Guided Tours In Costa Rica: Are They Necessary, Valuable, And/Or Worthwhile?

Nikki - with Juan, our guide for the Manuel Antonio National Park

Nikki – with Juan, our guide for the Manuel Antonio National Park

Here’s a question. When you are on vacation, what do you look to get out of the travel experience? Sure, if you opt to spend your free days at an all-inclusive resort your aim is likely pure relaxation and nothing else, but let’s assume for a moment that your interests are more bountiful. Perhaps you seek adventure, nature, and new knowledge more than simply poolside and pina coladas. If so, you’re bound to explore new and exciting territory during your journey, but would the visit to a new area be enough for you? Or would you rather soak in all that the site has to offer?

Nikki - with Vivi, our Tortuguero guide

Nikki – with Vivi, our Tortuguero guide

In Costa Rica, adventure activities such as rafting, kayaking, ziplining (canopy tours), and canyoneering require specifically-trained guides to operate. Other less adrenaline-inducing activities including hanging bridge tours, volcano tours, waterfall tours, and national park tours can be experienced without the assistance of a guide (in other words, travellers are permitted to visit the tour site on their own). This choice raises an important debate for travellers – whether a guide should be used to tour a particular area and/or attraction during their Costa Rica trip.

When travellers ask us for advice, we respond with two additional questions:

What are you looking to get out of the tour experience?

Would you be satisfied with simply visiting the site, or are you in search of something more specific (ie. wildlife-spotting, bird watching, knowledge of the attraction, and understanding of the history or purpose of the area, etc.)?

If a traveller’s intent is to cross a number of locations off their bucket list (valuing activity quantity over quality) than a guide would not be needed. In addition, if it is primarily the scenery of a particular site that attracts the traveller, than he or she should let their own two eyes be their guide and skip the otherwise guided tour experience. For the majority of other experiences sought (ie. those that aim to obtain a deeper understanding of a particular site beyond what the untrained eye can see) the quality of a guided tour should not be underestimated.

Guided Hanging Bridges Tour in Monteverde (our guide is showing us something amazing about this tree - you wouldn't know it if you walked right past it)

Guided Hanging Bridges Tour in Monteverde (our guide is showing us something amazing about this tree – you wouldn’t know it if you walked right past it)

Let me put it this way. After you have left the attraction and have returned home, would it be enough for you to be able to say that you saw one of Costa Rica’s national parks? Or would you prefer to be able to show your friends and family a photo of the difficult-to-spot quetzal or two-toed sloth that your naturalist guide captured for you via his or her telescopic camera? If you’d rather the latter, then a guided tour is the way to go. Without it, you’re in for a lovely walk in the park, but that’s about it.

Hidden Aracari - we wouldn't have spotted it without our guide's trained eye!

Hidden Aracari – we wouldn’t have spotted it without our guide’s trained eye!

Despite Ricky’s status as a naturalist guide, we continue to opt for guided tour experiences when exploring Costa Rica’s most interesting areas. Although Ricky can identify bird species by their song, monkey species by their region, and tree species by the local environment, we know what experience tour guides bring to the table, especially when they have been guiding in a particular area or at the same attraction for many years. There is something irreplaceable about that kind of knowledge, not to mention something incredibly humbling when you have an opportunity to allow an individual who is passionate about their work to share their teachings. Two of Ricky and I’s most memorable moments were captured during guided tours – one allowed us to hold a red-eyed tree frog (the guide knew the exact leaf under which the critter would be hiding) and the other introduced us to the world’s most smallest orchid (that we no doubt would have walked right past had we not known where to look – fortunately for us, our tour guide had a small magnifying glass on hand at the time so we could view it in incredible detail).

Guided Birdwatching Tour in Sarapiqui (at the La Selva Biological Station)

Guided Birdwatching Tour in Sarapiqui (at the La Selva Biological Station)

In our opinion, guided tours serve a number of functions that are advantageous to travellers. Surely, many people will disagree. To each their own, I suppose. Here’s where we offer concrete answers to the challenging guided tour vs. self-guided tour debate.

Question: Is it necessary to take a guided tour or have a guide in Costa Rica?

Answer: No. Many sites allow travellers to visit on their own (after paying the appropriate entrance fee).

Question: It is valuable to take a guided tour or have a guide in Costa Rica?

Answer: Yes. Naturalist guides can provide rich tour experiences by relying on their knowledge of the area. This knowledge can result in higher learning via information provided about the area (including but not limited to the history or purpose of the site) and/or spotting interesting ‘finds’ (including but not limited to wildlife, birds, and other noteworthy items along route).

Question: Is it worthwhile to take a guided tour or have a guide in Costa Rica?

Answer: This answer depends entirely on you. The quantity and quality of the experiences you seek to get out of your trip are largely dependent on your own interests and the determination of worthiness in this case is something only you can evaluate. We recommend putting some thought into what it is that you aim to leave Costa Rica with, and based on this need, decide whether you are capable, experienced, and knowledgeable enough to meet it on your own. If not, tour guides are ready and able to assist you.

Guided Canoeing Tour on the Penas Blancas River

Thumbs up from our guide during a Canoeing Tour on the Penas Blancas River

*Discounts for guided tours are available through Pura Vida! eh? Incorporated at: http://www.puravidaeh.ca/

QUESTION TO COMMENT ON: Have you experienced a guided tour in Costa Rica? What did you think (and/or learn)?

Pura vida!

18 responses to “Guided Tours In Costa Rica: Are They Necessary, Valuable, And/Or Worthwhile?

  1. Hello folks,
    I have been in Costa Rica a couple of times, well, maybe more, the first time I believed I could do and find anything since is such a little country, that ocassion I missed a lot because that place is a Pandora´s Box and you have to have trained eye or ear to see the most posible and that of course we are not for a while, then I felt in love with birdwatching and decided to hire a guide, not only a nice person with whom to share a slow and nice hike but also with that trained habilities I didn´t have, he showed me so many species, not only birds and his service was appreciated, also worthy 100%. Maybe not in every place, but the most hiden parks or reserves I would say Yes, hire a guide in Costa Rica. Check this links talking about the same stuff.
    http://travel-costarica.us/
    http://www.birdwatchingcostarica.com/ing/birding_programs.php
    http://www.arenalparaiso.com/cano-negro-tour

    • joseisa –
      Great question, but also a difficult one to answer! 🙂 Every traveller differs in their interests, preferences, and budget, but if we had to average out the top 3 most-requested activities we receive amongst the masses who visit Costa Rica each year we would say canopy tours (ziplining), white water rafting tours, and national park visits (including volcano tours) would be at the top of the list. Canyoneering, hanging bridge tours, surfing, hot spring visits, waterfall tours, hiking, and plantation tours would round-out the top 10 if you are looking for extra trip inspiration. For a list of all popular activities (including discounts for the majority of tours/activities that the country has to offer) feel free to visit http://puravidaeh.ca/search-all-tours-by-type/ or for a list of Costa Rica’s most popular tours (including many of those mentioned above) check out http://puravidaeh.ca/resources/popular-tours/
      Pura vida!

  2. I can say that a Local Person that is focus on Customer Service would be a lot of help for showing places you wouldn´t get to know without him/her guidance. I don´t like to do too much planning for traveling that´s why I get help.

    • Joe Q –
      We agree 100%. There’s nothing better than a local guide focused on customer service who can show you places that you wouldn’t get to know without his or her guidance. Well said and thanks for sharing! 🙂
      Pura vida!

  3. Hoping to visit CR in spring 2015 and am busy planning itineraries. Local tour guides not only serve to enhance your experience but also promote local economies and eco tourism. I love the frog picture from Arenal too!

    • traveljody –
      That is so great to hear! Costa Rica would love to have you in 2015. If you have any questions at all about your trip feel free to send them to us at info[at]puravidaeh[dot]com. Also, we 100% agree – supporting local guides and economies is the way to go! 🙂
      Pura vida!

  4. I absolutely agree! I’m an experienced wildlife photographer and I would have missed 3/4 of what I saw in Corcovado National Park without the guide there to point out items of interest. Best value for the money I spent in Costa Rica!

    • Rob Jones –
      Hey Rob, hope you’re doing well! We completely agree – places like Corcovado (and other national parks) aren’t the same without a local guide. Love the quote “best value for the money I spent in Costa Rica” – so happy to hear it! 🙂
      Pura vida!

  5. We did one guided trip per day during our week long stay in gorgeous Costa Rica in Spring of 2007. So much amazing animal and plant life up close and personal with incredible guides who pointed out the hidden world as well as the in-your-face attractions. Can’t wait to return!

    • sapipes –
      Thanks so much for the comment and for letting us re-live a part of your trip with you! I love your quote about the “hidden world” versus the “in-your-face attractions” – I think that sums up the best of both worlds that Costa Rica has to offer. 🙂
      Pura vida!

  6. So true! I’ve been living in Costa Rica for four months now, and there is nothing like a guided tour to help you catch the bounty of wildlife and beautiful flowers that surround you!

    • lybsta –
      Hey! I just caught your comment on this post. It’s great to hear that even those who live in Costa Rica agree – guided tours are invaluable! 🙂
      Pura vida!

  7. We did lots of guided tours! Hanging bridges bird walk, horseback riding, safari float. Every one of them was absolutely worth it and an awesome experience!

    • momsasaurus –
      So great to hear from you! Thank you for commenting (as always!). Can’t wait to help set you up with some other great guided tours once you make it back to Costa Rica for a family trip with the girls. 🙂
      Pura vida!

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