La Cangreja waterfall pours its azure waters into Blue Lake.
Thornton Cohen

Undiscovered Costa Rica: 6 Secret Spots

One of the most amazing things about Costa Rica is that in spite of its booming tourism industry, there are still plenty of places to go that are relatively easy to access and yet off the beaten track. And believe me you'll be richly rewarded for venturing down the road less traveled. These six destinations offer a chance to truly get away from it all -- you'll see spectacular natural beauty, discover lovely isolated beaches, and have lots of face time with the local wildlife, all while avoiding the masses (or most of them, at least). Because many of these locations are remote, you'll travel by airplane, boat, and rental car.

Photo Caption: La Cangreja waterfall pours its azure waters into Blue Lake.
One of the cabins at Cabinas Los Cocos.
Thornton Cohen
Playa Zancudo
Playa Zancudo is a sleepy, isolated beach town on a narrow strip of land set between the Golfo Dulce and a saltwater mangrove lagoon. If you've ever pondered throwing it all away, downsizing, and moving to the beach, vacationing here is a good choice for a trial run. While you're here, you can go sportfishing, visit nearby Pavones for a surf session, or take an organized tour with Zancudo Tours. One of the better day trips will take you southward to Tiskita Jungle Lodge, which has a wonderful network of trails through the rain forests and fruit orchards of its private reserve. Any wannabe botanist will also want to allot enough time for a visit to the Wilson Botanical Gardens, the most impressive botanical gardens in all of Costa Rica (which is saying something). Because of timing issues, you won't be able to visit both these sites in one day, so plan accordingly.

Photo Caption: One of the cabins at Cabinas Los Cocos.
Rock wall climbing with Adventure Tours Hacienda Guachipelin.
Adventure Tours
Rincón de la Vieja National Park
Because it's not nearly as popular as the Arenal Volcano, the Rincón de la Vieja Volcano, along with its namesake national park, is an underexplored gem. The park features challenging and rewarding hikes, sulfur hot springs, volcanic mud deposits, and the ubiquitous (but stunning nonetheless) jungle waterfalls. I suggest you spend an afternoon doing the most popular hike here, the relatively short and gentle Las Pailas loop, which showcases the park's famed volcanic fumaroles (holes in the earth from which smoke and volcanic gases escape) and mud pots (spots where the heat from below causes the topsoil to boil). On the following day, try the hike to Blue Lake and La Cangreja Falls, a vigorous 2-hour trek that pays off with a beautiful forest waterfall emptying into a postcard-perfect turquoise lake. This is a great spot for a picnic lunch and a cool dip.

Photo Caption: Rock wall climbing with Adventure Tours Hacienda Guachipelin.
Barra Honda National Park, in the peninsula's interior, protects a deep, underground cave system.
Thornton Cohen
Barra Honda National Park
Encompassing a seemingly endless network of caves, this fascinating (and often ignored) national park is ideal for an afternoon of exploring. You'll be treated to an enormous variety of rock formations (not just stalactites and stalagmites) as you make your way through these mysterious limestone caverns. The park is also home to one of Costa Rica's last dry forests -- one of the rarest habitats on earth. Cacti and capuchin monkeys may seem like a strange mix, but you'll find them both here.

Photo Caption: Barra Honda National Park, in the peninsula's interior, protects a deep, underground cave system.
The surf at Playa Samara, Costa Rica.
Frommers.com Community
Playa Samara
Although popular with Costa Ricans as a weekend and holiday destination, Playa Sámara is often overlooked by tourists. That may be because the town and its beach themselves are nothing special. But nearby you will find several of this coastline's most stunning stretches of sand. Take the time to explore and enjoy such hidden gems as Playa Barrigona and Playa Carrillo. And don't miss a chance to take to the skies on an ultralight flight with the folks at Auto Gyro America.

Photo Caption: The surf at Playa Samara, Costa Rica.
After working up a sweat getting there, you'll want to take the plunge at Montezuma Waterfall.
Jason Kremkau
Montezuma
The Nicoya Peninsula has many of the same charms and nearly as many miles of beach as Guanacaste, but far sparser crowds. Montezuma is the original beach destination out this way, and it remains a great place to get in some sun and sand time, while also visiting a couple of spectacular waterfalls. You can hike to the foot of the Montezuma Waterfall, but I prefer visiting it as part of the Montezuma Waterfall Canopy Tour. After this, take a horseback tour to Cataratas El Chorro (El Chorro Falls). If you time it right, you can be riding home along the beach as the sun sets.

Spend a full day at the Cabo Blanco Nature Reserve, the country's first officially protected area. The main trail inside this park, Sendero Sueco, leads to the gorgeous and almost always deserted Playa Balsita. A trip to Cabo Blanco Nature Reserve can easily be combined with a kayak and snorkel tour to the little cemetery island located just off the village of Cabuya. Finally, don't miss out on eating at Playa de los Artistas, a rustic yet enchanting beachfront restaurant.

Photo Caption: After working up a sweat getting there, you'll want to take the plunge at Montezuma Waterfall.
Relaxation at the Flor Blanca Resort.
Courtesy of Flor Blanca
Malpais and Santa Teresa
Although the argument can be made that Malpaís and Santa Teresa is no longer the country's best-kept secret, this outpost on the southern tip of the Nicoya Peninsula is remote, romantic, and still crowd-free. Very few visitors to Costa Rica make an effort to reach this remote beach destination. It's their loss. Spoil yourself with a splurge at Florblanca Resort, or bunk with the surfers and backpackers at the Selina Santa Teresa North. Spend your remaining days beachcombing, sunbathing, and surfing -- this is what relaxation is all about.

Photo Caption: Relaxation at the Flor Blanca Resort.
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