Top 10 Costa Rica stops for first-timers

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Dreaming of a trip to Costa Rica, but not sure where to start? With volcanoes to hike, legendary surf, miles of beaches, and endless wildlife spotting, Costa Rica rewards repeat visits. But if you're just starting your explorations of one of Central America's most beautiful countries, these 10 stops will steer you in the right direction:

1. Monteverde and Santa Elena

The neighboring towns of Monteverde and Santa Elena, which edge iconic cloud forests, are the birthplace of the country’s ecotourism movement. Here you can go trekking at high altitudes, search for rare resplendent quetzals and straddle your feet across the continental divide.

2. Volcán Arenal

By day you’ll hear it rumbling and quaking, and if the smoke clouds above clear, you can gaze precariously at its near-perfect conical shape. But it’s during the night that Arenal reveals its true power with almost constant eruptions of red-hot lava and tumbling avalanches of flaming rocks.

Related article: Top 10 natural beauties of Costa Rica

3. Parque Nacional Manuel Antonio

One of the country’s most famous national parks, Manuel Antonio, is the Costa Rica you imagined in your dreams. Here you can watch all manner of monkeys bounding through the forest canopy as you take leisurely hikes along palm-fringed shores lapped by tropical waves.

4. Reggae in Puerto Viejo

Puerto Viejo de Talamanca is where you can feast on coconut-scented rice and spice-rubbed jerk chicken, then burn off the calories while dancing the night away to reggae beats. This is the so-called ‘other Costa Rica,’ where English trumps Spanish, Rastafarians praise I and I, and Afro-Caribbean culture thrives.

5. Parque Nacional Tortuguero

One of Costa Rica’s unrivaled eco-destinations, Tortuguero is an elaborate network of narrow canals that wind their way through pristine jungle and coastal wetlands. From the safety and comfort of your own canoe, you can paddle along these shrouded waterways in search of hidden wildlife.

6. Mal País & Santa Teresa

At the tip of the Península de Nicoya is this destination duo, which offers some of the country’s best surf. Mal País and Santa Teresa were once far-flung locales that took serious determination to reach, though better road access and improved tourist infrastructure have brought about an increasingly sophisticated scene.

7. Central Valley thrills

The tiny town of Turrialba in the Central Valley might not look like much on the map, but the surrounding area is home to some of the most intense white-water rafting in the whole of Central America. If you’re searching for a serious adrenaline rush, a day of fierce paddling should definitely be on your agenda. If you prefer caffeine to adrenaline, visit Café Britt Finca in Barva if you want to drink some high quality Costa Rican coffee right from the source.

8. Playa Sámara

Among the country’s most picture-perfect beaches, Sámara is an angelic strip of powder-white sand that lies between gently rolling turquoise seas and a string of trendy restaurants and cafes. An ideal destination for vacationing families in search of a quiet retreat, Sámara is peaceful yet sophisticated.

9. Montezuma

A terminally relaxed, hippie beach town at the tip of the Península de Nicoya, Montezuma is the sort of place you work hard to get to, then quickly dismiss the idea of ever leaving. Days here revolve around a blissful cycle of sea, sun, sand and sleep. If this is your first stop, you might just scratch the other nine off the list and leave those for your next trip.

10. Cerro Chirripó

From the lofty heights of Costa Rica’s highest peak, Cerro Chirripó, you can bask in panoramic views of both the Pacific Ocean and the Caribbean Sea. Of course, if you want to enjoy this visual feast, you’re going to have to endure the arduous – but highly rewarding – slog to the top.