4 Awesome Places You Must Visit in Costa Rica

Costa Rica has something for everyone, and has more to see than you'll likely have time for. I had the opportunity to visit a lot more than I would recommend anyone else visit in 2 short weeks, and I'll share with you a few of my favorites so you can plan your next trip a little better. This is in no way meant to be a complete guide, but you can use it to start your research and have an awesome time!

1. Heredia

Heredia is a small university town just north of the capital (San Jose). You'll find tons of urban shopping, good eats, and decent hotels - very different from the nature most people expect when they visit the country.

I tried using Lonely Planet for suggestions, but they're a hit or miss. Eat at Espigas for breakfast (you will never go wrong ordering Casado, which is their typical beans and rice dish with a protein and some fruit). Try their natural smoothies. One awesome thing about Latin America as a whole is the abundance of fresh, natural fruit and real fruit smoothies wherever you go - take advantage of the natural goodness. Skip the Cowboy Steakhouse if you actually like steak - it isn't really anything to brag about. You're better off trying something new and more typical Costa Rican. Go to the Parque Central, find a place to park (pay the parking guy if he's there) and explore the town. There is a swap-meet type of area on certain days, so you can buy souvenirs to take home. If you're lucky, a band will be there performing, so you can hang out, drink your smoothie and enjoy the people and atmosphere.

After you've explored the city, set your GPS to visit the La Paz Waterfall Gardens. It's about an hour drive north of Heredia, and it's one of my favorite attractions in the entire country. It will cost you $38 per adult, and is worth every dollar. There you'll see more animals than you probably imagined ever seeing in Costa Rica. You can go into the aviary and hold & feed toucans. You can go into the mariposario and surround yourself with exotic butterflies. If that's not enough, you can visit the big cats area and watch them feed pumas, ocelots, and jaguars in the afternoon - from just a few feet away! When you've had enough of the animals, you can continue on to the waterfall section, where you'll see breathtaking views of their several giant waterfalls. Watch out as you exit the park - coatimundis (pizotes) hang out near the garbage and like to raid.

2. Puerto Viejo

A small Caribbean town on the east coast of the country, close to the border with Panama, Puerto Viejo is a good time and a half for tourists. You'll see tons of people from all over the world - some who have retired and live there, and others who are just passing through. You'll hear reggae music every few hundred meters, and will get to see a different side of Costa Rica that definitely has its own flavor.

When you get to wherever you're staying, definitely get out and explore the town on foot. There are tons of places to buy souvenirs and crafts, and great restaurants to try out right on the main road. The vibe is really friendly, so you should even be safe walking around at night and catching some of the fun evening activities, like restaurants and bars with bands playing, and karaoke nights.

During the day I'd recommend visiting the Jaguar Rescue Center, which you'll need to drive or hitch a ride to. It's another one of the best places to see animals up close in Costa Rica, and shouldn't cost you more than $20. They have a great collection of venomous snakes, both types of sloths, anteaters and a few cats. They also have some local deer that, if they like you, will lick you to death. The best part is visiting the monkey area, where you'll have the opportunity to go inside the monkey habitat and play with some of the monkeys!

Further down the road is a chocolate tour, which you'll have to catch at a certain hour to do. You'll get a tour of the chocolate farm, and see the process of how chocolate is made. I wasn't lucky enough to make the tour, but at the store down front I bought some artisan chocolate and the guy was even nice enough to let me and my wife take a cacau fruit! If you haven't experienced that, you definitely need to take the tour. If they don't let you taste the cacau, beg them, bribe them, do whatever it takes to get one!

3. Monteverde

This is a small town up in the mountains. The best thing to do here is to visit Selvatura Park, which deep in the dense rainforest. It rains a lot, and you may experience muddy roads on your way up, so drive safely and don't be in a rush. The temperature is also relatively low, with cool winds, so I'd recommend using a windbreaker (get a dark-colored one; I'll explain shortly).

At the park is one of the highest zipline attractions in the country. There are thirteen lines total, and the biggest one is 1 km long. The views are amazing, the experience is one-of-a-kind, and the people are super friendly. Don't make the mistake I made by wearing light-colored clothing, because the combination of rain and mud you'll go through as you hike up the course and get on the ziplines will have you filthy (my white hoodie is still soiled after tons of washes). You want your jacket to deflect the water and dirt, not absorb it!

After the zipline tour, you can do the hanging bridge walk and take an opportunity to walk through the forest at your own pace. If you're lucky, you'll encounter exotic birds and maybe a pizote here and there.

Also in the area are night tours, which you can do through Selvatura as well. You might be exhausted by then, but if you want to see animals like sloths, snakes, frogs, porcupines and rodents in their natural habitat, the night tour might be worth it. Otherwise, rest up and get ready for the next day's adventure.

4. Arenal

If you're a driver, the road from Monteverde to Arenal I'd say is one of the funnest roads to drive in the country. There are certain stretches near the lake that are generally safe and well-kept, so you won't have to worry about hitting potholes. Be careful passing other drivers on the road, as it will be hard to see beyond the curves ahead of you.

When you get to Arenal, get settled in your hotel and get out of there. This is a small town at considerable elevation, situated near a large volcano called Arenal. If you're lucky, it won't be covered in clouds while you're there, and you'll get a chance to see it (I wasn't able to). If not, don't worry - there are tons of other things to do. Have some tasty local food, because in general it should be inexpensive and very good here. As with much of the country, you should be prepared for rain at all times - you don't want to get caught outside with nothing to cover up. Take some time to visit local shops and buy some nice souvenirs (I could have brought home a suitcase full of stuff from Arenal).

Before it gets dark, make sure you take some time to take the main road down to Tabac\u00f3n Hot Springs (assuming you don't have a resort with its own hot springs). Take it down about 15 minutes past all the resorts, and keep your eyes on the right side of the road. You'll see a yellow gate. Park on the side of the road and follow that small side-road past that gate. In a couple of minutes you'll find a flowing river of hot water! Depending on the time of day, there may be other people there. If it's crowded, just keep moving up the river until you find your spot.