Walking is Mandatory in Costa Rica – Enjoy It
If you’re not comfortable climbing five flights of stairs and walking ten blocks you may want to consider a different destination.
It’s possible to take a private transfer to an all inclusive resort and ride a golf cart from your room to a lounge chair by the pool every day for a week but as soon as you start adding anything like ziplines, birdwatching, rainforest eco-lodges, or even some of the hot spring spas you will be walking a mile up and down at some point. Walking on hills is literally built into most tours, lodges, and resorts in Costa Rica.
Handicap access is universally mandated by law but is variable in practice.
Go for a Walk
You don’t have to trek into the heart of darkness to see amazing wildlife in Costa Rica. Heading down any trail or path can open up a whole new world.
We recently spent couple of weeks in a housing development above Tarcoles where the ~3 km of paved roads and driveways winding through the old growth forested mountains were some of the best wildlife watching we’ve ever experienced in Costa Rica. Regardless of what we had planned for the day and rain or shine we walked from 5:00 until 6:00 a.m. and again for an hour after dark.
We were rewarded with great views of two species of owls, a wooly opossum, a kinkajou, flocks of scarlet macaws, sloths, mot-mots, trogons, red-eyed leaf frogs, poison dart frogs, and dozens of others.
Wherever we are staying we make a point of walking around. Even in the urban jungle of San José rainforest birds often visit and the scenes of people’s lives in Costa Rica are rewarding to experience (precautions for the city). In the countryside be cautious walking on public roads where there are few sidewalks, narrow shoulders and dangerous drivers.
Guided Nature Walks
Guided nature walks are usually designed to maximize the enjoyment while minimizing the effort.
A typical walk lasts 2-3 hours and covers 2-3 kilometers (1.3-2 miles) on paths that are relatively flat and well maintained in private nature reserves or the nature trails in Costa Rica’s national parks.
The guides are well versed in the natural history of things along the trail that you’re guaranteed to see because they don’t move around. Your guide will explain how strangler figs parasitize other trees, leaf-cutter ants farm fungus and the mano de tigre (jaguar paw) plant switches from avoiding to seeking daylight while they scan the surroundings for birds and animals. If you’re like us you’ll be amazed at the wildlife a trained naturalist can pick out of the riotous visual background of the forests.
There’s no set list since it’s not a zoo, but guided hikes almost always turn up a species of monkey or two, dozens of birds, sloths, pizotes and some really bizarre insects. If you’re lucky you’ll add a kinkajoo, snake, wild cat, tapir, white lipped peccary or tropical deer to your sightings. Some areas are known for particular species in certain seasons like the resplendent quetzals of Monteverde in the nesting season (see wildlife calendars for each month).
If a kilometer or two walking and ten or twenty flights of stairs worth of climbing sounds like more exercise than you’d enjoy then a nature cruise might be a better choice than a guided nature walk. Caño Negro, Tortuguero, Damas Island and the Crocodile safari at Carara national park are all great spots to enjoy a wildlife watching boat tour.
Independent guides can usually hired at the entrance to the more popular wildlife watching areas (see nature trails) and sometimes they are extremely good. Unfortunately sometimes they are also extremely bad. If you don’t want to gamble on quality it’s advisable to book a guided nature walk in advance with a travel service or tour company where they require certification and training and also realize that if you have a bad experience it will probably be reflected in your reviews.
If you really know your stuff you can usually pick out the guides that do too. Give them a little pop quiz on the habits of the Puma yagouaroundi and ask if you’re likely to spot a great tinamou near the beach. Their answers should give you a pretty good idea of their natural history knowledge. This isn’t necessarily a good indicator of how much they can show you though. We’ve hired a few local kids who could pick out a perfectly camouflaged Nyctibius griseus at 100 meters but would never know it by its Latin name.
Night hikes are basically guided nature walks after dark. Flashlights are provided and typically they take advantage of the best paved or highly improved paths and walkways or very high quality trails because they don’t want visitors stumbling around and tripping on roots in the dark.
Wide clear paths are also a good idea for night walks because a whole different collection of creatures comes out and some of them you don’t want to step on. Snakes are just one of the animals you’re much more likely to see after dark and one of the reasons they’re active is that the frogs and small rodents they hunt come alive at sunset. Most of Costa Rica’s jungle cats including Ocelots, Jaguarundi and Jaguars are nocturnal as well as a whole group of cat like tree dwellers including Kinkajoos and highly endangered northern olingo (Bassaricyon gabbii).
One of the best night tours we’ve ever been on is at Tirimbina Rainforest Reserve where the first half kilometer is on a suspension bridge through the rain forest canopy and over the Sarapiquí river. Most tours keep your feet firmly on the ground but a lot of the action is in the tree tops. The cloud forest night tours at Los Angeles (Villa Blanca), Monteverde and the surrounding private reserves are also excellent.
On Your Own at Night
Heading out at night on your own can be rewarding if you’re prepared, competent, capable and confident in natural surroundings. If you’re not it can be extremely dangerous so please be realistic about your abilities. Before walking without a guide at night we choose a relatively easy trail or walkway, hike the entire path in daylight to familiarize ourselves with the route and record a GPS track to follow in case we get disoriented in the dark. We carry extremely powerful flashlights.
If you’re not up for a full blown adventure in the forest you can often spot a surprising amount of wildlife by just spending a few minutes quietly shining your flashlight into the tree tops around the parking lot, hot springs pools or off the terrace of your eco-lodge.
National Park Nature Trails
By far the most famous and popular trails in Costa Rica Rica’s park system are down to the beaches at Manuel Antonio, to the lava fields at Arenal Volcano, through the cloud forests of Monteverde, around Sirena Station in Corcovado, and to Celeste Waterfall at Tenorio Volcano.
Each of these well maintained trails is under two miles and are usually done as guided nature walks. With the exception of Sirena in Corcovado (a new rule for 2016 requires all visitors to hire a certified guide) you can walk the nature trails in national parks on your own if you’d like. Some have numbered signs pointing out plants, geography and other features that are explained in informational pamphlets available at the entrance stations to enhance self guided exploration.
Hiking Trails in Costa Rica’s National Parks
If you’re a hiker the nature trails described above with all of the climbs and obstacles smoothed out or avoided and groups of people standing around peering through spotting scopes may sound like pure torture. Don’t despair, there are definitely longer more challenging trails in the parks if you know where to look.
Although Costa Rica’s national parks and reserves protect huge areas of pristine habitat access is limited. Visitors accustomed to the thousands of miles of well maintained trails in the U.S. and Canadian park systems will be surprised and disappointed by the lack of routes in Costa Rica. The park system is understaffed and underfunded and trail maintenance is quite variable outside the popular and profitable parks mentioned above (see difficulty ratings).
That said, there are still over a hundred kilometers of national park and reserve trails where you can stretch your legs (Tapanti, Rincón de la Vieja*, Santa Rosa, Turrialba*, Tenorio†, Braulio Carrillo†, Miravalles, Cabo Blanco, Parque de Aguas†) and some where even longer overnight trips are possible (Amistad†‡, Braulio Carrillo†‡, Chirripó, Santa Rosa†‡, Corcovado†).
Individual hikes are described on the national parks and reserves pages linked above. See below for more info on overnight trekking.
* Some of the trails may be closed with little or no notice due to volcanic activity.
† These locations require special permission in advance for longer trails (see the parks contact list).
‡ All overnight stays require permits but these locations may also require special permission in advance depending on your destination (see the parks contact list).
Private Local Trails
One of the most amazing things about Costa Rica is how often you discover individuals or small community groups protecting the environment at a grass roots level just because. They may be motivated by keeping their drinking water clean but often they simply love the forest and nature and want to keep it the way it is.
We can’t really list these spots because although most of the time visitors are welcome all of these trails are on private property and you need permission to hike there. The unofficial wardens have jobs and lives that they don’t really want to give up to spend all of their time dealing with visitors we send. We’re fortunate to have millions of people read our website every year and respectful enough not to direct you all to some poor soul’s back yard.
That doesn’t mean you can’t visit, it just means you’ll have to find out about them the same way we do. Conversations with locals almost inevitably turn to their favorite waterfall or trail to a mirador and it’s rarely a commercial tour or designated national park. It’s usually a little trail into the forest at the end of a rough road seemingly leading nowhere. Just ask and you’ll be surprised not only how often the residents reveal their local secrets but that many times they’ll offer to take you there in person. They’re rightly proud of these independent non-profit efforts.
Another place you’ll often find private trails or roads is in housing developments. There is a big tax break associated with setting aside part of any large development as a protected forest area. Most contractors pick a mountainside or two that are too steep for houses anyway or can’t be reached by waterlines and put in a few trails instead. Typically only residents and renters are allowed entry so these can be some of the least crowded trails in Costa Rica.
Treks, Backpacking and Camping
Due to the lack of infrastructure, high fire danger and to reduce poaching, back country camping is prohibited in nearly all Costa Rican national parks and reserves.
On the two most famous overnight hikes (Corcovado and Chirripó) trekkers are required to stay either in official refugios or ranger stations. The vast majority trekkers (which is still a tiny minority of all visitors) take on one or both of these challenges.
The full five day loop around Corcovado was one of our favorite parts of our first trip in 1993 and passes through some of the last remaining true rain forested wilderness in Central America and along miles of pristine beaches on the Osa peninsula. Alternate routes where you skirt the edge of the park and actually camp outside the boundaries are also possible.
The climb to the top of the highest peak in Costa Rica (Cerro Chirripó Grande) is a perfect compliment to the lowland adventure on the Osa. Montane rain forest, high elevation cloud forest and the tropical tundra known as paramo provide a backdrop for one of the most challenging hikes you’ll find in the country.
If you brought your tent and just absolutely have to use it then head northwest to Santa Rosa national park where you can explore the main ecozone not found on the first two treks – the tropical dry forest. We mountain biked down to Playa Naranjo to set up camp in the palms backing the beach but walking would probably be a more reasonable approach.
These treks are easiest to complete by hiring a local outfitter who can help with gear, routing and reservations at the rangers stations (required).
Other overnight backpacking trips that require special permission to attempt include the trans-continental route across the southern Talamancas, the Children’s Eternal Rainforest from Monteverde to Poco Sol, the Murialago sector of Santa Rosa, Mravalles volcano crater, and one that we haven’t tried yet but are planning – the 5 day transect trail from Barva to Sarapiqui.
If you’re seriously considering spending the night outdoors in Costa Rica you may want to read up on what camping in the rainforest can be like.
Hiking on Your Own
Each year at least one foreigner sets out on a Costa Rican national park trail never to be seen again.
After forty years hiking, more than twenty of it around Costa Rica and after circumnavigating Corcovado with a map and compass long before GPS was invented I figured I was beyond getting lost. I was wrong.
If you’re planning to hike without a guide please follow basic trail common sense. Never go solo, always let someone know where you’re going and when you’ll be back. Carry water, food, maps, a gps, compass (and know how to use it with the maps) and warm clothes – yes warm clothes. Hypothermia can be a significant problem if you have to spend a wet night lost in the rainforest.
Trails in Costa Rica are unpredictable and probably not the quality you’re used to once you leave the well worn path. It’s not unusual for a trail to disappear into a stream and not emerge from the other side – possibly because you follow the stream for a while. On the volcanoes you sometimes have to pick your way through volcanic boulders and cairns are a relatively new concept. The rain forest itself can be very disorienting especially since in old growth forests it’s impossible to tell where the sun is through the canopy.
Other Walking & Hiking
Canopy suspension bridge tours are more or less hiking trails where a kilometer or two of the path has been elevated to tree-top level or higher. The trails tend to be very high quality and easier than hiking trails. Each hanging bridge eliminates several hundred feet of elevation loss down to the bottom of a valley or ravine and the climb back up the other side flattening the path significantly.
Most zip-line canopy tours also include some hiking and on a few it adds up to 2-3 kilometers (1.5-2 miles) of trails or more. If you’re trying to avoid the walking then the SkyTrek tour at Arenal is perfect. A tram whisks you to the top and it’s cables all the way down with your feet barely touching the ground let alone walking on the whole tour.
Canyoning or Canyoneering tours always include walking and scrambling. Most of the commercial waterfall rappelling tours only require a few hundred meters of walking (less than half a mile) but some of the more challenging routes cover several kilometers of river hiking.
You never know when the opportunity to take a walk might present itself in Costa Rica. On one trip to Tortuguero a drought had reduced the water level of the Río Suerte so far that the collectivo water taxi couldn’t navigate the last kilometer to the landing at La Pavona. We found ourselves shouldering our backpacks and joining our fellow passengers dragging their wheeled suitcases through the dried cow paddies of a dusty pasture to get to the bus waiting at the end of the road.
It’s not unreasonable to think that hiking is just a walk in the forest but there’s a huge variation in the difficulty level of hikes in Costa Rica. Whenever we describe foot travel we try to give an accurate picture of how demanding it may be.
Path or Walkway
Especially in private reserves and refuges it’s common to find paved or otherwise highly improved paths and walkways. They are engineered to follow contours, ensure gentle climbs and provide drainage to prevent erosion and eliminate slogging through knee deep mud.
Paving blocks, concrete, natural stone, rough cut logs and many other materials may be used to pave either the entire path or sections. Other sections may be graveled or mulched with wood chips to keep walkers out of the mud. Creeks, streams and small gulleys or ravines will have bridges and elevated walkways traverse marshes, swamps and bogs along the route of an improved path.
In places where an improved path can’t avoid a climb up or down stairs are either constructed or minimally cut into the trail and reinforced with framing. Where the terrain drops off steeply alongside a walkway hand rails or safety cables are strung.
Some walkways like the waterfall path at La Paz gardens are constructed entirely out of steel. Elevated steel grate walkways, viewing platforms and stairs with guard rails all around follow the river for nearly a kilometer past five waterfalls and down to a parking area where shuttles wait to return visitors to the top.
Very few hiking trails in Costa Rica are engineered. Most are simply a straight line between point A and point B where the underbrush has been cleared and the larger logs and obstructions cleared. That means when the terrain heads straight up the trail heads straight up without the benefit of switchbacks to moderate the climb. Trails that follow the fall line as most in Costa Rica do are very susceptible to erosion and it’s not uncommon to find yourself walking in the bottom of a head high trench.
Trail maps are difficult to come by and range from fairly accurate scaled representations of the turns and alignment to a few random length arbitrarily curved lines indicating points of interest and intersections. Even the best maps rarely show the wrong turns and it can be difficult to determine if an intersection is the trail branch you want or simply an abandoned road to a pasture, mine or logging operation that doesn’t appear on the map. Topo maps are available but most haven’t been updated in 30 years or more.
Even well designed and maintained trails can literally disappear overnight in Costa Rica. For example the trail to the San Luis waterfall south and east of Monteverde was wiped out by a landslide, rerouted and repaired, wiped out again and finally closed permanently because it was determined that there was no safe route through or around the slide area. The crater trails at both Rincon de la Vieja and Turrialba volcanoes have been closed intermittently since activity increased in 2014.
A route is the most challenging and variable terrain. Clear on the other end of the difficulty spectrum from a walk, a route might have segments of trail but might also include hiking up or down the middle of a stream or river, climbing a vertical mud wall, and dead reckoning along a ridge or valley using a machete to clear a path. It’s extremely difficult and dangerous to attempt to follow a route through the wilderness without a baquiano or indigenous guide.