7 of the best hikes in Costa Rica
From popular excursions through coastal rainforests to arduous mountaintop ascents, Costa Rica offers vibrant and varied landscapes that provide endless hiking opportunities.
In fact, sometimes there is no other way to reach this volcanic crater, swim in this waterfall or observe these rare birds – except with the power of your own two feet. Luckily, you don’t need to be an expert as there are trails for all skill levels. They are usually well signposted and guides are often available. And if you are an expert, you will also find many challenges.
The most popular hiking trails can get crowded in high season. But there’s almost always a less-trodden path somewhere nearby. So lace up your boots and grab your hiking stick: Here are the seven best hikes in Costa Rica.
1. Cahuita National Park
Best for wildlife and pristine beaches
6.5 miles (10.4 km) one way, 2 hours one way
Outside the village of Cahuita, the national park of the same name is a fantastic and popular hiking destination, blessed with coastal rainforest, mangrove swamps, pristine beaches and some very vocal troupes of howler monkeys. There are two entrances to the park – one at Kelly Creek near the village and one at Puerto Vargas which is 3.5 km (2.2 miles) down the road. A single footpath runs along the coast and connects the two entrances. Most hikers choose to hike one way and take the lift the other way. Buses run this route every 30 minutes, or it is also possible to hail a car heading towards Cahuita.
The trail is flat and easy, with a river crossing (which can be a diving experience at high tide) and two swimming beaches. The rewards of the hike are plentiful, particularly the abundant wildlife, which is remarkable for such an easily accessible trail. Keep an eye out for sloths, monkeys, coatis, snakes, iguanas, and plenty of waterfowl.
At the entrance of Puerto Vargas there is a 2 km long wooden walkway – the Cavitas Trail – through forest and mangroves. If you start at Kelly Creek, this is the final leg of your hike. This part of the trail is wheelchair accessible.
2. Barbilla National Park
Best challenging hike
3.5 miles (5.5 km), 4 hours, difficult
About 22 km (14 miles) south of Siquirres, Parque Nacional Barbilla is not for the timid as the hike is challenging and there are no facilities. But if you’re off the beaten path and want to learn about the Cabécar indigenous people, this might be for you. The trek is immersed in humid lowland forest teeming with wildlife and the rushing Río Danta cascading over two magnificent waterfalls on your way.
The trail is muddy and steep with several river crossings. It also requires an indigenous guide, whose insight into the Barbilla area and Cabécar culture will surely be a highlight of the trek. Contact the Barbilla Ranger Station (tel: 506-2200-5224) in advance to arrange a guide.
Incidentally, Parque Nacional Barbilla is a section of a newly developed thoroughfare known as the Camino de Costa Rica. This epic coast-to-coast journey traverses the country, following rural roads and connecting small villages and indigenous communities. Accommodation is available in simple guesthouses and with local families along the route. The goal is to give curious travelers the opportunity to visit lesser-known cultures and communities in a mutually beneficial and purposeful way.
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3. Arenal to Monteverde
Best multi-day hike
15 miles (25 km) one way, 2 days, moderate to difficult
Hordes of travelers make the journey from Arenal to Monteverde by car, bus, or the efficient taxi-boat-cab ensemble. Fewer travelers take the most direct route, which is only possible on foot. Red Lava Tours offers this challenging and rewarding hike that traverses the lush valley of the Río Caño Negro and then climbs into the mountains of the Cordillera de Tilarán, following old but little-used trails through the forest.
It’s very steep at times: expect 1000 m (3280 ft) of elevation gain. But the scenery is spectacular, with views of the forested mountains all around – and especially the magnificent fiery Volcán Arenal mountain with its namesake lake in the foreground. A highlight is an overnight stay in a remote and quaint mountain hut, where your guide will prepare dinner over a wood-burning stove. The second day of hiking is mostly on country roads until you reach the edge of the village of Santa Elena and the end is in sight.
4. Tenorio Volcano National Park
Best for unique geographical features
3 miles (5 km) round trip, 2 hours, moderate
Although this national park is named for the dormant volcano within it (which you can see from the trail), it’s best known for the heavenly blue waters of the Río Celeste. This is one of several rivers in northwestern Costa Rica where particles of certain volcanic minerals float in the water, reflecting a beautiful milky blue hue.
The main hiking trail in Parque Nacional Volcán Tenorio showcases the true blue river in various forms, most famously the stunning Río Celeste waterfall. Further along there is a beautiful blue lagoon as well as the tenidores, this is the crossing of two rivers where the water turns blue. It’s a relatively short hike, but it’s quite a spectacular – and unusual – display from Mother Nature.
The first part of the hike (up to the waterfall) is an easy walk on a partially paved path. Beyond the waterfall the trail becomes more rugged and often muddy. Note that heavy rainfall affects the color of the river, so it’s worth checking conditions before hiking. Visit the national park’s official Facebook page or ask your accommodation to call the ranger station for an update.
5. Ruins of El Miro, Jacó
Best city hike
1.2 miles (2 km) one way, 1 hour one way
Need a break from the beach? This unique hike is a fun way to while away a few hours when in Jacó. It’s a short and well-marked trail that leads from the town’s main street up to a half-built hotel (or mansion, depending on who you ask).
About halfway up, a wide balcony offers an impressive view of Playa Jaco. You might be tempted to linger (and you should for a while), but keep walking to the hotel, an ornate structure of columns and balustrades. The exterior has become a tableau for colorful graffiti and oversized murals.
The interior invites exploration and speculation about what happened to this place. The best reward is of course the spectacular panorama, which is particularly beautiful at sunset. Be careful on the way down as the path is not lit. If you want to change it up there is also an alternative route down that ends in Playa Hermosa.
6. Nauyaca Falls
Best waterfall hike
7.5 miles (12 km) round trip, 3 hours, moderate
There are many waterfalls in Costa Rica — and even more hikes — but they don’t always come together in the perfect “waterfall hike” they do at Cataratas Nauyaca. About 10 km (6 miles) inland from Dominical, the trail follows the scenic Río Barú through dense rainforest where you are likely to see birds and monkeys. It’s a wide dirt track (also used by horseback tours) that’s fairly easy to navigate. However, it is steep in some places and the rocks near the falls can be slippery – just to keep you on your toes.
At the terminus, the two-tiered Nauyaca Falls are indeed magnificent, spanning an 80m wide gorge. The lower falls drop into a beautiful 6m deep turquoise swimming hole – the perfect place to cool off after your hike. There are rocks for lounging and cliffs for jumping, not to mention views of two-tiered waterfalls in their entirety. But it’s worth climbing to the upper falls for an up-close look at the stunning 43 m (141 ft) high cascade.
6. Cerro Chirripó
Best mountaineering expedition
24 miles (40 km) round trip, 2 days, difficult
Cerro Chirripó is the country’s highest mountain at 3,820 m (12,532 ft) — a jagged, rocky peak surrounded by the scrubby trees and grasslands of the Paramo — with 360-degree views of the Caribbean and Pacific Ocean. (On a clear day, of course, which is definitely not guaranteed.)
The hike to the summit is a mostly straight shot that doesn’t require a guide. However, a permit is required, which you must obtain in good time (via Sinac.go.cr). It’s a steep walk that gains altitude of about 2600 m (8530 ft) from the starting point in San Gerardo de Rivas. Landmarks have names like Cuesta de los Arrepentidos (Hill of the Penitent) and Monte Sin Fe (Mountain Without Faith), that should give you an idea of the level of difficulty. It’s well maintained and easy to walk on, but a bit rocky and often muddy (depending on the time of year). Did we mention it’s steep?
The trail climbs through dense cloud forest, then stunted tree growth at higher elevations, with beautiful mountain views all around. Typically, the first day of hiking ends after 14.5 km (9 miles) at Crestones Base Camp, where hikers spend the night. (Space is limited and reservations are required; see Chirripo.org for details)
The second day starts early – very early – in order to reach the summit in time for sunrise – a rich reward indeed. Most hikers finish their descent on the second day; But you can also stay to explore the many kilometers of hiking trails in the area. Either way, reaching the summit is a heartbreaking, awe-inspiring experience that is sure to be a highlight of your trip.
The best tips for hiking in Costa Rica
- Most hiking trails in Costa Rica require good footwear (e.g. hiking boots). For river crossings and waterfall hikes, you might prefer hiking sandals or water shoes.
- Beware of wild animals on the trail, especially snakes. Closed-toe shoes are highly recommended for every forest or farm hike. Keep your distance from all wildlife. Don’t try to feed wild animals or lure them with food.
- Always sign the guest book at the ranger station in national parks (and other private reserves, if any) so rangers and staff know you are on the trails.
- Carry all trash from national parks and private reserves.
- All hikes listed have well-marked trails and are easy to follow (except in cases where guides are required). In general, it’s always a good idea to inquire about trail conditions before embarking on an unguided hike.