Beginning in the 1990s, this small Central American country essentially pioneered the ecotourism boom that has spread across the globe. Besides its vaunted Pacific and Caribbean beaches, packed into just 19,730 square miles - a good bit smaller than West Virginia and a bit over twice the size of Wales - Costa Rica boasts 29 national parks, 19 wildlife refuges, eight biological reserves, and an additional slew of protected areas. And here are a dozen of its most prized eco opportunities - some intimate, single attractions, and others more wide-ranging:
Alturas Wildlife Sanctuary
Down on the lower Pacific coast near the town of Dominical (just over three hours southwest of capital San José), this non-profit is a highly successful refuge for more than 200 species of injured and orphaned wildlife including birds, monkeys, coatimundis, sloths. ocelots, tapirs, and more - a number of which are then released back into the wild when appropriate. On the entertaining and informative tour, the guides will explain how the operation works and even introduce you to some of the critters.
In the Central Valley some 2½ hours from San José, this is a great package of eco and adventure, centered on the town of La Fortuna and the nearby Arenal Volcano and lake. There's plenty of hiking and adventure activities, including whitewater rafting, mountain biking, ATV/dirt biking, horseback riding, and “canyoning” (which involves hiking, climbing, jumping, abseiling, and swimming). Top local attractions include the Catarata de la Fortuna (a 230-foot waterfall); the ten Venado Caves; a butterfly conservatory; hanging bridges (above) which let you stroll through the rain forest canopy; several ziplines; and Arenal Bungee (off one of Central America’s highest bungee bridges, over the Colorado River). What's more, Lago Arenal, Costa Rica’s largest lake has excellent fishing, kayaking, and paddle boarding, but most especially windsurfing, kite surfing, and wakeboarding, and you can get get up close and personal with volcano tours (it's closely monitored, and hasn't erupted in many years). And don't forget a dip in the warm thermal waters, from placid pools to brisk waterfalls.
Black Stallion Eco Park & Estates
Horseback riding is at the core of this sprawling ranch outside the Pacific-coast resort town of Tamarindo, but you can also go ATV riding and ziplining on a nine-platform canopy tour. And at the end of it all you can indulge in a refreshing dip in the pool and dine on tasty barbecue.
Celeste River/Tenorio Volcano National Park
Some two hours northwest of Arenal/La Fortuna, this eco-wonderland of rainforest and cloud forest covers 4,982 square miles), and one of its stars is the Celeste River, famous for its gorgeous blue color, a result of minerals including calcium carbonate and sulfur. Other highlights include the also blue Rio Celeste Waterfall, plunging 98 ft.; hot springs; hanging bridges; and spotting of wildlife including howler monkeys, agoutis, peccaries, tapirs, numerous birds, and even pumas. All of it's accessed by hiking, and the best way to get the most out of it is with a knowledgeable guide. Finally, if you're so inclined, you can overnight in the nearby town of Bijagua.
Quite near Arenal Volcano, this dormant volcano is isn't small, at it's 3,740 feet high, but it's dubbed "Flat Hill" in comparison to Arenal's 5,358. And it doesn't make for a an easy-peasy hike - the trail is fairly steep in parts and can get pretty muddy. But there it's incredibly atmospheric, through old-growth forest with ancient trees wrapped in fog, vines, and moss. Plus at the top you can take a dip in a fetching emerald-green lake some 1,800 feet around. One trail takes 2-3 hours and the other 4-5.
A great day trip from Guanacaste coastal resort towns like Playa Conchal, Playa Flamingo, Playa Hermosa, and Tamarindo, the Rincón de la Vieja National Park centered around the volcano of the same name is home to all sorts of eco/adventure options, including this action-packed suites run out of the Hotel Hacienda Guachipelín, including horseback riding, whitewater river tubing, zip lining, waterfall canyoning,and volcanic mud baths.
Manuel Antonio National Park
On the central Pacific coast four hours from San José and just up the hill from the town of Quepos (which by the way is especially known for its sport fishing), this half-century-old national park is Costa Rica's smallest yet its most popular, a fetching mix of rain forest, beaches, and coral reefs. In addition to getting a guided tour to spot some of the many animal species here (109 of mammals, for example, and 184 of birds), you can also go swimming on the parks five beaches as well as snorkeling, scuba diving, kayaking, horseback riding, surfing, parasailing, ziplining, and catamaran cruises. There also are a number of restaurants at all price points here as well as nearby hotels and guesthouses for overnighting
Up in the mountains some three hours south of of Arenal/La Fortuna and two from San José, this region is legendary for its "cloud forests" (above), a rare type of moist, high-altitude rain forest characterized by fog and low-lying cloud cover where plants actually grow on top of trees. There are also plenty of adventure activities here, including ziplining, hanging bridges, bungy jumping, and horseback riding. There's some culture and nightlife, too - based in and around the town of Santa Elena and the village of Monteverde, founded by U.S. Quakers in the 1950s - such as a dairy; attractions featuring frogs, snakes, hummingbirds, bats, butterflies, and orchids; a microbrewery visit; and coffee, chocolate, and sugarcane tours.
At the southern tip of the Pacific coast's Nicoya Peninsula, a six-hour drive from San José (you can also hop a domestic flight to nearby Tambor airport), this barefoot beach village still has a bit of a hippie/backpacker vibe, along with fantastic white-sand beaches; the Cabo Blanco Nature Reserve (the country's oldest); an iconic trio of scenic waterfalls (there's even a zipline which runs over them); and an exotic island. You'll also find a variety of inespensive and midrange lodging; dining from simple to to more upscale; and even a few spas and yoga/"wellness" retreats.
Back over on the Caribbean, in the village of Manzanillo near Puerto Viejo, this is the world's largest treehouse, two stories suspended with strong nylon straps from a huge sapodilla tree 82 feet off the ground, which allows scenic views of the Gandoca Manzanillo Wildlife Park. Friendly guides will help you spot types of birds, frogs, monkeys, and more. You can also book overnight stays (occupancy up to six).
Jutting from the bottom of the Pacific coast, this large rainforested peninsula is one of the world's most biodiverse regions and feels "lost world" remote even by Costa Rica standards (though there are also several towns and villages with lodging and amenities for visitors, such as Puerto Jiménez). The main allures down here include Piedras Blancas National Park, Golfito National Wildlife Refuge, and especially Corcovado National Park. Some of the wildlife you'll find here includes all four species of Costa Rican monkeys (white-faced capuchin, howler, spider and squirrel), birds such as the toucan and the endangered scarlet macaw, white-nosed coatis, peccaries, collared anteaters, raccoons, wild cats like ocelots, and dozens of species of frogs, butterflies, snakes and lizards. Plus In the gulf of Golfo Dulce, you can see several kinds of dolphins, whales, sharks, sea turtles, and of course myriad tropical fish. There are plenty of jungle lodges and outfitters to make it all happen.
Over on the upper Caribbean coast, this national park (above) and adjacent village can be reached only by boat or air, and for eco enthusiasts "Costa Rica's Amazon" lives up to the moniker, complete with a series of jungle lodges lining the canals leading in from the sea and offering various excursions to spot a variety of wildlife including monkeys, sloths, crocodiles, and caimans (there are even jaguars in here). Tortuguero's beaches, meanwhile, are known as the nesting and spawning grounds for four species of giant marine turtle, and supervised observation at the right times of year are an amazing experience.