Skip to content
Top things to do in Costa Rica

What Are the Top Things to Do in Costa Rica for Tourists?

As we start transitioning out of the low season in November, we look at the top things to do in Costa Rica that attract travelers and tourists to the land of pura vida.

We don’t often talk about it, but this website is part of a travel company. Our parent company is a travel agency that books trips around Central and South America, specifically – especially – Costa Rica. We’re based in Costa Rica, too, so we have a certain amount of Costa Rica bias and knowledge when it comes to tourism in that country. Over the years, we’ve sold tens of thousands of Costa Rican vacations and put together hundreds and hundreds of thousands vacation itineraries. We have an idea what people want.

To that end, as November – the prelude to the 2023/24 high season – gets underway, we thought we’d look at what people want to do when they travel to Costa Rica. What do tourists, when planning a vacation to Costa Rica, have in mind when it comes to activities? Most times they have something in mind – they don’t pull the idea of Costa Rica out of nowhere. A friend went or they read something somewhere or saw something on TV. And something stirred them to consider Costa Rica instead of someplace else.

In this article, we look at the top things to do in Costa Rica based on what our clients request. We won’t talk about individual tours or excursions, because that’s not important – it’s the activity itself that’s important, no matter where it takes place or who arranges it. We hope it will give you an idea of why people choose to visit Costa Rica, or at least consider visiting.

National Parks and Nature

This is the number one reason why people come to us about a Costa Rica vacation. There are plenty of other countries in the region offering gorgeous tropical beaches and resorts to relax in. And many of these countries are less expensive than Costa Rica. While it’s true that many of these countries also offer nature and ecotourism, Costa Rica remains the best at it. The other places are following Costa Rica’s example.

This is because Costa Rica has been a pioneer in ecotourism from the get go. It’s been promoting the concept of ecotourism since before “ecotourism” was even a word. Costa Rica was an early believer protecting its natural resources, while other countries were destroying theirs. Today, some 28% of land in Costa Rica is protected. Surprisingly, Costa Rica doesn’t have the highest percentage of protected land in the regionBelize and Panama are both higher (38% and 31% respectively). But Costa Rica has been doing it better and for longer. People associate Costa Rica with national parks, nature, and protected land.

The most popular national parks are Manuel Antonio on the Central Pacific and Arenal Volcano in the northern lowlands. Both offer rainforest hiking and wildlife spotting. Then there’s the Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve (the original home of Costa Rican ecotourism), Corcovado National Park (the most biodiverse packet of land of its size on the planet), Tortuguero National Park, and more. Costa Rica is excellent for hiking, birdwatching, turtle nesting, whale watching, and a whole host of other similar activities. And this is the main reason tourists come.

Volcanoes and Hot Springs

Costa Rica doesn’t have as many volcanoes as Guatemala and Nicaragua, but it knows how to make the best of the ones it has, especially the Arenal Volcano. This is one of the most visited parts of the country, partly for the activities available (they call Arenal the Adventure Capital of Costa Rica), but also for the volcano itself and, pointedly, for the thermally-heated hot springs.

These springs are a major attraction for tourists, and Costa Rica does them well. You’ll find many hotels with their own hot springs plus public places for anyone to check out. Those in the know can even find places to take a hot water dip for free! Either way, there’s nothing like returning from a hike or waterfall rappelling tour, and soaking yourself in steaming thermal waters while the afternoon rain patters on top of your head. That’s about as Costa Rican an experience as you can get.

Zip Lining

Outside of nature, Costa Rica is also famous as an outdoor adventure destination. Zip lining is the the number one adventure activity that people ask for when considering a trip. A zip line tour (or canopy tour) involves riding a suspended cable from a high point to a lower point. In Costa Rica, these points are platforms in the forest, either attached to trees or freestanding. The point is to ride through or over the forest canopy.

The first Costa Rican zip lines were built in Monteverde by scientists and biologists studying the cloud forests back in the 1970s. After that, Costa Rica saw the benefits of offering the activity as an adventure for tourists. Today, you’ll find forest zip line tours all over the world, but Costa Rica is, and always will be, the OG for this type of adventure. Zip lining is a great way to experience the outdoors and enjoy stunning views from above. It’s something people of all ages and fitness levels can enjoy.

Whitewater Rafting

Whitewater rafting is another activity on travelers’ bucket lists. Costa Rica offers some of the best tropical river rafting in the world. From hardcore Class IV rapids for adrenaline junkies to the Class I rides enjoyed by families on a nature float, there’s a river in Costa Rica for everyone, whether they’re rafting, tubing, or kayaking. It’s amazing how such a small country has so many rivers fit for purpose.

It’s possible to enjoy river rafting from about anywhere in Costa Rica, even on day trips from San José. The most popular whitewater rafting destination in Costa Rica is the Class III-IV Pacuare River, which flows through dense rainforest on its way to the Caribbean Sea. Other popular rivers in Costa Rica include the Reventazón, the Sarapiquí, and the Naranjo. These rivers were first rafted back in the 1970s and early 80s by adventurers of the day, again making Costa Rica a pioneer of this activity in the region.


Costa Rica has been a surf destination since the late 1950s, when surfers from the States began traveling south in search of tropical waves. You could say that, alongside ecotourism, surfing has been the main driver of Costa Rica tourism since the 1970s and 80s. Many surfers who came down to Costa Rica back in those days stuck around and helped turn poor, isolated fishing hamlets and coastal villages like Tamarindo, Jaco, and Puerto Viejo into the thriving surf and beach communities they are today. The 1994 movie Endless Summer II also helped to shape Costa Rica’s surfing profile.

Experienced surfers of all abilities will find Costa Rica perfect year round, with world class Pacific waves from May to November in the Central and South Pacific. December to April sees the action move over to the Caribbean side, with the world-famous Salsa Brava in full effect during these months. January to March is also great in the Northern Pacific when offshore winds create amazing conditions. But you don’t need experience to enjoy Costa Rica. There are plenty of smaller waves for surf lessons and practicing. Something for everyone.

Central America, as a region, offers the best surfing in the world. And Costa Rica isn’t the only country with a thriving surf scene. Guatemala, El Salvador, Nicaragua, and Panama all offer world class surfing, and all are marketing themselves as surfing destinations. That particularly goes for El Salvador, who are working wonders in this aspect. But still, when all’s said and done, like with zip lining, Costa Rica remains the OG of surfing in the region.

Sport Fishing

Another one of the top things to do in Costa Rica, something else travelers ask us about a lot, is the fishing. Again, Costa Rica doesn’t have the monopoly on world class sport fishing in Central America. Panama is as good, both in terms of marina infrastructure and the fishing itself. But with six marinas up and down the Pacific coast hosting an extensive fishing fleet, Costa Rica is a dream destination for anglers. Costa Rica also hosts many international competitions, particularly out of Los Sueños and Marina Pez Vela, both on the Central Pacific coast.

There’s something to catch all year in Costa Rica, from marlin, sailfish, and tuna offshore to roosters and snapper inshore. The northern Caribbean coast hosts some of the best tarpon fishing in the world.

National parks, hot springs, zip lining, rafting, surfing, and sport fishing

These are the top things to do in Costa Rica, at least as far as our 20+ years of putting vacations together say. It’s these activities, more than any others, that make people consider Costa Rica for their vacations. We have amazing beaches, of course. Some of the most beautiful beaches in the world. And flights to Costa Rica from North America are short haul, available from many different airports, and affordable. Both these factors also make Costa Rica a viable vacation choice. But put them together with the activities we’ve outlined and you have something irresistible when making your vacation plans.

James Dyde is the editor of He lives in Escazu, Costa Rica.

James Dyde

James Dyde

James Dyde is a British immigrant to Costa Rica and the editor of this website. He has lived in Central America since 2000 and retains a deep love for the region. He lives in Escazu, Costa Rica.