1. Arenal Volcano – When considering a top 10 list of the most popular attractions in Costa Rica, Arenal Volcano certainly tops the list. Arenal is a conical volcano that had previously erupted daily from 1968 until 2010, when the lava suddenly stopped flowing. These days, the sleeping giant looms over the village of La Fortuna, providing an unforgettable backdrop to any day’s events. Natural thermal hot springs are present at the base of the volcano and can be found at many of the resorts that dot the landscape of this popular destination. For years, Arenal has attracted ecotourists and adventurers that flock to the area for activities such as whitewater rafting, canyoning, ziplining, or hiking through the rainforest at the base of the volcano. One of the most popular hikes is to the green colored crater lagoon of Cerro Chato, an extinct volcano located next to Arenal. A visit to this scenic area would not be complete without a stop by Lake Arenal. This man-made reservoir is surrounded by rolling emerald green hillsides, providing some of the most beautiful scenery in Costa Rica.
2. Corcovado National Park – A decade ago, a writer for National Geographic magazine described Corcovado National Park as the most biologically intense place on Earth. Whether it actually is or not, I really do not know, but I can say without hesitation that unless you’re a modern day Indiana Jones, this will likely be the wildest place you’ll ever visit! A hike through Corcovado is like a trek through Jurassic Park minus the dinosaurs. While land roaming prehistoric raptors are not a threat, there are modern day predators such as crocodiles, boa constrictors, venomous snakes and several large cat species including puma, ocelot and the elusive jaguar. While it is unlikely that you will cross paths with a large cat, an average visit to the park will yield sightings of rare animals such as spider monkeys, anteaters, peccaries, scarlet macaws, and ever tapirs if you venture down to the remote Sirena Station. Of course, all of this comes at price as Corcovado National Park is located on the southern most point of Costa Rica. To access it, you will have to drive 8 – 10 hours from San Jose, take a flight, or take a combination of land and boat transfers.
3. Manuel Antonio National Park & Beaches – It’s hard to imagine visiting Costa Rica for the first time without planning a trip to Manuel Antonio National Park. Despite its status as the country’s smallest national park, Manuel Antonio is undeniably among the most popular Costa Rica attractions. Aside from the well-documented gorgeous jungle lined beaches, this area is home to many species of exotic wildlife. Visitors to the park are met with nearly flat groomed trails that snake their way through the seaside jungle. Along the way, it is likely that you will see any one of four species of monkeys such as the bellowing howler monkey, inquisitive capuchins, fast paced squirrel monkey, or spider monkeys that can come crashing through the forest at any time. If you’re into cute and cuddly, Manuel Antonio will not disappoint as it is home many slow moving sloths. Manuel Antonio National Park is among the most accessible parks in the country and provides visitors with incredible diversity for much a small area, making it number three on our list of the top attractions and points of interest in Costa Rica.
4. Tortuguero National Park – Located in the remote northern Caribbean region of Costa Rica, Tortuguero is one of the least accessible and wildest national parks in Costa Rica. To access the wilds of Tortuguero you will either have to take a flight on a small airplane or take a combination of land and boat transfers. Visitors to this remote region will be rewarded with the possibility of spotting rare wildlife such poison dart frogs, crocodile and caiman, or even elusive manatees or jaguar. It’s the sea turtles that take the center stage though in Tortuguero. Green turtles come to the park annually between mid-July through mid-October to nest, laying up to 100 delicate ping pong sized eggs. Other sea turtle species that nest in Tortuguero include hawksbill, loggerhead and enormous leatherback turtles.
5. Rio Celeste Waterfalls – As local legend has it, when God finished painting the sky, he dipped his brush in a small river that is now known as the Rio Celeste. The scientific approach is a little different as two mineral rich rivers, fed from volcanic springs, merge to create the incredibly beautiful turquoise blue water. Regardless of the reason, there is no denying that the Rio Celeste is a stunning site and one of the top attractions in Costa Rica. To access this fantastic site, you will have enter Tenorio National Park and hike in on a fairly groomed trail through dense rainforest. After a couple kilometers, you will reach stairs (approximately 350) that lead down to the breathtaking Rio Celeste Waterfalls. Those seeking an extended hike will be rewarded further down the trail as they reach the blue lagoon, natural hot springs, and finally when they reach the location where the rivers merge and the legend begins.
6. Monteverde Cloud Forest – Perhaps the most famous cloud forest in the world, the Monteverde Cloud Forest certainly lives up to its reputation as a top birdwatching destination. Birdwatchers from all over the world flock to Monteverde in search of species such as the resplendent quetzal, bellbird, and emerald toucanettes. Some of the country’s top birdwatching guides stake out at the reserve and entrepreneurs have even made it possible to explore the canopy of the forest by suspension bridges! The Monteverde Cloud Forest is home to more than just birds though. Many mammal species inhabit the reserve including pacas, pizotes, several cat species, and even sloths and capuchin monkeys.
7. Poas Volcano – Located in the Central Highlands near Alajuela, Poas Volcano is one of Cost Rica’s most active and accessible volcanoes. Visitors can drive up the nearly 8,900 foot volcano to the national park and within a ten minute walk of the observation point. The crater of Poas Volcano is the main attraction as it is nearly a mile wide and is the largest active volcanic crater in the world. Visitors can look down into the blue colored crater lagoon and observe as steam pours out of cracks and the surface bubbles. The crater usually clouds over by around 9 am, so go early if you want a chance to catch a glimpse of the famous volcano.
8. Cerro Chirripo – If you are seeking a challenging hike, look no further! Cerro Chirripo is the highest peak in Costa Rica and the most challenging hike without trudging through the wilds of La Amistad Park. Though it is only a little over 20 miles inland from the Pacific Ocean, Cerro Chirripo maxes out at over 12,500 feet in elevation! Bring your winter jacket for this hike as overnight temperatures can dip down to freezing, even though it is located at nine degrees latitude! Visitors should be aware that entrance to the park is limited and you will need a permit that can only be purchased in advance in nearby San Isidro.
9. Marino Ballena National Park – If dolphin or whale observation ranks high on your list, you have to save time to visit Marino Ballena National Park. The “whale marine” park is located on the south Pacific coast, in front of the village of Uvita. Every year, humpback whales from both hemispheres congregate here to rear their young. There are so many whales in September that the town of Uvita holds a “Whale & Dolphin Festival” to celebrate their arrival! Not to be overlooked, dolphins and sea turtles inhabit the waters of Marino Ballena National Park all year long. Visitors to Marino Ballena should be aware that there is a national park entrance fee to enter the park.
10. Gandoca Manzanillo – Close your eyes and envision tropical rainforest with varying shades of green flora and exotic fauna. Picture palm studded white sand beaches with coral reefs within swimming distance. This is what it feels like as you walk up to the entrance of the Gandoca Manzanillo National Wildlife Refuge! Located at the end of the road of the southern Caribbean coast, this refuge is one of the least visited, yet most beautiful attractions in Costa Rica. Bring your hiking boots and binoculars for your wildlife trek through the jungle, but don’t forget your swimsuit and snorkel gear for your dip in the comfortable 75 degree waters!