The actual definition of a rainforest has to do with certain environmental conditions, which I won’t go into here, but suffice to say that Costa Rica has a lot of public and private land that could easily be classified as such. From hiking the dense vegetation of the old growth ground forest and marveling at the way the light hits the trees in the misty environment of the cloud forest to swinging across the canopy from hanging bridges, there are many ways to explore and enjoy the rainforest in Costa Rica.
On a recent trip to the Arenal region of the country, I learned a few things about exploring the rainforest that are worth noting. If you have plans to visit in the future, keep the following in mind:
We were incredibly fortunate and experienced just a couple drops of rain the entire week we were in the country, but I happen to know that Costa Rica’s weather tends to be a bit on the damp side. When I asked about the seasonal weather patterns, I was told that the two seasons are wet and wetter.
Regardless of the weather you hope to have, be prepared for wet weather. Carry a rain jacket or windbreaker, and choose tennis shoes or boots over sandals. Though we didn’t find mosquitoes to be a problem, I would personally advise that you wear pants or capris, especially in the dense forests. Even if you’ve arrived in the wet (versus wetter) season, chances are you’ll encounter mud and slippery trail surfaces.
Hire a local guide.
There are many guided tours available in the Arenal regions of Monteverde and La Fortuna, and in all instances that we came across, the guided tour was the much better option than visiting the forest on our own. Yes, you’ll spend more to take a tour than if you went on your own, but you’d be missing out on so much. In the Santa Elena Cloud Preserve, for example, we learned that when the bromeliad plants fall to the forest floor, they often collect rain water, making them a perfect environment for tiny frogs and spiders. Without a guide along on the hanging bridges near La Fortuna, we never would have spotted the tiny eyelash viper wrapped around a tree branch.
Many of the local guides are trained naturalists and biologists, and their wealth of knowledge is profound. They care deeply about sharing and preserving the environment, and they’re excited to tell visitors about the their area of the country. In every instance where we hiked with a guide, what should have been a 2-3 hour hike through the forest turned into a 4-5 hour experience.
Appreciating the rainforest takes time. On one of our tours there was a woman who, quite honestly, just wanted to see monkeys. If your only goal in visiting Costa Rica’s natural areas is to see animals, you’re in for a hard lesson. Yes, there are monkeys—and snakes, frogs, birds, kudamundi and other critters—but this isn’t a zoo. Exploring the rainforest is about appreciating the ecosystem, learning about the plants and admiring the details in this otherwise often overwhelming environment.
For the best rainforest experience, go with a guide, wear muted colors, keep your voice down and take your time. Carry binoculars with you so that your eyes can better wander across the tops of the trees and through the dense branches. Instead of rushing along a trail for exercise, take the time to stroll and admire. You might be surprised by what you find when you slow down.
Try different experiences.
There’s a Costa Rica forest for everyone. We explored the floor of the cloud forest, along the canopy on hanging bridges, on private property and in a national park. We hiked at day break, during the day and at night. You aren’t restricted to how or when you explore the rainforests in the Arenal region. Research your options, then choose the hike that best suits your needs and interests. If you’re like us (avid outdoorsy people), try them all for the greatest diversity of experiences and bird and animal sighting opportunities.
Put the camera down.
I plead guilty. I try to capture everything on camera, mainly because I want to somehow recreate the moment once I return home. But sticking behind the viewfinder means you might miss other things. When I realized that I wasn’t going to get the perfect shot of the San Luis waterfall, I just sat on the rocks, closed my eyes and felt the mist on my skin. When the monkeys weren’t cooperating for the perfect picture up in the tree tops, I set my camera down and realized that, by focusing on one, I was missing the antics of another.Visiting Costa Rica’s rainforests isn’t simply a visual experience. You have to smell the wet soil, feel the moistness on your skin and listen to the leaves rustling and birds chirping.