I've made over 100 trips to Costa Rica since 1994. I'm going to share what I think are the highlights of a truly amazing country.
Costa Rica Top 10 Things To Do
#1 - Go Surfing: Costa Rica has some of the best surfing in the world. Playa Hermosa, just south of Jaco is world renowned for surfing. Nosara is a close second in my opinion, and there are dozens of lesser-known, but great, surf spots all along the Pacific coast. Bring your own or rent. You can rent boards for a very reasonable fee in Jaco, Play Hermosa, and Nosara. Instructors are available almost everywhere. Nosara is a little harder to get to but attracts a more serious breed of surfer. If you do make it as far, North as Nosara be sure to visit Safari Surf School. They are a Billabong affiliated institution and have some of the best instructors. I have taken my kids and coworkers there. Everyone got up in the first lesson. They can arrange a photographer that will give you some of the best souvenirs you ever acquired.
#2 - La Fortuna: This is one of my favorite towns in Costa Rica. It is about 2.5 hours north of the San Jose airport by car. The roads to La Fortuna are paved and smooth but plan your trip, so you arrive before sundown. Much of the drive is through the mountains and guardrails aren't everywhere. There are lots of places to stay in La Fortuna, but my favorite is Tabacon. It isn't the cheapest, but it is the best. And if you stay at Tabacon you get into their hot springs (which are the best) for free. Admission otherwise is $40. Two of my favorite excursions out of La Fortuna are Alberto's Horses and Arenal Rafting.
#3 - Poas Volcano: The view is incredible. I have never found another place where you can look down into the crater of an active volcano. It is a short, easy hike from where you park your car to the lookout. The cost to get in is $16 per person. If it is too cloudy, you will not see the crater. You can make this a quick side trip on your way to La Fortuna.
#4 - Monteverde: Just the idea of being in a 'Cloud Forest' is intriguing. My favorite hotel in Monteverde is El Establo. Poco a Poco is nice too but does not have AC. You only need it for an hour or two in the afternoon. While in Monteverde, you are obligated to do some zip lining. There are a couple of great companies here, but my favorite is Monteverde Extremo. They have a zip line that is over a mile long. I have been here a couple of times, and the zip lines are a blast, but I have never gathered up enough courage to do the final event, the Tarzan Swing.
#5 - Sky Diving: Want to see Costa Rica from way above. Skydive Costa Rica is a first class operation. I have been with these guys twice, and I can tell you first hand that safety is their number one priority. Getting your adrenal gland to work overtime is number two. This place can get busy so book in advance. The last time I was there were a lot of locals jumping too. The sport is taking off. They have their airstrip in Quepos. Quepos is very close to Manuel Antonio, 50 minutes south of Jaco or about 2.25 hours from San Jose.
#6 - White Water Rafting: Nearly every time I visit Costa Rica I go rafting. I spend much of my time around the middle of the Pacific coast, and the best outfit I have found in that part of the country is Amigos del Rio. I see the same guides every time I go to Amigos del Rio. Even though we are all friends now, it is no guaranty I won't go for a swim during our trip. These guys know the river well. They use the lower part of the river in the rainy season and the upper part in the dry season. You are always guaranteed a great ride. The photographer at ADR is excellent. The photos he captures of my friends are always worth buying. Please don't forget to tip the river guides and anyone else who provides you an excellent service. I little bit means a lot. Your tips are always appreciated.
#7 Party!: Who doesn't like a good fiesta? Costa Ricans know how to party. Jaco is to Costa Rica what Las Vegas is to the US. What happens in Jaco stays in Jaco. Start your night off at The Green Room with an excellent dinner, craft beers and good live music. This is a favorite of locals and tourists alike. Tell Jonathan (the manager) that Rick sent you. He might just buy you a beer ;). After dinner and a couple of rounds, wander across the street to Los Amigos for a shot. From there you can head to Crocs to gamble away any money you might have left with the beautiful Black Jack dealers. If you see, Julie be sure to give her a tip and tell her I said she was good luck. You can find the amazing Nela at Liquidity, Crocs answer to the Lobby Bar. Jaco is a great home base. It is just over an hour from the San Jose Airport and is centrally located to make getting everywhere you want to go a snap. If your plans have your family or large group staying in Jaco a few days I recommend checking this vacation rental house near Jaco out. It is killer and (full disclosure) it's mine.
#8 Ride an ATV: These things give you a real sense of freedom. Riding around the Costa Rican countryside on a four wheeler is relaxing and exciting all at the same time. I have taken more trips than I can remember with the folks at AXR in Jaco . They can customize a tour to fit your desires. You can visit a waterfall among other things. They have automatic ATVs as well as those you shift, motorcycles and four wheelers as big as cars. The owner works the counter, speaks half a dozen languages and is a great guy. If you tell him I sent you he may ask for a damage deposit. We wrecked one :)
#9 Get a Massage: There is no easier way to relax than with a good massage and they are readily available all over Costa Rica but more so in Jaco than other parts. You can get a massage for $40. Don't forget to tip. Rule of thumb for picking your masseuse. The younger and prettier she is the worse the massage will likely be.
#10 Manuel Antonio: This is a cool town. Manuel Antonio is about 50 minutes south of Jaco. It is like a mountain beach town. The Manuel Antonio Nation Park is a good way to spend an afternoon. El Avion is a good place to eat. It is a bit touristy and the food is just ok but eating inside a plane is cool and the atmosphere is good.
I hope this gets your juices flowing. There is much I didn't mention here. Drakes Bay and Tamarindo are great but a little out of the way. There is much I have never seen in Costa Rica and can't speak of. The places I mentioned are ones I have been to personaly. I have a lot left to learn about this wonderland.
I am going to be posting some tips about getting around in Costa Rica, things to avoid (short list), best times to go, the currency and so on. But in the meantime, feel free to send me any questions you have. I will do my best to answer them as quickly as possible. Pura Vida.