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Costa Rica is a gorgeous country with hundreds of incredible places to visit. From beaches and waterfalls to rainforests and volcanoes, there is beauty everywhere you look. However, most first-time visitors have a tendency to flock to the same well-known spots, such as La Arenal and San Jose. While these locations are definitely worth visiting, you do miss some of the magic of “discovering” a spot that few people have ever seen.
Why not charter your own course through this fantastic country and visit some of its most stunning secret places? Whether you’re planning your first trip to Costa Rica or your tenth, these hidden gems should definitely be on your bucket list!
1. Rio Celeste
Located in Tenorio Volcano National Preserve, Rio Celeste is one of the most incredible sights in Costa Rica. This river has shockingly bright turquoise waters, a phenomenon caused by the joining of two other local rivers. Additionally, if you’re willing to take a moderate hike, you can see the Rio Celeste Waterfall, a 295-foot torrent that cascades into a gorgeous blue basin surrounded by rocks and jungle-like vegetation. Swimming isn’t allowed in the park, but you can also take a dip outside the park borders and float around in the unearthly blue waters!
2. National Wildlife Refuge Gandoca Manzanillo
While dirt roads and the remote location make this wildlife refuge a bit difficult to access, the reward is well worth the effort. Gandoca Manzanillo sits on Costa Rica’s peaceful Caribbean coast, protecting some of the country’s most unique natural habitats. This is the only place in Costa Rica to find mangrove oyster beds on the reefs or jolillo palm swamps! The habitat conservation alone makes Gandoca Manzanilla an incredibly unique place to visit. However, it’s also home to some amazing creatures, many of which nest within the refuge. Keep your eyes open for manatees, leatherback and green turtles, crocodiles, dolphins, toucans, and more!
3. Nauyaca Waterfall Nature Park
This stunning nature park is often overlooked because it’s privately owned and requires an entrance ticket. However, tucked inside its grounds is one of the most beautiful series of waterfalls in all of Costa Rica! The Nauyaca Waterfalls have both free-falling and stepped cascades that crash into a pool that’s over 10,000 square feet. Behind and above these waterfalls, several more pour down from the cliffs, feeding this final rush into the pool. It is an absolutely breathtaking sight! Guests can swim in the basin, enjoy hiking trails, and see many local animals throughout the nature park.
4. Rincon de la Vieja
If your travels take you to Guanacaste, be sure to spend some time in Rincon de la Vieja National Park. In addition to 2 volcanoes, this national park also boasts over 30 rivers, multiple waterfalls, and lush rainforest trails occupied by many local birds and monkeys. Several of the waterfall basins are open for swimming, so don’t forget to pack your suit! For an unforgettable experience, hike the active Ricon de la Vieja volcano, then enjoy a relaxing soak in one of the volcano-heated hot springs.
5. Playa Conchal
Looking for a quiet beach escape? Try Playa Conchal in Guanacaste! The mesmerizing atmosphere makes it one of the best beaches in all of Central America, and its semi-isolated location draws even sloths and monkeys to the rainforest’s edge. The white sand here is unique because it’s made from billions of tiny shells rather than rock and sediment, and it’s incredibly soft, too! Take your time enjoying the sugary sand, then dip into the calm, blue waters for an afternoon of snorkeling or paddleboarding. If you fancy a walk into town, you won’t find any busy streets around. However, the lively fishing village of Brasilito is just ½ mile north of the beach and offers fresh seafood and souvenirs.
6. Tirimbina Rainforest Reserve
If you want to skip the crowds in La Arenal but still want a rainforest tour, Tirimbina is a fantastic alternative. Located a few hours north of San Jose, this quiet reserve has extensive trails and bridge systems and offers both daytime and nighttime tours. They also provide cocoa and birdwatching tours, so you can explore multiple interests in one location. Keep your eyes peeled for incredible creatures on every tour, including kinkajous, olingos, frogs, and snakes! Guests also can stay in comfortable rooms on-site, and the room cost covers food and entrance to the reserve.
7. Barra Honda Caverns National Park
Mix up the beaches and rainforests with a day in a completely different atmosphere. Barra Honda is home to a vast cave network featuring numerous types of rock formations beyond your “basic” stalactites and stalagmites. Accessing the caves is an adventure, and you will need climbing gear to descend into them. However, your park guide will ensure you get in and out safely. After exploring the caves, wander the trails through one of the rarest habitats on earth: the tropical dry forest. You’ll have high chances of seeing capuchin and howler monkeys, peccaries, kinkajou, and many more exotic creatures.
8. Aviarios Sloth Sanctuary
Baby sloths and a guided canoe safari are just two of the incredible things waiting for you at Aviarios Sloth Sanctuary. This boutique hotel turned sloth sanctuary has been rescuing and rehabilitating injured sloths since 1992. A visit here includes a short educational film about protecting sloths, a live presentation at the sloth nursery, and a guided canoe safari through the mangroves on site. During the safari, you’ll have a great chance to see lizards, various birds, and monkeys, too!
9. Parque Francisco Alvarado
Located in the small town of Zarcero, a wonderlandish world exists right next to the temple of St. Raphael. Since 1960, gardener and artist Evangelisto Blanco has shaped the ground’s topiaries and plants into incredible works of art. In addition to the original, abstract series of archways leading up to the church, the park grounds contain dinosaurs, animals, tunnels, fairies, and so much more! The park gets new plants and statues yearly, making this hidden gem one that you’ll want to revisit on every trip to Costa Rica!