Osa Peninsula, Costa Rica
Costa Rica is packed with natural wonders, culture and adventure. But with so much to experience, travelers often have trouble figuring out where to visit for their first time. Worry not — we’ve put together this list of the 18 best places to visit in Costa Rica for first time visitors to help you out.
And remember: when you book your Costa Rica trip with Fora, you get access to VIP hotel perks and upgrades at no extra cost. Plus, Fora Advisors can answer all your FAQs about going to Costa Rica for the first time — from where to find the best Costa Rica Caribbean resorts, to how to throw the ultimate Costa Rica bachelorette party — and much more.
The 18 best places to visit in Costa Rica for first time travelers
La Fortuna Waterfall, Costa Rica
If you’ve been asking yourself: where should I stay in Costa Rica for the first time, ask no longer.
The 18 best places to visit in Costa Rica for first time travelers include Costa Rica's exciting cities and towns, like San José and Limón, its glorious natural wonders, including Arenal, Tortuguero National Park and Monteverde cloud forest — and far beyond, to exciting one-of-a-kind destinations like Puerto Viejo, Nicoya and Tamarindo.
There's a wealth of beauty and fun to be had here, so we'll go into each each of these amazing locations in detail.
1. San José: The country’s bustling capital
San José is a great place to start your adventure. Costa Rica’s capital city offers a unique blend of history, culture and fun. It’s packed with museums, cool sites and markets — can’t-miss highlights include the National Theater and the Pre-Columbian Gold Museum, which houses one of the largest collections of pre-Columbian gold artifacts in the world.
Meanwhile, San José's food scene features a delicious mix of traditional cuisine and international flavors (the city is a destination for travelers and expats from around the world, after all) — and while it’s not the heart of Costa Rica’s nightlife scene, San José is still a ton of fun after dark. We’d recommend walking down Calle de la Amargura for its plethora of bars and restaurants.
2. Tortuguero National Park: a sanctuary for endangered sea turtles
Located on the country’s Caribbean coast, Tortuguero National Park is a must-visit for any first-time traveler to Costa Rica — but especially if they visit between July and October.
That’s because Tortuguero is one of the most important nesting sites for sea turtles in the world (several species of them, in fact), and visitors can witness them nest and hatch during these months.
If the majestic spectacle of watching some of the largest turtles in the world build nests and hatch their young sounds like a can’t-miss, reach out to Fora for help planning your Tortuguero National Park getaway. Fora Advisors can find you the best hotels, adventure tours and everything else — plus tons of perks and VIP upgrades — for the same price as booking directly.
Fun fact: Tortuguero is also home to a dense rainforest, a biodiversity-rich network of canals and lagoons and some of the best Costa Rica jungle resorts around.
3. Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve: sure to wow Costa Rica first-timers
As its name suggests, Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve is just that: a cloud forest. In other words, it’s a stunning jungle lost in near-constant fog. Sound magical? It is.
This unique ecosystem is home to a wide array of flora and fauna, including the intensely colorful and incredibly rare quetzal bird (you might catch a sighting if you’re lucky!)
Monteverde is widely considered one of the best places to go in Costa Rica for first-timers since it almost always wows guests. Hike the misty trails through the forest, stare up at massive waterfalls or zip-line through the canopy. You can’t go wrong here.
4. Arenal Volcano: a must-visit for anyone going to Costa Rica
Arenal is what many travelers picture when they think of Costa Rica, and for good reason. Towering over 5,300 feet and surrounded by lush rainforests and hot springs, Arenal is one of the most iconic active volcanoes in the world, and one of Costa Rica’s most recognizable landmarks.
Luckily, the volcano’s last major eruption occurred back in 1968; today, it’s a mecca for hiking, birdwatching and other outdoor activities like zip-lining. And did we mention the hot springs? All of which to say: Arenal is one of the best places to visit in Costa Rica for first-timers for numerous reasons.
While visitors can’t actually climb the volcano, it is possible to view eruptions from a safe distance. Connect with Fora to learn how. Plus, you’ll get the inside scoop on all the best places to stay near Arenal Volcano National Park, as well as the best hiking tours and beyond.
5. Tamarindo: an ultra-relaxed surf town on the Pacific coast
Located in the province of Guanacaste on Costa Rica’s Pacific coast, Tamarindo is a laid-back surf town that still sports a dynamic vibe. Travelers can catch some waves, relax on the beach and eat to their heart’s content — this is a seafood-lover’s paradise. We’d recommend snacking on all the ceviche that you can; it’s the town’s specialty.
6. Manuel Antonio National Park: impressively rich in flora and fauna
If you haven’t yet had your fill of natural wonders (and we hope not, because there are a lot more coming), stay on the Pacific coast and head to Manuel Antonio National Park.
Not only is Manuel Antonio home to some of Costa Rica’s most beautiful beaches; it’s also home to an abundance of amazing wildlife, including sloths, iguanas, monkeys and exotic birds. And while it might be one of Costa Rica’s smaller national parks, it’s nevertheless one of the most popular thanks to its mix of jungle, beaches and coral reefs (which are great for snorkelers).
7. Corcovado National Park: another biodiversity explosion
Corcovado National Park, Costa Rica
Yet another amazing natural wonder, Corcovado National Park is one of the most biologically diverse areas on the planet, with an unparalleled ecosystem that includes all of Costa Rica’s greatest hits: rainforest, cloud forest, beaches and coral reefs.
What else can you find in Corcovado? Let’s see: all four species of monkeys that live in Costa Rica, plus tapirs, exotic birds, reptiles and even jaguars(!).
Each of the country’s national parks could claim the title of most amazing place to go on your first time in Costa Rica, especially Corcovado. But because of its remote location on the Osa Peninsula and some really rugged terrain, a trip to Corcovado National Park typically requires very careful planning and know-how.
With that in mind, we can’t recommend working with Fora enough. Fora Advisors have expertise in booking trips to Corcovado and can tell you which tour companies are the good ones (and which ones…not as much).
8. Drake Bay: the best place to visit in Costa Rica for first time travelers who want a remote ecotourism experience
Located on the Osa Peninsula, Drake Bay is sometimes known as “the gateway to Corcovado.” And like the nearby park, Drake Bay is absolutely stunning.
This small town is a paradise for nature lovers, and it’s home to some of the most biodiverse ecosystems on the planet. It also offers a wide range of outdoor activities, all set against the stunning backdrop of the Pacific coast.
Drake Bay’s remote and secluded locale makes for some of the most untouched natural beauty in all of Costa Rica: dense rainforests, pristine beaches and beyond. If you’re looking for a gorgeous eco-retreat, or just one of the best areas to stay in Costa Rica for couples, you’ll find it in Drake Bay.
9. Puerto Viejo: an Afro-Caribbean treasure
Located on Costa Rica’s Caribbean coast, Puerto Viejo is a small town steeped in Afro-Caribbean culture. Expect to find amazing food, vibrant nightlife, live music, great bars and so much more
While there certainly are towns with a strong Afro-Caribbean influence to be found elsewhere, few are as beautiful, fun and full of life as Puerto Viejo is. The town is one of the best places to stay in Costa Rica, whether it’s your first time in the country or your eleventh.
10. La Fortuna: paradise in the shadow of Arenal
A small town in the shadow of Arenal Volcano, La Fortuna is, in a word, stunning. Waterfalls, natural springs and of course the ever-present volcano view combine to make La Fortuna one of the best places to visit in Costa Rica for first-time travelers. It’s simply too beautiful to miss.
Here, you’ve got tons of outdoor activities — hiking, zip-lining, even whitewater rafting. And if you’re lucky, you might also get to see some toucans and sloths (i.e. two of the most adorable animals in the world). Adventure and relaxation, perfectly aligned in a gorgeous setting. What could be better?
Curious for more? Check out this La Fortuna itinerary.
11. The Nicoya Peninsula: maybe the best place to visit in Costa Rica for first-time travelers who love the beach
Beach lover? Us too. And unless you’re heading off to one of the best areas to stay in Puerto Rico or one of the best Hawaiian islands for kids/families, you’re probably not going to find a better collection of beaches than on the Nicoya Peninsula in Costa Rica’s northwest.
The Nicoya Peninsula is home to a number of small towns and villages, each of which boasts their own unique character. There’s swimming here, of course, as well as great surfing, snorkeling and even yoga.
The Nicoya Peninsula also boasts a rich cultural heritage, with a strong influence from the area’s Indigenous Chorotega peoples. The peninsula is also known for its one-of-a-kind crafts, so if you’re interested in traditional Costa Rican pottery, textiles, or woodworking, this is the place to find it.
12. Samara: the Nicoya Peninsula’s most laid-back town
Samara Beach, Nicoya, Costa Rica
A picturesque town on the Nicoya Peninsula, Samara is a great place to chill out, catch some rays and enjoy the wonderful culture (and cuisine) of Costa Rica’s Pacific coast.
When we talk about the Nicoya Peninsula being the best place to visit in Costa Rica for first time travelers who love the beach, we’re talking about towns like Samara. Here, “Pura Vida” — Costa Rica’s national phrase, which roughly translates to “pure life” or “simple life” — isn’t just a saying; it’s a way of life.
13. Rincón de la Vieja: a natural reserve featuring a (very) active volcano
Named for the active volcano within its borders (which last erupted in 2011), Rincón de la Vieja is yet another Costa Rican national park-slash-garden-of-natural-wonders.
But Rincón de la Vieja boasts something especially unique: a one-of-a-kind geological landscape featuring geysers, hot springs, mud pools and craters, along with amazing hiking trails, waterfalls and thick jungle.
Why is Rincón de la Vieja one of the best spots to visit in Costa Rica for first-timers? Rincón has a bit of everything: amazing nature, ample opportunities for relaxation (mud baths and hot springs, anyone?), plus unparalleled wildlife (like pumas) and adventures galore.
Pro tip: looking to explore a geological wonderland closer to home? Check out the most unique places to stay in Utah or some unique places to stay in Colorado. A Fora Advisor can help you there, too.
14. Uvita: a first-timer must-visit for its amazing whale watching
A lovely beach town on Costa Rica’s Pacific coast, Uvita is world-renowned for its whale watching. Every year between July and October, and again through December and April, humpback whales come to the area to mate, give birth and nurse their young.
Best of all, you can take a boat or guided kayak tour to see these amazing animals in their natural habitat. Just remember: you should only take whale watching tours with a licensed operator who prioritizes the safety and well-being of the whales. For help finding the right one, reach out to Fora.
15. San Gerardo de Dota: coffee, mountains & more coffee
A gem hidden amidst the Talamanca Mountains, San Gerardo de Dota is known for its stunning cloud forest, its amazing wildlife... and a lot of coffee.
The region’s cool climate and rich soil provide the ideal growing conditions for Arabica beans which are prized for their flavor and aroma. Many coffee plantations in the area offer tours, and at some, you can stay the night at an on-site B&B (reach out to Fora for some great recommendations).
Plus, if you’re interested in sustainable travel, you should definitely visit — Costa Rica’s coffee farms are helping to develop the region in a sustainable way for generations to come.
16. Guanacaste: where you should stay in Costa Rica for your first time if you want sun and surf (& so much more)
Guanacaste’s white-sand beaches, crystal-clear water and perfect surfing conditions would be enough to make it one of Costa Rica’s best places for first-timers to visit. But there’s more to Guanacaste than just the sun and surf.
Along with its natural beauty and endless outdoor activities, the town’s amazing food, music and dancing — a reflection of the region's rich Chorotega influence — make for an authentic and unforgettable experience.
The region also boasts several luxury resorts and spas, offering visitors a chance to unwind and indulge in some top-tier relaxation (several of the best Costa Rica resorts for families are located here).
17. Cahuita: a must-visit for food, music & culture
A true hidden gem, Cahuita is often overlooked, but we think it’s one of the best places to stay in Costa Rica for first-time visitors. Why? The town’s unique and wonderful culture.
A small town on the Caribbean coast, Cahuita is known for its laid-back vibes, delicious cuisine (which, unsurprisingly, prominently features fresh seafood) — and perhaps best of all, amazing reggae music, courtesy of Costa Rica’s vibrant Afro-Caribbean heritage.
18. Limón: one of the best areas to stay in Costa Rica for first-timers who love Carnival (& reggae)
Limón Province, Costa Rica
Speaking of Reggae: we’re rounding out our list of Costa Rica’s best places to visit for first-timers with something a little different: the town of Limón.
Limón’s fame doesn’t come from gorgeous beaches and unspoiled natural treasures (though it definitely has those, too). Rather, this city is known for its world-famous Carnival celebrations that occur every October, in addition to its yearly reggae festival.
If you want to experience something truly unique on your first visit to Costa Rica, make sure to stop by Limón; you won’t regret it.
What are the best places to visit in Costa Rica for first time travelers? Find out with a Fora Advisor
There you have it: the 18 best places to go in Costa Rica for first-time visitors. Whether you're a nature lover, a beach bum or an adrenaline junkie, there's something for everyone in this amazing country. When you’re ready to travel, start planning your trip with Fora for expert recommendations, plus VIP perks and upgrades at no extra cost.
Your Fora Advisor can help plan as much or as little of your trip as you’d like. From organizing whale watching excursions for your family off the coast of Uvita to booking rooms at the coolest hotels in Las Vegas (with complimentary upgrades) for your Vegas bachelorette party, Fora Advisors have you covered.