13 Lesser-known places in Costa Rica that are Worth a Visit

Costa Rica is one of the top travel destinations in Central America, but unfortunately, most tourists here are visiting the same few places over and over again, cultivating an overcrowded, hyper-Westernized experience.

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Yes, Arenal Volcano, Manuel Antonio National Park, and the beach town of Tamarindo are wonderful destinations with lots of tourist facilities, hotels, and tour companies that can help you organize any type of adventure. But…

…There Is So Much More To See In Costa Rica Than These Popular Destinations!

Having spent many months in Costa Rica, we’ve been lucky enough to get off the beaten path and to explore parts of Costa Rica that are much lesser known. The following list features some of our favourite places to ditch the crowds and embrace Costa Rica’s true spirit:

1. Playa Negra/Playa Avellanas

Province: Guanacaste
Closest Airport: Liberia Airport

These two fantastic surfer beaches are located just 30 minutes south of Tamarindo – one of the most popular tourist beach towns on the Pacific Coast, but they offer a much quieter and relaxing setting to enjoy the beach and the waves. If you can get past the bumpy dirt roads and don’t mind sharing the backyard with some howler monkeys, you’ll be in for a nice surprise.

Playa Avellanas and Playa Negra may be known for great waves, but they offer a lot more than that. Located in a quiet local community away from the tourist crowds, this part of Guanacaste offers visitors a taste of real Costa Rica. A quiet beach, a few great restaurants, a yoga retreat center, and a spot where you are guaranteed to see some of the most amazing sunsets in the country.

Playa Avellanas
Playa Avellanas
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Sunset at Playa Negra, Guanacaste
Sunset at Playa Negra, Guanacaste

2. Playa Samara

Province: Guanacaste
Closest Airport: Liberia Airport

If you’re interested in the typical beach activities like surfing, swimming, snorkelling, and sunset horseback riding but are looking for a less crowded beach destination to do it, head to Playa Sámara. It’s one of the less visited beaches with soft, white sand and stunning sunset views. The small beach town doesn’t often pop up in the usual Costa Rica itineraries, but having a few tourists visit only adds to its overall laid-back vibe. 

It’s definitely a hidden gem, and often overshadowed by nearby beach towns of Nosara and Santa Teresa. Sámara is all about that pura vida. You only need to sit back and unwind, soak up the sun, and laze under the palm trees. Despite it being off-the-beaten-path, a pleasant surprise is the good selection of restaurants, boutiques, and yoga retreats in town.

For a change of scenery, an hour’s drive will take you up to the mountains and to Barra Honda National Park, which features intricate limestone caves and spectacular views of the Tempisque valley.

Playa Samara, off the beaten path costa rica
Playa Samara, Costa Rica

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3. Playa San Juanillo

Province: Guanacaste
Closest Airport: Liberia Airport

If you think that there would be no remote beaches left in Costa Rica that you can go to and feel totally isolated and unbothered – think again!

This beach is the perfect place for beach bums not looking to catch a wave. If you like sunbathing or taking a dip in the Pacific, spend a day at San Juanillo. It’s a local gem and only accessible via a 20-mile-long dirt road.

San Juanillo town from above, off the beaten path costa rica
San Juanillo town from above

READ NEXT: The Ultimate Guide to Visiting Monteverde Costa Rica

4. Playa Dominical

Province: Puntarenas
Closest Airport: San Jose Airport

All of the previously mentioned beaches are great if you’re looking for a specific beach experience, but Playa Dominical is the perfect beach to head to if you don’t really know what you want out of your day!

Feeling like relaxing in a hammock? Check. Horseback riding? Check. Chasing some waterfalls? Check. The list goes on and on. Dominical also has a bunch of great beachside restaurants with a range of different cuisines to choose from. You can arrive in the morning and stay all day – the possibilities are endless!

Playa Dominical from above, off the beaten path costa rica
Playa Dominical from above
Nuayaca Waterfall, Dominical Costa Rica
Nuayaca Waterfall, Dominical, Costa Rica

5. Puerto Jiménez

Province: Osa Peninsula
Closest Airport: Puerto Jiménez Domestic Airport or San Jose Airport

Located on the southwestern edge of Costa Rica, on the Osa Peninsula, the small town of Puerto Jimenez is one of the best destinations for nature lovers in the country.

Puerto Jimenez is a getaway to Corcovado National Park, easily one of our favourite places in Costa Rica. You visit the park with a local guide, who will help you to navigate the beautiful, protected primary rainforest, cloud forest, and spot wildlife with ease. 

And this is just one of the nature experiences you can have in this area. Near Corcovado, there’s Drake Bay and Tortuguero National Park (more on that below!). There are nature walks, kayaking opportunities, bird watching, rural farm visits and much more. This area is also home to some beautiful beaches!

Playa at sunset, Puerto Jimenez. Osa Peninsula
Playa Platanares at sunset, Puerto Jimenez
In Corcovado National Park, one of the most bio-diverse place in the world
In Corcovado National Park, one of the most bio-diverse places in the world

6. Miravalles Volcano

Province: Guanacaste
Closest Airport: Liberia Airport 

Also located in the Guanacaste region, Miravalles Volcano is another one of Costa Rica’s hidden gems. The volcano is considered dormant, but still produces an excess of thermal energy – making for some awesome hot spring and volcanic bath experience!

Whether you’re interested in a simple volcanic mud bath or a more upscale hot spring experience, there are a number of resorts where you can experience both. The best part? Admission to many of these hot springs is a fraction of what you would pay at Arenal Volcano!

7. Rio Celeste

Province: Guanacaste
Closest Airport: Liberia Airport

Rio Celeste, located within the Tenorio Volcano National Park, is most famous for its ridiculously bright blue river and waterfall, the product of the convergence of two rivers and a few different minerals refracting the sunlight.

While the waterfall itself is wonderful, the entire trail inside Tenorio National Park is worth the hike. It is an extremely muddy trail (even in the dry season), so make sure to pack waterproof hiking boots, but the miradors and low bridges are worth every ounce of mud. You can easily hop on a Rio Celeste Day Tour from La Fortuna for a full day of trails and waterfalls. Have a look at our guide to the best time to visit Costa Rica, and try to aim for slightly less wet!

Rio Celeste Waterfall at Tenorio National Park
Rio Celeste Waterfall at Tenorio National Park
Rainy day in Tenorio National Park
Rainy day in Tenorio National Park

8. Tortuguero National Park

Province: Limón
Closest Airport: Barra de Tortuguero Airport or San Jose Airport

Unlike many national parks where hiking is the primary mode of transportation, this park is best visited on a boat ride. It’s best known for being a green turtle nesting haven (due to its sandy river banks), but it is chock-full of biodiversity.

The best time to visit the beaches for turtle watching is at night – and this will require a local guide. But if you’re visiting during the daytime, there’s still plenty to see and do! You can rent kayaks and canoes and explore this vast park at your own pace.

Tortuguero National Park
Tortuguero National Park

READ NEXT: Guide To Visiting Tortuguero, Costa Rica

9. Sarapiqui

Province: Heredia
Closest Airport: San Jose Airport

Located in Northern Costa Rica, the Sarapiqui region has a little something for everyone. The region is home to a number of nature reserves and national parks, including the Braulio Carrillo National Park and is a major wildlife and hiking destination. The Sarapiqui River also offers an array of adventure opportunities, including great whitewater rafting. 

There are several nice eco-lodges in the area, which make it easy to spend a few nights exploring this adventurous part of the country.

READ NEXT: Staying at El Lugar Resort, Sarapiqui, Costa Rica

10. Rincón De La Vieja National Park

Province: Guanacaste
Closest Airport: Liberia Airport

Rincon de la Vieja National Park is another one of Costa Rica’s lesser-known adventure parks. The park is located in Guanacaste province and encompasses Rincón de la Vieja, Santa María, as well as the dormant Cerro Von Seebach volcanoes. It is a wonderful destination for outdoor enthusiasts. The park is full of trails and paths leading out to waterfalls, volcanic craters, mud pools, and hot springs.

At the base of the volcanoes, travellers can take part in a variety of adventure activities ranging from horseback riding to zip-lining and tubing.

No matter where your interests lie and what you are hoping to get out of your trip to Costa Rica, there are ways to get the most out of your trip without visiting the most touristy and overcrowded places in the country.

Rincón De La Vieja National Park
Rincón De La Vieja National Park
Rincón De La Vieja National Park
Rincón De La Vieja National Park

11. Las Catalinas 

Province: Guanacaste
Closest Airport: Liberia Airport

There are lots of beautiful places in Costa Rica, but Las Catalinas stands out as a unique and charming storybook beach town. Since its development in 2006, Las Catalinas has bloomed to life on the shores of Playa Danta. The development’s focus on preserving Costa Rica’s natural beauty while developing the area’s aesthetic and functionality makes it one of the best small towns in Costa Rica.

The community is car-free, making traffic non-existent. It’s surrounded by over 1,000 acres of dry forest, rocky coastal outcrops, and beaches, so exploring it on foot is the way to go. Aside from the gorgeous beach, the area also has five excellent hiking trails, plazas, parks, recreational facilities, restaurants, and residential areas.

Las Catalinas
Las Catalinas. Photo via lascatalinascr.com

READ NEXT: Guide to Visiting Las Catalinas, Costa Rica 

12. Irazú Volcano National Park

Province: Cartago
Closest Airport: San Jose Airport

Surprisingly, not a lot of people make a stop at Irazú Volcano, the highest volcano in Costa Rica, with a maximum elevation of 11,260 feet (3,432 metres) above sea level. Costa Ricans say its name comes from an indigenous word that means “hill of tremor and thunder.”

There are five craters tucked inside a beautiful mountain setting. Numerous paths take you from the principal crater to the Diego de la Haya and La Laguna Craters. These form a loop of about 1 km or half a mile. On particularly clear days, the Pacific Ocean and the Atlantic Ocean are visible from the top–and if you have a telescope, you can even see as far as the Lake of Nicaragua! The park is open every day from 8am to 3:30pm, with an entrance fee of USD $15.

Irazu Volcano National Park
Irazu Volcano National Park

13. Marino Ballena National Park 

Province: Puntarenas
Closest Airport: Quepos/Manuel Antonio Airport or San Jose Airport

Marino Ballena National Park is one of the best places in Costa Rica to see humpback whales. It’s located in Playa Uvita, a small town that’s only starting to grow in popularity. The park has 110 hectares of land and around 5,375 hectares of ocean, protecting coral reefs, beaches, and mangroves.

You can also check out the park’s signature feature: the tombolo or whale’s tail, which you can find on the beach during low tide. Other activities to try here include deep diving, swimming, or boating to nearby islands. Apart from the whales that come out from July to October, there’s lots of marine life found in the water, like different kinds of dolphins, manta rays, hammerhead sharks, parrotfish, and mackerel.

Marino Ballena National Park
Marino Ballena National Park
Playa Uvita, Costa Rica
Whale’s tail at Playa Uvita, Costa Rica

READ NEXT: Guide to Visiting Marino Ballena National Park in Costa Rica 

Have You Heard of Costa Rica’s Hidden Gems? Which Of These Off the Beaten Path/Costa Rica Destinations Would You Add To Your Itinerary?

4 thoughts on “13 Lesser-known places in Costa Rica that are Worth a Visit”

  1. Great guide, thanks for creating this! My partner and I will be visiting Costa Rica for a training in March, and built in an extra week to explore. I’m curious if you’d have any recommendations for where to spend an entire week given that we would prefer to sleep in the same location every night, and would love to have relatively easy access to multiple lesser-known nature highlights (great jungle hikes, hot springs, zip lines, rafting, etc.) One thought I had was to stay somewhere between Rincon de la Vieja NP and Tenorio NP, but am curious to hear if you have any other recomms for us!

    1. Yes, would suggest a stop somewhere in Northern Guanacaste: Cocos, Playa Hermosa, Playa Panama, etc, you can base yourself there to enjoy beaches, do a day trip to Rincon, a day trip to Tenorio, and maybe go diving and snorkelling if you are into that, etc. You will need to have a car to make it easier to get around. There really isn’t anything in between the 2 parks where it would make sense to stay for a week. Alternatively, you can spend a week in Arenal. It’s not really lesser-known, but it’s a beautiful destination with lots to do and plenty of accommodation options.

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