Home to idyllic coral reefs, luscious rainforests, pristine sandy beaches, and magnificent mountain ranges, it’s easy to see why Costa Rica is one of the most popular holiday destinations in Central America. In fact, whether you’re a wildlife lover, avid hiker, or you just can’t get enough of sandy shores and awesome waves, there really is something for everyone in this incredible country.
Unsurprisingly, Costa Rica receives a huge amount of visitors each year, with its Pacific side being especially busy. But don’t let the crowds put you off this tropical paradise. There are plenty of places you can head to get off the beaten track and explore Costa Rica’s incredible natural beauty in peace.
Here, we’ve handpicked our top 10 hidden gems in Costa Rica, so you can explore this wonderful country at your own pace – enjoy!
Dominical, on the Central Pacific Coast, is not a secret in Costa Rica – its sandy shores are popular among beachgoers and surfers alike, and there’s a fair bit going on in terms of nightlife, cuisine, and festivals. However, set back just a few kilometers from these vibrant beaches is the majestic Valley of the Waterfalls, one of those hidden gems to explore if you want to get off the beaten track.
Not only are there swathes of waterfalls that you can swim, climb, and generally frolic in, but they just happen to be in the heart of a spectacular patch of relatively unexplored forest. Even the most popular waterfalls in the area, the Nauyaca Falls, don’t attract too many tourists, and if you go further afield you probably won’t bump into anyone on your trip.
There are heaps of local guides in the area who will be more than happy to show you around (and make sure that you don’t get lost!), and you can reach various parts of the valley by either hiking, driving, (or a combo of the two), or catching a ride on the back of a horse if you want a truly authentic experience.
If you’re keen to stay the night, there are some lovely eco-resorts in the area that give oy the chance to explore the nearby caves during night tours, or simply sit back and catch the sunset from way up in the hills. Alternatively, you can stay down in Dominical and day trip to the falls, but be warned that you’ll miss some awesome sunsets!
While the Bajos del Toro Costa Rica private reserve is well-known for the many nearby tourist attractions, the quaint town of Bajos del Toro itself is often overlooked. Despite being located just a short drive from San Jose, the town couldn’t feel more different from the country’s capital.
The sleepy town has a lovely laid-back vibe, and it makes a great place to while away a morning or afternoon before or after you go chasing waterfalls in the area.
And you don’t have to head too far afield to find such hidden gems – in fact, the Catarata del Toro is just outside Bajos del Toro and we just can’t believe it’s not more popular. Located on private land, you’ll have to splash out $14 to reach the falls but, trust us, it’s definitely worth it. The road and trails are well-maintained, and there’s on-site parking as well as an on-site restaurant.
The fall itself boasts a 90-meter drop into a stunning turquoise basin – definitely not one to be missed. Make sure you wear proper shoes because the hike there is short but challenging. Oh, and make sure you keep your eyes peeled for hummingbirds as you make your way to the falls – there are loads of them in the area!
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The Rincon de la Vieja Volcano is nestled within the National Park that shares its name, the Rincon de la Vieja Volcano National Park. Often overlooked in favor of the incredibly popular (but also incredibly busy!) Arenal National Park (home to the Arenal Volcano), this park is surprisingly quiet despite all it has to offer.
The volcano itself is the highest point of the park, and it stands almost 2000 meters above sea level. It’s a highly active volcano with regular eruptions, and hikes in the park give visitors the chance to explore natural hot springs, mud baths, and fumaroles.
The slopes are steep and the hikes are hard work, but the refreshing waterfalls and crystal-clear lakes you’ll get the chance to swim in along the way will make it all worthwhile!
We’re heading back to the province of Guanacaste now to bring you the Barra Honda National Park, best known for its awe-inspiring cave networks and rock formations. The incredible limestone features were formed years ago by the continuous flow of rain over the years, and the result is spectacular.
In total, 42 caves have been discovered in the area, but less than half of these hidden gems have been explored and just two are open to the public. To see inside these caves, packed full of stalagmites and stalactites, you’ll have to sign up for a guided tour.
The careful management of tourism has enabled wildlife in the area to continue to flourish, and the caves are home to thriving bat colonies as well as blind salamanders are rare fish that have become accustomed to life without light.
Outside of the caves, the park features numerous trails, and it’s also home to a rare dry tropical forest as well as many other fascinating species of flora and fauna. Although the park is particularly popular among cavers, tourist levels are generally low, and you can certainly find some peace as you wander around the park, away from the crowds you’ll encounter in other national parks.
Okay, so they aren’t exactly ‘hidden’, but the coastal towns of Malpais and Santa Teresa are under-explored gems of Costa Rica where you can get away from the crowds. Located on the southeast end of the Nicoya Peninsula, Malpais features rugged beaches with rocky outcrops to clamber over, while Santa Teresa features picturesque sandy shores.
They’re both incredibly popular surf destinations thanks to their consistent breaks, although the rocks at Malpais might put some people off (but those who persevere are rewarded with almost empty lineups). Other activities in the area include snorkel trips, yoga classes, and dining in local restaurants.
Malpais is the quieter of the two spots, and Santa Teres is definitely more lively in the evenings. But no matter where you chose to set up camp, you’ll have an awesome mixture of crowd-free natural areas with enough entertainment to keep you busy right on your doorstep.
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Also located on the Nicoya Peninsula in Costa Rica is the charming fishing village of Cabuya, which spans several kilometers along the coast. The village borders the Cabo Blanco Reserve, the first nature reserve established in Costa Rica, and the whole area has a captivatingly calm atmosphere.
The rustic beaches are teeming with wildlife (bird lovers, you’re in for a treat) and there are heaps of charming hikes in the area. For a truly unique experience, however, we recommend heading over to Isla de Cabuya.
This island often referred to as Cemetery Island, is located around 100 meters from the shoreline and is only accessible when the tide drops low enough to expose a rocky walkway. The origins of the cemetery date back beyond Columbian times, and it’s still fully functional today – so make sure you’re respectful if your visit coincides with a burial.
The island is an incredibly peaceful place to visit, and its inaccessibility means tourist numbers are far fewer than at other historical sights. And if you’re into snorkeling, make sure you take your gear with you because the reef surrounding the island is full of marine life.
The Savegre Rainforest is located in the Puntarenas province of Costa Rica, alongside Monteverde and Santa Elena, which is home to Costa Rica’s most visited cloud forest. Although the Monteverde Could Forest Reserve is a stunning ecological attraction that’s definitely worth a visit, if you’re looking to get off the tourist map, then we definitely recommend the Savegre Rainforest instead.
Mighty ferns and luscious gnarled are found throughout the jungle, and the animals here roam freely around, less disturbed by humans than those at busier spots. If you keep your eyes open, you’re bound to see parrots, egrets, and the famous quetzal – plus, if you’re really lucky, you might even catch sight of a tapir or jaguar.
But if things start to feel a bit too quiet, don’t worry, you can always shake things up a bit by rafting down the Savegre River and exploring the many waterfalls and hot springs you’ll find along the way.
Although the rapids of the Savegre offer a much-needed refreshment after trekking through the jungle all day, if you’re really into white water then we recommend the Pacuare River. Despite its reputation for being one of the best locations fr rafting in the world, the Pacuare has maintained a laidback feel.
The jungles surrounding the river receive few visitors, and you’re more likely to see a monkey scampering along the riverbanks than you are a human. With over 100km of river to choose from, the Pacuare features rapids catered to a range of abilities, and it’s a great spot for kayaking and riverboarding too.
Plus, unlike many other rivers, the Pacuare can be traversed year-round, so there’s a steady trickle of tourists throughout the year. While the river is hardly a secret, if you sign up to one of the multi-day rafting experiences, you’ll reach parts of the river that your average tourist would never reach, so it’s a great way to get totally away from the crowds.
The Caribbean coast of Costa Rica receives far fewer visitors than the Pacific side, so what better place to build a wildlife refuge than on this sleepy coastline? The Gandoca Manzanillo Wildlife Refuge is located just north of the Panama border in the province of Limon and is a great place to escape the hustle and bustle of day-to-day life.
In fact, the refuge is so soothing that are various retreats and lodges offering wellness experiences in the area, although just a visit around the refuge is enough to take the stress away.
Within the refuge is Costa Rica’s only natural mangrove habitat which, alongside coral reefs, rainforest, wetlands, and sandy beaches, supports a plethora of life in the area. Conservationists work hard in the area to persevere the ecosystems and the life they support, and many of the species you’ll see here are endangered.
Keep your eyes open for a range of life during your visit – jaguars, manatees, brain corals, turtles, sloths, monkeys, iguanas, and dolphins can all be seen in the area!
And last, but by no means least, on our list is the Amistad Peace Park. The park sure isn’t easy to reach but, if you’re up for the challenge, you’ll be rewarded by experiencing Costa Rica’s biodiversity at its absolute best. The park is a Transboundary Protected Area, managed by both Costa Rica and Panama, and is a designated UNESCO World Heritage Site
If you start out on the Caribbean side, it’ll take you at least a 2-day trek to reach the park or, alternatively, you can take a 4WD from the Pacific side and then either hike or catch or a horse ride into the park. The trails in the park are rough, steep, and often disappear entirely, so make sure you take all the proper safety precautions.
Once inside the park, visitors will be rewarded with spectacular views of the luscious lowland rainforest, mighty mountains (Costa Rica’s highest point is within the park), and captivating cloud forests. And if you’re into nature, there really is no other place like it – roughly 2/3 of all the country’s species live here, including all the exciting mammals, and when it comes to the macro stuff, it hasn’t all been discovered yet!
The strenuous hikes and general inaccessibility of the park have kept tourist numbers down and the park remains in pristine condition. While the biggest park in Costa Rica certainly isn’t hidden, it definitely is a barely explored gem!
Don’t let the crowds put you off your next trip to Costa Rica – there are plenty of hidden gems just waiting to be explored!
Roger is a little obsessed with travel. He has been to over 40 countries, broken 3 suitcases and owned over 10 backpacks in 12 months. What he doesn't know about travel, ain't worth knowing!