At only 19,370 square miles, Costa Rica only occupies a third of a percent of the total landmass of the planet. But, within that third of a percent, Costa Rica has some of the most stunning natural features in its twelve climactic zones which feature coastline on both the Atlantic and Pacific oceans, tropical rainforests, deciduous forests and cloud forests. The most amazing statistic about Costa Rica’s area, however, is that within that third of a percent of the earth’s total landmass is four percent of the total species of the planet. If all of this wasn’t impressive enough, hundreds of these species in Costa Rica are endemic to the region – meaning they exist nowhere else on the planet. While there are a huge number of ways to experience the diversity of Costa Rica if you travel there, one of the best ways in my book is to hike it, because over twenty-seven percent (27%) of the country is protected in National Parks. Assuming you have the time, starting in San Jose, one can traverse a hiker’s loop around the country, starting on the Atlantic Coast, and ending on the Pacific Coast before returning back to the capital. If you don’t have the time to do the whole loop listed herein, this list also serves as a great starting place for whatever area you are visiting, or could provide you with ideas for future trips.
The Atlantic Coast
While there are many unique spots along Costa Rica’s Atlantic Coast, none is more pristine than the mangrove forests and untracked beaches of Tortuguero National Park. One of the main reasons why Tortuguero remains wild is because while it is somewhat close to the capital, the journey to get to the park requires a three to five hour drive, along with an hour long water taxi ride. For those willing to commit the time to get there, Tortuguero offers the opportunity to view Green Sea Turtles during nesting season with a licensed guide. While the turtles have become the signature attraction of the area, the national park as a whole offers a plethora of hiking trails that wind through the forests that border the coast. Generally, after the first half mile of trail, visitors to these areas do not see many, if any other hikers. This wild solitude offers travelers the opportunity to see a number of animals from monkeys, snakes, and rare birds in their native habitat, and allows a hiker to feel like they have completely left the modern world.
Located a short distance from both Tortuguero National Park and San Jose, the Arenal region is one of the most popular and well-known regions in Costa Rica, and is used as an adventure hub for hiking, zip lining, and a wide assortment of tours operated out of La Fortuna, which is the largest town in the area. The region is named for Arenal Volcano, a 5,358 foot stratovolcano, which until 2010, was Costa Rica’s most active volcano. Today, the volcano and an assortment of smaller cinder cones are located within the boundaries of Arenal National Park.
While travelers cannot hike on, or climb Arenal Volcano (and may have trouble seeing its top during certain times of the year), the region has a number of great hikes which showcase the active volcanism that the region has experienced. Whether one has a day in the region, or multiple days, the following three hikes are well worth your time. For experienced hikers who want a challenge, the hike up the 3,742 foot Cerro Chato, a dormant volcano next to Arenal Volcano is an once-in-a-lifetime experience, especially as the top of the volcano is a crater that features an amazing lake. For hikers who do not have much time, the short hike to Danta Waterfall offers a large payoff with minimal effort; and for hikers looking for a moderate hike that covers the volcanic eruption of 1968 both historically and geologically, the trails at Arenal 1968 are accessible to all, mostly level, and well-maintained.
The Northern Region
Just North of Arenal and La Fortuna are three national parks – Guanacaste, Rincon de la Vieja, and Tenorio. While all of these parks have their own distinct natural features, only one park features a unique cerulean blue river and waterfall, the Rio Celeste. Like Tortuguero, traveling to Tenorio National Park requires a time commitment; but in my opinion, one that is worthwhile, as the waterfall and river’s colors are truly otherworldly, especially when contrasted with the dense green growth of the jungle. While the hike along the waterfall and river is not challenging, travelers to the region should plan ahead if they want to visit the Rio Celeste on the time of their trip, because the river’s amazing blue color turns a pedestrian brown during the rainy season.
Slightly to the southwest of Arenal and La Fortuna is the Monteverde region of Costa Rica, which has both a unique history because of the Quaker immigrants to the region, and an enormous amount of the country’s biodiversity. Because of the cloud forests, and the aforementioned Quaker elements in the area, Monteverde and its nearby towns are some of the most visited areas in Costa Rica. While there is nothing wrong with Monteverde being a hub for travelers and popular destination year round, hikers who want trails with few people or complete solitude would be better off visiting Tortuguero or Tenorio National Parks. Even though there are a great deal of travelers that want to experience the Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve, the park has a number of trails that help to minimize congestion, and for visitors that further wish to avoid other hikers, the park is substantially less busy in the late afternoons. For those that want to experience the cloud forest irrespective of the potential crowds, the park does not disappoint with its fairy-like atmosphere.
The Pacific Coast
While Costa Rica has many fantastic beaches, in my opinion, the best beaches in the country are located in Manuel Antonio National Park. From Playa Espadilla, to Playa Manuel Antonio, to Playa Gemelas, and several others, this National Park has a number of distinct locations where one can relax and enjoy the scenery over the course of a day, or a lifetime. If the opportunity to visit multiple amazing picturesque beaches wasn’t enough of an enticement, Manuel Antonio also features a number of easy trails that allow for excellent opportunities to view monkeys and sloths.
Costa Rica, as a whole is a tropical destination that presents a number of challenges for hikers. Generally, the country as a whole remains humid year-round, and also receives a great deal of rainfall, even when it is not the “rainy season”. In addition to the moisture issues, like many tropical destinations Costa Rica has a high amount of insects, some of which carry diseases. Travelers should be advised to consult their local physician to obtain what vaccines they need before leaving, and should be sure to bring some type of insect repellant to use while in country. When I went, I relied heavily on long sleeve wicking shirts, breathable convertible pants, two light waterproof jackets, and two pairs of shoes – one a trail runner, and the other a more traditional boot. In many jungle areas, water and mud can be up to calf high even on the trail, so it is important to either have a shoe that can deal with the abuse, or have a shoe that you can discard after the hike. My final tip about gear in Costa Rica is this: unless it is waterproof, once something gets wet in Costa Rica, it likely stays wet due to the climate. As such, visitors should choose their gear carefully, and not select something that will not dry (such as cotton) unless they are planning on wearing it as a one-off choice.
When I was in Costa Rica, I rented a car, and to complete this circuit of hikes and destinations, having a car – or access to one would certainly make things easier rather than relying on public or private transportation to travel from location to location. In my opinion, the two things that made driving around Costa Rica easy were having a portable GPS unit that came with the rental; and having 4WD on the vehicle. While Costa Rica’s roads are in great shape overall, there are places along this route, and in general that are dirt tracks, have large potholes, or may be damaged by seasonal rains or other weather events. For me, a perfect example of this was entering and exiting the town of Monteverde, which had a number of heavily rutted and muddy dirt roads that were under construction. Whether there, or any other spot that has a problem, having the 4WD capability on the rental gives one the peace of mind that they can cross obstacles safely.
While 4WD on my rental was somewhat of a luxury for large stretches of my trip, the GPS proved invaluable. The main reason that it was invaluable is because driving in Costa Rica is at times complicated because of a scarcity of road signs. I realize this may sound strange, but while the roads are well-maintained, there just are few signs that have location names or distances between destinations. As I was clearly a tourist, and had no knowledge of where to turn or distances between locations, the GPS unit allowed me to relax and concentrate on driving, rather than stopping to check maps or rely on irregular cellular phone coverage. Again, like the 4WD, the GPS unit that came with the rental also operates as a security blanket to ensure that one doesn’t get lost in a remote area that likely will not have cellular phone service.
Finally, with respect to driving in Costa Rica, my advice would be the following: allow extra time. While Costa Rica isn’t a large country, the average speed limit hovers around 45-55 mph. These limits are enforced in a number of ways, and one of the more popular ways (including speed cameras) is the high number of what I would call “speed humps” in many towns. These humps force drivers to slow to a moderate 25-35 mph when passing through towns, and these frequent reductions in speed also add travel time. Along these lines, and because of Costa Rica’s tropical climate, a variety of hazards can exist on even the main roads, including, but not limited to lightning strikes (one of which came very close to my car); downed trees, accidents, water damage, an excess of water, and many other things. Again, however, if one allows extra time, and realizes that they are on vacation, and there is no need to speed – or rush – driving in Costa Rica is an enjoyable and scenic experience. Placing aside the country as a whole, my best tip for driving in Costa Rica is to allow plenty of time to enter and exit San Jose by car because of its very congested streets and highways.
Costa Rica is a great destination to travel and hike in. Have you been? Do you have any tips that you’d share with travelers as well?