Written by and photos by Michael A.
COSTA RICA, COSTA RICA, COSTA RICA! As you can tell, I’m just a tad bit fond of my recent adventure in this beautiful country that really has everything for all types of travelers. I’d love to write a book on all you can do in this small country, but I’m going to try to keep it as brief as possible and let the pictures do the talking as words just won’t do this place justice. If you’re looking for things to do in Costa Rica, let this be your guide.
For those tired of exploring cities, Costa Rica really has it all for you. Just to name a few things before I get into my recommendations, Costa Rican highlights include: volcanoes, natural hot springs, beautiful beaches, rain forests, jungles, some of the most diverse wildlife of any country, all classes of whitewater rafting, zip lining, canyoning, rappelling, waterfall jumping, surfing, scuba diving, big game fishing, massages to knock your underwear off, and most importantly AMAZING customer service and knowledgeable guides.
I’d love to go on and on about how great the country is, but I really want to focus this article on a few companies that you absolutely must use when traveling to Costa Rica, or at least still searching for things to do in Costa Rica. I assume that you’re all smart people and have already decided that Costa Rica is the perfect vacation so I’m going to just tell you what you should do there. The customer support and service at all these below mentioned places are truly unlike anything I’ve ever experienced and that’s what really sets Costa Rica apart from the other 40 something countries I’ve traveled to. All of these guides or owners never seemed to be catering to its guests because it was part of business. Rather, it seemed as though each company really enjoyed its guest and was legitimately having a great time with each of us. I really recommend all these companies below!
Where to Stay Near Arenal Volcano – Chachagua Rain Forest Hotel
The rooms are beautifully kept and are built out of very high quality wood. Furthermore, as you can see in the picture above, each room comes with a beautiful patio with furniture and a table so that you can relax in the morning as the rain comes down or watch a sunset while listening to the hundreds of different species chirp. The rooms are very modern yet they still do a great job in keeping its natural feel of being in the middle of the rain forest.
The landscape of this property is absolutely stunning. This hotel owns a lot of the land and they have trails on their property, which are perfect for horseback riding, night tours, bird watching, day hikes and more (all of which you can purchase for a very affordable price through the hotel). You really don’t have any reason to leave the property between your beautiful room, gorgeous landscape, pool, wildlife, and a good restaurant all on premises.
The rooms are beautiful and the landscape is unreal, but my favorite part of my stay was getting to talk to one of the owners and hearing about how this is a hotel for the community. More times than not, business is all about money and getting the most out of each visitor. Chachagua Rain Forest Hotel has done something extremely unique in this aspect which really makes this place extra special and gives it a very real Costa Rican vibe. These owners want to make sure that each of their guests really gets a true Costa Rican experience while still making sure to not turn the area into another resort where Americans visit and wipe out the culture to the point where you don’t even realize that you’re in a foreign country anymore. Chachagua Rain Forest Hotel is a very self-sufficient hotel where they grow a lot of their crops, recycle (obviously), and hire only those from the local town to ensure that this property remains not only a profitable business, but also a major contributor to the lives of the locals. You’ll see brothers and sisters working together or a uncle and nephew and so forth. I thought this was something truly special as you don’t have this authenticity elsewhere in Costa Rica.
Bottom line: Do yourself a favor and spend at least a few days here so that you can really enjoy Costa Rica for what it is and not just stay in the tourist trap of La Fortuna.
Arenal Combo Volcano Hike with Red Lava Tourist Service Center
The guides at Red Lava Tourist Service Center are knowledgeable and friendly! GREAT customer service! They have amazing reviews all over TripAdvisor for a very good reason. The company’s big seller is the Combo 2 Volcano Hike which I strongly recommend. I unfortunately only was able to do the second tour but it was still a great treat. The combo hike compared to the one I did are pretty different from one another. During the Combo hike, the morning hike is a bit rigorous as you climb the Chato Volcano, which is right next to the Arenal volcano. Make sure you bring solid hiking shoes; anyone in decent shape shouldn’t have any issues with the hike. I opted for the second hike as it’s much more leisurely. You could probably get away with wearing tennis shoes as there isn’t really any climbing. Your guide will take you to beautiful locations where you’ll have stunning views of the Arenal volcano. You’ll also visit a beautiful waterfall and end the day with shots in natural hot spring. The nature aspect of this trip is obviously stunning. However, the most impressive part of the hike was all of the knowledge our guide provided. We weren’t just walking from location to location. Every so often, our guide gave us facts about the plant life or a beautiful bird call we heard echoing throughout the rain forest. He made the trip very educational and fascinating. I couldn’t have been more pleased with this hike.
TripAdvisor rating: 4.5/5
Rappelling and Whitewater rafting with Pure Trek Canyoning
Oh boy! If you want adrenaline, look no further. Start your morning off with a 185ft rappel down a gorgeous waterfall with Pure Trek Canyoning. Not your cup of tea? Well, I didn’t think it would be mine either since I’m kind of afraid of heights and I’ve never rappelled before. Somehow though, these great guides wiped away all my fear and got me to go through with the tour.
Although this trip is great for those seeking thrills, this actually turned into a big growing experience for many of us on this tour. These guides face customers with my similar fears on a regular basis. They are nice and friendly and really help you believe in yourself to overcome fears. Before you know it, you’re rappelling down 100ft waterfalls like it’s absolutely nothing. I think we went down a total of around nine amazingly beautiful waterfalls. Also, there is a zip line/monkey drop where you essentially zip line about 50 ft. At that point they stop you and then you just drop another 50 ft or so right before the stop you a few feet above the ground from your free fall. SO MUCH FUN!
Although the guides were having a great time with us, we constantly felt safe in their hands.
Whitewater Rafting the Balsa River (Class 2 and 3)
Once the rappelling in the rain forest wrapped up, Pure Trek Canyoning then took us to the Balsa River where we went whitewater rafting. Much like the rappelling, I didn’t really have much experience with this extreme sport. Once again though, I felt perfectly safe. They made sure to keep the guides/customer ratio very good at around one guide for every four people. Although I thought a Class 3 was going to be a bit easy, these rapids actually turned out to be a lot more fun, adventurous, and continuous than the Class 5 that I did previously.
At this point in the day, we were all pretty hungry as we’d been moving around since around 8 a.m. This tour thankfully comes with lunch. This was no ham and cheese sandwich type of lunch though. They took us to a restaurant where we had an authentic Costa Rican meal and even got to try freshly brewed Costa Rican coffee. Once we finished eating, they showed us how sugar is produced from sugar cane. This trip was much more than just an adrenaline rush, but was also an educational trip leaving us a bit more knowledgeable and cultured about the country.
TripAdvisor rating: 5/5
Night Jungle Tour with Arenal Oasis Eco Lodge and Wildlife Refuge
I strongly advise going on a night jungle tour with Arenal Oasis Eco Lodge and Wildlife Refuge as the jungle really awakens with some amazing creatures at night. This is pretty much a real life Planet Earth experience. As night became dark, we were led through the jungle with nothing but our flashlights. Our guide Issac was extremely knowledgeable and seemed to know just an unfathomable amount of information about each insect, reptile, amphibian or plant. He also taught us about their calls, behavior, and why certain traits evolved the way they did. The tour was around two hours and we saw a ton of wildlife, including poisonous snakes, Banana spiders, and the only Red Eye Tree Frog that I saw my whole time in Costa Rica. I told Issac how important it was to me find one of these and he was thankfully able to come through. This was a surreal experience and a true bargain. Make sure you do at least one night jungle hike while in the area.
TripAdvisor rating: 4.5/5
Desafio Gravity Falls
I think we all grew up with the love of jumping in rivers off of rocks or swinging into lakes by a rope. Well, this takes those loves to the next level with Costa Rica’s newest extreme excursion which combines waterfall free jumping and some rappelling. You must be in at least decent shape for this one and love a good rush! This was definitely the excursion that I was worried about the most during my time in Costa Rica. Rappelling down 150ft waterfalls and jumping without ropes over waterfalls 30ft down can easily make your skin chill. However, Desafio makes you feel extremely safe as they take you through beautiful canyons deep in the rainforest. They had three guides for the four of us on the tour so that we each had individual attention throughout each jump and rappel. They really emphasized safety with every single jump. Plus, this company had a professional camera that was able to take some amazing photos of you in action as you conquered your fears. They also took us out to a very nice lunch once our goosebumps finally settled.
Desafio Cooking Class
Although Desafio definitely prides itself on being extreme and for adrenaline junkies, they also cater to those that want to get a little more sophistication and culture out of their Costa Rican experience. For a rather small fee, they take you up to the mountains to a restaurant where 80 percent of the food is grown on that property. They walk you around and show you all the plants to give you a better understanding of spices and medicines in their natural state. Once our small group finished walking around, we headed to the kitchen where we had two Costa Rican ladies help prepare a traditional meal. By far the coolest part of this excursion was learning how to make tortillas from scratch. Culture is often deeply rooted in food and this was a very cool experience.
TripAdvisor rating: 5/5
Manuel Tour of Manuel Antonio National park
Let me first start off by saying, Manuel is the man! I wouldn’t be surprised if the city of Manuel Antonio were named after him ;). Manuel runs his own operation, Manuel’s Tours, and he usually keeps his tour groups very small. He is unbelievably knowledgeable and very well respected amongst all of the guides of Manuel Antonio. When you hire Manuel to guide you through the national park, you actually hire 100 guides as all guides help one another out to make sure that their customers can see as much wildlife as possible and boy did we!
I’ve never spent money on a guide when going through a national park as I just didn’t think it was ever worth it. After trekking with Manuel, please take my advice and hire this man. Otherwise you are completely throwing away your $16 entrance fee down the drain. The animals in this national park are obviously hard to see as animals should be. Manuel let us look through his spotter scope, which made finding all of these animals crystal clear even when far away. Manuel was an absolute godsend and I can’t imagine my time in the forest would be as great had he not been our guide. There is so much more to see than just monkeys, but you won’t see it unless you have a guide like Manuel with a trained eye and his spotter scope.
Manuel’s Night Jungle Tour
Once again, let me start off by saying, MANUEL IS THE MAN!! Did I mention that he fought off Costa Rica’s most dangerous snake right in front of me? Yeah, that happened. As with the day tour, it was an incredibly small group (me and one other person) so he was able to answer all of our questions and taught us a lot about the evolution of the landscape and life within it. He taught us some neat tricks on how to spot these creatures in the middle of the night. Among other things, we saw snakes, toads, scorpions, and the hideous scorpion spider. Manuel is truly a good man that cares deeply about his guests having a great time and you will when learning all of the cool facts that he has to offer.
TripAdvisor rating: 5/5
ADR Adventure Park
Eight extreme activities all wrapped up into one excursion! Although the name is a bit confusing, this is NOT a park. The guides at ADR Adventure Park took us into the middle of the jungle for the activities. This is a great value for the amount of different things you get to try, like zip lining through a waterfall (Yes, you read that correctly!). There is quite a bit of zip lining in this excursion which is one of Costa Rica’s main attraction. So, if you’re looking to do some zip lining which I’m sure 90% of you are, then take this tour. You get a taste of a lot of different activities such as a high rope swing, rappelling, a good amount of hiking, a waterfall jump, and more all included in one. The location is absolutely stunning and the photographer they bring is amazing! I had to buy these pictures as these action shots were just so unreal.
TripAdvisor rating: 5/5
Surfing in Manuel Antonio with Coconut Surf and Skate
Surfing is big in Costa Rica. Although Jaco and Dominical are supposed to be pretty big surf spots, the town of Manuel Antonio has so much more to offer than these other towns. Shoot Coconut Surf and Skate an email as his surf setup is right outside Manuel Antonio National park on the free public beach. If you’re driving toward the National Park from Quepos, it’s one of the first parking lots to the right you can enter and you’ll see him right there. He both rents out his boards and gives three hour surf lessons that I was told were pretty good by others. So, make sure to send him an email to get his prices and scheduling.
H2O Adventures (Class 5 Whitewater Rafting EL CHORRO)
With good reason, I was definitely nervous about this Class 5 rafting trip with H20 Adventures since I’ve only been rafting twice and the highest class I’ve ever done was a 3. It’s important to know how the classifications work though so you have an idea of what to expect. Class 5 doesn’t necessarily mean that the Rapids are 10 times tougher than a Class 2 or 3 would be. In fact, the Class 3 might even be tougher. Rather, a very important factor in determining classification is based on the danger level and the magnitude of how badly someone could get hurt. Once again though, this company really emphasizes safety (of course after making you sign your life away via a waiver!). We had a 3:1 rider to guide ratio, which was perfect not only for getting down the river, but also learning logistics on the strategy of taming the beast. We saw a couple of wipeouts as some of these rapids get pretty intense as you drop 8-10 ft followed by hard rights and left turns to avoid slamming into boulders. I felt completely safe the entire time (that could also be because I had a secret plan to ride the body of any of my boat members in case we tipped). This company also had a professional photographer with us.
TripAdvisor rating: 5/5
As I’m sure you figured by now, I was a bit worried about many of these excursions due to my lack of experience and fear of heights. But, that’s what’s so great about Costa Rica; it’s a place far enough from home where you can be whatever you want to be, conquer your fears, get a rush like never before, and really grow as a person. If these words and glowing recommendations on things to do in Costa Rica haven’t convinced you to book a flight to Costa Rica immediately, I sure hope the pictures get you there because this is one special place.