the first country in the Americas to ban hunting in 2012. As a result, its biodiversity is virtually unparalleled.
The first European to explore Costa Rica was Christopher Columbus, who arrived in 1502. By the time he arrived, there were four indigenous tribes in Costa Rica– the Caribs, Borucas, Chibchas, and Diquís tribes. Few of these indigenous peoples survived the dawn of Spanish colonialism, and African slaves were brought in to work the land.
Despite its colonial past, Costa Rica eventually managed to achieve a lasting democracy. Unique among its Central American neighbors, it’s a peaceful country with no army, excellent infrastructure, a high standard of living, and impressive conservation efforts.
Check out our extensive guide to Ecotourism in Costa Rica:
Things To Do In Costa Rica
Costa Rica boasts 26 National Parks, 58 wildlife refuges, 32 protected zones, 15 wetland areas, 11 forest reserves, and 8 biological reserves. Over 25% of the country's 19,730 square miles is protected from future development.
Ecotourism in Costa Rica encompasses a diverse array of ecosystems, from cloud forests and rainforests to wetlands and coastal marine areas.
With so many different things to do in Costa Rica, it can be difficult to narrow them down. However, there are certain places that should be a must-see on every eco-traveler’s itinerary.
1. Arenal Volcano National Park
One of the most active volcanoes in the world until 2010, the 5,480-foot Arenal Volcano dominates the landscape of northwestern Costa Rica. Located near the tiny town of La Fortuna, the volcano has been dormant for years. But the area remains a popular ecotourism destination thanks to Lake Arenal, La Fortuna Waterfall, and various hot springs. And of course the mountain still looms ominously over the verdant landscape, like a sleeping giant just waiting for the opportune moment to re-awaken.
2. Ballena Marine National Park
Ballena Marine National Park, one of the newest national parks in Costa Rica, is widely considered among the best places in the Americas for whale-watching. This is due to the fact that both Northern and Southern Humpback Whales migrate through this area. The park also offers 8.69 miles of beautiful beaches, a small estuary, and snorkeling Central America's largest coral reef on the Pacific Ocean.
3. Caño Island
Located off the coast of the Osa Peninsula, Caño Island became a biological reserve in 1978. Among the island's towering evergreens, the Diquís tribe's hand-carved stone spheres have baffled archeologists for years. Caño Island is considered one of the world's best Scuba diving spots: It's surrounded by five platforms of coral reefs. Divers have the chance to see Eels, Lobsters, Sharks, Sea Turtles, and possibly Whales during winter.
4. Corcovado National Park
Described by National Geographic as “the most biologically intense place on earth,” Corcovado National Park is the largest in Costa Rica. Located on the Osa Peninsuala, it’s a haven for bird-watchers, hikers, and wildlife photographers. There are 13 different ecosystems here, with extensive trails through highland cloud forest, mangrove swamps, lowland rain forests, and sandy beaches. The biodiversity in Corcovado is remarkable, ranging from Monkeys and Sloths to rare species such as Jaguars and Baird's Tapirs.
5. Manuel Antonio National Park
Ranked among the world’s most beautiful national parks by Forbes, Manuel Antonio annually attracts around 150,000 visitors. They're drawn by its beautiful beaches and hiking trails through primary forest, secondary forest, mangrove swamps, and lagoons. The park boasts 184 species of birds and 109 species of mammals. The most frequently sighted are the Monkeys. But beware: They’ve become so habituated, they’re renowned for stealing food and other items!
6. Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve
When it comes to ecotourism in Costa Rica, Monteverde ranks among the most beloved attractions. It’s easy to see why: With six different ecological zones, the reserve boasts extraordinary biodiversity. There are around 100 mammal species, 120 reptilian and amphibian species, 400 bird species, and more than 2,500 plant species. It also has a Nature Center, bat jungle, butterfly gardens, frog pond, and many hiking trails, suspension bridges, and ziplines.
7. Rincón de la Vieja
Located 17 miles north of Liberia, Rincón de la Vieja National Park is named after its main attraction– a 6217-foot cinder volcano with nine craters. The Senduro Encantado hiking trail cuts through lowlands and into cloud forest, allowing visitors to spot abundant flora and fauna along the way. It also connects with the Pailas circuit trail, which passes sulphuric hot springs. Hikers can relax in the pools, which are naturally heated, before cooling off in the stream. For those in the mood for swimming, the Sendero Congreja trail leads to several cascading waterfalls and cool lagoons.
8. TABACÓN HOT SPRINGS
Long, hot days of ecotourism in Costa Rica can be exhausting. Sooth your aching bones in these naturally-heated thermal springs, which are surrounded by lushly landscaped gardens offering a picturesque view of Arenal Volcano. The strongest stream flows over a sculpted waterfall, providing a wonderfully intense hydraulic shoulder massage. There's also an impressive spa here that offers professional massages and mud masks.
9. Tirimbina Biological Reserve
Located about 2 hours by car from San Jose, Tirimbina Biological Reserve is one of the most educational experiences of ecotourism in Costa Rica. It's got a prime location in Sarapiquí, between the forests and rivers of Costa Rica's northern region. With nearly six miles of trails, there are opportunities for hiking through cacao plantations, wetlands, and secondary forests. There are also numerous guided tours available, offering visitors a chance to learn more about bats, birds, frogs, and chocolate.
10. Tortugero National Park
Located on the Caribbean coast, this pristine 77,000-acre protected area is a poster child for Costa Rica's ecotourism efforts. Accessible only by boat or plane, Tortugero National Park boasts 11 different habitats within its boundaries. The best way to explore it is by boat, due to the dense network of creeks and lagoons. Tortuguero is famous for its sea turtle nesting beaches. With a hired guide, you can visit the beaches at night, which is the best time to see Green, Hawksbill, Leatherbacks, and Loggerhead turtles laying their eggs.
Where To Stay In Costa Rica
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Below you'll find our affiliate links to the Hotels and Eco Lodges that we recommend. You can:
The numbers next to the hotels correspond to the attractions on the list above. To see the hotel locations, click on the map above and check the "Where to Stay" layer.
Tabacon Grand Spa Thermal Resort
(La Fortuna #1,#8)
This family-friendly resort in La Fortuna offers a full-service spa, relaxing hot springs on-site, and tour packages to nearby attractions such as Arenal Volcano and Arenal Natura Ecological Park. The resort participates in the Sustainable Tourism Education Program (STEP), and is a member of the Leading Hotels of the World.
Leaves and Lizards Retreat
(Arenal Volcano #1, #8)
This rustic retreat offers stunning panoramic views of Arenal and the surrounding mountains. Choose from cozy cabins, spacious villas, and the one-of-a-kind Hobbit House, all of which feature quaint, eco-friendly decor. The property is a working farm, with horseback riding, yoga, and a farm-to-table restaurant on-site.
Kurá Design Villas
(Uvita #2, #5)
Located high in the hills above Uvita, this posh boutique hotel offers a blend of upscale design, traditional cultural influences, and a wealth of sustainability initiatives. There's an excellent restaurant on-site, and a gorgeous L-shaped infinity pool affording exceptional views of Ballena Marine National Park.
(Osa Peninsula #3, #4)
With no roads, no airport, and the nearest town two hours away, Corcovado National Park is REALLY “away from it all.” Located on its border, this eco-lodge is as close as you can get to Corcovado without sleeping in a tent. It's also one of the few hotels awarded "Five Leaves" for sustainability by the Costa Rican Tourism Institute.
A pioneer of ecotourism in Monteverde, Hotel Belmar was the second hotel ever built in the cloud forest. Recent renovations marked a major upgrade, with sustainability initiatives earning 5-Leaf recognition from CRTI. Their Chalet rooms put guests in the heart of the forest, with a spa, farm-to-table food, and nature hikes making the hotel a Monteverde must-see.
Located on the Nicoya Peninsula, this beachfront boutique hotel offers a remote romantic getaway that mixes nature and luxury in equal measure. Amenities include restaurant, spa, several pools, and an uncrowded, picturesque beach. Families can rent out their spacious villas, which offer stunning views of the Pacific's crashing waves.
La Quinta de Sarapiqui
(La Virgen #9)
Located on 10 acres near Tirimbina Biological Reserve, this rustic eco-lodge is a nature-lover's haven. Their spacious, thatched-roof bungalows all have porches with hammocks and rocking chairs. Walking trails lead to ponds, a butterfly garden, and a frog habitat. Massages and local tours are also available.
Nestled between the Caribbean and canals of Tortuguero National Park, Mawamba is where the idea for GGT was born. There are no roads, and the river feels like a mini-Amazon. From boat rides through wildlife-rich canals to nighttime hikes to see nesting Sea Turtles, it's a perfect place to see how ecotourism and conservation connect.
Hotel Parque del Lago
Located 20 minutes from the airport, this boutique hotel makes a great base for exploring San Jose. They've earned a 3-Leaf rating for sustainability, and the ICONOS Restaurant was among our favorite in Costa Rica. Best of all, it's next to the Parque Metropolitano La Sabana, the city's "Central Park"– 72-acre urban forest with a lake.
Culture & Food In Costa Rica
Costa Rica Food & Restaurants
Costa Rican food shares similarities with other types of Latin American cuisine. But the inclusion of ample exotic fruits and fresh vegetables makes it a little healthier.
The increasing number of tourists visiting Costa Rica’s larger cities has resulted in a greater variety of restaurants, from Japanese sushi bars to Italian cafés. Still, there are plenty of traditional dishes on offer. Costa Rican food tends to be mild, with rice and black beans forming the basis for most dishes.
Casado is a traditional lunch dish and the most common meal in Costa Rica. It consists of rice and beans, served with a choice of meat and grilled onions. Another popular traditional dish is Ceviche, which consists of raw fish and seafood, marinated in lemon juice and herbs.
Costa Rica Arts & Culture
Over recent years, artists in Costa Rica have become bolder and braver, taking more risks in their work. Escazú, in the province of San José, is home to many contemporary artists. In 1991 the Centre for Creative Arts, which runs various courses and offers studio space for artists, opened in Santa Ana.
Costa Rica has no army. But it does boast a National Symphony Orchestra, a Youth Symphony Orchestra, and two government-funded universities with respected music programs. As a result, the country has produced many contemporary classical composers, including Alejandro Cardona, Bernal Flores, Benjamín Gutiérrez and Luis Diego Herra.
While the country’s most popular musical forms– calypso, disco, pop, salsa, and merengue– were all imported, there has been a resurgence of interest in the nation’s pre-Columbian folk traditions. Local bands such as Gandhi and Evolución emerged as part of the Rock en Español movement, while Malpaís has had great success mixing Costa Rican folk with rock and jazz influences.
Costa Rica Recreation
Soccer is the national sport of Costa Rica, and a beloved community activity. Casual pick-up games happen so often that visitors are likely to get the chance to join in, if they know where to look. Games often take place in public parks in small towns and cities.
Ecotourism in Costa Rica is world-renowned for good reason. There are plenty of adventurous outdoor activities to choose from. Hiking trails cross the national parks, allowing visitors to hike through numerous different ecosystems in one day. Whitewater rafting on the Rio Pacuare is also a popular pastime.
Watersports can be enjoyed all along the coast of Costa Rica. Kayaking is a great way to explore the rivers and mangrove estuaries, and sea kayaking has become increasingly popular. Underwater visibility in some areas is murky at best. But excellent Scuba diving opportunities can be found off Caño Island, the Catalina Islands, and Cocos Island.
Fun Facts About Costa Rica
3 Fantastic Photo Opportunities
- La Selva Biological Station is a birdwatchers paradise with over 400 species, including hummingbirds and tanagers.
- Head for the hills above Uvita at low tide to get a stunning photo of the Whale Tail-shaped sandbar at Ballena Marine National Park.
- Tenorio National Park's Celeste River is a brilliant turquoise color due to a chemical reaction caused by volcanic minerals.
Only in Costa Rica
• "Pura Vida" is Costa Rica's unofficial slogan. Used often by locals to summarize their happy philosophy, it means "pure life."
• Costa Rica is home to the biggest oxcart and yoke in the world, which is currently on display at the Oxcart Factory in Sarchi.
• The hand-carved stone spheres of Costa Rica are one of the country’s biggest mysteries. Nobody is quite sure of their original purpose.
• Locals refer to themselves as "Ticos" (male) and "Ticas" (female).
Costa Rica Fun Facts
- Costa Rica is home to over 52 different species of hummingbird.
- Costa Ricans have a life expectancy of 79 years, which is ranks as one of the highest in the world.
- There are over 100 protected areas in Costa Rica, including both land and marine reserves.
- Tree frogs account for about one-third of the frog population in the country.
Costa Rica Travel Tips
Capital: San José
Language: Spanish (official); English
Population: 4,755,234 (est 2014)
Area: 51,100 square km (19,730 square miles)
Currency: Costa Rican colón
Timezone: CST UTC/GMT - 6 hours
Calling codes: +506
Electrical voltage: 120V/60hz. You don't need a power plug adapter in Costa Rica, when living in the United States of America.
In Costa Rica the power sockets are of type A (2 holes) and B (3 holes).
Climate: The climate of Costa Rica is tropical, but many different microclimates exist. The average temperature is 70 to 81 F (21 to 27 C) and rainy season is May - November
Airports: Aeropuerto Internacional Juan Santamaria (San José) is the main airport. Domestic flights go from San José to Bahía Drake, Barra del Colorado, Golfito, Liberia, Palmar Sur, Playa Nosara, Playa Sámara/Carrillo, Playa Tamarindo, Puerto Jiménez, Quepos, Tambor and Tortuguero.
Tap water in urban areas is usually safe to drink. However, be cautious in rural areas with questionable water sources.
Costa Rica has one of the highest levels of medical care in the world. Its doctors are known as some of the best.
Some Costa Rican roads are rough, so short distances can take a long time. If you see something poking out of the road, there's probably a deep sinkhole. Stay away from it. Don't drive at night if you can avoid it.
Taxi rates are reasonable, and most hotels can arrange a driver. The meter is called la maria: Ask the driver to turn it on immediately upon getting in the car to ensure fair pricing for your ride.
Money exchange is provided at most banks, but state banks such as Banco Nacional have lower rates. Always insist that your change be in small bills, as large bills are difficult to change in small towns.
Tipping tour guides, drivers, and maids is always appreciated. Restaurant bills often include a 10% gratuity, but you can leave an extra tip for good service.
Stories About Costa Rica
Casa Corcovado Jungle Lodge is as close as you can get to staying in Corcovado National Park without having to sleep in a tent on a ranger station's porch.