When the recent World Economic Forum’s 2017 Travel & Tourism Competitiveness Report ranked 136 countries according to the natural resources they possess—including their number of World Heritage natural sites, protected areas and species—tiny Costa Rica swooped in at number 3 (Brazil and Mexico took spots one and two). But it’s no real surprise: this lush, peaceful paradise, whose name translates to “rich coast,” is awash in verdant rainforests, cloud forests, cerulean waters, volcanoes, and wildlife galore. It famously has less than 0.03 percent of the entire world’s landmass but a whopping six percent of its biodiversity, and a full quarter of the country is federally protected. And it’s also home to four wildly different UNESCO World Heritage Sites, all of which are well-worth getting off the beaten path to explore. Here’s where to go and what to see.
The Pre-Columbian Stone Spheres of the Diquís Valley
Four sites containing Costa Rica’s mysterious, almost perfectly round stone spheres—which range in size from a cannon ball to one that weighs over 16 tons—are the most recent of the country’s additions to the UNESCO World Heritage Sites, named a Cultural Heritage site in 2014. You’re likely already familiar with these globes, whether you realize it or not: They inspired the opening sequence of Raiders of the Lost Ark, where a rolling mockup of one of the round relics nearly crushes Indiana Jones. The 300-some globes are presumed man-man, for reasons still unknown, and all that have been unearthed in four remote sites are in the south’s Diquís Valley area. Pretty much every ball found has been removed from it’s original location (some even ending up as lawn ornaments across Costa Rica) but a small collection of six now resides in the courtyard of Costa Rica’s National Museum in San Jose. But if you want to see the spherical stones within one of the UNESCO protected sites, your best bet is at Archaeological Site Finca 6 in in Palmar Sur, just north of the town of Sierpe. Within the Finca 6 museum’s 10-acre property, some of the stores can even be seen in their original positions.
Area de Conservación Guanacaste
Northwest Costa Rica’s impressive Area de Conservacion Guanacaste became a World Heritage Site in 1999, and includes the Santa Rosa, Guanacaste, Rincon de la Vieja National Park and the Junquillal Bay Wildlife Refuge. Within the 1,470 square miles of protected land, volcano exploration is by far the most popular activity—the main attraction being the smooth cinder cone volcano of Rincon de la Vieja (comprised of nine contiguous craters). Trails that zig-zag across the park not only lead to the volcano’s summit, but to relaxing hot springs, waterfalls with perfect swimming holes, and bubbling pools of mud—where, yes, you can gloriously mud bathe, too.
Cocos Island National Park
Said to have inspired the settings of Treasure Island and Jurassic Park, and called Costa Rica’s Galapagos for its diverse wildlife and marine life populations, this teeny, five-mile island located 370 miles off of Puntarenas on Costa Rica’s Pacific Coast is one of the country’s hotspots for scuba diving and snorkeling. But keep in mind that if you dive here your aquatic partners may be sharks, and plenty of ’em—the waters around Cocos Island count so many hammerheads, whitetip reef sharks, and others that the area surrounding the island is known as one of the largest predator biomasses in the world. And just last year, current President Luis Guillermo Solís committed to an expansion of Cocos Island National Park that quadruples the area where fishing is restricted, further protecting the island’s surrounding ocean life.
There’s nowhere for tourists to stay on Cocos Island—which is in part why it remains so pristine—but adventurous boat trips out will definitely satisfy an itch to see one truly isolated and spectacularly beautiful tropical island. It was declared a National Heritage site in 1997.
La Amistad International Park
The largest and most remote national park of Costa Rica, La Amistad was declared a Natural Heritage site in 1983. It’s shared with neighboring Panama to the south, and to date still remains partially-unexplored—but what is there includes cloud forests, tropical lowland rainforests, oak forest, alpine grasslands and glacial lakes. This park is also a wildlife lover’s dream: jaguars, giant anteaters, tapirs, puma, coatis, monkeys, peccaries, margay and ocelot bed down within its borders, as well as 500-odd species of birds like the illusive resplendent quetzal. Compared to other parks and reserves around the world of similar size, the diversity is pretty much unequalled. Hiking and bird-watching are the main activities in this park, and plenty of guides lead treks that wind past stunning waterfalls and up Cerro Pittier mountain.