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You Need This Handy Costa Rica Vacation Planner

Posted by Emily Henkel on 8/28/19 3:41 PM

ILP Adventure

Know if the best beaches are really that close to the thundering waterfalls you want to hike to.

When you’re planning out what adventures to have in Costa Rica, you’re going to want to visit the things that are close together, instead of wasting days busing across the country. You're going to find incredible vacations all over this country so ... my advice for planning a trip to this country? Plan your vacation based on location.

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Luckily for you, we’ve mapped out the absolute favorite things to do in Costa Rica and grouped them all together so you know what places are close to each other (easily done in a few days) or ones that you’ll need a day or two of travel time to reach, since they’re on opposites sides of the country. So handy (you’re welcome). 

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Guanacaste Region

Come for dense cloud forests and beaches

Monteverde’s Cloud Forests

A thick, lush, and expansive rainforest full of treetop bridges, zip lining adventures, treks on the jungle floors is what’s waiting for you in Monteverde, the northwestern most tip of the country. It’s one of Costa Rica’s most popular places for jungle experiences especially for those looking for an adrenaline rush (if that’s you, you have to try out the Tarzan Swing). This area in particular is home to three jungles, but we suggest spending your time in the Monteverde Cloud Forest. Get our go to guide on all things Monteverde here. 

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Tamarindo’s Beaches

Tucked away on the western coast is the beachy town of Tamarindo, boasting Caribbean blue waters and boardwalks lined with swaying palm trees. It’s a popular beach, known for turtle watching, paddle board tours, and amazing surfing. It has a laid back vibe, exactly what you’re looking for in a beach vacation. This Tamarindo post has more info for your trip.

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North Puntarenas 

National parks and beaches galore

Manuel Antonio’s High Adventures  

Not to pick favorites but this might be the go-to spot for jungle adventures and national parks. The green jungle hugs the coastline, making it the ideal vacation for volunteers who want some jungle time but also want to hang out in the waves. In Manuel Antonio, you get both! The national park is a huge, sprawling pocket of tropical jungles filled with tour vendors offering zip lining and rafting tours to the tourists who visit here. There’s a lot to do and often is the most popular vacation our ILP volunteers take  — we’ve pulled all the tips and tricks to visiting Manuel Antonio here. 

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Quepos’ Beaches

You’ll bus into the city of Quepos to get to Manuel Antonio, so it only makes sense to explore this part of Costa Rica while you’re in town. The beaches are the main draw (apart from Manuel Antonio, of course), plus the famous Nayuca waterfall is also easily done while in Quepos (you can choose to hike in yourself or ride on horseback). Planning a trip with a day or two in Manuel Antonio, then spending another two or three days in Quepos is what we’d recommend. See what there is to do in Quepos here. 

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South Puntarenas

Beaches, jungly waterfalls, and the best whale watching around

The Ballena Coast 

Hugging the western side of Costa Rica is a string of beaches and cool coastal towns that make up the Ballena Coast. You’ll find protected national parks that sport some of the best whale watching in the world (hi, Uvita!), plus famous surf spots, and day trips to the nearby Cano Island (which has rad snorkeling). Come here for beach hopping and grabbing lunch at the local soda joints before heading back to the beach. You’ll want this Ballena Coast guide to help you plan your trip. 

ILP Adventure - Costa Rica

Jaco’s Surfing 

Known as one of the best surfing beaches around, Jaco is full of tour vendors waiting to set you up with a day trip to hidden waterfalls, nearby Tortuga island and other excursions. It’s made for a casual weekend or a couple of days where you just want to hang out in the sun and the sand. Our Jaco guide has all the tips for this spot in one place. 

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Ojochal’s Waterfalls

Want a break from the beaches? The coastline here is backed with a thick jungle hiding some waterfalls only the locals know about, found just a few minutes away from Uvita, Costa Rica. There are a few to choose from: some are more established (with an entrance fee, and a local restaurant serving yummmmmy smoothies nearby) while others are definitely totally off the beaten path. See everything about the Ojochal Waterfalls here.

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Alajuela Region 

Home to Costa Rica’s most famous waterfall, tropical hikes + volcanoes

Arenal + La Fortuna

Arenal Volcano and the stunning light blue waters of Rio Celeste are probably Costa Rica’s most famous things to see (and definitely make the list of the most Instagrammable spots in Costa Rica). The jungles here are not only the home to thundering waterfalls but also a hot spring resort that we can’t get enough of. There are also multiple hiking trails if you want to go check out the Arenal Volcano, often with tours adding extras like a trip to hot springs or other excursions. These two features of the Alajuela Region make it a can’t miss spot in Costa Rica. Our La Fortuna guide has what you’re looking for when planning your trip. 

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San Jose Province

Big city art scene + animal adventures 

San Jose’s City Sprawl 

Filled with museums, artsy streets splattered with creative graffiti, San Jose is worth a weekend of your time, especially since it is a day-trip mecca. We love taking time to hike up to the Poas Volcano, or leaving from San Jose to go raft the Rio Pacuare, which is one of the best white water rafting destinations in the entire world. You can also hop over to Tortuga Island if you want to leave the busy city for a day at the beach. All things San Jose, Costa Rica are here. 

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Sloth Sitings

You can head to the jungles of Costa Rica to see a few sloths (if you get lucky!) or you can come support a conservation center and get up, close, and personal with these cuties. The Tuscan Rescue Ranch focuses on housing displaced animals, everything from jungle cats, parrots, and of course, sloths. They have different visitor packages that let you learn lots about this famous animal, including a breakfast option where you can snack right next to a few of the residents sloths. If you still need a little convincing, this package is called “slothies and coffees” which is more than adorable, plus the money goes towards conservation efforts. Learn more about seeing sloths in Costa Rica.

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Come for the Caribbean coastlines + national parks 

Puerto Viejo’s Beaches

Supposedly the prettiest beaches in Costa Rica are all along the Caribbean side of the country, aka all throughout the Limon region. Along the coastline you’ll find a handful of stellar beaches, but we recommend concentrating your time in Puerto Viejo where you can easily trek out to the best of the best: the black sands of Playa Negra or relaxing on Playa Uva.

This mini guide to Puerto Viejo has information like nearby day trips, how to get here, and other things to do. 

Hiking In Cahuita National Park

Tack on a visit to this nearby national park if you’ll already be in Puerto Viejo. It’s a 30 minute drive away, and is home to your favorite things: pristine beaches, snorkeling trips, hiking Puerto Vargas, and other adventures. We have a guide to visiting Cahuita National Park here. 

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Need more time in Costa Rica? 

Come volunteer here with ILP! Volunteers live in Costa Rica as a part of a humanitarian semester, giving underprivileged children an English education. You have weekends off, free time during the week, plus vacation days to explore all these spots (and more).

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Topics: Central America


*Because of the worldwide pandemic, travel options are limited and frequently changing. You'll need to do additional research as resources + activities shared in this post may or may not be available at the time of your trip.

ILP volunteers — work closely with your Program Manager who can help you understand current country entrance requirements which will determine what countries you can visit during your semester. 



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