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Away from the crowds: Costa Rica's hidden highlights

Costa rica osa peninsula golfo dulce flight

Most countries have a few tried and tested ‘must-sees’. Costa Rica is no different - Arenal, Manuel Antonio, Monteverde... And yet, we often recommend people choose lesser visited spots instead, where there's more wildlife and barely any crowds...

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Costa rica san gerardo dota tree creeper bromeliad on branch talamanca hiking

Cloud forest is arguably the most beautiful of Costa Rica’s ecosystems, with mists drifting across a mountainous canopy, rich with bromeliads, ferns and epiphytes. It’s somewhere your silence and patience are rewarded with sightings of myriad bird species.

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Costa rica monteverde zipline

None of which tallies with the joyous scream of someone hurtling down a zipline, or the throaty roar of a quad bike rumbling through the forest in Monteverde, Costa Rica's most famous cloud forest reserve. For a genuine experience, you need to look elsewhere...

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Costa rica san gerardo rivas chirripo mountain view from mirador chirripo

By contrast, the cloudbridge reserves of Chirripó, the foothills of Costa Rica's highest mountain, are blissfully peaceful. This is a place for travellers who want to enjoy the forest at its most untouched.

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Costa rica san gerardo rivas chirripo cloudbridge catarata pacifica

You can hike peaceful forest trails to rushing waterfalls, or explore private reserves in search of some of the hundreds of bird species spotted here.

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Costa rica san gerardo resplendent quetzal

If you're keen on spotting the Resplendent quetzal, the cloud forests of San Gerardo de Dota is the place to do so. The stunning flash of emerald and red plumage as a quetzal swoops and dives is up there with our favourite wildlife experiences in Costa Rica.

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Costa rica arenal volcano smoking crater

Moving on, Arenal Volcano was once incredible, with molten rock spouting into the night air. Big hot spring hotels, activity centres and billboards proliferated. But it all got to feeling a bit too busy. And then the volcano settled down - it hasn’t erupted since 2010...

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Costa rica rio perdido aerial shot hotel

Our advice on Arenal is to stop and go for a walk if you're passing. But if it’s volcano views, fun activities and hot springs that you want, we'd rather take you to Rio Perdido, just beyond the northern end of Lake Arenal.

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Costa rica tenorio rio perdido canopy tour setting off on zip line

The lodge sits at the convergence of two canyons, one of which is criss-crossed with the latest carbon-fibre zipline canopy tour. It is brilliant fun whooshing along a beautiful canyon from platform to platform: always safe and always laughing.

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Costa rica tenorio rio perdido tubing group on rio blanco

Further up the canyon you can go tubing - a brilliantly simple set up of a large inner tube with suspended seat in the middle. You pop yourself in there and off you go, bouncing around as if in a bumper car. More laughter. More fun. Fewer crowds.

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Costa rica manuel antonio playa espadilla manuel antonio costa rica

On the Pacific coast, on paper Manuel Antonio National Park has everything great about Costa Rica: lush forest, white sandy beaches, monkeys in the trees and macaws in the air...

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Costa rica manuel antonio racoon climbing a garbage bin in manuel antonio national park costa rica

But in reality, it's the opposite of sustainable tourism: crowded paths, gaudy restaurants catering to ‘international cuisine’, tourist tat and boozy catamaran cruises. Worst of all, it means hoteliers feeding wild animals to keep them around. Avoid.

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Costa rica caribbean cahuita national park entrance

On the southern Caribbean coast, however, lies the sleepy town of Cahuita and its national park. Compared to the crowded concrete trails in Manuel Antonio, you will see a fraction of the people as you wander peaceful tracks and explore the pristine beach and ocean.

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Costa rica caribbean snorkel young woman

The draw here is that you can snorkel in the protected marine area which holds Costa Rica’s largest coral reef. You'll see all sorts of beautiful coral and exuberantly coloured fish: over 500 species in fact.

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Costa rica caribbean puerto viejo cahuita sloth cropped

Strolling through the park, you have untouched creamy beach to one side, forest to the other. Racoons, armadillos, howler and capuchin monkeys, toucans, pit vipers, basilisk lizards and, best of all, sloths are all around.

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Costa rica cahuita colourful character in bar

An added bonus is its Afro-Caribbean heritage. Reggae and calypso fill the air alongside the aromas of jerk chicken and curried goat. It adds a cultural element to your trip which may well be unexpected. And it's one you can share with far, far fewer travellers.

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Costa rica tamarindo busy beach

Lastly, arriving in Tamarindo, you'd expect to find a laid back, authentic Pacific coastal village. But this is no village: it’s huge, with houses and shops blocking the view to the sea. The signs are in English, some for sports bars. So Tamarindo isn't for us...

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Costa rica nicoya peninsula ostional beach

This is more like it. The coast around Ostional is everything you want from a Costa Rican beach. Friendly, beautiful, relaxing… and not a sports bar in sight. There's little development here because this is where most of the world’s Olive Ridley turtles come to lay their eggs.

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Costa rica nicoya peninsula fishing boats on sands of san juanillo beach copyright alison thomas

A little further up the coast is little San Juanillo. There are still fishing boats here: some of the few left along this stretch of coast. The beach is also one of the very few with a reef offshore, so the sand is almost white, and the bay calm and wonderful for swimming and snorkelling.

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Costa rica tenorio volcano national park driving to tenorio 1

We can loop all these hidden highlights - Chirripó, Rio Perdido, Cahuita, Ostional and more - into a tailormade journey for you around this wonderful country. If you'd like to see a trip idea for a starting point, take a look at our Our Ultimate Costa Rica Holiday: A Month of Wonders.

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Costa rica osa peninsula golfo dulce flight
Costa rica san gerardo dota tree creeper bromeliad on branch talamanca hiking
Costa rica monteverde zipline
Costa rica san gerardo rivas chirripo mountain view from mirador chirripo
Costa rica san gerardo rivas chirripo cloudbridge catarata pacifica
Costa rica san gerardo resplendent quetzal
Costa rica arenal volcano smoking crater
Costa rica rio perdido aerial shot hotel
Costa rica tenorio rio perdido canopy tour setting off on zip line
Costa rica tenorio rio perdido tubing group on rio blanco
Costa rica manuel antonio playa espadilla manuel antonio costa rica
Costa rica manuel antonio racoon climbing a garbage bin in manuel antonio national park costa rica
Costa rica caribbean cahuita national park entrance
Costa rica caribbean snorkel young woman
Costa rica caribbean puerto viejo cahuita sloth cropped
Costa rica cahuita colourful character in bar
Costa rica tamarindo busy beach
Costa rica nicoya peninsula ostional beach
Costa rica nicoya peninsula fishing boats on sands of san juanillo beach copyright alison thomas
Costa rica tenorio volcano national park driving to tenorio 1

Most countries have a few tried and tested ‘must-sees’. Costa Rica is no different. And yet, we often recommend people choose lesser visited spots instead, where there's more wildlife and barely any crowds, and which offer a far greater connection to the people and landscapes of this beautiful country. We'd like to share a few of these, and the better known ones you might want to reconsider.

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