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Costa Rica is famous for its incredible biodiversity and beachfront resorts, but its surrounding water is just as impressive. It’s home to volcanic rock formations, vibrant coral reefs, shipwrecks and abundant marine life. You’re likely to spot a sea turtle or two while dolphins dance in the surf, while watching potentially hundreds of fish species. World-class snorkeling and diving is possible for all levels of experience here, on both the Caribbean and Pacific coasts, including these top spots.
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The Caño Island Biological Reserve on Cano Island is one of the best things to do in Costa Rica, located about 13 miles offshore from the Osa Peninsula at Drake Bay, is often rated among the world’s best dive spots. The island’s pristine waters are some of the bluest you’ll find in Costa Rica and are home to an astounding variety of marine life. With such outstanding underwater visibility, one might see all sorts of things on any given day: sea turtles, white-tipped sharks, stingrays, moray rays, manta rays, moray eels, barracudas, tuna, snapper and even dolphins swimming alongside a humpback or pilot whale.
Cahuita National Park offers an other-worldly snorkeling and diving scene with more than 120 types of tropical fish, 35 different kinds of coral, 40 crustacean species and 120 types of mollusks. You don’t even need a boat here, you can simply walk right into the aquamarine-hued waters from Punta Cahuita with over three-and-a-half miles of pristine coastline. As the park is a protected area, you’ll have to hire the services of a guide to snorkel or dive here but there are multiple outfitters to choose from. While you’re here, on land keep an eye out for white-faced monkeys, colorful butterflies and coatis.
Not surprisingly, as you snorkel or dive around Isla Tortuga, one of two islands that make up the Islas Negritos Biological Reserve off the Nicoya Peninsula, you’re likely to spot sea turtles. The calm, crystal-clear waters are also home to a spectacular array of tropical fish and other marine life like angelfish, parrotfish, moray eels and eagle rays. Just offshore, dolphin, humpback and pilot whale sightings are common. The island is only accessible by boat, with tours available from Puntarenas, Jaco or Montezuma on the mainland.
Described by Jacques Cousteau as “the most beautiful island in the world,” Isla del Coco is a UNESCO World Heritage Site that sits 300 miles southwest of Cabo Blanco. The most exquisite marine park in the country and one of the world’s top diving destinations, the only way to access it, and the extraordinary dive sites, is to take a boat excursion. But your reward will be viewing its famous scalloped hammerhead populations, hundreds of exotic fish, rays, dolphins and whales.
The remote bat islands are located at the tip of Santa Rosa National Park off the coast of Playa Hermosa in Guanacaste. They host a diverse range of marine life, including the bull shark, its most famous resident, which attracts divers from across the globe to dive among the massive animals. There are also giant manta rays and other impressive rays, along with sea turtles and all sorts of colorful fish. Just a few of the other sightings include humpback and pilot whales, whale sharks and dolphins. As this area can be very affected by winds, you’ll find the best visibility from May through November, when the winds are a little less extreme.
The Catalina Islands, located just north of the many resort-based towns in northern Guanacaste Province, are a Pacific coast diving gem, made up of 20 small islands. A world-renowned spot for diving, it’s famous for its populations of rays, including giant manta rays, sting rays, bat rays, devil manta rays, spotted eagle rays, bullseye electric rays and cow-nosed rays. Dolphins, sea turtles, sharks and pilot whales are commonly spotted here too. The best months to come are from September through March, when the visibility is best. Half day diving and snorkeling tours to the islands are available from the Guanacaste region.
Just offshore from the town of Limon on the Caribbean side of Costa Rica is Isla Uvita, a premier diving destination that also has an interesting history in that it was the first spot that Christopher Columbus landed in 1502. Gorgeous reefs surround it, and it also boasts a shipwreck dive spot. The Phoenix sank here several years ago and now attracts fish serving as the perfect home, along with divers who come to view it. There are no tourist facilities of any kind, so you’ll need to visit on a day trip from Limon, which is about a 20-minute boat ride away.
Off the Papagayo Peninsula n the northwest province of Guanacaste, you’ll find some great opportunities for snorkeling in calm, protected inlets and bays. There are countless beaches with gorgeous white sands that edge these unspoiled waters where you can hop right in with your snorkel gear, including Playa Huevo, Playa Penca, Playa Jicaro, Playa Blanca, Playa Buena, Playa Junquillal and Playa Nacascolo.
The Gondoca-Manzanillo National Wildlife Refuge is one of the best places for snorkeling off the Caribbean coast. Its protected bays, shallow coral reefs and tiny islands are ideal, with inhabitants that include a colorful array of tropical fish and vibrant coral. It’s also possible to spot sea turtles, dolphins and manatees. The palm tree-lined soft white sandy beaches framed by turquoise waters are ideal just for relaxing and soaking up fantasy-like scenery too, although the moment you step under the water, you’ll experience an even more magical scene.
Gulfo Dulce off the Osa Peninsula is an ideal spot for those who want to view animals on land and sea. It’s home to a population spinner dolphins who are famous for putting on impromptu circus performances while the reefs just off the coast contain countless creatures, which makes it a popular place to return again and again for snorkeling, diving or just watching the scene from a boat.