Costa Rica has built a reputation for itself as Central America’s most touristic country. Budget-conscious backpackers and splurging honeymooners alike can make their way through this spectacular nation without ever running out of things to do or see. That being said, it can be a challenge to find true, deep authenticity when you’re walking along streets lined with chain resorts and tour offices. Many places accept the U.S. dollar, many locals speak English, and there are lots of towns which almost seem like they were designed specifically for American tourists… but, what about those of us who travel seeking a little something more? What about those of us who want to experience traveling in a way that possibly nobody else has before? While this can be tricky in a destination as popular as Costa Rica, here are some essential itinerary additions that will, without a doubt, make your trip one-of-a-kind.
Rincon de la Vieja
Other travelers may catch a glimpse of these wonders as they make their way from Monteverde to La Fortuna (two outstanding, and tourist-packed cities). While both of those locations are undeniably stunning, Rincon de La Vieja will be like nothing you have ever experienced before. These active sister volcanoes are of but a few locations in the country where you can indulge in the uniquely pampering experience of bathing in a volcanic mineral mud bath. These mud baths can be artificially found in a small number of surrounding resorts or stumbled upon naturally while taking one of the many established hiking trails in the area.
You’ll have plenty of options as far as hiking goes—including one option to hike to a breathtaking waterfall on the Blue Lake and Congrejo Falls trail, which will take you 6.5 miles straight into the Costa Rican rainforest. Otherwise, summit the volcano itself and step right into a real volcanic crater, spotting tons of incredible wildlife along the way. Once you’re finished adventuring for the day, either set up camp at one of the designated campgrounds just outside of the national park (if you’re feeling rustic) or treat yourself to a luxurious resort where you may relax in jungle paradise before getting muddied-up all over again the next day.
Bajos del Toro
Hidden somewhere in the gorgeous region of Alajuela, just a couple of hours North of nation’s capital city of San Jose lies the diamond in the rough that is Bajos del Toro. There are many ways to experience this area, but perhaps the best way to start is to choose accommodation that is a bit “in the middle of nowhere.” Isolate yourself in a cozy mountain lodge and spend your days lazily cuddled up in front of a fireplace with an exquisite forest view, or save that comfortability for later and spend the day discovering some of the best wilderness that Costa Rica has to offer.
This region contains countless hiking trails with endless magnificent spots waiting to be discovered, such as the crystalline and strikingly vibrant turquoise waters of the Catarata Río Agrio or Pozas Celeste. As if that weren’t enough to make you all but fall in love, you may also choose to visit what is called “Costa Rica’s Ultimate Secret®,” the Catarata del Toro waterfall. Fed by an extinct volcano, this waterfall is most certainly off the beaten track. Float in the pool below its torrent (resting in an old volcanic crater) and gaze around you at the crowds of hummingbirds buzzing above your head, and the artwork that is the crater walls: colorfully striped by time.
It isn’t entirely unlikely that you have heard of other cities in the Limon region, such as Puerto Viejo, Manzanillo, or Punta Uva. Well, along that same stretch of immaculate Caribbean coast just before you reach Panama lies the less-populated, but no less incredible town of Cahuita. Perhaps one of Cahuita’s main claims to fame is Playa Negra, a pristine black sand beach that sits just North of the village and is renowned for its powerful waves. However, if black sand beaches aren’t your thing, have no fear. Cahuita also serves as the gateway to the remarkable Cahuita National Park.
Once you’re inside, you’ll understand why some consider it to be one of the best national parks Costa Rica has to offer, but you won’t understand why so few people have heard of it! Not only does it contain Playa Blanca, a gleaming white-sand beach to contrast Playa Negra, but it also homes and protects its very own coral reefs—perfect for snorkeling. However, to reach this heaven-on-Earth, you’ll have to hike through the park’s protected rainforest. Don’t be surprised if you happen to run into some wild toucans, monkeys, and turtles along the way, as these are but a few of the many species which reside here.
If you start to feel just a little stir-crazy in this tiny little town, don’t hesitate to venture outwards. Just North of Cahuita, you can visit a Sloth Sanctuary, which cares for injured and orphaned sloths. Right in the other direction and just within biking distance of Cahuita, the notably more upbeat and populated towns of Puerto Viejo and Punta Uva are readily available… as well as Panama! That’s right; you can get a new stamp on your passport just by hopping on a beach cruiser and gliding along this scenic coastline until you’re well past the Panamanian border, and still be back to your hotel in time for dinner. How’s that for a unique travel experience?