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Alternative Ways to See the Best of Costa Rica

Many of the most famous spots in the world’s first and most aggressively marketed eco destination are showing signs of wear and tear. Here’s where to go instead.

More than 2.5 million tourists visited Costa Rica in 2015, up five percent on the previous year. Even if that number includes entries by the country’s many foreign expats, that’s a lot of visitors tramping around a country the size of West Virginia. Overcrowding in Manuel Antonio National Park on the Pacific Coast, one of the country’s smallest and most popular parks, has led to visitor number caps per day. Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve saw more than 8,000 visitors in 2015 and the town on the doorstep of that reserve has, by one conservative estimation, nearly 70 hotels, inns and hostels.

Luckily, 26% of the land mass of Costa Rica is currently protected as national parks or other types of designated wild areas, so you can still find a less-crowded, more nature-filled experience if you know where to look. Here are alternatives to three of Costa Rica’s most popular (and most worn out) destinations, guaranteed to deliver smaller crowds, bigger nature, and better memories.

For volcanic hot springs and adventures
Skip: La Fortuna and Arenal Volcano
La Fortuna is an ugly town full of tourist traps, zip line operators, souvenir shops, grungy hostels and expensive and crowded hot springs. Also, the Arenal Volcano has not exhibited any activity since 2010 and therefore has not put on its dramatic nighttime red hot lava show in years (despite what the official Costa Rica Tourism website says).

 Alternative: Rincón de la Vieja Volcano National Park
You’ll find more affordable and less crowded volcano-fed hot springs at the Rincón de la Vieja volcano, which had an impressive explosion in 2012 and continues to rumble and churn. Plus, you can go extreme tubing (just put those knee guards on).

 Stay at: Blue River Resort and Hot Springs, which offers enormous standalone cabins around a series natural hot spring soaking pools. Extreme tubing on a nearby river is offered through this resort as well.

For wildlife in the clouds
Skip: Monteverde Cloud Forest Biological Reserve
This reserve is a jewel in Costa Rica’s crown and protects a vast tract of valuable cloud forest. These days, unfortunately, your take away is more likely to be memories of tour-bus lines, long waits to walk along a limited network of trails (most of the reserve is off limits), big crowds, and a hefty $20 entry fee.

Alternative: San Gerardo de Dota
Even though this vast cloud forest is within a few hours of the capital of San Jose, few visit this area. Hiking trails abound, local guides are good, and you have a real chance of seeing the amazing resplendent quetzal and other creatures including tapir if you’re lucky.

Stay at: Dantica Cloud Forest Lodge where 10 bungalows cling to a forested hillside within a private reserve within the Quetzal National Park. Eco-fuel room heaters help keep you toasty at more than 8,000 feet and floor-to-ceiling windows make you feel like you’re inside the rainforest even when you’re inside your room.

For “Pura Vida” on the beach
Skip: the Pacific Coast
Costa Rica’s Pacific Coast is home to many great destinations but, on the whole, it’s increasingly crowded, pricey, and hectic.

Alternative: Southern Caribbean Coast
A laid-back “pura vida” pace, fewer travelers, and better beaches await you on Costa Rica's southern Caribbean Coast. Base yourself in or around Puerto Viejo and prepare to do little more than wiggle toes in sand, sip cold beer, and repeat. The more ambitious among you can swim, surf, go tide pooling, visit the Jaguar Rescue Center  to see rescued monkey and baby sloths, or wander through Finca la Isla Botanical Garden looking for tree frogs, boas and poison dart frogs.

Stay at: Le Cameleon Boutique Hotel, a starkly minimalist and chic hideaway across the street from lovely Playa Cocles offering 23 remarkably white rooms (even the TVs are white).

 >>Next: How to Experience the Real Costa Rica