From grumpy volcanoes to labyrinthine limestone caves to stunning black-sand beaches, Costa Rica offers a never-ending array of natural wonders that keep visitors coming back. Here are 10 natural wonders that make this Central American gem one of the most popular destinations in the world.
Editor's note: Please check the latest travel restrictions before planning any trip and always follow government advice.
Parque Nacional Volcán Arenal
From 1968 until 2010, Volcán Arenal was an ever-active and awe-striking natural wonder, producing menacing ash columns, massive explosions and streams of glowing molten rock almost daily. While the fiery night views are gone for now, this mighty mountain is still a worthy destination. Part of the Area de Conservación Arenal, the park is rugged and varied, with about 15km (9.3 mi) of well-marked trails that follow old lava flows. Hikers routinely spot sloths, coatis, howler monkeys, white-faced capuchins and even anteaters.
Parque Nacional Tortuguero
Canoeing the canals of Parque Nacional Tortuguero is a boat-borne safari: here, thick jungle meets the water and you can get up close with shy caimans, river turtles, crowned night herons, monkeys and sloths. In the right season, under cover of darkness, watch the awesome, millennia-old ritual of turtles building nests and laying their eggs on the black-sand beaches. Sandwiched between extravagantly green wetlands and the wild Caribbean Sea, this is among the premier places in Costa Rica to watch wildlife .
Monteverde Cloud Forest
Here is a virginal forest dripping with mist, dangling with mossy vines, sprouting with ferns and bromeliads, gushing with creeks, and nurturing rivulets of evolution. Reserva Biológica Bosque Nuboso Monteverde came into being in 1972, when the Quaker community (which had already set aside a third of its property for preservation), spurred on by the threat of encroaching squatters, joined forces with environmental and wildlife organizations to purchase and protect an extra 328 hectares (811 acres) of land.
Today the reserve totals 41.25 sq km (26,400 acres). Because of the fragile environment, the reserve allows a maximum of 250 people at any given time. So as not to miss out, get there before the gates open, or better (and wetter), come during the off-seasons (usually May through June, and September through November). Taking a night tour or staying overnight in one of the lodges will maximize your chances of spotting wildlife.
The view of windswept rocks and icy lakes from the rugged peak of Cerro Chirripó, the country’s highest summit, may not resemble the Costa Rica of the postcards, but the two-day hike above the clouds is one of the most satisfying excursions in the country. A pre-dawn expedition rewards hardy hikers with the real prize: a chance to catch the fiery sunrise and see both the Caribbean Sea and the Pacific Ocean in a full and glorious panorama from 3820m (12532ft) up.
The only way up Chirripó is on foot. Although the trekking routes are challenging, watching the sunrise from such lofty heights is worth it.
Parque Nacional Chirripó is a welcome respite from lowland heat. Above 3400m (11155ft), the landscape is páramo, comprising scrubby trees and grasslands. Rocky outposts punctuate the otherwise barren hills, and feed a series of glacial lakes that earned the park its iconic name: Chirripó means “Eternal Waters”.
At the northwestern end of Cahuita, Playa Negra is a long, black-sand beach flying the bandera azul ecológica, a flag that indicates that the beach is kept to the highest ecological standard. This is undoubtedly Cahuita’s top spot for swimming and is never crowded. When the swells are big, this place also has a good beach break for beginners.
Two kilometers (1.2 miles) northeast of Venado (Spanish for “deer”) along a good dirt road, these caves are an adventurous excursion into an eight-chamber limestone labyrinth that extends for almost 3km (1.86 miles). A bilingual guide leads small groups (limit seven) on two-hour tours through the darkness, squeezing through narrow passes and pointing out the most interesting rock formations (an altar, a papaya) while dodging bugs and bats (12 species in all). Rubber boots, headlamps and helmets – plus a shower afterwards – are provided.
Parque Nacional Manuel Antonio
Although droves of visitors pack Parque Nacional Manuel Antonio – the country’s most popular (and smallest) national park – it remains a gem. Capuchin monkeys scurry across its idyllic beaches, brown pelicans dive-bomb its clear waters and sloths watch over its accessible trails. It’s a perfect place to introduce youngsters to the wonders of the rainforest, and as you splash around in the waves you’re likely to feel like a kid yourself. There’s not much privacy, but it’s so lovely that you won’t mind sharing.
Parque Nacional Barra Honda Caverns
This 23 sq km (247 acres) national park protects a system of 42 caverns. The only cave with regular public access is the 41m-deep (135ft) La Terciopelo, which features incredible speleothems (calcite figures that rise and fall in the cave’s interior). It's quite the underground art museum, and its stalagmites, stalactites and a host of beautiful formations have evocative names such as fried eggs, organ, soda straws, flowers and shark’s teeth. Call the ranger station one day in advance to arrange the four-hour guided tour.
Parque Nacional Volcán Poás
Just 37km (23 miles) north of Alajuela by a winding and scenic road is Parque Nacional Volcán Poás, the home of an impressive 2708m-high (8885ft) active volcano. Violent eruptions haven’t taken place for more than 60 years when rumblings began in 2014; there were further significant eruptions in April and June 2017, and the park did not open again until August 2018.
It's now once again possible to peer into the 260m-deep (853ft) crater and the turquoise lake at its center. Visitors can watch the steaming, bubbling cauldron belch sulfurous gases into the air. However, hiking trails are now off-limits and visits are restricted to 20 minutes at the crater. Advance bookings are essential.
If you're traveling between Monteverde and Arenal, there's no good excuse for skipping this stop. Viento Fresco is a series of five cascades, including the spectacular Arco Iris (Rainbow Falls), which drops 75m (246ft) into a refreshing shallow pool that’s perfect for swimming. There are no crowds or commercialism to mar the natural beauty of this place. You’ll probably have the falls to yourself, especially if you go early in the day. The 1.3km (0.80 miles) of trails are maintained, but the stone steps can be slippery, especially after a rainfall, and only the reasonably fit can hike to the bottom and back.