Bird Watching - Costa Rica has long been famous among serious bird watchers, but many people who would never consider the activity at home quickly become interested in the country's spectacular avian diversity. With almost 850 species of birds -- more than in all of North America -- packed into an area half the size of Kentucky, it's hard not to become enthused about the variety of feathered creatures one encounters in Costa Rica. And the country's travel agencies can provide experienced nature guides who make any bird watching expedition an educational experience.
One of the reasons for Costa Rica's extraordinary bird life is the country's great variety of habitats: rain forests, mangrove swamps, beaches, cloud forest, rivers, etc. And any two of those ecosystems, with their resident bird species, are often only a short distance apart. Birders from North America who visit Costa Rica during the northern winter invariably recognize familiar faces in the forest, since many species of warblers, flycatchers, vireos, orioles, etc. migrate to Costa Rica every winter.
The country's exemplary system of national parks and protected areas provide more than ample stomping grounds for birders, but just about anywhere you look in Costa Rica, you spot interesting avian species. Even some of the hotels in the San Jose area have such colorful critters as blue-grey tanagers, great kiskadees and crimson-fronted parakeets in their gardens. However, those interested in bird watching will want to see the resplendent quetzal, which lives in the cloud forests of Monteverde, los Santos region and the Central Volcanic Mountain Range, and the equally spectacular scarlet macaw, which can bee seen on the Osa Peninsula or the area around Carara Biological Reserve.
Bungee Jumping - Without a doubt, bungee jumping is one of the all time great adrenaline rushes. In fact, it's practically an adrenaline overdose. To most observers, it may seem like sheer lunacy, but at the heart of that act of madness is an opportunity to conquer your own fear, and in doing so, gain strength and self confidence.
Unless you've got heart condition, or some serious problems with your back and neck, you should be able to bungee jump with no fear of injury. Jumps should always be supervised by a trained jump master, and all equipment must be up to international standards. In Costa Rica, some jumps are done from the "viejo puente sobre el Rio Colorado," an old bridge that spans a 300-foot-deep gorge located about half an hour west of San Jose. Jumps are usually done Saturday and Sunday mornings, but they can be arranged at other times for small groups. The jumps are done with 100-foot bungees, which means jumpers have dropped about 200 feet when the chord stretches to its limit. Have a nice fall!
Diving - Costa Rica's underwater wonders range from coastal coral reefs to offshore islands. Those varied dive spots contain diverse and beautiful marine life that includes giant manta rays, timid sea turtles, colorful angel fish, intricate coral formations, psychedelic sea slugs, spiny puffer fish, delicate sea fans, curious dolphins and, on rare occasions, whales.
Though the country's waters contain enough marine life to please the most experienced of divers, you need be little more than a curious swimmer to catch a glimpse of some of its underwater sights, since there are plenty of spots that are perfect for snorkeling. Costa Rica is also an excellent place to learn how to scuba dive, since most dive centers offer inexpensive certification courses in English that can be completed in less than a week.
There are several excellent snorkeling areas along the southern Caribbean coast. The country's largest coastal reef is protected within Cahuita National Park, south of the town of the same name, where you can rent snorkeling equipment and hire people to take you out in boats. The point at Puerto Viejo, south of Cahuita, also has a coral reef wrapped around it that makes for convenient diving. Punta Cocles and Punta Uva, two points to the south of town, have healthier coral formations with plenty of fish around them. Manzanillo, a small fishing village a few miles further south, also has some decent diving off shore. There are also a few good dive spots near the city of Limon, such as the water surrounding Uvita Island. The best visibility in the Caribbean is from March to early May and from mid August to mid November, but water quality can change from day to day.
The Pacific has the country's best diving, with less coral, but plenty of big fish. The most popular Pacific diving area is the northwest, where dive centers in Playa del Coco, Ocotal and Hermosa offer trips to several spots in the Culebra Bay and the Bat Islands (Islas Murcielagos), to the northwest, where divers often see sharks and manta rays. Dive centers near Flamingo usually take people to Santa Catalina Island, about five miles off shore, which is another good spot to see sharks and other big fish. The best visibility and water temperatures in the northwest are found from June to September, though the conditions can change from day to day.
There is good snorkeling in Curu National Wildlife Refuge, and near the beach resorts of Tambor and Montezuma. There is also usually good snorkeling off the second beach in Manuel Antonio National Park, and around the points and islands between Dominical and Marino Ballena National Park. However, the best diving off the Pacific coast is found at several underwater reefs near Caño Island, which can be explored on dive trips offered by some of the lodges in nearby Drake Bay. Contrary to the northwest, the best visibility in the waters around Caño occurs during the dry season, though the water tends to be pretty clear year round.
Cocos Island, a national park located some 330 miles southwest of the Costa Rican mainland, has the country's best diving by far. While the Island is covered with virgin forest, the ocean that surrounds it contains abundant marine life, and the visibility is good year round. Divers at Cocos Island regularly see such impressive animals as manta rays, dolphins and hammerhead sharks, which sometimes gathering in schools of 30 or 40 animals. It takes about 36 hours to reach Cocos Island, and some companies have ships that run regular dive cruises there, which last ten days and include three dives per day.
Hiking - Costa Rica has enough trails to keep serious hikers stepping for a long time, and the scenery those routes pass ranges from lowland rain forests to brisk mountain valleys. The routes themselves are as varied as the scenery, ranging from invigorating jaunts in the mountains near San Jose to backpacking adventures that lead you into the heart of the country's wilderness.
Nearly all of Costa Rica's national parks have short trails that can be hiked in an hour or two, while others have routes that take the better part of a day to complete, such as the trails to the top of Barva and Rincon de le Vieja Volcanoes. Santa Rosa, Corcovado and Chirripo National Parks have longer backpacking routes, which require several overnights in tents or Parks Service cabins. There are also plenty of well marked hiking trails in the country's growing number of private reserves.
Horseback Riding - There are opportunities to go horseback riding almost everywhere in Costa Rica, and climbing onto the back of a spirited equine can be a wonderful way to spice up your vacation. The selection of horseback excursions ranges from morning trail rides in the mountains above San Jose, which get you back to your hotel in after lunch, to all-day expeditions through the rain forest that will leave you walking like John Wayne.
Though you might not associate it with a tropical country, Costa Rica has quite a cowboy culture. The tradition is primarily based in the province of Guanacaste, one of the first parts of the country to be settled by the Spanish, where vast cattle ranches cover rolling hills and forest-draped volcanoes tower above it all. Nevertheless, mountain resorts and nature lodges located all over the country offer horseback excursions, which can head through pastures, tropical forests, or down beaches, and often stopping at waterfalls and swimming holes.
Horseback tours are also excellent opportunities for bird watching and getting close to timid wildlife, and the people who lead them often have eagle eyes peeled for interesting critters.
Mountain Biking - With its countless kilometers of dirt roads and paths traversing a variety of terrain, Costa Rica has enough mountain biking routes to keep a serious biker rolling for years. But you need neither be an enthusiast nor willing to deal with the hassle of dragging a bike along as luggage to enjoy the sport there. Mountain bikes can be rented at most resort towns, and several local companies offer mountain bike tours of the country's less visited areas, many of which are mellow enough for people who haven't been on a bike for years.
A good selection of one-day tours head out of San Jose to nearby attractions, such as Irazu and Poas Volcanoes, and the inspiring Orosi Valley. A more strenuous day of pedaling takes you through the forests of El Rodeo, a protected area near Ciudad Colon. There are also multiple-day mountain bike tours, which range from a two-day exploration of the area around Arenal Volcano to a six-day tour of the Osa Peninsula. Bikers who bring their own wheels will find no shortage of routes in Costa Rica. The southern Nicoya Peninsula, which is crisscrossed by sparsely traveled dirt roads, is the perfect region for mountain-bike touring, as is the southern Pacific Coast, especially the area around the Golfo Dulce.
Rafting and Kayaking - Costa Rica's mountainous topography and copious rainfall are together responsible for one of the best white water river selections in the world. About half a dozen rambunctious rivers are regularly run by experienced rafting outfitters, and those river trips not only provide plenty of excitement, they also pass some gorgeous scenery. Not only do white water enthusiasts flock Costa Rica, including several Olympic kayaking teams, but every year tens of thousands of visitors experience the thrill of rafting for the first time there.
Costa Rica is the perfect place for a first white water rafting experience, since it has several rivers that offer a combination of reasonable rapids and beautiful floats. There are even rivers that are great for family excursions and bird watching, since they lack big rapids and flow through forests full of birds and other animals. In fact almost all river trips offer chances to see a bit of the country's wildlife, such as iguanas, blue morpho butterflies, parrots, otters, king fishers and herons.
The river routes available to rafters range from the turbulent waters of the lower Reventazon, where you hardly have enough time to catch your breath between rapids, to the meandering curves of the Corobici, where you spend more time watching wildlife than paddling. The most popular rafting trips offer a good combination of challenging rapids and calmer stretches where you can sit back and enjoy the passing scenery. If you've done a bit of rafting up north, you'll find the comfortably cool water of Costa Rica's rivers a nice switch from the chilly water of the northern rivers. All rafting trips can also be done in kayaks, but kayakers must be experienced.
A wide selection of outfitters run trips down the country's most accessible rivers using trained river guides and modern equipment -- life vests and helmets are provided for all rafters -- ensuring safe but exciting excursions. One-day river trips include transportation to and from the river, breakfast and a picnic lunch on the riverbank. Overnight trips often include lodging in riverside cabins and all meals.
The following is an overview of rafting rivers:
Reventazon: The Tucurrique section (Class III) is easy enough for first-timers. The Pascua section (Class IV-V) is very wild, and requires previous rafting experience. Can be run year round.
Pacuare: The country's longest and most spectacular river trip (Class III-IV), can be run from mid May to mid March. Two-day trip is recommended.
Sarapiqui: Beautiful river (Class II-III), good trip for beginners. Can be run out of San Jose or Arenal area, from mid May to mid March.
Savegre: Another beautiful river (Class II-III) perfect for first-time rafting experience. River trips leave from Manuel Antonio and Quepos, May to January.
Naranjo: A wild river (Class III-IV) near Quepos that requires some rafting experience. Run from June to November
El General: A popular three-day kayaking or rafting trip (class III-IV) best during the height of the rainy season, September to November.
Corobici: near the town of Canas, in Guanacaste, an easy river good for beginners and families (Class I-II); great animal and bird watching.Sea Kayaking - Paddling a kayak on the open ocean can be an exciting way to experience Costa Rica's marine and coastal wonders, and several companies offer sea kayaking tours along different parts of the Pacific coast. Sea kayaking is much easier than river kayaking, and most trips can be done by people who have never tried the sport before.
A sea kayaking tour is an opportunity to get a close look at the myriad of life below and above the ocean's surface -- from flying fish and sea turtles to frigate birds and pelicans -- and to explore some hard to reach offshore islands and coastal estuaries. Outfitters currently offer sea kayaking tours in the Bahia Culebra, out of Guanacaste's Hermosa Beach, around the islands and estuaries near Manuel Antonio and Curu National Wildlife Refuge, and the Golfo Dulce area, out of Puerto Jimenez and Golfito.
Sportfishing - Costa Rica is an angler's dream come true. The country's Pacific ports and beach resorts provide access to some the best deep sea fishing in the world, while the canals and rivers of the northern Atlantic coast feature world-class snook and tarpon fishing. Billfish are the country's biggest attractions, with abundant sailfish and marlin off the Pacific coast, but the fishermen also hook plenty of other feisty fighters, such as wahoo and roosterfish. Though deep sea fishing is the country's forte, there is also great fresh water fishing in Lake Arenal and the larger rivers in the Northern Zone, where anglers can fight with the small but ornery guapote, a hump-backed fish also known as the rainbow bass.
The Pacific provides Costa Rica's most consistently exciting fishing, with sailfish, marlin, tuna, wahoo, roosterfish, mackerel, mahi mahi and snapper being caught regularly. It is the abundance of billfish that has made that area famous, with sailfish and marlin being taken in phenomenal numbers. There are plenty of ports out of which you can fish the Pacific. In the northwest province of Guanacaste, charter boats work out of Coco, Ocotal, Flamingo, Tamarindo and Carrillo. Further south, you can fish out of Puntarenas, Tambor, Punta Leona, Quepos and Manuel Antonio, Dominical, Drake Bay, Golfito and Zancudo.
The canals and rivers of the northern Caribbean coast boast some of the best snook and tarpon fishing in the world, and they are lined with lush rain forest, which adds to the natural experience. The tarpon average about 80 pounds in the Caribbean canals, and though the snook are much smaller, they are good little fighters that taste great. About half a dozen fishing lodges are located in Barra del Colorado, Tortuguero and Parismina, all on the canals, and houseboats offer roving adventure that let anglers fish the canals, several rivers and hidden lakes.
Surfing - Costa Rica is popular among surfers who are drawn from near and far by the quality and consistency of the waves. Though the country gets plenty of the big waves that true surf fanatics live for, there are also days and spots that are perfect for people who have little experience with the sport, or who have been away from the ocean for a long time, and would like to try it again. This means that whether you're a veteran wave ripper or a belly-boarding beginner, you can usually find the conditions you need to have a great time.
With 755 miles of coastline on two oceans, Costa Rica has more breaks than you can shake a stick at. The country's selection of surf spots range from idyllic beach breaks to coral platforms where the water leaps up and tubes like a miniature pipeline.
Having coastline on two oceans is quite an advantage, since when one ocean is flat, there is usually something breaking on the other side of the country. Often enough, there is good surf pumping on both coasts.
And the country's surf is complemented by its comfortable water temperatures -- you can leave that wet suit at home -- beautiful scenery, and the convenience of a variety of accommodations and restaurants near most breaks.
Since it is five times longer than the Caribbean coast, the Pacific has considerably more surfing spots. Many of the country's best breaks are found in the northwest province of Guanacaste, but there are also some excellent spots in the Central Pacific and Southern Zones. And the few breaks that are available in the Caribbean province of Limon are certainly nothing to complain about. The following is a list of the country's best surf spots:
Potrero Grande: Right point break in Santa Rosa National Park, only accessible by boat; no camping. Playa Naranjo: Great beach break by Witch's Rock, in Santa Rosa National Park, accessible with four-wheel-drive vehicle or boat; camping permitted. Playa Grande: Very consistent beach break north of Tamarindo. Tamarindo: Good beach break, excellent base for surfing nearby beaches. Playa Langosta: River mouth break south of Tamarindo. Avellanas: Very good beach break further to the south. Playa Negra: Right point break further to the south. Nosara: Several beach breaks near selection of accommodations.
Central / South Pacific
Boca Barranca: Long river mouth left just south of Puntarenas. Tivives: Beach breaks and river-mouth left, south of Puntarenas. Jaco: Popular beach break with abundance of hotels and restaurants. Hermosa: Several very consistent beach breaks south of Jaco. Manuel Antonio: Beach breaks near plentiful accommodations. Dominical: Great beach breaks near hotels and restaurants. Matapalo: Right point break at tip of Osa Peninsula. Pavones: Very long left at mouth of Golfo Dulce.
Playa Bonita: Left over reef off popular beach just north of Limon City. Cahuita: Beach break on Black Beach, near hotels and restaurants. Puerto Viejo: Fast right over coral reef, plenty of hotels and restaurants. Cocles: Beach break just south of Puerto Viejo. Manzanillo: Beach break, only when big, some accommodations nearby.
Windsurfing - The trade winds blow across Costa Rica with incredible force and consistency during the dry months, creating windsurfing conditions in the northwest part of the country. The western end of Lake Arenal is one of the world's premier windsurfing spots, having been compared to Italy's Lake Garda and the Columbia River Gorge. During the dry season, the wind speed averages 33 miles an hour, a velocity than only experienced windsurfers can handle. As the gale increases, the lake's surface becomes choppy, and expert surfers use the waves to jump high into the air.
Though the dry-season winds on Lake Arenal are too strong for beginners, they calm down during the rainy months, when it can be a good place to learn the sport. There are several hotels near the western end of the lake that rent windsurfing equipment and offer private classes. There are also some spots along the Pacific coast that have good conditions for practicing the sport. The best area for experienced surfers is Puerto Soley, near the border with Nicaragua, whereas the Golfo de Papagayo is a better area for less experienced surfers, since it features calm waters and less intense wind.
Basic equipment can be rented at some of the beach resorts in the Papagayo area, as well as along the Central Pacific Coast, where the dry season winds tend to be less intense.