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When planning a trip to Costa Rica, there are so many activities to choose from that you may feel like a mosquito at a nudist colony — you’re happy to be here, but you hardly know where to start.
There are almost too many options to choose from, and many travelers have a short amount of time to do it all. You want to experience the culture of Costa Rica as much as possible, yet you have to pick and choose.
Experience the Food
You gotta eat, so you’ll want to sample the full range of culinary options available here.
A traditional Costa Rican breakfast, for example, always includes “gallo pinto” — mixed rice and beans, usually served with eggs, sausage or bacon, fruit, coffee and juice. (“Gallo pinto,” FYI, means “speckled rooster” — a reference to the colors of the mixed rice and beans.)
The traditional Costa Rican lunch is called a “casado,” which means “married,” because it’s the kind of full and varied lunch a married man would eat. It consists of rice and beans, your choice of protein (beef, chicken, pork or fish), a salad, fried sweet plantains, and a “picadillo,” which is a mix of chopped vegetables like potatoes or chayote.
Casados tend to be the most popular dishes served at “sodas,” which are small, inexpensive Costa Rica diners.
You can also sample a wide array of traditional foods at Costa Rican streets festivals.
However, some of the best food in Costa Rica can be found at restaurants that specialize in the cuisines of other countries — Chinese, Italian, Mexican, Peruvian, Argentinian, Spanish, American and many more. Wherever you end up in Costa Rica, sample the food broadly and you won’t be disappointed.
Learn to Surf
Costa Rica has hundreds of beaches, and many are known for their excellent surf breaks. Even if you don’t know a longboard from a boogie board, there are always tour operators in surf towns who offer lessons for rank beginners.
Of course, not all beaches are created equal. Some tranquil little bays are too gentle for surfing (but make great swimming beaches, even for small children). Other surf breaks are wave monsters capable of breaking both your board and your bones.
But for beginners, there’s a Goldilocks zone between these two that is perfect for learning to surf — for example, Nosara, Tamarindo and Jacó. Take a lesson, paddle out, turn around, catch a wave and stand up!
Enjoy the Beach
When deciding what to do in Costa Rica, most people will naturally think of the beach. There are many ways to enjoy the beaches of Costa Rica — not least of all by throwing out a towel and lying down on one, perhaps with a cold drink and/or a book.
You’ll also want to venture into the water and get wet, of course, but beware of two things. If the beach has riptides or huge waves, be very cautious about going too deep, and keep a close eye on children. Also, never leave valuables unattended on the beach, or they may have vanished when you return.
Some beaches offer decent snorkeling, though the best scuba diving and snorkeling spots are usually reached by boat.
Recreational ziplining was actually invented in Costa Rica, and you’ll find a multiplicity of options almost anywhere in the country. (Ziplining operations, FYI, are called “canopy tours” here, because they are almost always built in the canopy of the rainforest.)
The Arenal, Monteverde and Guanacaste regions offer some of the country’s best options, although there are ziplines just about everywhere. Some offer thrilling, face-down “Superman cables,” some have heart-stopping “Tarzan swings,” some have controlled vertical rappelling, and all offer adrenaline-pumping thrills.
Face your fear of heights, step up and fly! Ziplining is one of the most popular things to do in Costa Rica.
See a Volcano
Costa Rica was created by volcanic and tectonic activity, and there are multiple volcanoes in the country, both active and dormant. Many volcanoes anchor a national park, includes Arenal, Poás, Irazú and Rincón de la Vieja.
If possible, you should be all means visit at least one volcano while you’re here. This typically involves hiking — sometimes arduous, sometimes easy. In some places, especially Arenal and Rincón de la Vieja, all that magma underground creates hot springs that are open to the public for a relaxing soak and/or a mud bath.
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Go on a Sunset Cruise
Costa Rica is famous for sunset cruises on sailboats or catamarans with open bars, appetizing food, interesting snorkeling and visits to otherwise inaccessible beaches. Sometimes, by sheer happenstance, you see turtles, dolphins and whales breaching in the water around you.
Sunset cruises usually leave around 1 p.m. — good option for people who don’t like to get up early. But if you love to drink on a boat (which it turns out many people do), please restrain yourself so you’re sober enough to snorkel in crystal-clear waters in the middle of the afternoon.
We’ll leave the rest to you, but we promise that if you ever go sailing on the ocean off Costa Rica, you will never have a bad time, and you will remember it for the rest of your life.
Costa Rica is one of the world’s best places to catch a sailfish, and if you go to the right place with an experienced operator, it’s also easy to hook a marlin. Both of these species, by law, are catch-and-release only.
Other common catches include tuna, mahi-mahi, snapper, jack, roosterfish and wahoo. Operators distinguish between deep-sea and in-shore fishing, and catches vary depending on the depth of the ocean.
Fishing is also good on rivers and lakes — the giant Laguna Arenal, for example, is famous for “guapote,” or rainbow bass. And the rivers of the chilly Los Santos region are known for their trout fishing.
Go on a Wildlife Tour
Costa Rica has only 0.03% of the world’s landmass, yet it’s home to 5% of the planet’s biodiversity. That means that of every 20 animal species on earth, one of them is native to Costa Rica. It’s one of the most biodiverse places in the world, rivaling the heart of Africa or the jungles of the Amazon.
A wildlife tour typically involves a guided hike through a national park or some other protected environment, of which there are many. It’s estimated that some 25% of Costa Rica’s territory is protected from development, allowing a plethora of species to thrive in an undisturbed environment.
Some wildlife tours focus on birding, though good guides will often spot mammals, reptiles, amphibians, arachnids and unusual insects. Many visitors venture out to explore the trails on their own, and you can certainly do that. But if you hire an experienced guide, you’ll see things that you would miss on your own. Guides often have telescopes to zoom in and to help you take amazing close-up photos, even with a common cellphone.
Try Whitewater Rafting
Thanks to Costa Rica’s abundant rainfall, and the steep gradients between the mountains and the sea, there are lots of fast, fun, navigable rivers.
Whitewater rafting is one of the most popular things to do in Costa Rica, along with variants including tubing, canoeing and kayaking. The best rafting spots include the Pacuare River in the eastern part of the country, the Naranjo river in the west and the Sarapiquí River in the north.
But you can find rafting within a day trip of almost anywhere, and it’s one of the most thrilling ways to have an unforgettable adventure and see parts of the country that you’d never see from a tour bus.
Find a reputable rafting operator, put on your helmet and life vest, and get ready to paddle, paddle, paddle!
Rest & Relax
Always leave some time in your plans for some R&R — lying on the beach, lounging by the pool or reading a book in a hammock. Embrace the “pura vida” mindset and find time to unwind.
For some visitors, the main point of the trip lies in the rest and relaxation. Some of these travelers may prefer a luxurious vacation rental or all-inclusive resort.
By all means, try to do something challenging and extraordinary, but factor in some time to lie back and just watch the world go by.
Have a great trip!