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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?

Last updated on March 14th, 2018 at 10:14 pm EST

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If you are toying with the idea of participating in Costa Rica guided tours, ask yourself this question first:

“When I go to Costa Rica, what do I want to get out of my travel experience?”

If you plan to spend your free days at an all-inclusive resort, your travel 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 we wonder whether simply setting foot in Costa Rica would be enough for you. You may prefer to seek out and soak up all that the country has to offer, or at least as much as your time, interests, and budget will allow.


In Costa Rica, adventure activities such as white water rafting tours, kayaking tours, canopy ziplining tours, and canyoning tours require specifically-trained guides for operation. In many cases, other less adrenaline-inducing activities including hanging bridge tours, volcano tours, waterfall tours, exhibit tours, and national park tours can be experienced without the assistance of a guide. In other words, travellers are permitted to participate in these activity types on their own, as the accompaniment of a tour guide is not a requirement to carryout the execution of the activity. The presence of self-guided tours in Costa Rica (or “unguided tours” in Costa Rica, as they are commonly referred to as) stir up an important debate: should travellers tour particular sites 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.

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.


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!

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.

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

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

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