Best off the beaten path destinations in Costa Rica
Over the past decade, Costa Rica has developed a reputation as the adventure capital of the Americas. Thanks to government foresight – declaring a quarter of the country’s land and sea as protected areas and its combination of sub-tropical beaches, thick jungle, smoking volcanos, and a wealth of flora and fauna; visitors are rightly flocking to the country in all manner of Costa Rica tours. But is it still possible to get off the beaten track? We say absolutely! Here we detail 8 of Costa Rica’s lesser-known destinations worth going!
- Corcovado National Park
Costa Rica is able to boast 28 national parks (and a huge number of other protected areas), and while the likes of Manuel Antonio National Park have long been a hit with tourists to the country, we recommend quieter Corcovado National Park instead. Best accessed via the small town of Puerto Jimenez on the southern end of the Osa Peninsula, around 350 km or five hours from San Jose, the park protects untouched virgin forest. It’s fair to say you’re rarely far from the coast in Costa Rica, and Corcovado is no exception, with some spectacular crowd-free beaches edged by the park’s rainforest. Home to species as diverse as scarlet macaws and squirrel monkeys, it can be easily explored with the help of a knowledgeable local guide.
We think Sarapiqui will soon be on everyone’s lips, given the region’s natural beauty and the presence of some well-run eco-lodges. Located just 50 km or so north of San Jose, the main draw for us is the river after which the area is named. While it may not be as famous as the Pacuare River, the Sarapiqui still offers stunning whitewater rafting experiences. Its middle-range class III rapids are perfectly suited for those who’ve never rafted before, and for family groups, and offer a more unusual way of exploring Costa Rica’s backcountry than any well-trodden forest trail or zip-line experience is able to. During calmer stretches of the river, your guide will point out the wildlife species that depend on the river, from toucans to crocodiles!
- Playa Negra
Located in Guanacaste province, on Costa Rica’s Pacific coastline an easy 200 km (3 hour) bus ride from San Jose, Playa Negra offers a much more tranquil beach experience than the coastal hotspot of Playa Tamarindo just 30 minutes north. There are still a good number of accommodation options to choose between, and some excellent waves for those looking to jump onto a surfboard. The near-white sands are also fantastic for simply flopping down and soaking up the warmth of the sun’s rays. The only downside? To get there you’ll need to tackle a less-than-perfect dirt road, but the result – including some of Costa Rica’s finest sunsets – is definitely worth the effort!
- Miravalles Volcano
Arenal Volcano is without doubt Costa Rica’s main volcanic attraction, but for those looking to get further off the beaten path than that, Miravalles comes a very close second. Located in the inland section of Guanacaste province, the volcano is no longer considered active, but still has what’s considered the country’s largest developed geothermal field, producing enough energy to warm a number of hot springs that are quieter (and cheaper!) than their Arenal counterparts. The highest mountain in Guanacaste, at 2,028 m, there’s ample opportunity for walkers, who might like to make the trip to the year-round Llanos de Cortez Waterfall which is located right off Highway 1 if travelling by road.
- Tenorio Volcano National Park
Not all that far away from Miravalles is Tenorio Volcano, which can be reached after a short journey by road from the town of Fortuna, which also acts as the gateway to Arenal Volcano. However, the footfall Tenorio Volcano receives is only a fraction of that of Arenal. This is despite the fact there is a wonderful hiking trail (the Lago Las Dantas trail) that leads through the jungle to the volcano’s summit at more than 1,900 m. Home to the milky blue River Celeste, thermal springs, geysers, and waterfalls, enter Tenorio Volcano National Park and you also have the chance of spotting a tapir, or even a puma upclose.
- Gandoca Manzanillo Wildlife Refuge
Only in Costa Rica could Caribbean beaches be considered overlooked, which is, of course, great for those seeking out the country’s hidden gems. Head south of the village of Manzanillo, where the road from San Jose gives out, and you’ll discover this little-known wildlife refuge that provides an important habitat for nesting sea turtles, manatees, and dolphins. Stretching to the border with Panama, its string of beautiful beaches and secluded coves is edged by rainforest. But the refuge’s piece de resistance is a little way offshore. Pristine coral reefs teem with life to be considered one of the best places in the Caribbean to snorkel and scuba dive!
- Cordillera de Talamanca
Situated to the south of San Jose, the Cordillera de Talamanca mountains are barely known outside of Costa Rica, yet incorporate several national parks, including the UNESCO World Heritage-enshrined La Amistad International Park (which extends into Panama). Containing the country’s highest peak, the mighty 3,820-meter-high Cerro Chirripó, the mountain range is becoming of increasing interest to climbers and walkers keen to take on such challenges. If anywhere in Costa Rica is off the beaten path, it’s the Cordillera de Talamanca.
- San Pedro
It might be surprising to know that there are hidden destinations in urban areas of Costa Rica as well. Many visitors head out of San Jose as soon as they’ve touched down at the international airport, however, the capital is developing into a major destination in its own right. The San Pedro area deserves particular mention, as the city’s de facto hipster hangout. Flowing with youthfulness – the university is nearby – it’s here that visitors can get to know the authentic San Jose and it’s people, where the typical becomes the atypical whether we’re talking about fashion, food, or microbreweries – yes, microbreweries! The university grounds themselves are riddled with semi-secret paths and some impressive public artworks, while more generally the area also lays claim to one of San Jose’s finest malls.
Although Costa Rica may at first look like a list of well-trodden destinations, it’s actually very easy to get off the beaten path and enjoy some of the country’s underrated attractions!