Though Costa Rica is known more for stunning beaches, lush rainforest and some of the best surfing on the planet, and though this small nation certainly cannot come close to the world-class snorkeling and scuba diving available in other Central American countries – Panama, Belize, and Honduras – the undersea landscape and marine life of this beautiful country have their own unique charm. Costa Rica snorkeling features warm, turquoise and cobalt waters filled with brightly-colored tropical fish, small reefs, sea turtles, whale sharks, dolphins, manta rays and sting rays, make a day exploring the ocean well worthwhile, and it’s a great way to round out any itinerary. So if you’re seeking beneath-the-waves action? Here’s what you should see.
5. Tortuga Island, Nicoya Peninsula
Just off Costa Rica’s Nicoya Peninsula, this idyllic island is the stuff that beach lovers’ dreams are made of – white sand, palm trees, tiki torch thatched-roof beachfront restaurants and crystalline cerulean waters as far as the eye can see. Though the snorkeling here is not quite as good as the other points on our list, there’s still a lot to see here. Plus you can enter the water right from the sandy beach here, and visibility is good when the weather is clear – from 30 to 50 feet, and up to 80 feet when conditions are just perfect.
Highlights: giant schools of grunts, snapper, eagle rays, turtles, stingrays, sea turtles, angelfish, octopi, sea horses, starfish, whale sharks, dolphins, and eels.
4. Gandoca-Manzanillo Wildlife Refuge, South Caribbean
On Costa Rica’s southern Caribbean coast, the Gandoca-Manzanillo Wildlife Refuge is a popular snorkel and dive site, replete with protected bays, picturesque islands and a protected coral reef that, in addition to attracting sun-seekers and beachcombers, provide the ideal haven for an extensive variety of marine life. The reserve is home to manatees and dolphins, and from March to July, a population of nesting sea turtles (leatherback, hawksbill and green) that gather here to lay their eggs.
Highlights: sea turtles, mantatees, dolphins, venus sea fans, blue parrotfish, angelfish, sea anemones, urchins, shrimp, lobsters, oysters, sea cucumbers and sponges.
3. Golfo Dulce, South Pacific
One of only four tropical fjords in the world, the Golfo Dulce’s warm, clear waters – ranging in jaw-dropping colors from sea glass green to deep jade – are an extraordinary habitat for marine life, attracting migrating humpback whales, several species of dolphins, sea turtles, sting and manta rays, huge schools of brightly-colored tropical fish, and big, friendly whale sharks. With a variety of rocky and coral reef formations, it’s easy to spend a full day out on the water exploring different areas throughout the gulf, and while you cruise around, you’re more than likely to get treated to a show by the region’s significant population of spinner dolphins.
Highlights: dolphins, sea turtles, whale sharks, stingrays, manta rays, parrotfish, flag fish, flying fish, lobsters, octopi, sea fans and moray eels.
Cahuita National Park, South Caribbean
With one of the largest living coral reefs in Costa Rica, Punta Cahuita in Cahuita National Park is undoubtedly one of the best snorkel experiences in the country. The reef is home to over 35 species of coral, 120 species of fish and 40 species of crustacean, and as an added bonus, the beaches in the park are spectacular – long swipes of powdery white sand fringed by coconut palms. Visit in February, March, September or October for the best underwater visibility (and lowest likelihood of rain).
Highlights: extensive coral reefs (elkhorn, smooth brain, and over 30 other species), sea turtles, eels, sea horses, anemones, sea cucumbers, manta rays, sea urchins, octopi, venus sea fans, angelfish, blue parrotfish, barracuda, butterfly fish, stingrays, and 3 species of harmless sharks.
1. Caño Island, Osa Peninsula
Near the Osa Peninsula, easily accessed from Uvita or Drake Bay, Caño Island Biological Reserve is a must-see for snorkelers and scuba divers that find themselves in Costa Rica. Visibility here is great year-round, from 40 to 100 feet, meaning that all visitors that come to explore this foreign underwater world will get an unobstructed view of the copious diversity of marine life under the surface. It’s like swimming in an aquarium – you’ll see more brightly-colored reef fish than you can count, and in addition to those little undersea beauties, you’ll be treated to an ever-changing landscape of curious sea creatures gliding by. Gentle turtles, playful dolphins, stingrays, manta rays, moray eels, pilot whales, and much, much more. It’s utterly magical.
Discover Caño Island on ROAM's Into the Wild escape, or our Romantic Adventure trip. Or get more inspiration with our complete guide to planning your Costa Rica honeymoon.
Highlights: 19 species of coral (lobe, star column, false brain and many more), sea urchins, sea turtles, grunts, dolphins, stingrays, manta rays, moray eels, parrotfish, pufferfish, damselfish, sailfish, marlin, needlefish, tuna, snapper, white-tipped reef sharks, pilot whales, false orcas, and the occasional whale shark.