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

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

NOTE: The content on this page was last updated on October 1st, 2017.

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Manuel Antonio national park
Nikki; with our awesome guide Juan

ARE YOU ASKING YOURSELF “ARE GUIDED TOURS IN COSTA RICA ARE WORTH IT?”

If you are considering participating in Costa Rica guided tours, ask yourself this 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 pleasure 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 be happiest soaking in all that the site has to offer?

Costa Rica guided tours
Nikki; with Vivi, our Tortuguero guide

COSTA RICA GUIDED TOURS OR SELF-GUIDED TOURS: WHICH ARE BETTER?

In Costa Rica, adventure activities such as rafting, kayaking, ziplining (canopy tours), and canyoning tours require specifically-trained guides to run. 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 participate in the activity on their own, as the accompaniment of a tour guide is not a requirement to carryout the activity. The opportunity for self-guided tours in Costa Rica (or “unguided tours”, as they are commonly referred to as) stirs up an important debate: should a travellers tour particular areas and/or attractions in Costa Rica with a tour guide or without one?

When travellers turn to us for advice, we respond with two questions of our own:

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 (i.e., wildlife-spotting, bird watching, knowledge of the attraction, an 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 activity quality), then not surprisingly, opting for Costa Rica guided tours would not be our recommendation. In addition, if it is primarily the scenery of a site that attracts travellers the most–rather than the mystery, secrets, and hidden treasures that the area withholds–then the majority of visitors should be satisfied letting let their own two eyes be their guide. For all other experiences sought (most notably, those that aim to obtain a deeper understanding of a particular site beyond what the untrained eye can see) the quality of Costa Rica guided tours should not be underestimated.

Costa Rica guided tours
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 us delve further into this point and ask you some additional questions. 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 most prized locations, such as one of its hanging bridges, volcanoes, waterfalls, or national parks? Or would you prefer to be able to show your friends and family a photo of the tricky-to-see Quetzal bird or less-popular-to-spot two-toed sloth that your naturalist tour guide captured for you via his or her telescopic camera? If you would rather the latter, then Costa Rica guided tours are the way to go. Without them, you’re in for a lovely walk, and that’s about it.

Costa Rica guided tours
Hidden Aracari; we wouldn’t have spotted it without our guide’s trained eye!

SO, WHAT IS OUR COSTA RICA TOUR PREFERENCE: TOUR GUIDE OR NO TOUR GUIDE?

Despite Ricky’s status as a naturalist tour guide (he is officially trained as one, however he does not work as one), we continue to opt for Costa Rica guided tours whenever we are up for exploring the country’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 irreplaceable experience trained Costa Rica 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 undeniable about that kind of honed knowledge, not to mention something incredibly humbling when you have an opportunity to learn from an individual who is passionate about their work and willing to share their teachings. Two of Ricky and I’s most memorable Costa Rica travel moments were captured during guided tours–one allowed us to admire a red-eyed tree frog up-close (the tour 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 for it). Fortunately for us during the latter experience, our tour guide had a small magnifying glass on-hand so we could view the flower in incredible detail. That day. we became big believers in the lesson that beauty truly does come in small packages!

Costa Rica guided tours
Guided Birdwatching Tour in Sarapiqui (at the La Selva Biological Station)

In our opinion, Costa Rica guided tours serve a number of functions that are advantageous to travellers. We know many people will disagree with our preference, and we have come across many of those people throughout our travels; most are individuals who prioritize independence over information, although neither being is better or worse than the other. To help draw a line between the two opposing sides, and better yet, to help you decide which side you should hop on, the following is our contribution to the challenging Costa Rica guided tours vs. Costa Rica unguided tours debate.

Is it necessary to take a guided tour of a site or attraction, or to have a tour guide with you in Costa Rica?

No. Many sites and attractions allow travellers to visit on their own after paying the applicable entrance fee.

It is valuable to take a guided tour of a site or attraction, or to have a tour guide with you in Costa Rica?

Yes, highly. As explained above, naturalist tour 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).

Is it worthwhile to take a guided tour of a site or attraction, or to have a tour guide with you in Costa Rica?

The answer to this question 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 you determine that you are not able to need the need(s) yourself, Costa Rica tour guides are readily available to assist you.

Costa Rica guided tours
Thumbs up from our guide during a Canoeing Tour on the Penas Blancas River

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

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18 thoughts on “Costa Rica Guided Tours: Are They Necessary, Valuable, And/Or Worthwhile?”

    • 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!

  • 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!

  • 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!

  • 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!

  • 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!

  • 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!

    • 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!

  • 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

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