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Self-Guided Adventures: Things To Do In Costa Rica Without A Guide

Self-Guided Adventures: Things To Do In Costa Rica Without A Guide

NOTE: The content on this page was last updated on January 11th, 2018.

SO YOU WANT TO EXPLORE COSTA RICA WITHOUT A GUIDE, DO YOU?

Truth be told, any traveller’s wish to experience Costa Rica without a guide is either 100% possible, 100% not an option, or 100% likely to fall anywhere in between depending on the tours and activities participated in. Want to zipline through the forest on your own? Probably not, which is great to hear, because doing so is not allowed in Costa Rica. Want to roam about the displays in one of the country’s famed museums at your own pace and without a guide at your side? Sure thing, and just so you know, you won’t have a problem pulling this off. Want to cross “tour the Costa Rica hanging bridges” off your vacation bucket list? No problem, but this task will require you to decide whether or not the experience will include the support of a naturalist guide, because as much as having one may recommended, reserving one is not required.

Deciding whether or not you should explore Costa Rica without a guide is a tough call. To help you decide for yourself whether or not guided tours are the best way to go, don’t miss our related blog post Costa Rica Guided Tours: Are They Necessary, Valuable, And/Or Worthwhile?. Alternatively, if you have for some reason decided against guided tours, or if you are interested in a mix of both guided and unguided tours and you are currently looking for self-guided adventure recommendations, continue reading below.

EXPLORING COSTA RICA WITHOUT A GUIDE: ACTIVITIES IN COSTA RICA THAT ARE USUALLY UNGUIDED (I.E. ACTIVITIES IN COSTA RICA THAT TYPICALLY DO NOT REQUIRE A GUIDE AND ARE EXPERIENCED AS SELF-GUIDED ADVENTURES)

If you plan to explore Costa Rica without a guide, you’re in luck! On average, the Costa Rica activities mentioned below do not require the use of a guide, and fortunately for you, the majority of travellers who experience them opt to do so via self-guided visits.

Listed in alphabetical order:

Art gallery visits

Costa Rica’s capital city of San Jose offers a number of beautiful art galleries worth a visit, including our pick for Best Art Gallery (if you are a DIY Costa Rica community member, log-in to read more about our pick!). Combine your art gallery visit with one of a number of other things to do in the San Jose region, such as those we note in our related blog post What To Do In San Jose Costa Rica (many of which are activities you can experience in Costa Rica without a guide).

Beach hopping

Beach hopping is a great way to experience a number of Costa Rican beaches in a short amount of time. With access to a rental vehicle, travellers can explore miles of coastline in Costa Rica without a guide (don’t forget the sunscreen!). If you need help deciding which beaches would be the best to visit, don’t miss our related blog posts The Best Beach In Costa Rica: What To Know About The Nicoya Peninsula BeachesThe Best Beach In Costa Rica: What To Know About The Northern Pacific Guanacaste Beaches, and The Best Beach In Costa Rica: What To Know About The Central Pacific Beaches.

Classes, lessons, and courses

Registration for classes, lessons, and/or courses in Costa Rica is an overlooked area of trip activity planning. While the country offers thousands of tour options, it also offers numerous opportunities for education and skill building,  and although an instructor for each class, lesson, and/or course would be provided, traveller participation is independent from the support of a tour guide. Love being physically active? Consider taking a dance class, a yoga class, a martial arts class, a PADI scuba diving course, a surf lesson, a spinning class, or a poi lesson. Prefer something slightly tamer? Sign-up for a cooking class, a tortilla-making workshop, a Spanish language lesson, or a craft course.

City exploration

Have a few hours to spare? Sometimes “doing nothing” trumps “planning something”, especially when travellers find themselves in the hub of a metropolis, in the heart of a cultural community, or in the center of a town with plenty to see. Sites of interest may include historical and/or governmental buildings, popular stores, local restaurants, noteworthy churches and/or religious centers, and stunning architecture (for inspiration, consider our pick for Most Breathtaking Architecture; if you are a DIY Costa Rica community member, log-in to read more about our pick!).

Hot spring visits

Hot spring visits are arguably the most popular unguided experience in the country, and since travellers can purchase entrance fees to hot springs attractions on their own, no guided tour is necessary. Even when a hot springs visit has been reserved in conjunction with a guided tour (for example, if the hot springs visit is included as part of a combination tour that may or may not include an Arenal Volcano tour, a hanging bridges tour, a waterfall tour, or other activity), the hot springs portion of the guided combo tour is itself unguided. In search of hot springs information and recommendations? Don’t miss our related blog posts The Best Hot Springs In Costa Rica: Comparing 7 Popular La Fortuna Hot Springs and Your Costa Rica Hot Springs Questions Answered!.

Museum visits

One of our favourite things to do in San Jose is visit a museum (especially our pick for Best Museum, which we have toured both before and after its move and remodel; if you are a DIY Costa Rica community member, log-in to read more about our pick!). Combine your museum visit with one of a number of other things to do in the San Jose region, such as those we note in our related blog post What To Do In San Jose Costa Rica (many of which are activities you can experience in Costa Rica without a guide).

Looking for other Costa Rica info? Consider reading our other post:  What To Know About Playa Tamarindo Costa Rica (Tamarindo Beach)

Road trips

Road trips are the ultimate unguided experience; not only do they very rarely require a guide, but 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 to avoid getting lost, and c) some common sense to apply if you encounter any problems along the way (such as the situation we describe in our pick for the Most Stressful Encounter During A Road Trip; if you are a DIY Costa Rica community member, log-in to read more about our pick!), road trips can turn a typical travel experience into a spontaneous and successful surprise.

Self-guided explorations with the use of rental equipment

Through adventure centers, souvenir stores, surf shops, and hotel tour desks, ample equipment rentals are available for travellers’ use. Popular equipment rentals include surfboard rentals, stand-up paddle board rentals, ATV rentals, snorkel gear rentals, kayak rentals, segway rentals, and the item we selected as the Best Item To Rent For A Day (if you are a DIY Costa Rica community member, log-in to read more about our pick!).

Souvenir shopping

Who needs a guide to spend money? Since most of us can accomplish this task quite easily on our own, exploring shops, malls, and markets is one of the most obvious activity choices for travellers who wish to be active in Costa Rica without a guide. Not sure exactly how to go about it? Don’t miss the information we provide in our related blog post Spending Money In Costa Rica: What To Know About USD, Colones, And Credit Cards. Need help learning how to convert your money back and forth between Costa Rican colones and American dollars? We have an article for that too; see our related blog post Colones To Dollars (USD): Exchanging Money In Costa Rica.

Swimming hole visits

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 visit the La Fortuna (Arenal) region of Costa Rica, consider visiting the spot we detail in our blog post El Salto: Local Free Tarzan Swing And Swimming Hole La Fortuna / Arenal Site.

Theater visits

If the performance arts are your scene, consider taking in a show at the spot we selected as Costa Rica’s Best Theater (if you are a DIY Costa Rica community member, log-in to read more about our pick!). Although guided tours of the property are available (for those who are more interested in learning about the theater’s history), visitors may purchase tickets to live performances. Combine your theater visit with one of a number of other things to do in the San Jose region, such as those we note in our related blog post What To Do In San Jose Costa Rica (many of which are activities you can experience in Costa Rica without a guide).

EXPLORING COSTA RICA WITHOUT A GUIDE: ACTIVITIES IN COSTA RICA THAT CAN BE GUIDED OR UNGUIDED (I.E. ACTIVITIES IN COSTA RICA THAT TYPICALLY DO NOT REQUIRE A GUIDE, BUT ARE OFTEN EXPERIENCED WITH ONE ANYWAY)

If you plan to explore Costa Rica without a guide, keep a copy of the below list of Costa Rica activities handy. Although guided tours for each are available and may be recommended over unguided visits in some cases, participation with a guide is not mandatory. This means that travellers are free to choose for themselves whether to experience the adventure “con o sin guia” (with or without a guide).

Not sure if a guided tour or an unguided tour would be best?

If you are trying to decide whether or not to experience a particular activity with or without a guide, don’t miss our related blog post:

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

Listed in alphabetical order:

Animal sanctuary/refuge/center visits

Depending on the animal sanctuary you plan to visit, guide support may be required. In our opinion, we prefer locations that require a guide for participation in this type of activity; any site that allows travellers to visit animals in captivity without guided leadership or the presentation of a representative to offer a formal explanation of the sanctuary/refuge/center’s purpose and rehabilitative operation comes across as one that places greater emphasis on getting paying customers through the door than on detailing education, efforts, and accountability.

Exhibit visits

Scattered throughout the country are countless exhibits that display Costa Rican creatures in either their natural habitats or protective terrariums (such as those we document in our related blog post Selvatura Monteverde: Ziplining, Hanging Bridges, Butterfly/Hummingbird Gardens, And A Reptile/Amphibian Exhibit In The Cloud Forest). While guided tours of most exhibits are available, visits with a guide are not always required, as in many cases travellers are welcome to tour the exhibits on their own. Examples of such exhibits include reptile exhibits, amphibian exhibits/frog ponds, insect museums, hummingbird gardens, and butterfly gardens (including our pick for Best Butterfly Garden; if you are a DIY Costa Rica community member, log-in to read more about our pick!).

Looking for other Costa Rica info? Consider reading our other post:  What To Know About Playa Hermosa Costa Rica (Hermosa Beach)

Garden visit tours

Gardens are bountiful in Costa Rica; in some cases they are constructed as attractions requiring the payment of an entrance fee or the reservation of a guided tour (the famous Lankester Gardens in the Cartago region of the country and the Orchid Garden in the Monteverde region of the country are two examples of this), and in other cases they are displayed publicly, such as around city parks or hotel properties. In both cases, although it may be possible to tour the gardens with a guide, doing so is not a requirement.

Hanging bridge tours

More than any other Costa Rica tour/activity choice, we receive questions from travellers asking whether or not it is required to walk the hanging bridges in Costa Rica with a guide. Although many people choose to explore the hanging bridges on their own, many more opt to tour the bridges with a guide. Regardless, the fact remains that it is not mandatory to visit the hanging bridges with one, so if/when travellers prefer to go “solo” (i.e., alone), they are welcome to do so. To learn more about a few of our hanging bridge tour experiences, don’t miss our related blog posts The Best Hanging Bridges In Costa Rica: Comparing 4 Popular Hanging Bridges In Arenal And MonteverdeSky Adventures Arenal: Ziplining, Hanging Bridges, And Tram Rides In La FortunaSky Adventures Monteverde: Ziplining, Hanging Bridges, And Tram Rides In The Cloud ForestSelvatura Monteverde: Ziplining, Hanging Bridges, Butterfly/Hummingbird Gardens, And A Reptile/Amphibian Exhibit In The Cloud Forest and A Step-By-Step Guide To Costa Rica’s Arenal Hanging Bridges.

Hiking tours

This one depends entirely on the specific trail a traveller plans to hike. Given that hikes in Costa Rica range from light walks on paved and well-marked pathways to overnight treks that require previous hiking experience, prior reservation, and check-ins at a ranger station, the trek’s degree of difficulty typically determines the level of urgency in needing a guide. Since some trails are tackled primarily for their physical challenge (such as climbs up Cerro Chirripo or Cerro Chato), and others are targeted for their abundant wildlife, beach access, stunning views, and/or accessible paths (such as hikes through many national parks and other trails of interest), the purpose of a traveller’s visit plays a large role in whether or not they will need a guide to meet their needs. Extreme hikes aside, although a guide may be recommended for light and intermediate hikes to increase overall tour enjoyment, there are many trail sites in which having one is not required.

National park tours

Similar to the explanation provided above with respect to hiking tours, typically a trek’s degree of difficulty determines the level of urgency in needing a guide. Since most of Costa Rica’s national parks (specifically, those that the majority of foreign travellers opt to visit) offer relatively easy-to-moderate hike conditions, most can be visited without a guide. This being said, since Costa Rica’s national parks are sites rich in history, fact, and wildlife spotting, although not a requirement, visits alongside a guide (complete with a spotting scope) are often preferred. To learn more about two of Costa Rica’s most visited national parks, 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. For information about Costa Rica national park entrance fees, please 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.

Surf tours (separate from surf lessons)

Although surf lessons include an instructor, surf tours may or may not be guided. While it is possible to reserve a guided surf tour in order to access popular (and in some cases, private) surf spots, travellers may also opt to simply visit Costa Rican beaches that offer favourable surf conditions on their own without a guide. As noted above under the “self-guided explorations with the use of rental equipment” category, unguided surf excursions are possible via the use of surfboard rentals.

Volcano tours

Similar to the explanation provided above with respect to national park tours, since most of Costa Rica’s national parks (including the Arenal Volcano National Park, the Irazu Volcano National Park, the Poas Volcano National Park, the Rincon de la Vieja Volcano National Park, and the Turrialba Volcano National Park) offer relatively easy-to-moderate hike conditions, most can be visited without a guide. Honestly, given the recent closures of a number of Costa Rica’s volcano national parks given increases in volcanic activity, the pressing question to ask in anticipation of your trip shouldn’t be whether visiting your desired volcano national park is possible without a guide, it should be whether or not a visit is currently possible at all. To learn more about a few of our volcano tour experiences, don’t miss our related blog post The Best Costa Rica Volcanoes: What To Know About Arenal, Irazu, Poas, Rincon De La Vieja, And Turrialba.

Waterfall tours

Waterfalls can be found in nearly every corner of Costa Rica; in some cases the property that surrounds the waterfall is only accessible via the payment of an entrance fee or the reservation of a guided tour (the La Paz Waterfall north of the Alajuela region of the country and the La Fortuna Waterfall in the Arenal region of the country are examples of this), and in other cases access is free to the public (or free alongside an offering of a donation, as such is the case for visits to the Liberia region’s Llanos de Cortes Waterfall). In both cases, although it is always possible to tour the waterfalls with a guide, doing so is not a requirement. To learn more about a few of our waterfall experiences, don’t miss our related blog posts The La Fortuna Waterfall And Other Arenal Waterfalls Worth A Visit and The Llanos De Cortes Waterfall: Local Free Waterfall Nearby Liberia.

Looking for other Costa Rica info? Consider reading our other post:  Colones To Dollars (USD): Exchanging Money In Costa Rica

EXPLORING COSTA RICA WITHOUT A GUIDE: ACTIVITIES IN COSTA RICA THAT ARE USUALLY GUIDED (I.E. ACTIVITIES IN COSTA RICA THAT TYPICALLY REQUIRE A GUIDE)

If you plan to explore Costa Rica without a guide, you may wish to avoid the Costa Rica activities mentioned below; most are experienced with the assistance of a guide (recommended), and in many cases, participation with a guide is necessary.

Listed in alphabetical order:

Aerial tram rides

Aerial tram rides are guided to increase tour participant experience and to ensure participant safety. Not only do guides point out interesting facts about the surrounding landscape during the tram ride, but they help participants safely enter and exit the trams.

ATV tours (separate from ATV rentals)

Although some companies rent ATVs for travellers’ own personal use (especially as a means of around-town transportation in some Costa Rica beach communities), during ATV tours, guides lead tour participants on off-road adventures through unfamiliar (in some cases, private) land. Without the guided service, access to most ATV tour courses is not permitted.

Beer tours / nightlife tours / pub crawl tours

Certainly, travellers are free to explore Costa Rican breweries, bars, pubs, and clubs without a guide. However, most official beer tours, nightlight tours, and pub crawl tours include a guide for the benefit of participants’ own physical safety while they roam about the capital city after dark, especially when alcohol has been consumed.

Birdwatching tours

Given the prevalence of birds in Costa Rica, one could argue that general travel around the country is its own birdwatching tour since many travellers will spot (if not hear) a variety of bird species during their trip. This being said, for the enjoyment of avid birders, specialized birdwatching tours do exist and are made possible by keen-eyed tour guides. Their knowledge of the area (together with their spotting scope) is the difference between merely seeing a bird in Costa Rica and skillfully watching or spotting a rare one.

Boat tours / safari float tours

For navigational and educational purposes, boat tours and safari float tours are guided.

Canoeing tours

For navigational and educational purposes, canoe tours and safari float tours are guided.

Canopy ziplining tours

For technical and navigational purposes, canopy ziplining tours are guided.

Canyoneering tours / canyoning tours / rappelling tours

For technical and navigational purposes, canyoneering tours, canyoning tours, and rappelling tours are guided.

Catamaran tours / sailing tours

For navigational purposes, catamaran tours and sailing tours are guided.

Cave tours

For navigational and educational purposes, cave tours are guided.

Chocolate tours

For educational purposes, chocolate tours are guided.

Coffee plantation tours

For educational purposes, coffee plantation tours are guided.

Dolphin watching tours / whale watching tours

For navigational and education purposes, dolphin watching tours and whale watching tours are guided.

Environmental sustainability tours / organic farm tours

For educational purposes, environmental sustainability tours and organic farm tours are guided.

Fruit plantation tours

For educational purposes, fruit plantation 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.

Kayaking tours

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, as noted above under the “self-guided explorations with the use of rental equipment” category, unguided biking excursions are possible via the use of bike rentals.

Night tours

For navigational and educational purposes, night tours are guided.

Rafting tours

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, as noted above under the “self-guided explorations with the use of rental equipment” category, unguided snorkeling excursions (from the shore into the ocean) are possible via the use of snorkel equipment rentals.

Spice tours

For educational purposes, spice tours are guided.

Stand-up paddle tours

For technical and navigational purposes, stand-up paddle tours are guided.

Sugar cane mill tours / trapiche tours

For educational purposes, sugar cane mill tours and trapiche tours are guided.

Tree climbing tours

For technical and navigational purposes, tree climbing tours are guided.

Turtle nesting tours

Since turtle nesting tours usually take place in protected land areas, guides are almost always required in order for travellers to gain access to the tour site. In addition, since turtle nesting tours typically take place late at night, a guide is provided for the benefit of participants’ own physical safety after dark.

Waterfall jumping tours

For technical and navigational purposes, waterfall jumping tours are guided.

Zorbing tours

For technical and navigational purposes, zorbing tours are guided.

QUESTION TO COMMENT ON: Which other tours/activities have you participated in while in Costa Rica? Were you given a choice to participate with or without a guide? If so, which option did you choose?

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