Miles of shoreline, endless warm water and an array of national parks and reserves provide an inviting playground for active travelers. Whether it’s the solitude of absolute wilderness, family-oriented hiking and rafting adventures, or surfing and jungle trekking you seek, Costa Rica offers fun to suit everyone.
Hiking & Trekking
Hiking opportunities around Costa Rica are seemingly endless. With extensive mountains, canyons, dense jungles, cloud forests and two coastlines, this is one of Central America’s best and most varied hiking destinations.
Hikes come in an enormous spectrum of difficulty. At tourist-packed destinations such as Monteverde, trails are clearly marked and sometimes paved. This is fantastic if you’re traveling with kids or aren’t confident about route-finding. For long-distance trekking, there are many more options in the remote corners of the country.
Opportunities for moderate hiking are typically plentiful in most parks and reserves. For the most part, you can rely on signs and maps for orientation, though it helps to have some navigational experience (your phone compass might come in handy). Good hiking shoes, plenty of water and confidence in your abilities may enable you to combine several shorter day hikes into a lengthier expedition. Tourist-information centers at park entrances are great resources for planning your intended route.
If you’re properly equipped with camping essentials, the country’s longer and more arduous multiday treks are at your disposal. Costa Rica’s top challenges are scaling Cerro Chirripó, traversing Corcovado and penetrating deep into the heart of La Amistad. While Chirripó can be undertaken independently, local guides are required for much of La Amistad and for all of Corcovado.
How to Make It Happen
If you’re planning your trip around long-distance trekking, it’s best to visit during the dry season (December to April). Outside this window, rivers become impassable and trails (and roads!) are prone to flooding. In the highlands, journeys become more taxing in the rain, and the bare landscape offers little protection.
Costa Rica is hot and humid: hiking in these tropical conditions, harassed by mosquitoes, can really take it out of you. Wear light clothing that will dry quickly. Overheating and dehydration are the main sources of misery on the trails, so be sure to bring plenty of water and take rest stops. Make sure you have sturdy, comfortable footwear and a lightweight rain jacket.
Unfortunately, people have been known to be robbed while on some of the more remote trails. Although this rarely happens, it is always advisable to hike in a group for added safety. Hiring a local guide is another excellent way to enhance your experience, avoid getting lost and learn an enormous amount about the flora and fauna around you.
Some of the local park offices have maps, but this is the exception rather than the rule. If you are planning to do independent hiking on long-distance trails, be sure to purchase your maps in San José in advance.
A number of companies offer trekking tours in Costa Rica:
Feature: These Boots Were Made for Walking
Some suggestions for sturdier tropical-hiking footwear, to supplement the flip-flops.
Rubber boots Pick these up at any hardware store or at some national-park entrances for around US$6. They’re indestructible, protect you from creepy-crawlies and can be hosed off at day’s end. Downsides: they're not super-comfortable, and if they fill up with water or mud, your feet are wet for the rest of the day.
Sport sandals Chacos, Tevas or Crocs are great for rafting and river crossings, though they offer minimal foot protection.
Waterproof hiking boots If you're planning a serious trek in the mountains, it’s best to invest in a pair of solid, waterproof hiking boots.
Point and beach breaks, lefts and rights, reefs and river mouths, warm water and year-round waves make Costa Rica a favorite surfing destination. For the most part, the Pacific coast has bigger swells and better waves during the latter part of the rainy season, but the Caribbean cooks from November to May. Basically, there's a wave waiting to be surfed at any time of year.
For the uninitiated, lessons are available at almost all of the major surfing destinations – especially popular towns include Jacó, Dominical, Sámara and Tamarindo on the Pacific coast. Surfing definitely has a steep learning curve, and it can be dangerous if the currents are strong. With that said, the sport is accessible to children and novices, though it’s advisable to start with a lesson and always inquire locally about conditions before you paddle out.
Throughout Costa Rica, waves are big (though not massive), and many offer hollow and fast rides that are perfect for intermediates. As a bonus, Costa Rica is one of the few places on the planet where you can surf two different oceans in the same day. Advanced surfers with plenty of experience can contend with some of the world’s most famous waves. The top ones include Ollie’s Point and Witch’s Rock, off the coast of the Santa Rosa sector of the Área de Conservación Guanacaste (featured in Endless Summer II); Mal País and Santa Teresa, with a groovy scene to match the powerful waves; Playa Hermosa, whose bigger, faster curls attract a more determined (and experienced) crew of wave-chasers; Pavones, a legendary long left across the sweet waters of the Golfo Dulce; and the infamous Salsa Brava in Puerto Viejo de Talamanca, for experts only.
How to Make It Happen
Most international airlines accept surfboards (they must be properly packed in a padded board bag) as one of the two pieces of checked luggage, though this is getting harder and pricier in the age of higher fuel tariffs. Domestic airlines offer more of a challenge: they will accept surfboards for an extra charge, but the board must be under 2.1m in length. On full flights, there’s a chance your board won’t make it on because of weight restrictions.
An alternative is to buy a new or used board in Costa Rica and then sell it before you leave. Great places to start your search include Jacó, Mal País and Santa Teresa, and Tamarindo. It’s usually possible to buy a cheap longboard for about US$250 to US$300, and a cheap shortboard for about US$150 to US$200. Many surf shops will buy back your board for about 50% of the price you paid.
Outfitters in many of the popular surf towns rent all kinds of boards, fix dings, give classes and organize excursions. Jacó, Tamarindo, Pavones and Puerto Viejo de Talamanca are good for these types of activities.
- Costa Rica Surf Camp Excellent teachers with safety certification and low teacher-student ratios.
- Dominical Surf Adventures An excellent source of surf lessons in Dominical.
- Iguana Surf Playa Tamarindo’s stalwart surf shop has lessons, rentals and good tips.
- Caribbean Surf School Based in Puerto Viejo de Talamanca, Hershel is widely considered to be one of the best teachers on the Caribbean side.
- Pura Vida Adventures An excellent women-only surf-and-yoga camp at Playa El Carmen.
- Pato Surf School A great place to learn in super-chill Samara, with relaxed instructors and agreeable waves.
Bird- & Wildlife-Watching
Costa Rica’s biodiversity is legendary, and the country delivers unparalleled opportunities for bird- and wildlife-watching. Most people are already familiar with the most famous, yet commonly spotted, animals. You’ll instantly recognize monkeys bounding through the treetops, sloths clinging to branches and toucans gliding beneath the canopy. Young children, even if they have been to the zoo dozens of times, typically love the thrill of spotting creatures in the wild.
For slightly older visitors, keeping checklists is a fun way to add an educational element to your travels. If you really want to know what you’re looking at, pick up wildlife and bird guides before your trip – look for ones with color plates for easy positive IDs (Rainforest Publications produces easy-to-store laminated foldouts of birds, flowers and fauna).
A quality pair of binoculars (starting at US$200 to US$300) is highly recommended and can really make the difference between far-off movement and a veritable face-to-face encounter (some guides and lodges can lend you a pair). For expert birders, a spotting scope is essential, and multipark itineraries will allow you to quickly add dozens of new species to your all-time list. Optics are heavy and expensive, though, so consider that when packing.
How to Make It Happen
Costa Rica is brimming with avian life at every turn, but sometimes it takes an experienced guide to help you notice it.
Aratinga Tours Some of the best bird tours in the country are led by Belgian ornithologist Pieter Westra.
Tropical Feathers Local owner and guide Noel Ureña has over 16 years’ experience leading birding tours.
Birding Eco Tours An international bird-tour company with highly entertaining and qualified guides in Costa Rica.
Feature: Top Five Spots to Watch Wildlife
Parque Nacional Corcovado At the heart of the Península de Osa, this is the country’s richest wildlife area.
Parque Nacional Tortuguero Canals and waterways provide excellent birdwatching.
Refugio Nacional de Vida Silvestre Caño Negro Expansive wetlands provide a refuge for reptiles and avians.
Monteverde & Santa Elena These reserves provide unique insight into the cloud-forest ecosystem.
Boca Tapada Area The steamy rivers near the Nicaraguan border are a birders', as well as a fishers', delight.
Windsurfing & Kitesurfing
Laguna de Arenal is the nation’s undisputed windsurfing (and kitesurfing) center. From December to April winds are strong and steady, averaging 20 knots in the dry season, often with maximum winds of 30 knots, and windless days are a rarity. The lake has a year-round water temperature of 18°C (64°F) to 21°C (70°F), with 1m-high swells.
For warmer water (but more inconsistent winds), try Puerto Soley in the less-visited Bahía Salinas.
White-Water Rafting & Kayaking
White-water rafting has remained one of Costa Rica’s top outdoor pursuits since the ’80s. Ranging from family-friendly Class I riffles to nearly unnavigable Class V rapids, the country’s rivers offer highly varied experiences.
First-time runners are catered for year-round, while seasoned enthusiasts arrive en masse during the wildest months from June to October. There is also much regional variation, with gentler rivers located near Manuel Antonio along the central Pacific coast, and world-class runs along the Río Pacuare in the Central Valley. Since all white-water rafting in Costa Rica requires the presence of a certified guide, you will need to book trips through a reputable tour agency. No matter the run, you'll get totally soaked and tossed about, so pack a sense of humor, but no fancy clothes or jewelry.
River kayaking has its fair share of loyal fans. The tiny village of La Virgen in the northern lowlands is the unofficial kayaking capital of Costa Rica and the best spot to hook up with other paddlers. The neighboring Río Sarapiquí has an impressive variety of runs that cater to all ages and skill levels.
With 1228km of coastline, two gulfs and plentiful mangrove estuaries, Costa Rica is also an ideal destination for sea kayaking. This is a great way for paddlers to access remote areas and catch glimpses of rare birds and wildlife. Access varies considerably, and is largely dependent on tides and currents.
How to Make It Happen
June to October are considered peak season for river rafting and kayaking, though some rivers offer good runs all year. Government regulation of outfitters is shoddy, so ask lots of questions about your guide’s water-safety, emergency and medical training. If you suspect they’re bluffing, move along – there are plenty of legit outfits.
River kayaking can be organized in conjunction with white-water-rafting trips if you are experienced; sea kayaking is popular year-round.
Aguas Bravas In La Virgen, this is the best outfitter on Costa Rica’s best white water.
Exploradores Outdoors This outfit offers one- and two-day trips on the Ríos Pacuare, Reventazón and Sarapiquí.
Green Rivers A young and fun Sarapiquí-based outfit working out of the Posada Andrea Cristina.
Pineapple Tours Exciting half-day kayak trips go through caves and mangrove channels.
H2O Adventures Arranges two- and five-day adventures on the Río Savegre.
Ríos Tropicales Multiday adventures on the Río Pacuare and two days of kayaking in Tortuguero.
Costa Rica Expeditions This outfitter handles small groups and offers rafting trips that cater to foodies.
Gulf Islands Kayaking Tours on offer include five days of sea kayaking in Corcovado.
Feature: Top Five Spots to White-Water Raft & Kayak
Turrialba Home to the country’s most popular rafting rivers, the Pacuare and Reventazón.
La Virgen The base town for rafting and kayaking on the Río Sarapiquí.
Parque Nacional Manuel Antonio A tourist mecca that offers family-friendly rafting year-round.
Parque Nacional Tortuguero Boasts 310 sq km of wildlife-rich and kayak-friendly lagoons and canals.
Bahía Drake Extensive mangrove patches are optimally explored by kayak.
The most vibrant life in the rainforest takes place at canopy level, but with trees extending 30m to 60m in height, the average human has a hard time getting a look at what’s going on up there. You will find canopy tours everywhere in Costa Rica, and many of them will also have a zipline or two to whiz along for a small additional charge. The most elaborate facilities also have Superman cables (which allow you to fly like the Man of Steel) and Tarzan swings.
Some companies have built elevated walkways through the trees. SkyTrek near Monteverde and Rainmake Aerial Walkway near Quepos are two of the most established operations. A somewhat newer option is Diamante Eco Adventure Park in Guanacaste, which offers dual ziplines, allowing guests to ride side by side. Canopy Mal País allows you to surf and zipline at the same time – sort of! – within spitting distance of the Pacific.
Diving & Snorkeling
The good news is that Costa Rica offers body-temperature water with few humans and abundant marine life. The bad news is that visibility is low because of silt and plankton, and soft corals and sponges are dominant.
However, if you’re looking for fine opportunities to see massive schools of fish, as well as larger marine animals such as turtles, sharks, dolphins and whales, then jump right in. It’s also worth pointing out that there are few places in the world where you could feasibly dive in the Caribbean and the Pacific on the same day – though why not take your time?
The Caribbean Sea is better for novice divers and snorkelers, with the beach towns of Manzanillo and Cahuita particularly well suited to youngsters. Puerto Viejo de Talamanca lays claim to a few decent sites that can be explored on a discovery dive. Along the Pacific, Isla del Caño ups the ante for those with solid diving experience.
Isla del Coco is the exception to the rule – this remote island floating in the deep Pacific is regarded by veteran divers as one of the best spots on the planet. To dive the wonderland of Coco, you’ll need to visit on a liveaboard and have logged some serious time underwater.
How to Make It Happen
Generally, visibility isn’t great during the rainy months, when rivers swell and their outflow clouds the ocean. At this time, boats to offshore locations offer better viewing opportunities.
The water is warm – around 24°C (75°F) to 29°C (84°F) at the surface, with a thermocline at around 20m below the surface where it drops to 23°C (73°F). If you’re keeping it shallow, you can skin-dive.
If you’re interested in diving but aren’t certified, you can usually complete a one-day introductory course that will allow you to do one or two accompanied dives. If you love it – and most people do – certification courses take three to four days and cost around US$350 to US$500.
To plan a trip to Isla del Coco, get in touch with the liveaboard operation Undersea Hunter.
Though horseback-riding trips are ubiquitous throughout Costa Rica, quality and care for the horses vary. Rates range from US$25 for an hour or two to more than US$100 for a full day. Overnight trips with pack horses can also be arranged and are a popular way of accessing remote destinations in the national parks. Riders weighing more than 100kg (220lb) cannot be carried by small local horses. Always ask to see the horses beforehand, because some shady operators send out malnourished and mistreated animals.
Mountain Biking & Cycling
Although the winding, potholed roads and aggressive drivers can be a challenge, cycling is on the rise in Costa Rica. Numerous less-trafficked roads offer plenty of adventure – from scenic mountain paths with sweeping views to rugged trails that take riders through streams and past volcanoes.
The best long-distance rides are along the Pacific coast’s Interamericana, which has a decent shoulder and is relatively flat, and on the road from Montezuma to the Reserva Natural Absoluta Cabo Blanco on the southern Península de Nicoya. The hills around Bahia Salinas in the northwest are good fun, too.
Mountain biking has taken off in recent years and there are good networks of trails around Corcovado and Arenal, as well as more rides in the central mountains.
How to Make It Happen
Most international airlines will fly your bike as a piece of checked baggage for an extra fee. Pad it well, because the box is liable to be roughly handled.
Alternatively, you can rent mountain bikes in almost any tourist town, but the condition of the equipment varies greatly. For a monthly fee, Trail Source (www.trailsource.com) can provide you with information on trails all over Costa Rica and the world.
Outfitters in Costa Rica and the US can organize multiday mountain-biking trips. If you want to tour Costa Rica by bicycle, be forewarned that the country’s cycling shops are decidedly more geared toward utilitarian concerns. Bring any specialized equipment (including a serious lock) from home.
Something about yoga and Costa Rica just go together: whether people come here solely to relax or to beat up their bodies in the surf or on the trails, nothing seems to be a better cure-all than a session on the mat. Along the beaches, schools are catering to this need better than ever (and the fantastic views at many places are part of the allure). Drop in for a class or stay for a week; you'll leave with body and mind refreshed. Some favorites: