Costa Rica’s Best Waterfalls

When people ask me about Costa Rica they often ask for the best beaches, best ecolodges or most thriling ziplines. For some reason they rarely ask about the best waterfalls. Here is a stunning collection of waterfalls to be one of the country’s highlights.

Costa Rica’s rugged mountains and abundant rainfall create a geography that’s literally overflowing with rivers. By some estimates only New Zealand has more rivers per square kilometer. As water races down Costa Rica’s mountains on its way to the sea, it often leaps over sheer drop-offs, resulting in dozens of world-class waterfalls.

No matter where you go in Costa Rica, there’s a waterfall nearby. But seek out the very best and you’ll be glad you did. Some are great for swimming, others are famous for jumping. Others are simply drop-dead gorgeous. Some waterfalls are located on private land, others in national parks, but all have the power to transform you. The combination of thundering water, cool spray and lush vegetation washes away the outside world, placing you squarely in the moment and inducing a deep state of pura vida.

Rio Celeste

That’s not Photoshop—the Rio Celeste really is that blue. According to local legend, when God finished painting the sky he dipped his brush in the Rio Celeste. Or maybe it’s all those aluminosilicates that naturally occur in the water. Quien sabe, mae? Thanks to social media Rio Celeste is no longer a secret, but its remote location in Tenorio National Park helps keep down the crowds. The waterfall is reached via a 1.5-km (1-mile) hiking trail, so plan on spending at least half a day in the park. Although tour companies run day trips from Arenal, I prefer spending the night at one of the wonderful ecolodges just outside the park. Note: The river often loses its brilliant blue color during the rainy season when the water runs muddy, so it’s best to visit during the driest months (Jan – March).

Nauyaca

Located a short drive from the Pacific beach town of Dominical, Nauyaca is one of the biggest waterfalls in Costa Rica. Divided into two stunning tiers, it tumbles down 65 meters (215 feet) into a large pool that’s perfect for swimming. Guided horseback tours of Nauyaca are offered by the local family that owns the surrounding property. Some guides thrill in swan diving off the tall ledges. Mere mortals should stick to the pool at the waterfall’s base.

Llanos de Cortes

Llanos de Cortés is a broad curtain of water that tumbles into a large, shallow pool. Although big, it’s more delicate than powerful, with silky ribbons of water flowing over hanging plants. Located just 22 km (13.7 miles) east of Liberia, it makes a terrific day trip if you’re looking to escape the clutter of downtown. The turnoff, marked by a small wooden sign, is located about 4 km (2.5 miles) west of Bagaces on Highway 1 (The Inter-American Highway). From the turnoff, head 600 meters down the road, turn right at a small gate and drive five minutes to the large parking area. Admission, which benefits the local school, is $2 per person.

Montezuma

Most of Costa Rica’s famous waterfalls are tucked away in the mountains, but this three-tiered stunner is just a short stroll from the mellow beach town of Montezuma. The waterfall’s lowest tier is the most accessible. To get there walk west on the main road from downtown Montezuma, and after about 10 minutes you’ll cross a short bridge in front of La Cascada Restaurant/Hotel. Just past the bridge a rocky trail heads to the base of the waterfall. If you’d like to reach the waterfall’s upper tiers, you have two options. The first, and most dangerous, is to follow the rugged path set back from the base of the waterfall. A better option is to head to Sun Trails, located up a steep hill just west of the parking area. Sun Trails charges a ₡2,000 entrance fee at the front desk to access their well-maintained trail system, which leads to the top of the waterfall. Although people do jump from the upper tiers, it’s definitely not for the faint of heart.

La Fortuna

This 70-meter (230-foot) waterfall, located just 5 km (3 miles) from downtown La Fortuna, is one of the most dramatic waterfalls in Costa Rica. From the entrance ($10 per person, all proceeds go to the town of La Fortuna), a steep trail descends nearly 600 meters (1,969 feet) to the base of the waterfall, a hike that takes 10–20 minutes depending on your fitness level. There are two observation platforms overlooking the waterfall, and swimmers can take a dip in the lovely, chilly pool. From the lower observation platform a short trail heads to a series of smaller, calmer pools located downstream. During peak season the waterfall can attract over 1,000 people per day, so visit early or late to avoid the crowds. Open 8am–5pm. Note: A free swimming hole, popular with locals, is located just below the bridge crossing the Río Fortuna, just south of the turnoff to the waterfall on the main road.

La Paz Waterfall Gardens

This privately owned property features 5 waterfalls, 3.5 km (2.2 miles) of hiking trails and a large wildlife refuge filled with over 100 Costa Rican species. A long descending trail heads from waterfall to waterfall, and guided tours are available. Located just 30 km (18.6 miles) north of Alajuela, the La Paz Waterfall Gardens makes a wonderful day trip if you’re looking to get out of the urban jungle and visit the real one. It’s also great after a morning trip to Poás Volcano, which is located nearby.

Osa Peninsula The most biologically intense place on Earth

Costa Rica has long been renowned for its incredible biodiversity; a small, yet environmentally rich country that is home to over 5% of the entire world’s animal and plant species. Lying along its south-western coast is the Osa Peninsula, a tiny strip of land measuring just 35 miles long and 20 miles wide and covered in magnificent, unspoiled rainforest. The Osa Peninsula is itself home to half of all the species in Costa Rica, that’s a staggering 2.5% of the entire biodiversity of the planet, living on a mere 0.00000085% of the earth’s total surface area.

Formed geologically by the same faulting system that extends to California, this patch of Costa Rica’s last remaining tropical humid rainforest embraces a complex system of freshwater and marine systems; there are 13 major ecosystems, ranging from sea level to 745 metres and encompassing mangroves, sandy beaches and elevated primary forests. As a result, the Osa Peninsula is home to over 700 species of trees, which is more than all the North temperate regions of the world combined. Trees that are comparable in grandeur to the best that the Amazon Basin and the South East Asian forests have to offer, with 80 endemic species and the largest tree in Central America, a giant Silk Cotton tree some 77 metres tall.

There are 117 species of reptiles and amphibians, 365 species of birds and over 120 species of mammals, (all with varying degrees of endemism). Its forests are home to endangered species such as Baird’s tapir, the white-lipped peccary, the American crocodile, the harpy eagle and the Central American squirrel monkey. It’s a place where jaguars still roam the jungles, scarlet macaws fly freely about the town and the enormous humpbacked whales swim close to its shores. The Osa Peninsula holds possibly the highest natural diversity on the planet, inspiring The National Geographic magazine to describe it as “the most biologically intense place on earth”.

Protecting this unspoilt wilderness

At least half of its rainforest and swamps are protected by Corcovado National Park and numerous private reserves, yet sadly, like the majority of the world’s most delicate ecosystems it is under threat. In addition to the challenges posed by climate change on delicate bio-systems, there are also the added threats of poaching and unregulated construction in an area that lacks adequate infrastructure to deal with the resultant rubbish, wastewater and sewage.

The good news for its future is that it also home to an active and committed community who work tirelessly to counter the negative effects of human impact. In addition to the establishment of recycling programmes and supporting the role of local producers, the Osa community also provides strong opposition to any proposals that might cause further damage to this fragile ecosystem. It is with some irony that tourism is also playing a major role in the protection of the Osa Peninsular. Many hotels and businesses are adhering to the standards set out by the Certificate for Sustainable Tourism and have even bought tracts of land with the sole aim of increasing the protected forest land

As a result, there is genuine hope that the Osa Peninsular will remain a beautifully wild and unspoilt wilderness; a unique and quite beautiful oasis in an increasingly over populated planet, a place where animals can roam freely with little or no fear of their human neighbours.

30 Photos That Will Make You Wish You Were In Costa Rica Right Now

How many of your vacatiosn days did you use in the last year? If you live in the United States, chances are the answer to that question is somewhere around half of them. Which means you could be taking paid time off to hang out in Costa Rica right now.

And Costa Rica is a pretty sweet place to be, whether you go for its unrivaled ecotourism opportunities, from watching sea turtles nest to ziplining through the rain forest; its 1,000 miles of coastline on both the Pacific and the Caribbean, and the spectacular beaches and surf that go along with it; or its 50 national parks, representing the nation’s unprecedented commitment to preservation and protecting a full 5% of the world’s biodiversity.

Not that anyone really needs convincing, but here are 30 images of Costa Rica that will inspire you to take your vacation time and put it to better use in the months to come. Here’s to restoring our work-life balance, one epic trip at a time.


RED-EYED TREE FROG

Costa Rica is small, just under 20,000 square miles—about the size of two Vermonts. And yet, this country that accounts for just .1% of Earth’s land area harbors 5% of its biodiversity. Costa Rica’s tropical mountain chains, rain forests, and various islands are home to species both highly endangered and more common, such as the red-eyed tree frog seen above.


CHOOSE YOUR OWN BEACH

Bordered by the Pacific to the west and the Caribbean to the east, Costa Rica has no shortage of beaches. The best part is that, no matter what time of year you visit, if conditions on one coast are less than ideal, all you have to do is travel a few dozen miles overland to access a completely different white-sand paradise.


CAÑO ISLAND BIOLOGICAL RESERVE

Caño Island Biological Reserve, just one of the country’s dozens of protected areas, is located off the Osa Peninsula in southwestern Costa Rica. If you’re into marine life and top-notch diving / snorkeling, this is where you should be.


ARENAL VOLCANO

Of Costa Rica’s 14 volcanoes, Arenal is probably the best known thanks to its near perfect pyramidal shape. The national park that surrounds it shares its name and is located a short drive north of the capital San José.


EMPEROR BUTTERFLY

The Emperor butterfly is common in Central America and can grow to have a wingspan of nearly 8 inches. Its iridescent coloration brightens the forests of Costa Rica.


SURF AT PLAYA AVELLANA

Thanks to its dual coasts and favorable features / conditions, Costa Rica has long been a surf destination. Pictured above is Playa Avellana, located on the Nicoya Peninsula. Its waves tend to be mellower than those of the popular Playa Negra farther south.


MANUEL ANTONIO NATIONAL PARK

Near the Pacific town of Quepos, Manuel Antonio draws lots of visitors for its mix of pristine jungle and palm-bordered beaches. Punta Catedral, the point you see in the distance above, is accessed via hiking trails.


THREE-TOED SLOTH

One of Costa Rica’s most iconic creatures, the three-toed sloth lives in the trees but is also a capable swimmer. Near Puerto Limón, you can arrange a boat tour for a chance of seeing this beloved animal in its jungle home.


FLOWER AT DRAKE BAY

Costa Rica’s biodiversity includes flora as well as fauna, of course. The colors and forms of plant life here are hard to match.


HAMMERHEAD, COCOS ISLAND NATIONAL PARK

Cocos sits 340 miles southwest of mainland Costa Rica (about halfway to the Galápagos) and is an uninhabited national park. If you manage to make it out here, you’ve probably done so for the diving—some of the best in the world.


BAJOS DEL TORO

Bajos del Toro is a private reserve, just north of San José, where this waterfall plunges 300 feet from a hole in the cliff face to the bottom of an extinct volcanic crater.


SUNSET, PLAYA HERMOSA

Guanacaste’s Playa Hermosa remains a laid-back alternative to some of the more popular beaches nearby. Find it just south of Culebra Bay on the north Pacific coast.


MANGROVE BLACK HAWK, PALO VERDE NATIONAL PARK

Palo Verde National Park is set in the valley of the Tempisque River in northwestern Costa Rica, protecting ecologically significant dry forests as well as mangroves along the river. It’s a great place to see birds, from macaws to ibis to wood storks, as well as the mangrove black hawk, pictured above.


SARCHÍ OXCART PAINTER

On the northern outskirts of San José, set in the foothills that lead up to the Poás Volcano, the town of Sarchí preserves traditional Costa Rican crafts. Chief among them is the oxcart, elaborately painted carriages that were once used to transport highland coffee to port.


WHALE WATCHING, CAÑO ISLAND

The coast around the Osa Peninsula, where Caño Island lies, sees multiple whale migrations each year, giving it one of the longest whale-watching seasons anywhere in the world.


POISON DART FROG

If you need evidence of Costa Rica’s tremendous biodiversity, consider this: The nation is home to 133 known species of frog, many of which are endemic. This poison dart frog was photographed in the rainforests of the Gandoca-Manzanillo Wildlife Refuge, near the border with Panama.


MONTEVERDE CLOUD FOREST ZIPLINE

Costa Rica’s forests are nearly as diverse as the creatures that live within them. Blanketing the lower reaches of the Tilarán Mountains in the northwest, the Monteverde Cloud Forest stands in near perpetual mist and harbors an extraordinary abundance and diversity of life. Its unique topography and wildlife attracts many tourists, who can choose from a variety of ecotourism excursions and adventure activities such as ziplining through the forest canopy.


CACAO PODS

If you’ve ever wondered exactly where chocolate comes from, you can find out in Costa Rica. The country’s indigenous people were trading in cacao long before Europeans arrived, and today many operations continue to produce high-quality chocolate from local beans.


BRIBRI CHILDREN

The Bribri are one such indigenous people, residing in Costa Rica’s Limón Province. Multiple organizations can arrange voluntourism trips to Bribri communities, where you can learn firsthand about their traditional beliefs and practices.


NOSARA SURF

Nosara, a small city located on the mountainous Nicoya Peninsula, abuts some pretty awesome Pacific surf.


LEATHERBACK TURTLE

Both of Costa Rica’s coasts provide vital nesting grounds for endangered populations of sea turtles. Tortuguero National Park, on the Caribbean north of Limón, is recognized as a world leader in turtle conservation and study.


RAFTING THE PACUARE

You can have fun on the water away from the coasts as well. The Río Pacuare flows for some 70 miles from the highlands east of San José to the Caribbean just south of Tortuguero National Park, creating some excellent whitewater along the way.


TOUCAN

Few animals scream “tropical paradise” as loudly as the toucan. The bird above was photographed at the La Paz Waterfall, north of San José on Highway 126.


LIFE BELOW THE PACIFIC

The abundance of wildlife below the waves is nearly as impressive as that above, which makes Costa Rica one of the world’s premier destinations for diving and snorkeling.


SANTA ROSA NATIONAL PARK

Costa Rica’s oldest national park (established in 1971) covers the peninsula that forms the northern boundary of the Gulf of Papagayo, in Guanacaste province. Originally created to protect the site of a military battle, the park also contains a wide range of habitats and wildlife.


CAHUITA NATIONAL PARK

Cahuita mainly draws tourists with its excellent reef diving / snorkeling and sea turtle nesting grounds, but its land-based attractions, which include wildlife such as tree sloths, eyelash vipers, and capuchin monkeys, also make it worth a visit.


SANTA TERESA BEACH

Near the tip of the Nicoya Peninsula, just north of the Cabo Blanco Natural Reserve, you’ll find this beach, which epitomizes everything that makes Costa Rica’s shores so great.


POÁS VOLCANO

Arenal might strike a nice pose from a distance, but you’ll want to look Poás right in its face. In the national park of the same name, you can follow a mile-long (round trip) paved trail to the top of the volcanic crater and peer down over eerily colored lagoons.


WELCOME!

Costa Rica’s pioneering decision to set aside more than 25% of its territory as protected area rather than develop it means that tourism is a vital component of the national economy. Unlike in other countries around the world, where the effects of tourism are more dubious, Costa Ricans know your visit is helping enable them to preserve their unparalleled natural wonders. You will be welcome here.


SUNDOWNER

No matter where you are in Costa Rica, an epic beachside sunset over the Pacific is just a short drive away. Sure beats wasting your vacation days in the office, doesn’t it?

25 Reasons a Trip to Costa Rica Could Actually Change your Life

The country is divided into two sides – the Pacific side, known for its stunning beaches, and the Caribbean side, known more for its low-key rainforest vibe — and I’ve been to both. In fact, I love Costa Rica so much that I actually lived there for a month last year, back when my job was remote. So here are 25 reasons you should definitely go to Costa Rica – at which point you’ll become slightly obsessed, just like me.

1. It has some of the most beautiful beaches ever.

That blue water is not enhanced. Swear on my life. Neither is the sand. That’s just how the beaches are in Costa Rica. This particular beach is called Playa Conchal, because the sand is actually made of conch shells (!). And there are many, many others that are just as sweet.

2. And it also has beautiful cloud forests …

One of Costa Rica’s biggest attractions is Monteverde, the cloud forest. The main difference between a cloud forest and a rainforest is that cloud forests are located at higher elevations — which makes them cooler and also creates a foggy, misty atmosphere. Whatever the science behind it, though, the fact is that cloud forests are super magical and definitely worth a visit.

3. … and rainforests, too.

While there are rainforests in Monteverde, there are also many on the Caribbean side. When I went the first time, I stayed in Monteverde and then moved on to Manzanillo, a super chill little rainforest town. I actually liked Manzanillo better because it was super remote and I’m into that, but I still recommend hitting up Monteverde for the experience.

4. Its motto, ”pura vida,” which is Spanish for ”pure life,” will speak to your soul.

It certainly spoke to mine. The locals are so friendly, the vibe is so chill, and there is a lightness in the air that makes you feel like you’re living in happy land, where all is joyful and wonderful. (I’m sober right now, btw. It’s just that peaceful there.)

5. Especially because the locals — called Ticos — truly embrace the pura vida lifestyle.

Of course there are tourism businesses that capitalize on the ”pura vida” motto, selling tacky ”pura vida” t-shirts, and offering ”pura vida” yoga classes that are commercialized to the max. Ugh, it pains me to think of them! But steer clear of those touristy zones, and you’ll find that the ”pura vida” lifestyle truly is ingrained in the soul of its people, who seem to appreciate life’s best simplicities, and will undoubtedly assure you that everything actually is pretty chill.

6. In the less-touristy towns, it’s easy to feel like you’ve stepped back in time.

Smaller towns like Dominical, Uvita, and Nosara will take you back to the way things were. There aren’t really any big commercialized chains, people smile at you as you’re walking down the sunny street, and life is golden.

7. There is a sloth sanctuary. Yes, a sloth sanctuary.

Aptly titled ”Sloth Sanctuary,” the staff has been rescuing sloths — a very common animal in Costa Rica — since 1992. They’ll even take you on a sloth tour!

8. And there are howler monkeys!

They’re everywhere! They chill in the trees, just like that, and they howl. Could they be any cuter?

9. The roads, though full of borderline dangerous twists and turns, are stunning.

If you’re going on a road trip, be very careful: The driving can get tricky. People tend to pass you if you’re going slower in front of them, even if there’s a sharp turn ahead of you and it looks like things could get tight. It can get mildly terrifying, to be honest. But as long as you’re careful, it’s worth it, if only because you get to cruise along and see gorgeous local back roads like these.

10. The sunsets are unreal.

There are sunsets, and then there are sunsets. Costa Rican beauties fall under the latter category, namely because of the STRONG pinks and purples and oranges. They’re just killer.

11. I repeat: unreal.

People sit on the beach every night to watch the sunset (myself included), and why wouldn’t you? It’s a daily show, it’s free, and it’s epic 99.99999% of the time. Documented evidence above.

12. And the sunrises, if you can actually wake up for them, are #worthit, too.

I took this one on a morning run in Tamarindo. The best part is that if you wake up for sunrise, you usually have the beach to yourself, which is the perfect time to clear your mind and let those heady thoughts roll in.

13. There are beautiful bogenvelia bushes everywhere you look.

Take it in, take it in.

14. And there’s some other seriously cool flora, too.

Heliconia, pink ginger, and golden trumpet, respectively.

15. The local food hits the spot, especially the plantains.

In my opinion, the best food is served at sodas, which are the outdoor casual roadside restaurants — NOT the touristy ones. The most common Costa Rican meal is called a ”casado,” which is: beans, rice with finely-chopped onions and peppers, a cabbage salad, fried plantains, and some sort of meat (chicken, steak, fish, pork, whatever) with fried onions. The plantains are my favorite — they are buttery and carby and fried and perfect.

16. And their most well-known beer, Imperial, tastes great at the beach.

Let me be clear: This is no artisanal IPA. It’s a lager, meaning you can drink a bunch of them at sunset without getting tanked — which is exactly what a tropical beer is meant for. And it’s cheap, too! One costs about 600 colones (about $1 a beer).

17. The surfing is incredible, both for beginners and for people with more experience.

There are tons of surfing schools and surfing camps all around Costa Rica, making it the ideal spot to learn how to get out there on the waves. But there are also different beaches with stronger waves, for super legit surfers. I hung out with some local pro surfers while I was there, and they raved about Playa Grande in Guanacaste.

18. And yoga is all over the place.

Who needs a studio when you have the beach? (Though if you want a studio, they definitely have them. Nosara is especially well-known for their yoga retreats and studios.)

19. The volcano situation in Costa Rica is on point.

There are six active ones — the most famous is Arenal, above — and another 61 dormant or extinct ones.

20. And the hot springs around Arenal are some of the most soothing in the world.

Thanks to Arenal’s geothermal activity, there are tons of hot springs all around that contain healing minerals (and they’re pretty low in sulfur, so they don’t have that weird smell).

If you want to go, stay in La Fortuna, the town near Arenal. The most famous hot springs around the volcano are Tabacon Hot Springs, Baldi Hot Springs, Ecotermales Hot Springs, and the Springs Resort Hot Springs. I went to Tabacon on a day trip and loved it and highly recommend it, but I’m sure the other ones are great, too.

21. Ziplining will change your perspective forever.

Most people go ziplining in Arenal or Monteverde, but you can also go in other places around the country. I went in Monteverde, and it was amazing! I’m really scared of heights (and, fine, pretty much all scary things), so this was big for me — but I ended up loving the ride, probably because I was going too fast to think.

22. You can bike pretty much anywhere you want.

Including, but not limited to, the beach!

23. There’s also tons of hiking, for those who are so inclined.

Forest hiking, beach hiking, you name it. It’s there.

24. The waterfalls are magical.

This one is in Uvita, though they really are everywhere.

25. But perhaps most of all, Costa Rica is a great place to chill out, breathe deep, get in with nature, and let yourself totally, completely decompress from the stresses of daily life.

Pura vida, man. Pura vida.