NOTE: The content on this page was last updated on May 17th, 2017.
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?
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.
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.
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).
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.
*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)?