Costa Rica Outdoor Adventures
Ziplining and Canopy Tours
Costa Rica gave the world the so-called canopy tour, a series of ziplines that let you glide through the treetops, attached to a secure harness. Although billed as a way to get up close and personal with nature, your focus and attention will likely be on the ride rather than spotting that elusive resplendent quetzal. No matter. Ziplining has become one of Costa Rica's signature activities for visitors. The term “canopy tour” has expanded to include hanging bridges and elevated trams where you walk or ride through the forest canopy. The latter two really are more effective ways to view all the nature the treetops have to offer.
Ziplines are a fast-paced, thrilling experience. You’re attached to a zipline with a safety harness, and then you “fly” at about 15–40 mph from one tree platform to the next. (You may be anywhere from 60 to 300 feet above the forest floor.) Tree-to-tree ziplines date from the 19th century and have been a bona fide activity for visitors to Costa Rica since the mid-1990s when the first tour opened in Monteverde. These tours are tremendous fun, but you won’t see any animals. An average fitness level—and above-average level of intrepidness—are all you need. Be brutally frank in assessing your desire and ability to do this, and remember that once you start, there’s no turning back.
Bridges and trams are canopy tours in a literal sense, where you walk along suspension bridges, ride along in a tram, or are hoisted up to a platform to get a closer look at birds, monkeys, and sloths. They’re also called hanging-bridges tours, sky walks, or platform tours. If seeing nature at a more leisurely pace is your goal, opt for these, especially the bridge excursions. Early mornings are the best time for animal sightings—at 50–250 feet above ground, the views are stupendous.
Best Canopy Tours
El Santuario Canopy Adventure Tour, Manuel Antonio National Park. The mile-plus cable in the system here is Costa Rica's longest single zipline.
Original Canopy Tour, Limón. A branch of Costa Rica's first zipline tour is the highlight of a nature-themed park near the Caribbean coast.
Osa Canopy Tour, Uvita. One of the South Pacific's few such operations combines ziplines with rappelling stations and a Tarzan swing.
Rainforest Adventures, Braulio Carrillo National Park. These folks pioneered the concept of guided gondola rides through the canopy.
Rincón de la Vieja Canopy, Rincón de la Vieja National Park. Combine ziplines with horseback riding and sulfur springs on the summit of northern Costa Rica's best-known volcano.
Selvatura, Monteverde Cloud Forest. Some of the longest ziplines in the country are here. There is also an extensive bridge system that lets you walk through the canopy at your own pace.
Adventurous anglers flock to Costa Rica to test their will—and patience—against an assortment of feisty fresh- and saltwater fish. Just remember: catch-and-release is usually expected, so the pleasure’s all in the pursuit. With so many options, the hardest decision is where to go. Inshore fishing in the country’s rivers and lakes yields roosterfish, snapper, barracuda, jacks, and snook. Fly-fishing aficionados love the extra-large tarpon and snook because of their sheer size and fight. The country’s coasts swarm with a multitude of bigger game, including the majestic billfish—the marlin and the sailfish. There are many top-notch fishing outfitters up and down both coasts and around rivers and lakes, so planning a fishing trip is easy. Charter boats range from 22 feet to 60 feet in length. With a good captain, a boat in the 22- to 26-foot range for up to three anglers can cost from $500 to $900 a day. A 28- to 32-foot boat fits four and costs from $800 to $1,500 per day. A boat for six people costs $1,400 to $2,000 and measures between 36 and 47 feet. A 60-foot boat for up to 10 anglers costs about $3,000 a day. A good charter boat company employs experienced captains and offers good equipment, bait, and food and beverages.
You’re guaranteed a few good catches no matter what the season, as demonstrated by the cadre of sportsmen who circle the coasts year-round chasing that perfect catch. If your heart is set on an area or a type of fish, do your research ahead of time and plan accordingly. Costa Rica teems with a constant supply of fish, some of which might seem unique to North Americans.
Northern Lowlands: Lake Arenal and Caño Negro are great freshwater spots to snag extra-large tarpon, snook, and the ugly-but-fascinating guapote bass. Start your fishing journey in nearby La Fortuna.
Guanacaste: Tamarindo is the main departure point for anglers looking to find big game, including tuna, roosterfish, and marlin. Boats also leave from Playas del Coco, Ocotal, Tambor, and Flamingo Beach, which are best fished May through August. All are close to the well-stocked northern Papagayo Gulf.
Central Pacific coast: If you’re hunting sailfish and marlin between December and April, head to the Central Pacific coast around Los Sueños and Quepos, where up to 10 sailfish are caught per boat.
South Pacific: Puerto Jiménez, Golfito, and Zancudo are less developed than the other Pacific regions and are famous for their excellent inshore fishing for snapper and roosterfish, though offshore big game is also good in the area, especially November through January.
Caribbean coast: Barra del Colorado is a popular sportfishing hub and a great departure point for freshwater fishing on the Caribbean side of the country. Fly fishers looking for the ultimate challenge head to the San Juan River for its legendary tarpon. The Colorado River lures anglers with jack, tuna, snook, tarpon, and dorado. Transportation and tours can be arranged by the hotels listed in Tortuguero or Puerto Viejo de Sarapiquí.
Scuba Diving and Snorkeling
For snorkelers and scuba divers, Costa Rica is synonymous with swarms of fish and stretches of coral that hug the country’s 1,291 km (802 miles) of coastline. Submerge yourself in crystalline waters and enter another world, with bull sharks, brain coral, and toothy green eels. The variety and abundance of marine life are awe-inspiring.
Beach towns on both coasts are riddled with diving schools and equipment-rental shops. Look for outfitters that are PADI (Professional Association of Diving Instructors) trained or give PADI certifications. If you’re a first-timer and plan to go diving just once, taking a basic half-day class isn’t difficult, and it will allow you to dive up to 40 feet with an instructor. A three- or four-day certification course gets you a lifetime license and allows you to dive up to 130 feet and without a guide.
The Pacific tends to be clearer than the Caribbean, and the fish are bigger and more abundant. Northern waters are generally best May through July, after winds die down and the water turns bluer and warmer. The southern Osa Peninsula is popular during the dry season, from January to April. The Caribbean, known for its diverse coral and small fish, is good for beginners because it has less surge. The best months are September and October, when the ocean is as calm and flat as a swimming pool. April and May also offer decent conditions, but steer clear during the rest of the year, when rain and strong waves cloud the water.
Cahuita. Mounds of coral and a barrier reef (dubbed Long Shoal) run from Cahuita to Punta Mona, along 25 km (15 miles) of Caribbean coastline. Arches, tunnels, and canyons in the reef form a playground for small fish, crabs, and lobsters. Even though sediment and wastewater have damaged much of the coral, the healthy sections are dense, colorful, and delightfully shaped. Gentle pools right off the beach allow for some of the country’s best snorkeling.
Golfo de Papagayo (Papagayo Gulf). This northern gulf has Costa Rica’s highest concentration of snorkel and dive shops. Calm, protected waters make it the best place for beginner divers on the Pacific.
Isla de Caño (Caño Island). With visibility of 20 to 80 feet, strong currents, and very changeable conditions, Caño is best suited for advanced divers. The huge schools of large fish and potential shark sightings are the attractions here. Novice snorkelers can frolic in the Coral Garden, a shallow area on the north side of this biological reserve.
Isla del Coco (Cocos Island). One of the world’s premier sites for advanced divers lies 295 nautical miles and a 36-hour sail from Puntarenas. Visibility is good all year, and hammerhead and white-tipped reef sharks are the main attractions.
Isla Murciélago (Bat Island). Located inside Santa Rosa National Park, this cluster of rocks is good for advanced divers and famous for its fearsome bull sharks.
Isla Santa Catalina (Santa Catalina Island). Known for sightings of golden cownose rays and giant mantas, these big rocks near Playa Flamingo have spots for beginner and advanced divers. Snorkelers should head to shallower waters, near the beach.
Even if you’ve never seen yourself as a bird-watcher, Costa Rica will get you hooked. Waking you before dawn, calling to you throughout the day, and serenading you through tropical nights, birds are impossible to ignore here. Luckily, Costa Rica has a wealth of world-class ornithologists and local bird guides who can answer all your questions. Every licensed naturalist guide also has some birding expertise, so many tours you take in the country will include some bird-watching.
The sheer variety and abundance of birds here make bird-watching a daily pastime—with less than 0.03% of the planet’s surface, Costa Rica counts some 900 bird species, more than the United States and Canada combined. You don’t have to stray far from your hotel or even need binoculars to spot, for instance, a kaleidoscopic-colored keel-billed toucan (the bird of Froot Loops cereal fame). But armed with a pair of binoculars and a birding guide, the sky is literally the limit for the numbers of birds you can see. Catching sight of a brilliantly colored bird is exciting; being able to identify it after a couple of encounters is even more thrilling. For kids, spotting birds makes a great game. With their sharp young eyes, they’re usually very good at it—plus it’s wildly educational. About 10% of Costa Rica’s birds are endemic, so this is a mecca for bird-watchers intent on compiling an impressive life list.
The best time to bird is November to May, when local species are joined by winter migrants. Breeding season, which varies by species throughout the year, is the easiest time to spot birds, as males put on displays for females, followed by frequent flights to gather nesting material and then food for the chicks. Also keep your eye on fruit-bearing trees that attract hungry birds.
The most sought-after bird is the aptly named resplendent quetzal, sporting brilliant blue, green, and red plumage and long tail feathers. The best places to spot it are Los Quetzales National Park in the Cerro de la Muerte highlands, the San Gerardo de Dota valley, and the Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve. Another bird high on many bird-watchers’ lists is the scarlet macaw, the largest of the parrot family here. You’ll see pairs performing aerial ballets and munching in beach almond trees in Corcovado National Park, along the Osa Peninsula’s coastline, and around Carara National Park in the Central Pacific region. The Tempisque River delta’s salty waters, at the north end of the Gulf of Nicoya, are famous for a wealth of water birds, notably wood storks, glossy ibis, and roseate spoonbills. Farther north, in Palo Verde and Caño Negro National Parks, look for the rarest and largest of wading birds, the jabiru. The network of jungle-edged natural canals in Tortuguero National Park, in the northern Caribbean, is home to a host of herons, including the spectacular rufescent tiger heron and the multihued agami heron. More than 50 species of hummingbirds hover around every part of the country. Look for them around feeders at lodges in the Cerro de la Muerte area, Monteverde, and the Turrialba region.
Five species of sea turtle visit Costa Rican shores: olive ridley, green sea turtle, loggerhead, hawksbill, and leatherback. The gentle giants, which can weigh up to 1,000 pounds, spend most of their time at sea but come ashore by the thousands for two or three nights to lay their eggs. There are just seven places in the world where these mass nesting events, called arribadas, happen. This includes both of Costa Rica’s coasts, with the most turtles coming to the Nicoya Peninsula on the Pacific coast and Tortuguero on the Caribbean coast.
Head to the Nicoya Peninsula on the Pacific coast during the rainy season. In September, October, and November, at least once a month and sometimes twice, more than 100,000 olive ridley sea turtles come to Ostional National Wildlife Refuge north of Nosara, filling the beach over the course of three or four days with more than 100 million eggs in one of the largest arribadas in the world. Around sixty days later, in a flurry of flying sand, the tiny hatchlings emerge from their shells, dig their way to the surface, and make their cumbersome and perilous journey to the sea. After many years and thousands of miles at sea, olive ridleys will return to the exact beach where they are born when it is their time to nest.
On the east coast in Tortuguero, you are likely to see different types of turtles’ mass nesting events. There is a good chance of seeing leatherbacks nesting on the shore from March to July, green sea turtles from June to October, and hawksbills from July to October. While the numbers aren’t quite as grandiose as in Ostional–-leatherback sea turtle numbers continue to decline, and scientists estimate that there may be as few as 32,000 nesting females left in the world–-they're still a sight to behold. Book a turtle watching tour ahead of your trip, noting that a responsible guide never allows animal interactions. Below is a handy guide of where to spot turtles around the country and where to stay.
Ostional. See turtles at Ostional National Wildlife Refuge 506/682–0470 and stay at Luna Azul 506/2682–1400 hotellunaazul.com (Ch. 8)
Tortuguero. See turtles at the Sea Turtle Conservancy 5062767–1576 and stay at Tortuga Lodge 800/672–8704 tortugalodge.com (Ch. 11)
Montezuma. See turtles at ASVO 506/2222–3612 and stay at Ylang Ylang Beach Resort 888/795–8494 ylangylangbeachresort.com (Ch. 8)
Sámara. See turtles at the Camaronal National Wildlife Foundation 506/2659–8190 and stay at Villas Kalimba 506/2656–0929 villaskalimba.com (Ch. 8)
Playa Hermosa. See turtles at Playa Hermosa/Punta Mala National Wildlife Refuge (inquire at hotel about tour) and stay at DoceLunas 506/2643–2211 docelunas.com (Ch. 9)
Cabo Matapalo. See turtles at Osa Conservation 5068719–8582 and stay at Bosque del Cabo 5062735–5206 bosquedelcabo.com (Ch. 10)
Puerto Viejo de Talamanca. See turtles at Gandoca Manzanillo National Wildlife Refuge with ATEC Eco-Tours 506/2750–0398 and stay at Cariblue Beach & Jungle Resort 506/2750–0035 cariblue.com (Ch. 11)
Tourism data suggests that about three-fourths of travelers to Costa Rica visit a beach, and with more than 800 miles of coastline, you'll find plenty of strands of sand to choose from. From pulverized volcanic rock and steady waves to soft sand and idyllic settings, each of Costa Rica’s beaches has its own distinct merits and personality. Some have dominant nationalities, too, based on the expat communities who have settled there: Nosara leans German and Swiss, Ojochal is French and Québécois, Potrero is Canadian, and Flamingo is American. All are Costa Rican, of course, and all beaches are public.
We should cite a couple of drawbacks. Costa Rica is neither Cancún nor Bora Bora; beaches here skew toward the dark-sand end of the spectrum. Also, riptides can be dangerous and hardly any Costa Rican beaches have lifeguards; get information from your hotel about where to swim safely. The conditions that make Costa Rican beaches touchy for swimmers make for great surfing, and the country is one of the world’s premier destinations for surfers.
Guanacaste and Nicoya Peninsula. Costa Rica’s driest climate makes the North Pacific coast the country’s Beach Central. Popular luxury resorts line the beaches of the Papagayo Peninsula. Lively Tamarindo is a hyped-up surfing and water-sports beach with solid nightlife. Playas Hermosa and Sámara are family-friendly spots with swimmable waters; and Playas Langosta and Pelada are made for contemplative walks. Montezuma’s offbeat town is as much a draw as its bayside beach. Some of the largest surfing waves in Costa Rica are at Malpaís.
Central Pacific. Two powerhouse beaches anchor this easily accessible stretch of coast closest to San José, and your fellow tourists here are just as likely to be Costa Ricans, making reservations a must during high-season weekends. A terrific national park and a lively tourist scene—straight and gay—make the palm-lined beaches collectively known as “Manuel Antonio” Costa Rica’s most popular tourist destination. Farther up the coast, Jacó gets mixed reviews; it has acquired cachet in surfing circles but others bemoan its unchecked development. In between, surfers, Ticos, and foreigners have laid claim to the smaller beaches at Herradura, Hermosa, Bejuco, and Esterillos.
South Pacific. The long southern coast begins at the friendly, somewhat ramshackle beach town of Dominical. Once quite remote, up-and-coming Playas Uvita and Ballena are more accessible than ever, thanks to the construction of a new coastal highway. Each passing year sees the addition of snazzy new dining and lodging options. There’s an end-of-the-world feel in the air if you make it to remote, rocky, black-sand Playa Pavones, down near the Panamanian border.
Caribbean. European backpackers discovered the dark-sand beaches at Cahuita and Puerto Viejo de Talamanca decades ago. Neither place has entirely outgrown those party roots, although both brim with more grown-up offerings, too. The north Caribbean coast proffers a different kind of “nightlife” in the form of the age-old spectacle of nocturnal nesting of four species of sea turtle.
Costa Rica’s big surfing community, consistent waves, and not-too-crowded beaches make surfing accessible to anyone who is curious enough to paddle into the lineup; surf schools and board rentals are plentiful.
At many of Costa Rica’s top surf spots, a wide range of ages and skills can be found bobbing together in the water. With the right board—ideally a foam longboard for first timers—and good instruction, just about anybody can stand up and ride. Trained instructors can adapt lessons to different levels, ages, and body types. If you want to get a head start before your vacation, practice pop-ups at home (YouTube has dozens of tutorials) or swim laps at your local pool to get in shape before your first wipeout.
With warm water, offshore winds, and friendly locals, you really can’t find a better place to learn the sport. Costa Ricans are known for their pura vida attitude, and this usually translates into a welcoming vibe in the water. Just steer clear of the hotshots until you know local protocol.
On the Pacific, waves are consistent from December through April. As you move southward, the breaks are best from May to November. On the Caribbean side, conditions are best January through April.
Dominical, Pacific Coast. A long set of fast, powerful breaks that are great for advanced levels. When waves get too big, head south to Dominicalito.
Esteríllos, Pacific Coast. Divided into three beaches, this wide stretch of coast is uncrowded to the point of desolation. The surf and currents can be tough for beginners, and Este and Centro have waves much like Hermosa. Oeste has softer waves.
Jacó, Pacific Coast. Unless the surf gets too big, the consistent beach breaks produce forgiving waves that are good for beginner to intermediate surfers.
Malpaís, Pacific Coast. A variety of beach breaks plus a point break that’s good when waves are pumping.
Manuel Antonio, Pacific Coast. Playitas, at the national park’s north end, is perhaps the most consistent spot here. It’s only good at high tide, about three hours per day, and usually flat September through December.
Pavones, Pacific Coast. This advanced and fickle spot is said to be one of the world’s longest lefts, lasting nearly three minutes.
Playa Cocles, Caribbean Coast. Plenty of beach breaks and good for all levels, but beware of riptides.
Playa Guiones, Pacific Coast. If not the best surf in the vicinity of Nosara, it’s the best beach break for beginners and longboarders, with plenty of long rights and lefts.
Playa Hermosa, Pacific Coast. A steep beach break just south of Jacó with some of the country’s best barrels and surfers. Waves can get big, mean, hollow, and thunderously heavy.
Salsa Brava, Caribbean Coast. When it’s on, this is arguably Costa Rica’s best and most powerful wave, breaking right over a shallow coral reef.
Sámara, Pacific Coast. Protected, mellow beach breaks great for beginners, yet close to advanced spots like Playa Camaronal.
Tamarindo, Pacific Coast. Surfer’s paradise for all levels, with famous breaks like Ollie’s Point, Playa Avellanas, and Playa Negra (south), and Witch’s Rock (north). Solid waves are formed at a point break called Pico Pequeño and at the river mouth called El Estero at the beach’s north end.