Costa Rica is mountainous and rough around the edges. It's a rare bird that attempts a road-biking tour here. But the payoff for the ungroomed, tire-munching terrain is uncrowded, wildly beautiful off-road routes. Most bike-tour operators want to make sure you're in moderately good shape and do some biking at home. Others, such as Coast to Coast Adventures, have easier one- and two-day jaunts. Lava Tours offers great expert- and intermediate-level riding, as well as "gravity-assisted" (cruising down the paved road from Poás Volcano, for example) trips. Bike Arenal has biking packages in the Arenal area for all skill levels, with short and long ride options for each day. Operators generally provide top-notch equipment, including bikes and helmets, but welcome serious bikers who bring their own ride. Leave the hybrids at home—this is mountain-biking territory. Operators usually meet you at the airport and take care of all logistics. All companies can design custom tours for extreme cyclists if requested.
Useful topographical maps (not biking maps per se) are generally provided as part of the tour, and include unpaved roads. If you're striking out on your own, these maps can usually be found at downtown San José's Lehmann bookstore for about $5. Some basic Spanish is highly recommended if you're going to do it yourself.
Check with individual airlines about bike-packing requirements and blackouts. Cardboard bike boxes can be found at bike shops for about $15; more secure options start at $40. International travelers often can substitute a bike for a piece of checked luggage at no charge (if the box conforms to regular baggage dimensions), but U.S. airlines will sometimes charge a $100 to $200 handling fee each way.
Most airlines accommodate bikes as luggage, provided they're dismantled and boxed.
Bike Arenal (2479–7150; 866/465–4114 in North America. www.bikearenal.com.)
Coast to Coast Adventures (2280–8054 in Costa Rica. www.coasttocoastadventures.com.)
Lava Tours (2281–2458; 888/862–2424 in North America. www.lava-tours.com.)
You will almost definitely get more out of your time in Costa Rica by taking a tour rather than trying to find birds on your own. Bring your own binoculars but don't worry about a spotting scope; if you go with a tour company that specializes in birding tours, your guide will have one. Expect to see about 300 species during a weeklong tour. Many U.S. travel companies that offer bird-watching tours subcontract with the Costa Rican tour operators listed here. By arranging your tour directly with the Costa Rican companies, you avoid the middle person and save money. Selva Mar, a tour agency specializing in the Southern Zone, runs comprehensive tours through Birding Escapes Costa Rica.
Birdwatching Costa Rica (2771–4582 in Costa Rica. www.birdwatchingcostarica.com.)
Costa Rica Expeditions (2521-6099 in Costa Rica. www.costaricaexpeditions.com.)
Horizontes Nature Tours (2222–2022 in Costa Rica. www.horizontes.com.)
Costa Rica's Cocos Island—one of the best dive spots in the world—can be visited only on a 10-day scuba safari with Aggressor or Undersea Hunter. But Guanacaste, the South Pacific, and to a lesser extent, the Caribbean, offer some respectable underwater adventures. Bill Beard's Costa Rica in the Gulf of Papagayo, Guanacaste, is a diving-tour pioneer and has countrywide options. Diving Safaris, in Playa Hermosa, has trips to dive sites in Guanacaste. In the South Pacific, Costa Rica Adventure Divers in Drake Bay arranges five-night trips. In this same area, Caño Island is a good alternative if you can't afford the money or time for Cocos Island, particularly in the rainy season, when dive sites closer to shore are clouded by river runoff.
Aggressor (800/348–2628 in North America. www.aggressor.com.)
Bill Beard's Costa Rica (877/853–0538 in North America. www.billbeardcostarica.com.)
Costa Rica Adventure Divers (2231–5806; 866/553–7073 in North America. www.costaricadiving.com.)
Costa Rica Diving Safaris (2672–1260 in Costa Rica. www.costaricadiving.net.)
Undersea Hunter (2228–6613; 800/203–2120 in North America. www.underseahunter.com.)
If fishing is your primary objective in Costa Rica, you are better off booking a package. During peak season you may not even be able to find a hotel room in the hot fishing spots, let alone one of the top boats and skippers. If you're less of a planner, some Fodor's readers say they've had good luck hanging out at "fish bars" in popular areas and asking around for recommendations. The major fish populations move along the Pacific coast through the year, and tarpon and snook fishing on the Caribbean is subject to the vagaries of seasonal wind and weather, but viable year-round. San José–based Costa Rica Outdoors has been in business since 1995, arranging fishing packages; it is one of the best bets for full service and honest advice about where to go, and works with the widest range of operators around the country. More than 100 outfits have high-quality, regionally based services. Anglers in the know recommend Kingfisher Sportfishing in Playa Carrillo, Guanacaste; Bluefin Sportfishing and J.P. Sportfishing Tours in Quepos; The Zancudo Lodge near Golfito; and Río Colorado Lodge on the northern Caribbean coast.
Bluefin Sportfishing (2777–0000 in Costa Rica. www.bluefinsportfishing.com.)
Costa Rica Outdoors (2231–0306; 800/308–3394 in North America. www.costaricaoutdoors.com.)
J.P. Sportfishing Tours (2244–6361; 866/620–4188 in U.S. www.jpsportfishing.com.)
Kingfisher Sportfishing (2656–0091 in Costa Rica. www.costaricabillfishing.com.)
Río Colorado Lodge (2232–4063; 800/243–9777 in North America. www.riocoloradolodge.com.)
The Zancudo Lodge (2776–0008; 800/854–8791 in North America. www.zancudolodge.com.)
Putting on a green against a dramatic Pacific backdrop isn't the first image that springs to mind for Costa Rican vacations, but the increase in luxury resorts and upscale tourism has created a respectable, albeit small, golfing circuit in the Central Valley and along the Pacific coast. Most packages maximize links time with side excursions to explore the country's natural riches. Costa Rica Golf Adventures organizes multiday tours at four- and five-star lodgings.
Costa Rica Golf Adventures (888/672–2057 in North America. www.golfcr.com.)
Most nature-tour companies include hiking as part of their itineraries, but these hikes may be short and not strenuous enough for serious hikers. Let the tour operator know what you expect from a hike. Ask many questions about hike lengths and difficulty levels before booking the tour or you may be disappointed with the amount of time you get to spend on the trails. The following companies cater to both moderate and serious hikers.
G Adventures (416/260–0999 in North America. www.gadventures.com.)
Serendipity Adventures (888/226–5050 in North America. www.serendipityadventures.com.)
Most Costa Rican travel agencies and tour companies have packages that ferry both veteran and would-be cowboys (and cowgirls) of the ocean to and between the country's famed bicoastal breaks. Local experts at Surf Costa Rica really know their stuff, and offer standard or custom packages. Del Mar Surf Camp on the Pacific specializes in women-only surf lessons and packages. Learn how to surf, camp on the beach, and delve into personal development on Outward Bound Costa Rica's weeklong adult surf journeys.
Del Mar Surf Camp (2643–3197 in Costa Rica; 2682–1433 in Costa Rica; 855/833–5627 in North America. www.delmarsurfcamp.com.)
Outward Bound Costa Rica (800/676–2018 in North America. www.costaricaoutwardbound.org.)
Thousands of people travel to Costa Rica every year to study Spanish. Dozens of schools in and around San José offer professional instruction and homestays, and there are several smaller schools outside the capital. Conversa has schools off Paseo Colón, and in Santa Ana, west of the capital, offering hourly classes as well as a "Super Intense" program (5½ hours per day). On the east side of town, ILISA provides cultural immersion in San Pedro. Mesoamérica is a low-cost language school that is part of a nonprofit organization devoted to peace and social justice. La Escuela D'Amore is in beautiful Manuel Antonio. Language programs at the Institute for Central American Development Studies include optional academic seminars in English about Central America's political, social, and economic conditions.
Conversa (2203–2071; 888/669–1664 in North America. www.conversa.com.)
ILISA (2280–0700; 800/454–7248 in North America. www.ilisa.com.)
Institute for Central American Development Studies (2225–0508 in Costa Rica. www.icads.org.)
La Academia de Español d'Amore (2777–1143; 877/434–7290 in North America. www.academiadamore.com.)
Mesoamérica (2253–3195 in Costa Rica. www.mesoamericaonline.net.)
In recent years more and more Costa Ricans have realized the need to preserve their country's precious biodiversity. Both Ticos and far-flung environmentalists have founded volunteer and educational concerns to this end.
Volunteer opportunities span a range of diverse interests. You can tag sea turtles as part of a research project, build trails in a national park, or volunteer at an orphanage. Many of the organizations require at least rudimentary Spanish. Most of the programs for volunteers who don't speak Spanish charge a daily fee for room and board. The Sea Turtle Conservancy is devoted to the preservation of sea turtles. Earthwatch Institute leads science-based trips studying monkeys, turtles, or the rain forest. The Talamancan Association of Ecotourism and Conservation (ATEC), as well as designing short group and individual outings centered on Costa Rican wildlife and indigenous culture, keeps an updated list of up to 30 local organizations that welcome volunteers. Beach cleanups, recycling, and some wildlife projects don't require proficiency in Spanish. The Costa Rican Humanitarian Foundation has volunteer opportunities with indigenous communities, women, community-based clinics, and education centers. They also organize homestays.
The Institute for Central American Development Studies (ICADS) is a nonprofit social justice institute that runs a language school and arranges internships and field study (college credit is available); some programs are available only to college students. ICADS can also place students with local social service organizations, environmental groups, and other organizations, depending on interests.
Before your trip, be sure to check out what other travelers are saying in Talk on www.fodors.com.
Costa Rican Humanitarian Foundation (8390–4192 in Costa Rica. www.crhf.org.)
Earthwatch Institute (800/776–0188 in North America. www.earthwatch.org.)
Institute for Central American Development Studies (2225–0508 in Costa Rica. www.icads.org.)
Sea Turtle Conservancy (800/678–7853; 352/373–6441 in North America. www.conserveturtles.org.)
Talamancan Association of Ecotourism and Conservation (2750–0398 in Costa Rica. www.ateccr.org.)
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