With a name that translates to ‘The Rich Coast’, it should come as no surprise that Costa Rica has oodles for people who love the great outdoors. Yep: This land boasts everything from mouth-watering organic food to surfing, adventure sports, untouched wilderness and ecotourism. It’s an adventure waiting to happen.
That’s why so many travelers to this small Central American nation find themselves drawn back again and again. But with so much on offer it can be difficult to choose where to base yourself. That’s where this guide comes in. It’s got a selection of the seven best cities to stay in Costa Rica and a few ideas of the things on offer in each one.
Ready? Let’s go!
San José – the capital of Costa Rica
San José – or Chepe as it’s affectionally known to the locals – sits right in the heart of Costa Rica and its Central Valley. It’s the official capital of the country, and the home of the majority of Ticas and Ticos (people from Costa Rica). The town sits elevated at over 1100m above sea level, which makes it a welcome break from the heat of the coast.
Although it’s unlikely that a stay in Costa Rica’s capital will be the top priority on any traveler, it offers something a little different to the tourist hotspots. Moreover, it’s well worth exploring the barrios and restaurants. It’s also a cracking base for adventures throught the wild Central Valley, where there are many tours on the menu.
Arguably the most beautiful building in the city is the Teatro Nacional (National Theatre) It’s well worth taking a look around (and grabbing a coffee in the fantastic on-site coffee shop), even if you don’t stop for one of the award-winning performances. Fans of quirky architecture should be sure to delve into the Barrio Amon, where ancient colonial homes have been converted into coffee shops and temporary art galleries. Then, head off to Barrio Escalante, which is packed with interesting dive bars, coffee shops, and eateries.
We’d say San José is the best place in Costa Rica for museums and galleries, too. One of the best is the Museo de Oro Precolombino y Numismática (Museum of Pre-Colombian Gold). You’ll find it tucked deep below the Plaza de la Cultura, hosting thousands of years of pre-Colombian gold artwork made by the indigenous people of the area. Similarly, the new Museo De Jade showcases precious Jade stone, helping to document the rich culture and art that existed in Costa Rica before the arrival of the Spanish.
And there are some quirkier pitstops to boot. Insect lovers are sure to like the Museo de Insectos (Insect Museum). The exhibits are amazing, but it’s the culinary experience afterwards that’s the one to write home about. In the on-site kitchen, you’ll be offered cooked meal worms, scarabs, and crickets to try, which after enough chili, salt and oregano are actually not that bad!
You can have an amazing holiday just doing tours from the Costa Rican capital. There’s a huge selection available, including five different whitewater rafting outings, canopy tours, jungle treks, and ziplining through the cloud forest. You can also plan a coffee plantation tour from the city, returning on the very same day. And that’s not even mentioning the expeditions to two volcanoes that are easily accessible: Irazú and Poas.
Cartago – the ancient capital of Costa Rica
Originally settled in 1563 but flattened repeatedly by a series of volcanoes and earthquakes, Cartago still has a little of it’s colonial character. It’s great for travelers who want to experience the religious side of Costa Rica. It’s also a fantastic base for exploring the stunning Orostoi Valley.
Pilgrims from all over Costa Rica descend on Cartago every August to visit the Basílica de Nuestra Señora de los Ángeles (Our Lady of the Angels Basilica). They come to say their prayers to La Negrira (the Black Virgin), often walking all the way from San Jose and doing the last few miles on their knees. You might also spot them filling up bottles with holy water to take home to their family. The beautiful building that’s at the heart of this pilgrimage has hand-painted interiors and fine stained-glass windows. It dominates Cartago and is a must see for any visitor!
The Ruinas de la Parroquia de Santiago Apóstol (Saint James the Apostle Parish Ruins) was built in 1575 but flattened by earthquakes in 1841 and again in 1910. There’s not much left to see besides the collapsed exterior wall. However, it’s a lovely place to walk around and people watch.
The nearby Volcano Irazu National Park is the largest active volcano in Costa Rica. It’s also one of the few volcanoes you can hike around. There is a public bus that goes to the park every morning from the city. It’s also possible to get a direct tour from San Jose for $50-70.
Orosi Valley, 12km to the east, is famous for its mountain views, beautiful and wild Tapanti National Park and – most of all – its abundant coffee. There’s a 32-kilometer loop to drive or cycle there. Alternatively, you can hop in a public bus to cover most of the byway. If you’d like to spend more than one day in th Orosi Valley, there’s a good clutch of hostels that offer chilled vibes surrounded by nature.
Finally, you’ve got Paraiso Village. The big draws there include the Mirador Orosi, which on the road south out of town. We’d say it’s up thre with the most spectacular views in all of Costa Rica. The village also hosts the Lankester Botanical Gardens. A beautiful green space on the road to Cartago, it contains the largest collection of epiphytes and orchids in Central America!
Heredia – coffee plantations
Also set in Costa Rica’s Central Valley, Heredia is known as ‘The City Of Flowers’. The reason? Wild blooms have been grown here for generations due to the temperate climate and occasional heavy downpours (the same weather that creates the cloud forest in the hills surrounding the valley).
The impressive architecture of the city center reflects the wealth of the town. That’s largely downt to the cultivation of coffee, which is still the main industry in the region.
The town itself is friendly but unexceptional. We’d say it’s best used as a base to explore the coffee plantations and visit the historic town of Barva.
Barva itself is only 2.5km north of Heredia. this historic town and national monument was settled in 1561 and is full of beautiful colonial buildings. It has a spectacular church and museum and makes a lovely place to wander around on a lazy Sunday afternoon, especially in the comparative cool after the heat of the coasts.
Coffee Plantations – take a tour from the town to some of the amazing coffee plantations where you will be shown how the bean is grown and prepared and finally given the opportunity to try coffee fresh from the tree.
Jacó – the Pacific coast’s tourist hotspot
Jacó is a beach town you will either love or hate. One of the first places on the Pacific coast to explode onto the tourist scene, it’s frequented by backpackers, surfers, tourists, and expats from all over the world.
The surfing in Jacó is excellent. It draws in newbies and experienced surfers alike. There’s are loads of businesses offering everything you can think of: Lessons, coaching, kid-friendly tuition, advanced surfing tours. Alternatively, just grab a hire board and you’re good to go.
The beach in Jacó is beautiful. It’s great for swimming and sunbathing. Just be wary that the black volcanic sand heats up in the powerful sun and will burn you if you try to walk across it in the middle of the day! You’ll also need to be careful of surfers who are just starting out. They often don’t have great control of their boards, so be aware of who’s around you when you swim.
Hiking Mt Miros is another option for intrepid travelers in Jacó. It’s a strenuous hike through primary and secondary forest that pays off with amazing views over Jacó and Playa Hermosa. The trail is not well marked so do your research before leaving and ask your accommodation to mark the trailhead on your map.
Jacó is full of murals by local and international artists. To see them, you can join the locally guided art tour to be shown the best and most impressive pieces around the town.
Next up is Playa Hermosa. Among the best surfing beaches in the world, this one is not for newbies. It has powerful riptides and huge waves that kill people every year, so consider carefully before paddling out. However, because of the danger the beach is a lot less crowded than Jaco itself. What’s more, the village that has sprung up around the beach has a much more laid back vibe.
Sport fishing is big business here, too. You’re sure to find something that appeals in the huge number of trips on offer. There’s deep sea, offshore, on shore, river and everything else you can think of. Shop around and you’ll be sure to find what you want for a good price.
Manuel Antonio National Park is around an hour to the south. Hugging the Pacific coast, it sums up the wild, wave-washed region with white-sand beaches, cloud forest, snorkeling and scuba diving aplenty. Most visitors either take a tour from Jaco, but with so much on offer many tourists stay overnight in one of the hotels in Quepos. That sits just outside the park and is cheaper than the more upscale accommodation on the road to Manuel Antonio.
Liberia – gateway to the beaches of Guanacaste
Safer and more laid back than San Jose, Liberia is mainly used as a transport hub in order to explore Rincon de la Vieja National Park. In fact, it has a new international airport for that exact reason!
A pleasant town, if a little run down, it can be a nice place to start and end your trip if you want to avoid the hustle and bustle of San Jose. Make sure to visit the two quaint museums, especially the Museo de Sabanero, which is all about Guanacaste’s cowboy culture.
The nearby Ponderosa Adventure Park is an ‘African Safari’ park complete with giraffes, zebras, and elephants. The park has ziplining, kayaking, horseback riding and ATVs, and is guaranteed to keep the whole family interested for a day.
Rincon de la Vieja (Old Lady’s Nook) National Park is the other major draw. Considering how close this park is to Liberia it’s actually fairly quiet and undisturbed. Most famous for its hiking and hot springs, there’s an amazing four-hour loop you can do before soaking in the wonderful Volcanic Mud Springs and Spa. Oh, and don’t forget to visit the Water Slide at Buena Vista Del Rincon. That’s the longest mountain waterslide in the world – a whopping 400m!
Finally, the Peninsula de Nicoya is a remote area with beautiful beaches and a scattering of quiet beach towns that’s around Liberia. it boasts cheap hotels and plenty of places to surf. It’s a generally quieter area that rewards exploration and is perfect if you’re looking for somewhere laid back and wild.
Puerto Limón – the Caribbean coast’s main city
Home to an international airport and a major stop-off for cruise ships traveling the Panama Canal, Limon (as the locals know it), is an important transport hub. However, it’s cut off from the capital and the rest of the country, and seems a little rundown and unloved compared to other towns in Costa Rica.
The Veragua Rain Forest Research and Adventure Park is one of the main draws. This well set out and maintained park has excellent tours through the rain forest, along with elevated walkways and animal sanctuaries. It’s a must-see for any animal lover.
The whitewater rafting in Limon is top-notch to boot. It has an excellent reputation and you may well see sloths on your short, 90-minute trip along the roaring Reventazón River!
Then comes the remote shoreline of Tortuguero. Only accessible by plane and boat, this beautiful coastal strip has some of the highest levels of rain in the country. It’s famous for both the canals that were built in the 1970s to connect the wandering lagoons and rivers, and also for the turtles which lay their eggs here between April and May.
There’s a dizzying array of tours available all at different prices heading there. Just make sure you get an official guide and see their badge before heading out. Although people come to see the turtles, there’s a huge range of other animals in the park, from manatees and alligators to monkeys and sloths, not to mention over 400 bird species. There is a small village in Tortuguero complete with hotels and eco lodges if you want to stay in the park overnight.
San Isidro de El General – the Pacific south
Although not much of a tourist destination in itself, San Isidro de El General (sometimes known as just Pérez Zeledón) is seen as the gateway to the whole Pacific south. This area is quite different to the rest of Costa Rica. Gone are the chilled out beach towns and easily accessible national parks. Instead, you have a remote region where the indigenous people still make their presence felt and your best mode of transport may well a hardy 4WD!
Most people come in order to hike Costa Rica’s highest peak, Cerro Chirripó, in Chirripo National Park. That clocks a head-spinning 12,538 ft (3820m). Or, heading down the coast, the Corcovado National Park is probably Costa Rica’s top wilderness experience – and that’s really saying something!
Chirripo National Park is set deep in the Talamanca Mountain Range with a dry season from December to April and a wet one from May to November. Most people come here to walk the 16.5-kilometer uphill path from San Gerardo de Rivas to the peak of Cerro Chirripo. Bear in mind you will have to go on the government website and book a permit to hike the route in advance (you can do here). Although most people stay at the park lodge overnight, it is possible to do the whole 39.20kilometer hike (with 2000m of elevation, mind you!) in a day.
We’d say that the very best views come in the morning, with many people aiming to arrive at the peak before sunrise. In fact, the mountains have a tendency to cloud over by mid-afternoon, so if you’re feeling up to it you should try to leave at 1am or 2am in order to get to the top at daybreak. If you only have the time or inclination to do a single day hike there are plenty of other options of hikes in the park, all of which are beautiful. Just remember to bring warm clothes as most of the park is over 10,000ft and the temperature can get as low as 15°F!
The Parque Nacional Corcovado takes up a big proportion of the Peninsula de Osa. It’s probably one of the last great areas of untouched tropical wilderness in Central America. The amount of animal diversity is simply breathtaking, with every kind of tropical bird, reptile and monkey you can imagine. They range from the jaw-droppingly huge harpy eagle (that hunts monkeys in trees!) to the clumsy tapir and the elusive jaguar.
There’s a selection of single and multi-day hikes but every one of them is as hot, humid, and insect-filled as they are amazing! All visitors to the park must be accompanied by a guide. There’s a couple of eco-lodges offering simple accommodation and food but don’t expect too much luxury from those. Getting to the park can be tricky. Some people come by air, while others opt for the slow overland route along a single track by the coast.
Where is the safest place to stay in Costa Rica?
All of Costa Rica is pretty safe. The country has the lowest crime level of any country in Central America and even the world. Built-up urban areas like San Jose tend to be more dangerous, while remoter villages and tourist resorts are generally safer overall.
What are the best places to stay in Costa Rica?
Costa Rica has loads of amazing places to stay and where you aim for should depend on what you’re after. The Pacific coast is a surf mecca, with world-class waves from Tamarindo to Jaco. There are also wild reserves like the Manuel Antonio National Park, and even buzzing Latin cityscapes like San Jose.