Beyond the Beach: The Top Active Adventures in Costa Rica

From hiking in the rainforest to snorkeling around a coral reef, these active adventures immerse you in the beautiful landscapes and diverse wildlife of Costa Rica.

I’ve always loved Costa Rica, a country offering amazing recreation amid the most beautiful scenery. Although I’ve hiked, kayaked and snorkeled all over the world, Costa Rica is unique because it’s home to the most diverse wildlife I’ve ever encountered — from the sloths and monkeys in the rainforest to the richly colored coral and abundant fish.

Every time I return to Costa Rica, I book several different active excursions. Each trip brings a decidedly different experience, which keeps me coming back for more. Here are a few of my favorite ways to explore this unforgettable country:

Hike in Manuel Antonio National Park.

More than a quarter of the land in Costa Rica consists of national parks, wildlife refuges and preserves, which means you’ll see an abundance of flora and fauna while out walking. If you’re new to hiking, I suggest taking the main trail through Manuel Antonio National Park: It’s flat, sandy and appropriate for all ages. If you want a more rugged trek, simply branch off the trail, as there are many different routes throughout the park. Expect to see monkeys and birds, as well as excellent beach views at various lookout points. For a moderately difficult hike, try Cathedral Point Trail, a .9-mile loop around the park’s ridge that offers stellar views (the steep climbs are worth it). As with any hiking trip, I suggest going with a guide. You’ll see more and side-step the fear of getting lost.

Explore a volcano.

The famous Arenal Volcano Park in the Alajuela Province spans more than 7,000 acres of land with stunning views of Arenal Volcano. Again, I’d recommend booking a guide to help you explore; he or she will be able to tell you about the unique plant and animal species in the area, including scarlet macaws, colobus monkeys and sloths. Plus, you can walk over old lava flows throughout the rainforest.

Located in the adjacent Guanacaste Province, the river near Tenorio Volcano is such a deep blue that, when people see photos, they often think the water has been brightened by Photoshop. The last time I visited, I took a dip in the area’s hot springs with my hiking group. We also stopped for a picnic lunch at the Rio Celeste waterfalls because the scenery was so pretty.

Kayak amid native wildlife.

With more than 20 rivers, plus Caribbean and Pacific coastlines, Costa Rica has no shortage of places to kayak. Whether you’re hugging the mangroves for glimpses of marine life or paddling along the coast to spot dolphins, you’re bound to get an eyeful.

If you’re kayaking with kids, try Lake Arenal near Arenal Volcano. It’s Costa Rica’s largest lake and showcases unparalleled views of the volcano. The calm waters are perfect for beginners. Or kayak in the Golfo Dulce, off the Osa Peninsula, an excellent spot for glimpsing marine life under the sea. I’ve observed dolphins, manatees, sea turtles and other creatures there, and the mangroves consistently offer turtle and bird sightings.

Go horseback riding in Guanacaste.

Many mountain resorts and nature lodges in Guanacaste offer horseback riding trips through pastures, tropical forests and beaches, often with stops at waterfalls. By taking an excursion through Fortuna Waterfall near Arenal Volcano, you’ll have the opportunity for plenty of animal sightings. Most rides stop at the waterfall for a swim break. You can also try a more challenging half- or full-day tour through the Cerro Nara Mountains for the chance to spot monkeys, sloths and anteaters.

Snorkel a coral reef. 

Costa Rica hosts a plethora of snorkeling options, including underwater caves, coral reefs and both Caribbean and Pacific shoreline. Manzanillo Beach and the reef at Cahuita National Park are home to more than 120 species of fish and more than 40 types of crustaceans. One of the country’s largest coral reefs — covering 600 acres — is located here. Book a guided tour and discover the best spots to witness urchins, angelfish, blue parrotfish, barracudas and stingrays.

I also consider Gandoca Manzanillo Wildlife Refuge a top spot for snorkeling. During my swims, I’ve seen sea turtles (which nest from March to July), as well as dolphins and manatees.

Explore More:
Discover Costa Rica guided tours and other active adventures available through the Marriott Vacation Club Destinations Exchange Program.


Judy K. is a travel writer living in New York.