Orchid-swathed jungles, misbehaving monkeys, a kaleidoscope of butterflies, dangling sloths and mangrove-dwelling crocodiles: in Costa Rica, life plays out in all its technicolour glory. Renowned for its extraordinary biodiversity and epic national parks, it’s a country made for eco-adventures. Here, leisurely hikes might mean ascending into the hazy mists of a cloud forest to zipline through the verdant canopy, or surfing on wave-battered, white-sand Pacific beaches before taking a soothing soak in a geothermal spring.
Whatever your preference, Costa Rica offers a little piece of paradise for every type of traveller and, when you’re spoilt for choice, it pays to ask an expert. Enter Erick Wiessel, whose first job in the world of tourism was helping his father guide biologists around his family's ranch in Guanacaste and who now runs No Limit Adventures, a company that designs nature-filled experiences across Costa Rica. Here’s his take on the country’s wonderful wildlife.
What can people expect when visiting Costa Rica?
Costa Rica is a destination that offers a unique blend of luxury and adventure. With its incredible natural habitats and rich biodiversity, it's the perfect place to escape everyday life and immerse yourself in Mother Nature. We have six different kinds of forests, for example — tropical, cloud, tropical dry, mangrove, lowland rainforest and riparian — as well as six kinds of big cat, 933 registered bird species, more than 6,700 marine species and too many waterfalls to count!
We’re not just a green destination; we have amazing locals, too. Costa Ricans are incredibly happy, humble and welcoming people. We may be a small country, but there’s much to see; you should allow at least a week to experience some of the best activities. I’d also recommend looking for a specialist before you come — it’s not the easiest country to travel around, so you’ll need a little guidance.
What adventures should first-timers tackle and why?
Hiking is one of the best ways to get off the beaten path in Costa Rica and, with 29 national parks, there's plenty of opportunities! I’d particularly recommend the Arenal Volcano National Park, located in northwestern Costa Rica, for its abundance of trails, including one that takes you along the Arenal Hanging Bridges or hiking to the top of La Fortuna Waterfall. Mountain biking around Lake Arenal is great fun, too, or take to the water with standup paddleboarding and kayaking.
The remote Osa Peninsula, located on the South Pacific coast, is another wild corner for hiking. It’s home to Corcovado National Park, Costa Rica’s largest and most biodiverse park, which currently shelters the country’s largest remaining population of jaguars and tapirs. Take a guided hike from one of the four ranger stations peppered throughout the park; some weave through the area’s former gold mining villages to reveal rural Tico life and enormous pre-Columbian stone spheres. For epic waterfalls, head to Bajos del Toro in the Alajuela Province or Tortuguero National Park on the Caribbean coast.
What multi-day hikes would you recommend?
Serious hikers should make for Cerro Chirripó — the tallest mountain in Costa Rica. The route can be done in a day but is best as a two- or three-day adventure. El Camino de Costa Rica is another incredible route that’s becoming increasingly popular. Comprised of rural roads and challenging forest trails, the excursion takes 15 days to cross the whole country and is absolutely spectacular!
What unique wildlife can travellers expect to see?
On any hike, however short, you’re likely to see something interesting. A recent three-hour trek through the Corcovado National Park revealed three tapirs, an armadillo, anteaters, peccaries, a variety of frogs and a huge boa imperator — all on that one hike! Our variety of mischievous monkeys are always fun to spot, too. We have white-faced capuchins, spider monkeys, squirrel monkeys and howler monkeys. Then there’s our elusive big cats, including ocelots, pumas and jaguars.
This is why I always recommend hiking with a naturalist guide; their trained eyes, knowledge and passion for nature will really make the most of this adventure. In fact, most privately organised activities will reveal unique, lesser-known spots.
What other activities would you recommend for families and why?
Waterfall abseiling is a fantastic adventure for the entire family. Children (above seven years old) can take part and difficulty levels can be managed. Arenal Volcano National Park and the Monteverde Cloud Forest are the best spots for this. I’d also really recommend whitewater rafting. Pacuare River Class III-IV rapids is ideal for this activity and can be combined with a luxury mountain lodge stay inside the rainforest.
Surfing is another great way to spend some family time in Costa Rica — by learning how to ride the waves at one of the many surf schools. Great beaches for this include Playa Avellanas, Playa Grande, Playa Negra, Playa Callejones and Playa Guiones. For advanced surfers, I’d recommend Witch’s Rock in Santa Rosa National Park. Here, you can expect to surf a fast, powerful wave with rolling mountains as the backdrop. You can access it by a dirt road, but the journey is easier and more enjoyable by boat!
What should divers know about scuba diving in Costa Rica?
Costa Rica has the privilege of being bordered by two oceans — the Atlantic on the east coast and the Pacific on the west. The latter is home to a greater concentration of diving spots, which, depending on the time of year, offer the chance to spot a variety of marine life, including whales, manta rays, bull sharks, eels, turtles and huge schools of fish.
Isla del Caño, Islas Catalinas, Golfo de Papagayo and Isla Murciélago are some of the most well-known locations. I recently visited Isla del Caño, where we were extremely lucky to view some of the last manta rays of the season [they’re most prominent from January to April].
At No Limit Adventures, we work with Connect Ocean Dive Center to provide a unique diving experience, where you could dive from two tanks on one day or focus your entire Costa Rican adventure on the sport. We often recommend a visit to the UNESCO World Heritage Site of Cocos Island where hammerhead sharks are the main attraction.
When’s the best time of year to visit?
Costa Rica is a year-round destination, but if you have specific tastes about seasons, January through to March is the warmest and most dry. This is our peak tourist season; the long sunny days are perfect for exploring rainforests and lounging on beaches. I’d also recommend travelling in the country's green season [which runs from May until November]. This is when you catch the seasons in transition and the national parks are quieter.
Do you have any other advice for travellers?
Pack light and bring comfortable, breathable clothing for hiking. It's also a good idea to learn some basic Spanish phrases, even though English is widely spoken across the country.
Costa Rica is also seeing the rise of a new generation of talented chefs, introducing new and innovative concepts. I recommend trying a fine dining experience to sample some of our delicious, local cuisine. Patacones (fried green plantain), ceviche (fresh raw fish cured in citrus juices), and gallo pinto (a dish including black beans, rice, scrambled eggs and tomato salsa) are my personal favourites.
My most important advice, however, is to prioritise visiting locations that protect the natural environment. By doing so, each travel experience can serve a greater and more transformative purpose. Come with an open mind, try to learn as much as possible about nature and how we're all connected, and always seek out the path less trodden with a naturalist guide. It could lead you to various hidden gems — Costa Rica is certainly full of them.
Erick and his team at No Limit Adventures curate tailormade trips and multi-day itineraries in Costa Rica, with nature at their heart. All tours include expert local guides, handpicked accommodation and a variety of the activities mentioned above and more. For more information and to book your trip, visit nolimitadventurescr.com