Costa Rica is home to one of the most diverse ecosystems in the world. With lush, tropical rainforests and black sand beaches to the once active Mount Arenal volcano peeking through the horizon and even dry forests, this Central American nation is the perfect escape for all travelers, no matter your interest.

While most seek to visit the country based on more touristy attractions seen on social media—and the pura vida vibes—we had a chance to go off the beaten path thanks to National Geographic Expeditions. The unique itinerary focused primarily on delving into Costa Rica's abundant wildlife, while also gaining a deeper understanding of the conservation efforts taking place to preserve the richness this destination provides not only to its locals but also to the entire world.

From traversing swinging bridges and seeing a green viper coiled high in the trees to a relaxing river boat cruise that brought an unexpected show from wild white-faced Capuchin monkeys, here's how EBONY explores Costa Rica beyond its usual hotspots. Oh, and we also share the essentials you'll need to pack for this once-in-a-lifetime encounter.

Best places to stay

El Mangroove Resort, an Autograph Collection in Guanacaste. Image: courtesy of DeAnna Taylor.

Though small in area, the many regions of Costa Rica can feel very spread out. The easiest way to get around is by car or some type of tour operator that provides ground transportation. This could also mean breaking up your adventure and trying out multiple hotels for a more authentic and fuller experience.

Once you arrive into the country, the Costa Rica Marriott Hotel Hacienda Belen near the San Jose airport is a perfect stop to rest and refresh before your journey begins. Once in the Mount Arenal region, Hotel Arenal Kioro Suites & Spa is a gorgeous property with floor-to-ceiling windows that provide what feels like a panoramic view of the dormant volcano set against lush fauna and flora.

If you're heading to the Guanacaste region, aka the Pacific coast, El Mangroove from Marriott's Autograph Collection marries the right amount of luxe with the laid back vibes only this country can provide.

Must-try dishes

Costa Rican chifrijo. Image: courtesy of DeAnna Taylor.

You're in Central America, and it's an adventure, so your palate should reflect that as well. The great thing about Costa Rica, is that each region has its own spin on the local dishes, so even if you eat the same things, it will taste a little different as you travel around. An absolute must-try, no matter the region, is chifrijo. This dish consists of rice, beans, pico de gallo, fried or grilled pork and is topped with avocado.

The fruit and fresh fruit juices are some of the best you will ever try in your life. We practically ate our weight in the perfectly ripe mangos, papaya and watermelon during our visit. If you have a sweet tooth, you can't go wrong with tres leches or the local flan.

What to do

White-faced Capuchin monkey spotted along Rio Frio. Image: courtesy of DeAnna Taylor.

Of course, since we were off the beaten path, our activities consisted of things a little more adventurous in nature. For starters, NatGeo Expeditions paired us with an expert local guide named Jose Pablo Castillo, who could call off the names of nearly 300 bird species just from hearing their calls. Throughout our journey, he remained close by to explain the various wildlife species we encountered.

A wild macaw. Image: courtesy of DeAnna Taylor.

A highlight was taking a relaxing boat ride down the Rio Frio to spot native birds as well as a potential sloth sighting. We were successful in our mission, as we spotted a two-toed sloth lazily moving about a tree branch. This stretch of water in the La Fortuna area of the country also allowed for close encounters with several species of wild monkeys, including howlers, white-faced Capuchin and Central American spider monkeys. Along the way, we saw the emerald basilik, the "Jesus Christ lizard" live up to its nickname as it quickly ran across the river on just its hind legs.

The "Jesus Christ lizard" viewed from a scope. Image: courtesy of DeAnna Taylor.

For true adrenaline junkies, you'll want to visit the hanging bridges in Monteverde. Here, you can cross one of the area's longest swinging suspended paths, as you scope out rare birds like the Resplendent Quetzal—which happens to be the native bird of Guatemala. People from near and far travel to Costa Rica just to get a glimpse of the colorful, long-tailed bird. During this excursion, we also came across tarantulas, a venomous green viper snake and tons of bird species. It was truly like being on your own real-life episode of NatGeo or something on the Travel Channel.

Costa Rica's longest hanging bridge in Monteverde. Image: courtesy of DeAnna Taylor.

What to pack

This isn't your average tropical vacation, so you'll want to ensure you're equipped with a few essentials to make the journey smooth. Below, you can shop some of our recommendations including sunscreen, citronella bracelets to ward off mosquitos, hiking books, trail pants and more. Pura vida!

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Men's Long-Sleeved Hike Shirt

Price: $89

Shop at Patagonia
Men's Renegade Convertible Pants

Price: $82

Shop at REI
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Free Country
Women's Packable Rain Jacket

Price: $55

Shop at Target
Women's Waterproof Hiking Boot

Price: $100

Shop at Amazon
12-pack Mosquito Repellant Bracelets

Price: $15

Shop at Amazon
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PLAY Body Mousse SPF 50

Price: $34

Shop at Supergoop