Picture Costa Rica, and undoubtedly some of the first things that come to mind are the country’s myriad rainforests and volcanoes. What’s more, many are incredibly accessible. With towering, multi-million year old volcanoes surrounded by dense rainforest just beyond the boundaries of many Costa Rican cities and towns, there’s plenty to discover—even in a day trip. Here are our top picks for the rainforests and volcanoes you should include on your Costa Rican getaway’s itinerary.
Visit Can’t-Miss Arenal Volcano, and Its Surrounding Rainforest
At 5,479 feet high, Arenal Volcano is a towering presence in northwestern Costa Rica. About 75 miles from San José, Arenal is one of many amazing volcanoes in Costa Rica. Located about as close to the Caribbean Sea as the Pacific Ocean, the differential pressures from those bodies of water cause prevailing breezes. Hence, the name Arenal, an indigenous word meaning “window of the wind.”
The hike-able volcano resides within Arenal Volcano National Park, within 29,960 acres of Costa Rican rainforest that also contains tons of fun activities. In the volcano’s surrounding area, you can take part in whitewater rafting, waterfall rappelling, hiking, and canopy tours. And just about anywhere within the park, you may see a varied selection of animals. Look for sloths, white-faced capuchin monkeys, coati, deer, parrot snakes, and boa constrictors. This is a birder’s paradise, too: Of Costa Rica’s 850 species of birds, 75% of them can be found at Arenal.
Just four miles from the base of the volcano is a friendly town called La Fortuna, worthy of a visit for its restaurants, shops, and hot springs. The volcano itself has been inactive since 2010, meaning its eruptions have paused. Arenal Volcano Tours range from $195-$240.
Take a Hike Through Corcovado National Park’s Lowland Tropical Forest
This national park on the Osa Peninsula is considered Costa Rica’s crown jewel among its parks and biological reserves. Great for camping and hiking, simply entering Corcovado National Park is an adventure in its own right. There is no real road access, so you’ll either have to hike in, arrive by boat, take a small plane, or arrange for a private off-road taxi. The main gateway is Puerto Jiménez, the largest town on the Osa Peninsula, but you can also enter by way of Carate, Sirena, or San Pedrillo.
You can swim at one of three golden sand beaches along the same coast on the Pacific Ocean: Playa Llorona, Playa Corcovado, and Playa Sirena. Lined with coconut palms, the 23-mile stretch of beach is relatively empty. You can walk for miles without seeing a soul, or you can go for a relaxing swim virtually by yourself, then wash off with a shower under a fresh waterfall. There has never been a recorded attack, but hammerhead sharks, crocodiles, and bull sharks are common in the lagoon.
The wildlife here is also worth visiting for, as Osa Peninsula contains one of the most complete tropical insect ecosystems from Mexico to Panama. Some of the country’s shyest and most endangered species live here, from Scarlet Macaws to Harpy Eagles. Osa has 28 species of lizards, 100 species of butterflies, 10,000 insects, and 16 different hummingbirds. Admission is $15 per person per day.
Take on Endless Activities at the Rincón de la Vieja Volcano and Tropical Forest
For a different vacation experience including both volcano and rainforest, visit Rincón de la Vieja in the scenic Guanacaste mountain range. You can hike up one of its steep, strenuous trails or you can spend the day many other ways. Activities include horseback riding, tubing, waterfall swimming, and perhaps the best way to finish off a tiring day of exploring, mud baths. You can hike the Rincón de la Vieja volcano, of course, plus partake in general volcanic activity which produces heat for warm springs and bubbling mud pools. Wade in: Plastering yourself with warm volcanic mud can be a cleansing experience that also relaxes the muscles after a hike—and it makes for some fun photos, too.
Rincón de la Vieja is situated in the northwest. Its rainy season runs between May and November, but it typically gets a dry spell in late July or August. These two weeks are referred to as Veranillo de San Juan, or Saint Joseph’s Little Summer. The origin of the name Rincón de la Vieja—which translates to “the old woman’s corner”—is up for debate. It is thought to have to do with either an old witch on top of the mountain sending smoke columns into the air out of anger, or a kind old woman producing smoke from cooking meals for travelers. Either way, the volcano still produces bubbles and steam today.
Feed the (Many!) Birds in Palo Verde National Park’s Rainforest
Palo Verde is the best rainforest to see birds in all of Costa Rica. The majority of the park, like many Costa Rican rainforests, is made up of pastureland and is without much vegetation, leaving plenty of room to spot animals. Birds escape chilly northern climates and flock to the park during Costa Rica’s dry season, roughly from mid-November through April, during North America’s winter and Costa Rica’s summer. Floodwaters spread during wet season to create marshes for them to land on. Many of these birds flock to Isla de Pajaros, a.k.a Bird Island, a small mangrove island where many birds come for a safe nesting and breeding space within the rainforest. One of the best ways to see them is on your way in. If you hire a boat on the Nicoya side at Puerto Humo, you can ask your tour guide to ride past Bird Island for a close look. During dry season, the region’s soil is sucked dry, marshes shrink, and birds fly north again. As well as birding, there are many other animals to watch for here. A good way to spot many protected mammal species in the park is to sit quietly near a water source. Try and recognize variegated squirrels, white-throated capuchin monkeys, white-tailed deer, and more.