Costa Rica is famous for year-round adventure tourism and its variety of adrenaline-fuelled outdoor activities, with numerous well-organized packages and guided outings. For further information on sporting activities, pick up the bi-monthly Costa Rica Outdoors magazine – they specialize in fishing, but cover other sports, too.
Almost everyone who comes to Costa Rica does some sort of hiking or walking, whether it be through the rainforest, on grassy uplands or drylands, or ambling along beaches and well-maintained national park trails. From lowland tropical forest to the heights of Mount Chirripó, there are opportunities for walking in all kinds of terrain, often for considerable distances.
Make sure you bring sturdy shoes or hiking boots and a hat, sunblock and lightweight rain gear. It helps to have binoculars, too, even if you don’t consider yourself an avid birder or animal-spotter; it’s amazing what they pick up that the naked eye misses. In certain areas, like Parque Nacional Corcovado – where you’ll be doing more walking than you’ve ever done before, unless you’re in the Marines – most people also bring a tent. In the high paramo of Chirripó, you’ll need to bring at least a sleeping bag.
There are a number of things you have to be careful of when hiking in Costa Rica. The chief danger is dehydration: always carry lots of water with you, preferably bottled, or a canteen, and bring a hat and sunscreen to protect yourself against sunstroke (and use both, even if it’s cloudy).
Each year many hikers get lost, although they’re nearly almost always found before it’s too late. If you’re venturing into a remote and unfamiliar area, bring a map and compass and make sure you know how to use both. To lessen anxiety if you do get lost, make sure you have matches, a torch and, if you are at a fairly high altitude, warm clothing. It gets cold at night above 1500m, and it would be ironic (and put quite a damper on your holiday) to end up with hypothermia in the tropics.
After hiking and walking, white-water rafting is probably the single most popular activity in Costa Rica. Some of the best rapids and rivers to be found south of the Colorado are here, and there’s a growing mini-industry of rafting outfitters, most of them in San José, Turrialba or La Virgen.
White-water rafting entails getting in a rubber dinghy with about eight other people (including a guide) and paddling, at first very leisurely, down a river, before negotiating exhilarating rapids of varying difficulty. Overall it’s very safe, and the ample life jackets and helmets help. Wildlife you are likely to see from the boat includes crocodiles, caiman, lizards, parrots, toucans, herons, kingfishers and iguanas. Most trips last a day, though some companies run overnight or multi-day excursions; costs range between $60 and $150 for a day, including transport, equipment and lunch. Dress to get wet, with a bathing suit, shorts and surfer sandals or gym shoes.
Rafters classify their rivers from Class I (easiest) to Class V (pretty hard – don’t venture onto one of these until you know what you’re doing). The most difficult rivers in Costa Rica are the Class III–IV+ Pacuaré and Reventazón (both reached from Turrialba), Río Naranjo (near Quepos) and Río Toro, and the Class V Upper Balsa (the last two both accessed from La Fortuna). The moderately easy Río Sarapiquí is a Class II river with some Class III rapids, and a fearsome Class IV upper section; the Río Savegre, near Quepos runs Class II–III rapids. The gentlest of all is the Río Corobicí a lazy ride along Class I flat water.
More than twenty rivers in Costa Rica offer good kayaking opportunities, especially the Sarapiquí, Reventazón, Pacuaré and Corobicí. The small town of in the Zona Norte, is a good base for customized kayaking tours, with a number of specialist operators or lodges that rent boats, equipment and guides.
Sea kayaking has become increasingly popular in recent years. This is an activity for experienced kayakers only, and should never be attempted without a guide – the number of rivers, rapids and streams pouring from the mountains into the oceans on both coasts can make currents treacherous, and kayaking dangerous without proper supervision.
Canopy tours, hanging bridges and aerial trams
The canopy tour craze that started in Monteverde in the early 1990s has swept the country, and now pretty much any town worth its salt has a zip-line or two. The standard tour consists of whizzing from lofty platform to platform via traverse cables, and while you’re moving too fast to see much wildlife, it’s definitely a thrill. In recent years, Tarzan swings and Superman cables (which you ride horizontally, arms stretched out like the eponymous superhero) have upped the ante, and several places now let you zip-line at night. Monteverde and the area around Volcán Arenal have some of the best canopy tours in Costa Rica.
More sedate, and more worthwhile for wildlife-watching, are the hanging bridges complexes, where you can experience spectacular views – if not a touch of vertigo – as you walk across the wobbly structures over serious heights. Several bridges take you right alongside the canopy of tall trees, some of which have colonized the bridges, draping their woody lianas over the ramparts; most offer tours with a naturalist guide, which can be a great way of gaining a better insight into life in the treetops. Again, Monteverde and Volcán Arenal are recommended places to take a “sky walk”.
For an even more relaxing meander through the canopy, you could try riding on an aerial tram, a gondola-like cable car that slowly circuits the upper reaches of the rainforest. Several places that operate canopy tours and hanging bridges also have aerial trams, though the most famous is the Rainforest Aerial Tram (now known as the Rainforest Adventures Costa Rica Atlantic), just outside Parque Nacional Braulio Carrillo; there’s also a Pacific branch, just north of Jacó.
Costa Rica has many lovely beaches, most of them on the Pacific coast. You do have to be careful swimming at many of them, however, as more than two hundred drownings occur each year – about four or five a week. Most are unnecessary, resulting from riptides, strong, swift-moving currents that go from the beach out to sea in a kind of funnel. It’s also important to be aware of fairly heavy swells. These waves might not look that big from the beach but can have a mighty pull when you get near their break point. Many people are hurt coming out of the sea, backs to the waves, which then clobber them from behind – it’s best to come out of the sea sideways, so that there is minimum body resistance to the water.
In addition to the above precautions, never swim alone, don’t swim at beaches where turtles nest (this means, more often than not, sharks), never swim near river estuaries (pollution and riptides) and always ask locals about the general character of the beach before you swim.
Surfing is very good on both of Costa Rica’s coasts, although there are certain beaches that are suitable during only parts of the year. You can surf all year round on the Pacific: running north to south the most popular beaches are Naranjo, Tamarindo, Boca de Barranca, Jacó, Hermosa, Quepos, Dominical and, in the extreme south near the Panamá border, Pavones. On the Caribbean coast, the best beaches are at Puerto Viejo de Talamanca and Punta Uva, further down the coast.
The north Pacific coast and Nicoya Peninsula is the country’s prime surfing area, with a wide variety of reef and beach breaks and lefts and rights of varying power and velocity. Playa Potrero Grande (also known as Ollie’s Point and made famous in the surf flick Endless Summer II) is only accessible by boat from Playa del Coco and offers a very fast right point break. Within Parque Nacional Santa Rosa, Playa Naranjo (or Witch’s Rock) gives one of the best breaks in the country and has the added attraction of good camping facilities, though you’ll need your own 4WD to reach them.
Moving down to the long western back of the Nicoya Peninsula, Playa Tamarindo has three sites for surfing, though parts of the beach are plagued by rocks. While they don’t offer a really demanding or wild ride, Tamarindo’s waves are very popular due to the large number of hotels and restaurants in the town nearby. Playa Langosta, just south of Tamarindo, offers right and left beach breaks, a little more demanding than Tamarindo. Playa Avellanas has a good beach break, with very hollow rights and lefts, while the faster Playa Negra nearby has a right point break that is one of the best in the country. Playa Nosara offers a fairly gentle beach break, with rights and lefts, though things hot up a bit as you work your way towards the tip of the peninsula, where playas Coyote, Manzanillo, Santa Teresa, Carmen, Mal País and, on the east coast, Monteurma, have consistent breaks.
Near Puntarenas on the central Pacific coast, Boca Barranca is a river mouth break with a very long left, while Puerto Caldera also has a good left. Playa Tivives (beach break) and Valor (a rocky point break) have good lefts and rights, as does the point break at Playa Escondida. Playa Jacó is not always dependable for good beach breaks, and the surf is not too big, though it’s within easy reach of Roca Loca, a rocky point break to the north, and, to the south, Playa Hermosa, a good spot for more experienced surfers, with a very strong beach break. The adjacent playas Esterillos Este, Esterillos Oeste, Bejuco and Bocas Damas offer similarly good beach breaks.
On the south Pacific coast, the river mouth at Quepos has a small left point break, while Playa Espadilla at Manuel Antonio is good when the wind is up, with beach breaks and left and right waves. Southwards, Playa El Rey offers left and right beach breaks, but you’re best off continuing to Dominical and some really great surfing, with strong lefts and rights and beautiful surroundings. Down at the very south of the country, Bahía Drake, accessible only by boat, gets going on a big swell. A much more reliable wave hits the shore at Playa Pavones, one of the longest left points in the world, very fast and with a good formation; it’s offset by the nearby right point break at Matapalo. Only hardcore surfers tend to tackle the remote reef break at Punta Burica.
The best surfing beaches on the Caribbean coast lie towards the south, from Cahuita to Manzanillo villages. Playa Negra at Cahuita has an excellent beach break, with the added bonus of year-round waves. Puerto Viejo de Talamanca is home to La Salsa Brava, one of the few legitimate “big waves” in Costa Rica, a very thick, tubular wave formed by deep water rocketing towards a shallow reef. Further south, Manzanillo has a very fast beach break in lovely surroundings.
Further north towards Puerto Limón are a couple of beaches that, while not in the class of Puerto Viejo, can offer experienced surfers a few good waves. Westfalia’s left and right beach breaks only really work on a small swell, while Playa Bonita, a few kilometres north of Limón, is known for its powerful and dangerous left; only people who really know what they are doing should try this. The right point break at Portete is easier to handle, though the left-breaking waves at Isla Uvita, just off the coast from Puerto Limón, are also considered tricky. The north Caribbean coast has a number of decent beach breaks, which you can reach along the canals north of Moin.
If you’re interested in learning to surf, there are several surf camps and schools in Tamarindo, Santa Teresa/Mal País and Jacó. Costa Rica is small enough that if things are quiet on one coast, it’s fairly easy to pack up your kit and hit the other (shuttle buses will take your board for an additional charge).
Diving and snorkelling
Though diving is less of a big deal in Costa Rica than in Belize or Honduras’s Bay Islands, there are a few worthwhile dive sites around the country: the best, however, lie some 500km off Costa Rica’s Pacific coast in the waters around Parque Nacional Isla del Coco.
You can also theoretically snorkel all along the Pacific coast – Playa Flamingo in northern Guanacaste has clear waters though not a lot to see, while Playa Panamá and Bahía Ballena also have good snorkelling. For people who want to see an abundance of underwater life, the small reef near Manzanillo on the Caribbean coast is the best; the nearby reef at Cahuita has suffered in recent years from erosion and is now dying.
Fishing and sports-fishing
Costa Rica has hit the big time in the lucrative sports-fishing game. Both coasts are blessed with the kind of big fish serious anglers love – marlin, sailfish, tarpon and snook among them. Sports-fishing is just that: sport, with the vast majority of fish returned to the sea alive. Its most obvious characteristic, though, is its tremendous expense: day-trips start at more than a few hundred dollars, while multi-day packages are in the thousands. Quepos and Golfito have long been good places to do some fishing, while Barra del Colorado in the northeast and Playa Flamingo in Guanacaste have turned into monothematic costly sports-fishing destinations. Although good fishing is possible all year round, the catch is seasonal (Pacific marlin, for example, can only be caught between November and April); January and February are the most popular months.
Casual anglers can find cheaper and more low-key fishing opportunities in the country’s many trout-rich freshwater rivers, or in Laguna de Arenal and the Refugio Nacional de Vida Silvestre Caño Negro, where rainbow bass fishing is especially good.
One oft-repeated statistic you’ll hear about Costa Rica is that the country boasts more than 885 species of birds (including migratory ones), a higher number than all of North America. Consequently, the birding is hugely impressive, and it’s likely that you’ll spot hummingbirds, scarlet macaws, toucans, kingfishers and a variety of trogons (the best time to see migratory birds is the dry season). The resplendent quetzal, found in the higher elevations of Monteverde, Parque Nacional Braulio Carrillo and the Cordillera de Talamanca, is elusive, but can still be spotted – the tiny hamlet of San Gerardo de Dota, close to Cerro de la Muerte, and the nearby Parque Nacional Los Quetzales, are by far the best places to see them.
Only certain places in Costa Rica lend themselves well to mountain biking. In general, the best areas for extensive biking are Parque Nacional Corcovado, the road from Montezuma to the Reserva Natural Absoluta Cabo Blanco on the southern Nicoya Peninsula and Parque Nacional Santa Rosa. The La Fortuna and Volcán Arenal area is also increasingly popular: you can bike to see the volcano (although not up it) and around the pretty Laguna de Arenal. Some tour operators also offer mountain biking as part of the transfer from La Fortuna to Monteverde.
There are plenty of bike rental shops throughout the country; you may also be able to rent one from local tour agencies. Prices range from $5 an hour or $10 to $20 for the day.
Almost everywhere you go in Costa Rica, with the exception of the waterlogged northern Limón Province, you should be able to hook up with a horseriding tour. Guanacaste is probably the best area in the country for riding, with a cluster of excellent haciendas (working cattle ranches) that also cater to tourists, offering bed, breakfast and horse hire.
Riding on the beach on the Nicoya Peninsula, especially in Montezuma in the south and Sámara on the west coast, is also very popular; however, there has been a history of mistreatment of horses in these places, so don’t expect the animals here to be in great shape. If you see any extreme cases of mistreatment, complain to the local tourist information centre or local residents.