Costa Rica is by far the most-visited country in Central America. But is is still possible to get away from the crowds? In this article, travel writer Matt Kepnes – aka Nomadic Matt – talks us through some of his favorite lesser-visited and off-beat activities in Costa Rica. This article contains links to Amazon, from which, as an Amazon Associate, this website will earn a small commission if you make any purchases. Visit our affiliate disclosure page for more info.
Costa Rica is one of my favorite countries in the world. It was the country that inspired my wanderlust. I took my first trip there back in 2003 and have been hooked on travel ever since. Without that first trip, there would be no Nomadic Matt.
These days, Costa Rica is the most popular destination in Central America. Backpackers love it because there’s so much to see and do on a budget, outdoor enthusiasts love the plethora of hiking trails and national parks, and expats love it for its stability and laidback lifestyle. There are miles of gorgeous beaches, diverse wildlife (it’s one of the most biodiverse places in the world), delicious food, and friendly people.
While there are tons of things to see and do in Costa Rica, I want to highlight some of my favorite off-beat things to do. And, by off-beat, I mean things you don’t see as many people doing.
Here are some of my favorite off-beat activities in Costa Rica:
1. Tortuguero National Park
Located on Costa Rica’s Caribbean side, this park is one of the most important breeding grounds for the green turtle (it’s the largest nesting site for the turtles in the Western Hemisphere). Hence the name “Tortuguero”, which means “region of turtles” in Spanish.
While the turtles are a highlight, the park also protects manatees, sloths, monkeys, and other animals, making it the perfect stop for hikers or anyone else who wants to experience Costa Rica’s natural diversity up close.
The park is somewhat popular with travelers, but its remoteness makes it less popular than you think (and less popular than it should be). That means you can enjoy this area without the crowds you find places like in Arenal or Monteverde.
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2. Corcovado National Park
Established in 1975, Corcovado National Park is on the remote Osa Peninsula in Southern Zone. It’s the largest park in the country and one of the best places on the continent to spot jaguars. While shy and endangered, there are still around 50 jaguars that call the park home. Other animals here include pumas, ocelots, tapirs, monkeys, and the rare Harpy eagle.
You need a certified guide in Corcovado; it’s not a place to hike on your own. The ecolodges around the park, in the Drake Bay and Puerto Jimenez areas, can arrange this and your entry permit. There’s a limit of a few hundred visitors per day, ensuring the pristine landscape remains untouched. That means limited space, so book in advance.
The peninsula itself isn’t easy to reach, so you don’t as see many tourists here as elsewhere. That said, to me, it’s one of the most beautiful parts of Costa Rica.
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3. Puerto Viejo
Located on the Caribbean coast near the border with Panama, Puerto Viejo is popular with young people and backpackers because of its beautiful beaches, great surfing, and general party atmosphere. The town is lively and you’ll find something going on every night. It is touristy, but it’s still charming. It’s easy to spend a week here relaxing and enjoying the slow pace of life (along with the rambunctious nights).
It’s the most popular destination on the Caribbean coast, yet there are also many quiet beach hotels around for those looking for a quiet time. There’s also a jaguar rescue center nearby that rehabilitates local wildlife.
Planning a Costa Rica surf trip? Put the Caribbean side in your plans. Cameron from @VisitCahuita talks surfing in Cahuita and Puerto Viejo and highlights the rise of local surfers from the area.#CostaRica #surfing https://t.co/jc6YGFKxkL pic.twitter.com/ezjBd3zEhZ
— Central America Living (@VidaAmerica) March 19, 2019
4. Barú Wildlife Refuge
This 815-acre private refuge is another prime example of Costa Rica’s natural beauty. Located in Dominical, south of Manuel Antonio, the area was once a cattle ranch, but was reforested throughout the 1990s.
Here you can birdwatch, zip-line, and explore the park via guided tours to see the wildlife (there are tons of monkeys here, as well as lots of toucans and sloths). Don’t miss the orchid and butterfly gardens. And for something more unique, take a nighttime guided tour to see nocturnal animals. While the more famous Manuel Antonio National Park can get crowded, this place offers a more tranquil experience.
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5. Visit a Coffee Plantation
Costa Rican coffee is famous the world over and the best way to learn about coffee in Costa Rica is on a plantation tour. On these tours, you can learn about the entire bean-to-cup process and see it all up close — all while learning about the lives of the local farmers who grow it. Even though I personally dislike the taste of coffee (I prefer tea), the kind I had in Monteverde tasted like chocolate and was delicious. I still think about it.
Tours generally last 2-4 hours and include a tour around the coffee plantation, seeing the different stages of coffee growing, and learning about roasting.
— Central America Living (@VidaAmerica) January 18, 2023
6. Take a Chocolate-Making Workshop
Besides coffee, Costa Rica used to be also be known for its chocolate. Cacao is Costa Rica’s other famous bean (although it’s technically a seed), which was once widely exported. Today, Costa Rican chocolate is mostly made in small batches on local artisan farms. There are many places where you can take chocolate making workshops, allowing you to see the entire process, sample different kinds of chocolate, and try your hand at grinding raw cacao. La Fortuna is a popular spot for them, and tours generally last 2-3 hours.
7. Cahuita National Park
Cahuita National Park is less than an hour north of Puerto Viejo. This conservation area covers 2,600 acres of land with a marine area of 55,000 acres. Like Costa Rica’s other national parks, it’s home to an incredible amount of nature and wildlife. There are over 35 types of coral in the reefs within the park and there are around 135 different types of fish, which you can see if you go snorkeling. The beaches are a nesting ground for sea turtles too.
The park is near Cahuita, a Caribbean community of some 8,000 people. After a day of hiking, swimming, or surfing, it’s a relaxing place to stay if you don’t want to travel all the way back to Puerto Viejo.
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8. Experience a Rainforest Night Walk
A guided jungle night walk offers the chance to spot and learn about some of the nocturnal animals that call the forest home, including tarantulas, armadillos, stick bugs, and more. It’s a cool way to see a different side of the rainforest. Your guide will point out animals, insects, and plants that you might not have noticed otherwise. You can take night walks around the country, including Monteverde, Tortuguero, Manuel Antonio, Arenal, and more. They usually last around two hours and include an expert local guide.
9. Take a Cooking Class
As a foodie, one of my favorite ways to learn about a new culture is through its cuisine. While most travelers are content to eat their way around a country, I think a more interesting way to learn about the local food is by taking a cooking class. Not only will you get to do a deep dive into the local cuisine, but you’ll learn new recipes you can take back as souvenirs. Costa Rica may not be famous for its food, but there are some amazing stews and soups here (as well as some tasty rice and bean dishes!).
Cooking classes are available in most tourist areas, and generally last 3-4 hours and include making a few different dishes.
10. Do a Farmstay
For one of the more unique off-beat activities in Costa Rica and an amazing overnight experience, do a farmstay. This is when you stay at a local farm and experience daily life there while interacting with the family that owns and works the land. My favorite farmstay is in Juanilama, west of San Jose. On a farmstay, you’ll get a guided tour of the farm to see all the local and organic produce grown there. These often include medicinal herbs, pineapple, banana, and cacao, which you can help process into drinking chocolate using traditional methods. In the evenings, you get a home-cooked traditional meal. It’s a fun, educational, and eye-opening way to experience the local culture and something very few visitors do.
Get a Little Off-Piste in Costa Rica!
Costa Rica is a stunning country that attracts a lot of tourists. But most of them visit the same handful of sites, leaving the rest of the country virtually unexplored. So, if you want to beat the crowds (and save money) check out some of these off-beat activities in Costa Rica and less-visited destinations. They won’t disappoint.
Matt Kepnes runs the award-winning travel site nomadicmatt.com, which helps people travel the world on a budget. He’s the author of the NYT best-seller How to Travel the World on $50 a Day and the travel memoir Ten Years a Nomad. You can follow him on Instagram at @nomadicmatt.