Last updated on February 27th, 2020 at 09:27 am EST
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So you want to explore Costa Rica without a guide, do you?
Want to wander around a museum in Costa Rica without a guide peering over your shoulder? Great! You won’t have a problem pulling this off. Want to cross “touring Costa Rica’s hanging bridges” off your vacation bucket list? No problem, but you’ve got a decision to make: whether or not you’d prefer to visit the hanging bridges with or without a guide. Want to white-water raft one of Costa Rica’s rivers on your own? Probably not, which is great to hear, because doing so isn’t allowed in Costa Rica.
Each activity you can experience in Costa Rica falls into one of three categories:
- Activities you can participate in without a tour guide.
- Activities that allow you to choose whether you want to participate with a tour guide or not.
- Activities that require participation with a tour guide.
Deciding whether or not you should explore Costa Rica without a guide is a tough part of trip planning (see our related blog post Costa Rica Guided Tours: Are They Necessary, Valuable, And/Or Worthwhile? if you need help deciding), but if you’ve already decided to go with unguided tours (i.e., tours that do not require a guide), this blog post is for you. Below we outline which Costa Rica activities either don’t require a guide or allow you to choose whether or not you want to have one. We also outline which Costa Rica activities require you to have a guide, so you know to avoid these if you’re only interested in self-guided adventures.
Let’s get to our activity recommendations so you can start planning your Costa Rica experiences.
Exploring Costa Rica without a guide: Unguided activities in Costa Rica
If you want to explore Costa Rica without a guide, you’re in luck! The Costa Rica activities mentioned below don’t require the use of a tour guide, so go ahead and add them your to-do list of self-guided adventures.
Visit an art gallery
Costa Rica’s capital city (San Jose) has several beautiful art galleries worth a visit, including our pick for Best Art Gallery). Combine your art gallery visit with other things to do in San Jose, including those we talk about in our related blog post What To Do In San Jose Costa Rica.
Beach hopping is a great way to experience several Costa Rican beaches in a short amount of time. With access to a rental car, you can explore miles of coastline in Costa Rica without a guide. If you need help deciding which Costa Rica beaches are the best to visit, don’t miss our related blog posts Best Beaches In Costa Rica: Nicoya Peninsula Beaches, Best Beaches In Costa Rica: Northern Pacific / Guanacaste Beaches, and Best Beaches In Costa Rica: Central Pacific Beaches.
Sign-up for a class, lesson, or course
Instructional classes, lessons, and courses are often overlooked as an in-country activity in favor of more thrilling Costa Rica adventures. But there’s tons worth learning in the land of pura vida, including how to dance to Latin music, how to cook Costa Rican food, how to practice yoga or poi, how to surf righteous waves, how to scuba dive or freedive, how to speak Spanish, and more.
Explore a city center
Have a few hours to spare? Sometimes “doing nothing” trumps “planning something”, especially during moments when you find yourself in the middle of a metropolis hub or cultural community. Sites of interest may include historical or governmental buildings, popular stores, famed local restaurants, noteworthy churches or religious centers, ancient ruins, and stunning architecture (for inspiration, consider our pick for Most Breathtaking Architecture).
Soak in hot springs
Costa Rica’s hot springs are one of the country’s top attractions. Since you don’t need a tour guide to teach you how to relax, hot springs visits are easy to coordinate and enjoy on your own. If you’re in search of hot springs information, tips, and recommendations, don’t miss our related blog posts Best Hot Springs In Arenal: We Compare All 12 La Fortuna Hot Springs and Your Costa Rica Hot Springs Questions Answered!.
Paint yourself with mud at a mud bath
Similar to visits to hot springs, visits to mud baths are all about relaxation. You don’t need a tour guide to paint your body from head to toe in volcanic mud, so plan to experience this rejuvenating activity on your own.
Visit a museum
One of our favorite things to do in San Jose is visit a museum (especially our pick for Best Museum). Combine your museum visit with one of a number of other things to do in the San Jose region, such as those we talk about in our related blog post What To Do In San Jose Costa Rica.
Hit the road
Road trips are the ultimate unguided experience. They very rarely require a tour guide and they almost always lead to something great. So long as you are equipped with a) knowledge of the area you plan to explore in order to practice safe travel, b) a reliable device with GPS or Wi-Fi to avoid getting lost, and c) common sense in case you encounter problems along the way (such as the situation we describe in our pick for the Most Stressful Encounter During A Road Trip), road trips can turn a typical travel experience into a spontaneous and successful surprise.
Rent your own recreational equipment and go!
Adventure centers, souvenir stores, surf shops, and some hotel tour desks have equipment available to rent. Popular rental items include surfboards, stand-up paddle boards, ATVs, snorkel gear, kayaks, and the item we selected as the Best Item To Rent For A Day.
Shop for souvenirs
Who needs a tour guide to spend money? Most of us can accomplish this task quite easily on our own. Costa Rica is full of shops, malls, and markets worth exploring. If you’re not sure how to approach spending money in Costa Rica, don’t miss our related blog post Spending Money In Costa Rica: What To Know About USD, Colones, And Credit Cards. If you need help converting American dollars to Costa Rican colones (or vice versa), see our related blog post Colones To Dollars (USD): Exchanging Money In Costa Rica.
Cool off at a swimming hole
Swimming holes are awesome, plain and simply put. Most are free, require very little effort to get to, and offer refreshing relief on hot and sticky tropical days. If you plan to be in the La Fortuna / Arenal region of Costa Rica, consider visiting the spot we detail in our blog post El Salto Costa Rica: Local Free Tarzan Swing And Swimming Holes La Fortuna / Arenal Site.
Take in a show at a theater
If the performance arts are your scene, consider taking in a show at the spot we selected as Costa Rica’s Best Theater. Though guided tours of the theater are also available, you can purchase tickets and enjoy live performances without a tour guide. Combine your theater visit with one of several other things to do in San Jose, including those we talk about in our related blog post What To Do In San Jose Costa Rica.
Exploring Costa Rica without a guide: Costa Rica activities that be experienced with or without a guide
If you want more recommendations for things to do in Costa Rica without a guide (in addition to the list we provide above), consider the list we provide below. It details Costa Rica activities you can participate in with or without a tour guide. Though we recommend visiting several with a tour guide, having one isn’t mandatory.
Not sure if a guided tour or an unguided tour would be best? Don’t miss our related blog post:
Visit a wildlife sanctuary, wildlife refuge, or wildlife rescue center
Some wildlife exhibits in Costa Rica require a tour guide but several do not. Personally, we prefer to give our business to wildlife exhibits that require a tour guide because guides can help protect resident wildlife from visitors (and vice versa). Regardless, if you want to visit a wildlife sanctuary, refuge, or rescue center on your own, you’re welcome to do so at many.
Visit a wildlife garden or botanical garden
Scattered around the country are several wildlife gardens that display Costa Rican creatures in either their natural habitats or protective terrariums, such as the enclosures we describe in our related blog post Selvatura Monteverde: Ziplining, Hanging Bridges, Butterfly/Hummingbird Gardens, And A Reptile/Amphibian Exhibit In The Cloud Forest. Some require or offer guided tours and others invite self-guided exploration. Examples of wildlife gardens include reptile exhibits, amphibian exhibits and frog ponds, insect museums, hummingbird gardens, and butterfly gardens (including our pick for Best Butterfly Garden).
Costa Rica also has several botanical gardens that showcase diverse plant and tree species of native and exotic varieties. Most botanical gardens allow you to stroll around at your own pace without a guide, though guided tours can also be arranged.
Traverse hanging bridges
One of the most common questions we receive from travelers ask us whether it’s possible to walk the hanging bridges without a guide. The quick answer is, “Yes!” Though many people choose to explore hanging bridges with a tour guide, having one isn’t required. To learn more about hanging bridges in Costa Rica, don’t miss our related blog posts Best Hanging Bridges In Costa Rica: Comparing 4 In Arenal And Monteverde, Sky Adventures Arenal: Ziplining, Hanging Bridges, And Tram Rides In La Fortuna, Sky Adventures Monteverde: Ziplining, Hanging Bridges, And Tram Rides In The Cloud Forest, Selvatura Monteverde: Ziplining, Hanging Bridges, Butterfly/Hummingbird Gardens, And A Reptile/Amphibian Exhibit In The Cloud Forest and A Step-By-Step Guide To The Mistico Arenal Hanging Bridges Park.
Our recommendation here depends largely on where you intend to hike given that some protected land spaces require visitors to be accompanied by a tour guide. Hikes in Costa Rica range from light walks on paved and well marked pathways to overnight treks through dense brush that require previous hiking experience, prior reservation, and office check-ins. In general, the hike’s remoteness and degree of difficulty determine whether or not a tour guide is needed. Extreme hikes aside, there are countless light and moderate hikes you can make in Costa Rica on your own.
Visit a national park or a biological reserve
Similar to our explanation above with respect to hikes in Costa Rica, some national parks and biological reserves require entry with a guide but most, which offer easy or moderate hike conditions, do not. To learn how much you’ll need to pay to enter Costa Rica’s protected land spaces, see our related blog post Costa Rica Entrance Fees: How Much It Costs To Enter Costa Rica’s National Parks, Wildlife Refuges, And Biological Reserves. To learn more about two of our favorite national parks in Costa Rica, don’t miss our related blog posts The Manuel Antonio National Park: Sloths, Snakes, Sunshine, And So Much More and the Arenal Volcano National Park Arenal Volcano Hike. To learn about Costa Rica’s volcano-centered national parks, see our related blog post Best Costa Rica Volcanoes: Comparing 5 Active Volcanoes In Costa Rica.
Sign-up for a surf tour
Despite having the word “tour” in its title, a surf tour is a gathering of experienced surfers who travel to a destination to surf the area’s waves. Unlike surf lessons, which are typically experienced by beginner surfers and focus on instruction, surf tours are designed for experienced surfers and provide an opportunity to meet new people while trying out a new break. Have a rental car? Coordinate your own surf tour by heading up or down the coast with your board (or a rental board) and your travel mates in search of sweet swell.
Visit a volcano
Two of Costa Rica’s active volcanoes, the Poas Volcano and the Irazu Volcano, offer an opportunity to stand at the edge of a crater. Though recent changes to operations at the Poas Volcano now require a tour guide to be present during trips to its crater, you’re welcome to visit the crater of the Irazu Volcano on your own. Hiking trails sprawled about the slopes of the Arenal Volcano and the Rincon de la Vieja Volcano allow for visits to those two volcanoes. Currently, the Turrialba Volcano is closed to the public. To learn more about Costa Rica’s volcanoes, don’t miss our related blog post Best Costa Rica Volcanoes: Comparing 5 Active Volcanoes In Costa Rica.
Relax at a waterfall
Waterfalls hide all over Costa Rica and rarely do you need a guide to experience them. Combo tours that include a waterfall component, such as a horseback riding tour that leads to a waterfall, may require a tour guide. To learn about a few of our favorite waterfalls in Costa Rica, don’t miss our related blog posts Visiting The All-New La Fortuna Waterfall And Orchid Garden and Why (And Why Not) To Visit The Llanos Del Cortes Waterfall Near Liberia.
Exploring Costa Rica without a guide: Costa Rica activities that typically require a guide
If, for some reason, you’re determined not to participate in guided tours in Costa Rica, you should avoid the activities mentioned below. Most require the assistance of a tour guide.
Aerial tram rides
Aerial trams are automatically guided to increase tour participant experience and to ensure participant safety. Not only will a tour guide point out interesting facts about the surrounding landscape during your experience, but he or she will help help you enter and exit the tram safely.
ATV tours (separate from ATV rentals)
Though you can rent ATVs (usually from establishments at beach destinations) for personal use, ATV tours in Costa Rica are led by tour guides. The tour type is typically an off-road adventure that explores private land.
Beer tours, nightlife tours, and pub crawls
Certainly, you’re welcome to explore Costa Rican breweries, bars, pubs, and clubs without a tour guide. But most official beer tours, nightlife tours, and pub crawls include one for safety and navigational purposes. It’s typically not safe to explore Costa Rica after dark, especially if you’re alone or if alcohol has been consumed.
Given the abundance of birds in Costa Rica, it’s safe to say you’ll see birds wherever you go and without a tour guide at your side. However, if you’re an avid birder interested in a formal bird-watching tour, you’ll be pleased to know the activity type is guided, usually by keen-eyed tour guides equipped with spotting scopes. Their knowledge of avifauna, including where and when particular birds can be seen, is the difference between merely seeing a bird in Costa Rica and skillfully spotting or photographing a rare species.
Boat tours and safari float tours
For navigational and educational purposes, boat tours and safari float tours are guided.
For navigational and educational purposes, canoe tours and safari float tours are guided.
Canopy zip-lining tours
For technical and navigational purposes, canopy ziplining tours are guided.
Canyoneering tours, canyoning tours, and rappelling tours
For technical and navigational purposes, canyoneering tours, canyoning tours, and rappelling tours are guided.
Catamaran tours and sailing tours
For navigational purposes, catamaran tours and sailing tours are guided.
For navigational and educational purposes, cave tours are guided.
Coffee plantation tours, chocolate tours, sugarcane tours, and fruit tours
For educational purposes, food and drink tours are guided.
Dolphin-watching and whale-watching tours
For navigational and education purposes, dolphin-watching and whale-watching tours are guided.
Environmental sustainability tours and organic farm tours
For educational purposes, environmental sustainability tours and organic farm tours are guided.
Horseback riding tours
For technical and navigational purposes, horseback riding tours are guided.
Indigenous reserve tours
For navigational and educational purposes, indigenous reserve tours are guided.
For technical and navigational purposes, kayaking tours are guided.
Mountain biking tours (separate from bike rentals)
For navigational purposes, mountain biking tours are guided. This being said, renting a bike in Costa Rica and exploring bike parks or area trails is an activity that’s permissible without a guide.
For navigational and educational purposes, night tours are guided.
For technical and navigational purposes, rafting tours are guided.
Scuba diving tours
For technical and navigational purposes, scuba diving tours are guided.
Snorkeling tours (separate from snorkel gear rentals)
For navigational purposes, snorkeling tours are guided. This being said, renting snorkel gear in Costa Rica and exploring area bays and reefs is an activity that’s usually permissible without a guide, assuming it takes place outside of protected marine areas.
For educational purposes, spice tours are guided.
Stand-up paddle tours
For technical and navigational purposes, stand-up paddle tours are guided.
Tree climbing tours
For technical and navigational purposes, tree climbing tours are guided.
Turtle nesting tours
Most turtle nesting tours take place on beaches within protected land areas. You’ll need a tour guide to access these sites. In addition, since turtle nesting tours usually take place late at night, tour guides help keep the activity safe.
Waterfall jumping tours
For technical and navigational purposes, waterfall jumping tours are guided.
QUESTION TO COMMENT ON: Which other tours or activities have you experienced while in Costa Rica? Were you given a choice to participate with or without a guide, and if so, which option did you choose?