The RealWorld Guide to Costa Rica
It's hard to think of another country which packs so much into such a small area. Costa Rica is only a fifth the size of the UK, but it includes everything from 3,800m mountains to miles of Caribbean and Pacific beaches, with highlands in-between, covered in everything from lush cloud forest to coffee plantations...
With some of the world's best-preserved primary rainforest and marine reserves, it's a haven for wildlife from jaguars and tapirs to turtles and whales, and as one of the world's best adventure-sports destinations, there's a phenomenal amount to enjoy. So the questions really are just: when to go? And where to go first?
The Best Time to Visit Costa Rica?
Most people agree that the best time of year to visit Costa Rica is from December to April.
There's a lot of truth in that: although Costa Rica is in the northern hemisphere, summer here is in what should be the 'winter' months. There are complicated reasons for this, but basically it comes down to the fact that this time of year is the dry season, and this close to the equator, that's what really matters.
However... On the Caribbean coast the dry season instead runs from early September through to November, and throughout the year conditions vary a lot from area to area. Here's a quick guide to when we think are the best times to visit different parts of Costa Rica:
Click here for our detailed weather guide
The Best Places to Visit in Costa Rica
With no huge distances to contend with, your choice of where to go in Costa Rica will come down to what you want to do. Are you an adrenaline junkie? A wildlife lover? Or do you want to make sure you've got a beautiful beach to relax on at the end of the day? Here's our quick guide to the best places to visit in Costa Rica:
Arenal and the Northern Highlands
The perfect cone of the Arenal volcano is one of the iconic sights of Costa Rica, and quite apart from the beautiful scenery, the surrounding Arenal National Park is famous as the adventure playground of Costa Rica. Whether it's zip-lining through the trees, trekking through the forest to hidden waterfalls, or swimming and kayaking at Lake Arenal, there's enough to keep the most adventurous visitor happy.
And at the end of the day, there's simply nothing better than retiring to one of the many lovely lodges in the area, and then enjoying a soak in one of the many natural hot springs which occur here: the perfect way to relax and recover!
Manuel Antonio National Park
On Costa Rica's central Pacific Coast, the lush, jungle-covered slopes tumble down to the ocean behind gorgeous tropical beaches such as Playa Manuel Antonio and Playa Espadilla Sur. This change in elevations creates different environments throughout the area, making it a haven of bio-diversity.
In fact, although the Manuel Antonio National Park is one of Costa Rica's smallest, it's one of the best places to see iguanas, sloths and agoutis, several monkey species and countless types of birds can all be seen here, assuming you can drag yourself away from the beaches, of course...
Caribbean Coast: Tortuguero, Uva & Manzanillo
Costa Rica's Caribbean coast more or less divides into two parts. In the south around Puerto Viejo, you have some of the country's loveliest beaches at Uva and Manzanillo, and perfect weather from late summer through to October.
Meanwhile, along the northern Caribbean coast you can enjoy the amazing wildlife of the Tortuguero National Park. It's named for the Hawksbill and Green Sea turtles which are protected here, but you can also see monkeys, river otters, caiman, manatees, and hundreds of different bird species including kingfishers, toucans, macaws and sabrewings.
Corcovado National Park
The Corcovado National Park on Costa Rica's southern Pacific coast is arguably the most bio-diverse area on earth for its size. It covers 13 major ecosystems and is home to some of Central America's rarest species.
So if you'd like to hike through pristine old rainforest and have a chance of seeing jaguars, tapirs and peccaries, as well as 4 species of monkeys, 40 species of frogs, 16 kinds of hummingbirds, crocodiles, hammerhead sharks and... the list goes on. Suffice to say that if you're a wildlife-lover, Corcovado is the place to be.
Guanacaste & the Pacific North-West
Up in north-western Costa Rica, the weather is warm and dry basically all year, making it the perfect place for a bit of beach relaxation at the end of an adventurous trip.
Luckily, Guanacaste province just happens to have some of the country's best beaches and beach-side hotels, while anyone looking for yet more adventure can head to the inland Rincon de la Vieja National Park, which is a paradise of waterfalls, rapids, and canyon zip-lines.