Costa Rica, a Central American nation nestled between Nicaragua and Panama, has all the allure of an island destination without actually being an island. Lush rainforests give way to pristine beaches with clear blue water, and the tropical wildlife (think: monkeys, toucans, jaguars) keeps you on your toes. You can climb an active volcano and swim in a hidden waterfall, or zip-line through the jungle back to the beach. Visiting Costa Rica is all about kicking back and enjoying the scenery, with a hint of adventure -- they don't call it the Rich Coast for nothing.
And the best part? It's all preserved. Costa Rica is packed with national parks, meaning all that landscape is yours for exploring with no risk of being used for anything else.
Corcovado National Park
"Biologically intense" is only one of Corcovado's claims to fame -- it's also the largest Costa Rican national park, spanning most of the Osa Peninsula. Be prepared to run into a wild Baird's tapir as you walk the sandy beaches, just one of the many examples of how biodiverse and ecologically impressive the area is.
Tortuguero National Park
There a few different ways to experience Tortuguero. First, stroll along the coastline to catch a glimpse of turtle nests ("Tortuguero" translates to "turtle catcher"), as hordes of green, leatherback and hawksbill sea turtles have made this protected area their home since the mid-1900s. Leave plenty of time to wind up and down the freshwater creeks and lagoons of this park via boat, though, where you'll find river otters, spectacled caimans and maybe even West Indian manatees. Opt for a kayak or canoe to get a workout out of it.
Monteverde Cloud Forest
Find out what it's like to actually live with your head in the clouds at this natural reserve. As you explore, you'll be shrouded in a constant hazy mist, throwing a dreamlike atmosphere around your entire visit. Trek over bridges suspended over the tree's canopies or whiz through the clouds on a zipline. Monteverde also holds part of the Continental Divide, so you can be in two places at once.
Arenal Volcano National Park
The active Arenal and inactive Chato volcanoes tower over Costa Rica, making for a pristine backdrop for an afternoon hike through lava fields and secondary forest. You'll find a picture-perfect lagoon by Chato, formed by a collapsed crater, and you can actually watch lava flow over Arenal at night.
Manuel Antonio National Park
If you fancy yourself a beach bum, this is likely the park for you. Small but mighty, Manuel Antonio's beaches lead to small, hidden coves, and its jungle perimeter opens up onto surprise mountains. Keep your snorkel gear handy, too -- it's the perfect spot to explore a coral reef.
Carara National Park
The scarlet macaw calls Carara home, making it absolute paradise for the avid birdwatcher. Located on the central Pacific coast of the country, you'll find yourself deep in the rainforest, surrounded by tropical birds of all kinds. See if you can make it to the Tarcoles River Crocodile Bridge, an unassuming section of road that houses dozens of crocodiles on any given day underneath.
Rincon de la Vieja National Park
Costa Rica or Yellowstone? Here stands Rincon de la Vieja, the largest volcano in Costa Rica and, yes, still active. Though it hasn't erupted since 2011, its activity is obvious from surrounding geysers, fumaroles and hot springs. Legend has it that a young princess's lover was thrown into the volcano's crater by her disapproving father, so she's spent eternity wandering the mountain. It's believed that this princess has healing powers, so visitors come seeking relief.
Tenorio Volcano National Park
A three-hour trek through Tenorio is generously rewarded by the Rio Celeste Waterfall, a cerulean blue paradise that gets its color courtesy of the minerals from two converging rivers. The nearby volcano is dormant, but you'll still find shooting geysers and hot springs to explore.