Envision a land where verdant rainforests meet pristine beaches, where fiery volcanoes tower over bustling cityscapes, and where the call of exotic wildlife echoes in the air. This is Costa Rica, a small Central American country that boasts an astonishing variety of natural wonders and exciting adventures. It’s a place that invites you to embrace the “Pura Vida” lifestyle – a life of simple pleasures, tranquility, and reverence for nature. It’s easy to see why Costa Rica is one of the top backpacking destinations in the world.

Whether you’re an adrenaline junkie, a nature lover, or a history buff, Costa Rica has something to offer. However, navigating this rich landscape can be overwhelming, especially for first-time visitors. This guide will shed light on some of Costa Rica’s top destinations for backpackers, helping you plan a trip that will leave you enriched, exhilarated, and yearning for more.

The Jewel of the Pacific: Manuel Antonio National Park

Manuel Antonio National Park Beach

Manuel Antonio National Park Beach

Located on the Pacific coast, Manuel Antonio National Park is a cherished gem. Despite being the smallest national park in Costa Rica, it is one of the most biodiverse areas in the world. It’s home to white-faced capuchin monkeys, howler monkeys, two and three-toed sloths, and a myriad of bird species.

The park offers a unique blend of lush rainforest, white-sand beaches, and stunning coral reefs. Whether you choose to explore the park’s numerous hiking trails, enjoy a refreshing swim, or embark on a snorkeling adventure, Manuel Antonio is sure to captivate your senses.

Venture into the Clouds: Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve

Sky Bridge in Monteverde

Sky Bridge in Monteverde

If you’re intrigued by the mysterious allure of the cloud forest, Monteverde should top your list. The reserve is shrouded in a constant cover of clouds, creating a unique ecosystem brimming with endemic flora and fauna. Discover why Monteverde is a popular destination in Costa Rica for backpackers for many reasons.

From colorful orchids and bromeliads to the elusive quetzal and three-wattled bellbird, biodiversity abounds. Adventurous visitors can explore the forest from a unique perspective via hanging bridges or exhilarating zip-line tours. The serenity of the forest is broken only by the sounds of nature – a constant reminder of the vibrant life that thrives in these clouds.

A Glimpse into History: Guayabo National Monument

Guayabo, Costa Rica's Archaeological Treasure

Guayabo, Costa Rica’s Archaeological Treasure

For those interested in the rich history of Costa Rica, the Guayabo National Monument offers a fascinating glimpse into the past. As Costa Rica’s largest and most important archaeological site, Guayabo unveils the remnants of a pre-Columbian city that was home to a significant civilization until around 1400 AD.

Among the ruins, you can observe ancient aqueducts, tombs, petroglyphs, and mysterious stone paths. A visit to Guayabo is a journey back in time, an opportunity to understand the roots of Costa Rican culture and history.

The Gateway to Adventure: Arenal Volcano National Park

Arenal Volcano in Costa Rica

Arenal Volcano in Costa Rica

Arenal Volcano National Park is often synonymous with adventure for Costa Rica tours. Dominated by the impressive Arenal Volcano, the park offers an array of exciting activities. Embark on a hike through the lush forest, explore the ancient lava fields, soak in natural hot springs, or paddle a canoe on the serene Lake Arenal.

At night, you might even get to witness the awe-inspiring sight of lava flowing down the slopes of the volcano. The park also boasts an incredible diversity of wildlife, from vibrant toucans and parrots to sloths and various monkey species.

Relax and Unwind: The Beaches of Guanacaste

Playa Conchal, Guanacaste Costa Rica

Playa Conchal, Guanacaste Costa Rica

For those who long for sun, sand, and sea, the Guanacaste province’s stunning beaches are the perfect antidote to a busy life. This region, located in northwestern Costa Rica, is blessed with some of the country’s most beautiful beaches, each unique in its charm. It’s easy to see why Guanacaste is one of Costa Rica’s top destinations for backpackers.

Playa Conchal, with its shell-studded sand and crystalline waters, is ideal for snorkeling and swimming. Tamarindo Beach is a surfer’s paradise, boasting consistent waves and a lively nightlife scene. For a tranquil retreat, Playa Flamingo offers a serene environment and stunning sunsets.

While in Guanacaste, don’t miss out on a sea turtle nesting tour. The beaches of Ostional and Playa Grande are among the world’s most important nesting sites for various sea turtle species – a truly magical experience to witness.

Top Things to Do in Costa Rica for Backpackers – Final Thoughts

Costa Rica, with its myriad of wonders, beckons adventurers, nature lovers, and culture enthusiasts alike. Its vibrant landscapes promise an escape from the ordinary – a chance to immerse in the raw beauty of nature, indulge in thrilling adventures, and resonate with the rhythms of a rich, captivating culture. Whether you’re exploring the depths of the rainforest, soaking up history, or lazing on a sunny beach, every moment in Costa Rica brings you closer to the essence of ‘Pura Vida’ – the pure life. Pack your backpack and let the spirit of adventure guide you through this enchanting land.


Living La Vida Loca? Sorry, Ricky Martin, it’s all about the Pura Vida (“Pure Life”) in Costa Rica. And the best way to experience this is by visiting the multitude of national parks — 28 in total. And, because the country’s so small, it’s easy to visit many of them in a short trip. 

Before you Go: To ensure you have a great hiking experience in Costa Rica, be sure to check out the AllTrails app. The app has an extensive list of the best trails for hiking in Costa Rica, with reviews from other hikers to keep you up to date on the latest trail conditions. You can filter by trail difficulty, length, and suitability and download trail maps to help keep you on track even when you’re offline.

So, let’s dive into the best hikes in Costa Rica for your next visit.

The Catarata del Toro Waterfall Hike


Catarata del Toro Waterfall cascading into a volcanic crater - hiking in costa rica

Catarata del Toro Waterfall cascades into a volcanic crater

About two hours outside San Jose is a towering waterfall you won’t want to miss.

As you hike, tropical rainforests engulf you like a pig-in-a-blanket. There are a few viewpoints you’ll pass before arriving at the waterfall. Snap some pictures along the way before you descend to the waterfall itself. 

If you were thinking this was an ordinary waterfall, you’d be wrong. This waterfall is an astounding 270 feet high, and it sits inside the crater of a now-extinct volcano. The impressive waterfall alone makes this one of the best hikes in Costa Rica.

Because this waterfall isn’t as visited as other sights, you’ll experience wildlife living undisturbed by civilization. Hummingbirds, butterflies, and more zip from tree to tree as you wander the trail.

So, take your time and enjoy the experience; it’s sure to be good.

Hike Details

Length: 1 mile

Difficulty: Easy

Getting to the trail: The start of the hike is located between San Jose and La Fortuna. Two hours driving from San Jose, this trail is easily accessed for anyone staying in the capital. The closest town is Bajas del Toro, which is a good starting point. You can find the start of the trail on Google Maps here.

Rio Celeste Hike

The other-worldly colors of the Rio Celeste - one of the best hikes in Costa Rica

The other-worldly colors of the Rio Celeste – one of the best hikes in Costa Rica

Timing is essential to this hike. It’s straightforward, and signs are posted to help you stay on the trail. But, to experience the magic of what makes this one of the best hikes in Costa Rica, you’ll want to visit during the dry season — from December to April.

Why go during this time?

When it rains, mud mixes into the water and turns it a dark brown. But, when it’s a clear day, the water turns to Cool Blue Gatorade, and it’s beautiful.

Whether you get to catch the blue waters or not, the hike itself is full of flora and fauna for you to observe. Snakes, birds, and rare plants litter this hike, so keep your eyes peeled for any animals or plants who may be hiding just out of view.

Hike Details

Length: 4 miles

Difficulty: Moderate

Getting to the trail: Rio Celeste is located inside Tenorio Volcano National Park. The closest town is Bijagua de Upala. However, trips can be arranged from La Fortuna, a more popular option for visitors to Costa Rica. La Fortuna is 29 miles from the national park.

You can find the start of the trail on Google Maps here.

La Leona Madrigal Trail

Parque Nacional Corcovado - one of the best hikes in Costa Rica to experience wildlife

Parque Nacional Corcovado – one of the best hikes in Costa Rica to experience wildlife

National Geographic labeled Corcovado National Park as the most biologically intense place on the planet. And it contains a plethora of hiking options. 

So, you’re sure to have a close-up experience with various wildlife, making this one of the best places to go hiking in Costa Rica.

What type of wildlife exactly? Tapirs, monkeys, jaguars, and eagles are some animals you’re sure to see on your hike.

I recommend the La Leona Madrigal Trail if you’re looking for a hike that will give you a dose of all that this park has to offer.

This out-and-back trail will take you along the coast, where you can enjoy the stunning beaches of Costa Rica. But that’s not all. It also takes you inland to the jungles, so you can live out your inner Indiana Jones.

You can book overnight stays in the park, which will give you an immersive experience in the wild. Or, you can stay in one of the nearby towns for easy access. The closest towns are Puerto Jimenez and Drake Bay.

Hike Details

Length: 6 miles

Difficulty: Moderate

Getting to the trail: The trail begins between Carate Mixeo Wildlife Refuge and Playa Madrigal, located on the southern end of Corcovado National Park. You can follow National Route 245 to easily access the area.

You can find the trail start on Google Maps here.

Mistico Arenal Hanging Bridges

One of the many hanging bridges on the trail in Arenal

One of the many hanging bridges on the trail in Arenal

The area around Arenal is known for it’s many hiking options. A shorter hike near the Arenal Volcano offers a more accessible way to experience the cloud forest. But that doesn’t mean it’s not still full of novelty and intrigue.

The Mistico Arenal Hanging Bridges hike consists of 15 total bridges, six of which are hanging. As you navigate the forest, you’ll get fantastic views of the volcano and the occasional visit from monkeys, birds, and other wildlife.

This hike would be excellent to pair with another hike near the Arenal Volcano — which are plentiful.

I’d recommend the Los Tucanes hike, a 2.5-mile hike across hanging bridges and lava fields. Wildlife fills Arenal National Park, so you’ll encounter unique animals on this hike.

Hike Details

Length: 2 miles

Difficulty: Easy

Getting to the trail: Mistico Arenal Hanging Bridges Park is located on the northern side of Arenal Volcano. From La Fortuna, it’s about a 30-minute drive via Route 142. The park contains a large parking lot, so renting a car is an excellent option.

You can find the start on Google Maps here.

Cerro Chirripo

View of San Gerardo de Rivas and Cerro Chirripó National Park in the background

View of San Gerardo de Rivas and Cerro Chirripó National Park in the background

Up for a more significant challenge? How about climbing to the top of the tallest mountain when hiking in Costa Rica?

This one isn’t for the faint-hearted, as it’s over 12 miles one way. That doesn’t sound bad until you add over 7,000 feet of elevation gain. Yeah, this one is going to challenge you.

But, you don’t have to do it all in one day. Most people choose to do a two or three-day option. Three miles away from the summit, most hikers will stay at the Crestones Base Camp lodge.

Once you reach the top, though, you’re greeted with views out over Costa Rica — from the Caribbean Sea to the Pacific Ocean on each side. It is easy to see what makes this one of the best hikes in Costa Rica – especially for experienced backpackers who are looking to get off the beaten path.

Hike Details

Length: 24 miles (round trip)

Difficulty: Difficult

Getting to the trail: To get to the beginning of the trail, you will start in the nearby town of San Gerardo de Rivas. Booking a stay in this small town is an excellent option so you can have easy access at the beginning and end of your hike. From there, it’s a short drive to the park entrance.

You can find the start on Google Maps here.

Best Hikes in Costa Rica – Final Thoughts

Costa Rica doesn’t see almost two million tourists a year because it lacks options. In fact, around 80% of its visitors come to experience the staggering amount of ecology on offer.

And there’s no better way to experience that ecological beauty than hitting the trails and leaving civilization behind.

You’re equipped to do exactly that on your next visit with this guide to the best hikes in Costa Rica. Now go get a taste of that Pura Vida!