Some parts Costa Rica can seem a little, well, overexposed. Many of the most popular destinations in this country can feel a bit like Disneyland Latin America and cost much more than savvy travelers are interested in spending, leaving tourists searching for an authentic Costa Rican experience, something less-explored and off the grid. Those places do exist, and after living here a couple of years, I’ve managed to stumble onto a few good ones.
There are secret beaches, secret caves, and even entire secret islands only accessible at low tide. While many areas of Costa Rica have been developed and are frequently visited, there are still those spots that have been left relatively untouched by tourism. And then, there’s my favorite place in the whole country: a not-so-hidden thermal river right next to the biggest hot springs resort in all the land. Like most great secrets, that one costs nothing.
Piscina de los Pobres
Eight miles from La Fortuna, right next door to the mega-resort Tabacon, two thermal rivers merge and create the free natural hot springs known to locals as the Piscina de los Pobres or Pool of the Poor. Not many tourists are aware of this place, which is marked only by a yellow gate and requires a bit of hiking. The current here is strong, so wear water shoes and leave young kids at the hotel.
The people most familiar with Cabuya are supposedly dead. At the very end of the Nicoya Peninsula, this tiny island that doubles as a cemetery can be reached only at low tide, and according to local legend, it’s haunted by ghosts. At night, people occasionally take candlelit walks on the island for funerals, casting an eerie glow over the water.
Bahia de los Piratas
This lengthy stretch of rose-colored sand and rocks used to be a hiding spot for pirates, hence the name. Ensconced in dry forest, the beach still has a clandestine feel and just one lonely hotel. Activities include kayaking, paddleboarding, and snorkeling. It’s also possible to horseback ride to this secluded beach for the day.
Costa Rica isn’t well known for its caves, but boy does it have some great ones, and they’re all in Barra Honda National Park. Although just one of the 42 known caves is accessible to the public, the area is an ideal stopping point if you’re driving from San José to Guanacaste. Beneath a majestic dry forest, the deep limestone cavern features stalactites and stalagmites. Around the caves, cacti are everywhere. Monkeys and bats, too. It’s weird, man.
This enormous but virtually unknown beach stretches for 6 miles on the shores of the Golfo Dulce in southern Costa Rica, dotted with coconut palms and almond trees and adjacent to a mangrove lagoon. Wildlife abounds, as do tiny, relaxing accommodations. The only other humans you encounter will be hotel staff, local fishermen, and a handful of lucky travelers.