Despite being known as a location that caters to those looking for plenty of sun, sand, and surf, Costa Rica is actually an outstanding adventure travel destination too. Those who venture away from the more touristy sections of the country will find great mountain biking, world-class whitewater rafting, and some of the best wildlife spotting in all of Central America. You'll also find a surprising number of great hiking trails to explore too, giving active travelers a chance to stretch their legs while wandering through a variety of wilderness settings.
With that in mind, these are our picks for the absolute best trails that can be found in Costa Rica.
Arenal Hanging Bridges Trail
Home to one of the most active volcanoes in the world, Arenal National Park is a must-visit destination for anyone planning a trip to Costa Rica. The park has miles of hiking trail to wander, some of which require a guide. But one of the best treks is completely self-guided and provides a unique perspective on the rainforest too.
While its only 2 miles in length, and relatively easy to walk, the Hanging Bridges Trail is nevertheless a memorable experience.That's because hikers cross over 16 different bridges en route, six of which are suspended in the air, passing through the rainforest canopy itself. From that vantage point it is possible to spot a variety of unique birds and insects while enjoying the sights, sounds, and smells of the jungle below.
Manuel Antonio National Park Trail
Although it covers just 1680 acres, Costa Rica's Manuel Antonio National Park offers hikers access to a stunning array of landscapes. Visitors will find dense rainforests, rocky shores, white sand beaches, and dramatic coral reefs. They'll also encounter several species of monkeys, a variety of colorful birds, and even three-toed sloths living amongst the trees.
The 2-mile long Main Trail loop trail grants access to all of these sights and so much more. The trail is an easy, enjoyable walk, even for less-experienced hikers. Those looking for a bit of a tougher challenge can add the nearly 1 mile long extension up the Cathedral Point Trail. This off-shoot includes spectacular views to go along with the prevalent wildlife.
Rio Celeste Trail
Inside Tenorio Volcano National Park is a river so blue in color that you'll think it was photoshopped even when looking at it with your own eyes. Thanks to sulphur and carbonate introduced to the water from the nearby volcano, the Río Celeste practically glows in the bright sunlight. It is definitely a sight to behold, and thanks to a moderately-difficult 4.3 mile round-trip hike, even inexperienced hikers can witness it for themselves.
Most visitors to the park elect to sign up for a guided hike that not only passes by the river, but also some of the geological features of the volcano as well. The experience usually includes taking a dip in the hot springs and walking past the spectacular Río Celeste waterfall, which is almost otherworldly in appearance.
Leona to Sirena in Corcovado National Park
One of the most ecologically diverse locations on the planet, Corcovado National Park is a stunning conglomeration of wildlife, plants, and landscapes with more than a dozen unique ecosystems to be found there. In fact, while relatively small in size, the park is home to more than 5% of the Earth's biodiversity, which means hikers can spot a large number of creatures even while out on a short hike.
Each of the trails inside Corcovado require a guide at all times and there are multiple ranger stations to visit when signing up for a trek. All of the routes make for great hiking, but if you have the time, the 10-mile trail between Leona and Sirena is the best. It typically requires an overnight stay, but it affords visitors an opportunity to spot some of the park's more elusive wildlife, including the possibility of seeing a jaguar. Other animals include four different species of monkey, wild boars, tapirs, and even anteaters, not to mention hundreds of bird species too.
Sendero Bosque Nuboso Trail
Costa Rica just so happens to be home to one of the last remaining tropical cloud forests in the entire world. The Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve sits practically dead-center between the country's Pacific and Caribbean coasts, offering up a wilderness location that is unlike any other that is found there.
There are nearly a dozen trails to choose from inside Monteverde, but the Sendero Bosque Nuboso is probably the most scenic. That tends to make it the busiest as well, although the crowds tend to thin as you walk deeper into the forest. Just 1.2 miles in length, the trail can be challenging in spots and includes more than 200 feet of elevation gain. Allot about an hour and a half to complete the hike, which includes an opportunity to spot the Continental Divide while en route.
Catarata del Toro Waterfall Hike
The best way to describe the Catarata del Toro Waterfall Hike is short and sweet with a fantastic payoff. This walk only takes about 15-20 minutes to complete and is fairly easy, although it does involve descending a fair number of steps, and then climbing back up them on the way out again. But when hikers reach the bottom they'll find themselves standing at the edge of a volcanic crater that has been turned into a small lake. The water that feeds that lake comes from a towering waterfall, which plummets more than 300 feet down the side of a mountain.
This is one of the largest and most spectacular waterfalls in all of Costa Rica, which makes it worth seeing even for non-hikers. Thankfully this trail is very accessible, although be sure to take breaks on the walk back up as it can be a bit strenuous on the return trip.
Blue Lake and Congrejo Falls Trail
There are a number of very good hiking trails found inside the Rincon de la Vieja National Park with varying lengths to satisfying just about any hiker's needs. One of the best however is the Blue Lake and Congrejo Falls Trail, which wanders for 6 miles through a variety of ecosystems, including tropical dry forests and open savannah. Along the way, you're likely to spot numerous species of colorful birds and possibly even the raccoon-like coati that live in the area.
At times, the park can get very warm but fortunately this trail ends at an impossibly-blue lake that is fed by a 100-foot waterfall. The water is cool and inviting and a great way to refresh yourself before the hike back to the trailhead.
Barva Volcano Hike
While Costa Rica is indeed a fantastic destination, there are times when it can feel a bit too overrun with tourists. If you're looking to escape the crowds while on a hike, then give the Barva Volcano Trail a go. This is a favorite amongst the locals, but sees very little traffic from visitors, in part because it is simply off the radar for most travelers.
The 6 mile long hike isn't an easy one, but it is rewarding. It will take you up the side of the 10,000 foot volcano, wandering through lush cloud forest as you go. Views along the way can be fleeting, but spectacular, but fortunately there are more than 500 species of birds to be found along the route. As you go, you'll even find a hidden lake nestled amongst the trees that feels like it is straight out of a painting.
Cahuita National Park Hike
Most of the top hikes in Costa Rica take travelers into the cloud forests or up the side of volcano. But the trails found inside Cahuita National Park offer up an entirely different environment –– the beach!
Located on the Southern Caribbean, Cahuita is beautiful setting that mixes forests, sand, and ocean to provide not only spectacular views but a mix of wildlife too. Visitors will spot all of the usual suspects, including plenty of birds and monkeys, while on a hike inside the park, but they'll also have the option for taking a quick dip in the water to cool off as well.
The trails here are well marked and easy to walk, although hiking on sand can get tiring at times. Still, this tranquil setting is one of the best hidden gems in all of Costa Rica and shouldn't be missed.
Standing 12,533 feet tall, Cerro Chirripó is the tallest mountain in Costa Rica, which of course makes it a draw for many adventure travelers. The trail to the summit stretches 12.4 miles in length and includes more than 7,200 feet of vertical gain, which means this is a difficult hike. But those who enjoy trekking in remote regions and are looking for a challenge will love what Cerro Chirripó has to offer. The route wanders through the cloud forest at lower altitudes, but gives way to more open environments as it climbs. By the time they reach the top, hikers have panoramic views of the surrounding countryside that are breathtaking in their beauty and scope.
Travelers looking to hike the Cerro Chirripó trail will need to dedicate two days to this adventure. They'll spend one night sleeping in base camp at the trailhead, and another at the summit, before descending the following day. If hiking independently, be sure to book your permits six months in advance, as they tend to get snapped up quickly. Booking with a local tour operator can help alleviate those challenges.