I studied abroad in Costa Rica during the 2015 summer and had the opportunity to revisit in August, 2016.  I lived with my host family in San Isidro de Heredia, which is a little more than half hour northeast of downtown San Jose. During my two months abroad, I had the opportunity to visit some truly incredible places. In this post, I will try to do justice to each of the amazing sites I saw, which include the many stunning beaches, jungle, waterfalls, and sunsets that Costa has to offer.

Table of Contents

1. San Isidro de Heredia (Home)
2. Herradura, Jacó and Tarcoles
3. Monteverde
4. Montezuma
5. Arenal Volcano | La Fortuna
6. Las Cavernas del Venado
7. Tenorio | Río Celeste
8. Manuel Antonio
9. Poás Volcano
10. La Paz Waterfall Garden
11. Cartago | Orosi Valley
12. Guayabo Monument
13. Puerto Viejo de Sarapiquí
14. Guacimo

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1. Home: San Isidro de Heredia

San Isidro is where I lived with my host family – (parents: Victor and Xinia, and four kids: Andrea, Isaac, David, and Kimberly). They are truly some of the happiest, most generous and full-of-life people that I know. Also in San Isidro was the school where I took Spanish classes, and a public school where I had the chance to volunteer as an English teacher/tutor for elementary students.

2. Herradura, Jacó y Tárcoles
Most tourists who visit Costa Rica will stay in Jacó or Herradura, which are beach towns on the Pacific Ocean, about two hours straight west of San Jose depending on the traffic. The Tarcoles River bridge is a mandatory pitstop, as visitors can see wild crocodiles in their natural habitat.  Venders walk up and down the bridge selling crocodile teeth necklaces and homemade crafts. For a few American dollars, you can pay to have a chicken fed to the hungry reptiles eating below the bridge. Savages.

The images below shows the beaches of Herradura and Jacó (pronounced ha-CO). The photo labeled Villa Caletas was taken from the sunset-viewing amphitheater at Villa Caletas Hotel and Restaurant. At nearly 1,200 feet above the sea, it provides a breathtaking setting for watching a tier-one sunset.

3. Monteverde

Another popular tourist location is Monteverde – home to the best zip-lining and cloud forest experience in Costa Rica. The zip-line and hanging bridge images below were taken within Selvatura Adventure Park.  Selvatura features the longest single zip-line cable in Costa Rica. At one kilometer in length and 200+ feet above the jungle floor, riders can reach speeds in excess of 70 mph. We also had the chance to see and climb arboles huecos (hollow trees).

4. Montezuma

Montezuma is a small, hippie town on the Nicoya Peninsula. To get there, one must take a 45 minute ferry ride from the port of Puntarenas to Paquera, and then an hour bus ride down the coast. The highlight of this trip was cliff jumping near Montezuma Falls. The most prominent of the three waterfalls is frequented by locals and tourists alike, while visitors must make a treacherous climb up steep, jungle cliffs to reach the more secluded two falls.

5. Arenal Volcano | La Fortuna 

Costa Rica is home to nearly 70 volcanoes and at least 6 are still active, with Arenal Volcano being the most active and most frequently visited. La Fortuna, the town nearest to Arenal, sits just over three hours northwest of San José.

View of Arenal from La Fortuna on a Clear Day

I have only visited Arenal during the rainy season and for this reason I have never actually seen the summit of the volcano due to cloudy weather.  However, there are still lots of cool wildlife to see and plenty of things to do, including a visit to the Caves of Venado and a day trip to Río Celeste. (See posts below). Many tourists visit resorts for hot springs, but thanks to the advice of a friend made during my travels, I visited Rio Chollín: the natural (read: FREE) hot springs that locals prefer to visit, which sit just outside the town of La Fortuna.

Only decent view Arenal I’ve had!

6. Las Cavernas del Venado

In August 2016, Victor (host dad), David (host brother) and I ventured to The Venado Caves, an attraction just 45 minutes from La Fortuna. This was not at all what I was expecting, and it was spectacular. Unlike cave tours in the US (Crystal Cave, Mammoth Cave, etc.), this was more along the lines of spelunking: no stairs, no hand railings, and no lights, except for the headlamp. This is certainly among the most well-kept secrets of Costa Rica and made for a very memorable day. Our strenuous, three-hour tour took us hundreds of feet below the ground. At times, we crawled on hands and knees and waded through waist-deep, muddy water. We squeezed through holes as narrow as 50 cm in diameter. We saw more, heard and smelled more bats than I could count and ran into other creatures as well. While we did see large spiders and arthropods, we fortunately did not come across any tarantulas! Highly, highly recommend a trip to Cavernas del Venado.

7. Tenorio | Río Celeste

One morning in La Fortuna, I woke up early, walked to the local bus station and inquired about the possibility of going an hour and a half north (off the beaten path) to a place I had heard about called Tenorio Volcano National Park. The park is home to the brilliant blue waters of Río Celeste and an absolutely breathtaking waterfall. Anyways, I was informed that no buses would be traveling that far north today. We were out of luck.

However, a local dude around my age overheard me asking and approached me with a proposition. For $100, he and his girlfriend would drive the six of us to the park. Generally these private tour buses run $80-$100 per person, which is what I assumed he was asking for, so I was shocked to hear him explain that $100 TOTAL would do it. Furthermore, it would cover our entrances to the park, lunch and a coffee. Pura Vida.

So off we went. The pictures cannot do this place justice. Truly one of the most beautiful places I have ever seen. The sky blue color is a result of the high concentration of chemical compounds in the water due to the presence of volcanic materials in the area. We saw El Teñidor, where a freshwater river is transformed blue. Furthermore, our hike through the jungle enabled us to see insects, poison dart frogs, snakes, and birds. We also stopped at Arból de la Paz – The Peace Tree, the largest tree I’ve ever seen. Due to it’s location this park receives very few tourists, but in my opinion it is well worth a day trip to go see.

Río Celeste

8. Manuel Antonio NP

Manuel Antonio is a famous national park on the Pacific Coast about four hours from San José. Being that the rainforest is “in the way”, travelers from the interior of the country must drive two hours straight west and two hours down the coast, but it is well worth a visit. Upon entry in the national park, visitors hike through about a mile of forest before arriving at one of three beautiful beaches. You are very likely to see sloths during the hike, and you are guaranteed to see plenty of monkeys near the beach.

9. Volcán Poás NP

Poás is a dormant volcano that sits just an hour north of San José on the edge of the rainforest. While the volcano is not your typical tall, cone-shaped volcano, it does rest at an elevation of nearly 9,000 feet. Having said that, the climate is very temperate- cold , even by Costa Rican standards. When I visited the park with my host family, it was too cloudy to see down into the crater, but when my parents went they had a clear day and the view was spectacular. (See photo below.) Either way, there are tons of hiking trails and Poás makes a great day trip from San José.

Cloudy Day
Clear Day!

10. La Paz Waterfall Garden

While obviously very touristy, La Paz Waterfall Gardens is very cool. Costa Rica is home to 5% of the world’s wildlife species, and at La Paz you get the chance to see many of them up close, and even hold toucans! After touring the plant, animal, amphibian, bird and butterfly exhibits, visitors walk through the could forest along trails that lead to four very impressive waterfalls. This makes for a great day trip from San José for a family that will not be able to make it to Monteverde or any other cloud forest.

11. Cartago | La Valle Orosi 

An hour south of San José rests the city of Cartago, which is home to the nation’s most famous (and arguably the most beautiful) Catholic Church: La Basilica de Nuestra Señora de Los Angeles – The Basilica of Our Lady of the Angels. Each year on August 2, Costa Ricans migrate from across the country for the annual pilgrimage to honor la virgen de los angeles. If you’re curious about the origin of the pilgrimage, check out this article by the Tico Times: Tico Times: La Romería

El Sanatorio Durán 

In addition to this church, the country’s central valley (Valle Orosi) is home to beautiful countryside and the most haunted place in all of Costa Rica: El Sanatorio Durán, which is an abandoned home/hospital/asylum for Tuberculosis patients. Many visitors claim to have seen the ghosts of the deceased, including the late daughter of the hospitals’ Dr. Carlos Durán.

12. Guayabo de Turrialba (Guayabo National Monument)

Guayabo National Monument is an archaeological site two hours east of San José. It is thought to have been the home of an indigenous civilization between the years 1000 BC and 1400 AD, after which it was mysteriously abandoned. Then, it was known for it’s strategic location – high altitude, looking out to several valleys – and advanced irrigation system. Now, however, it is known for miles and miles of gorgeous hiking trails.

13. Puerto Viejo de Sarapiquí

One afternoon, we traveled within about 25 miles of the Nicaraguan border in northeastern  Costa Rica for a fishing trip. We parked “the family van” and fished off a very structurally stable bridge as monkeys howled in the trees above our heads. On our way home, we picked up a couple of hitch-hikers and drove them to the nearest community. It’s amazing to me that there are people who live in such isolated areas. Had we not helped him out, I have to imagine it would have taken an hour to walk to town. Anyways, while the day was unsuccessful in terms of fish collected, it was certainly a memorable day in the countryside.

14. Guacimo

My host family owns a shack and a plot of land in the community of Guacimo, which lays between San José and the Caribbean. To get there, one passes through Braullio Carrillo National Park, which is an immense, thick, steamy jungle. The views are spectacular.

Guacimo feels like another world to me. Every one is smiling, laughing and happy.
There is very little there to see or do, yet everyone is content and as relaxed as can be.img_8959 During our brief trip there we saw sloths, and my host dad Victor showed me their “garden” which featured plantains, bananas, yucca, coconut, mango, papaya, and many other plants. Guacimo is without a doubt the most “chill” place I have ever been. All I could do was smile: laying in my hammock, coconut in hand, sloths overheard and tropical birds chirping away. Even more so than the beach and the jungle, this is the Costa Rica I wish I could escape to everyday.

Traveling to Costa Rica? Please don’t hesitate to contact me with questions!