Costa Rica offers some of the most scenic waterfalls in Latin America for memorable day-trips no matter what region you visit. The views from the top are the main attraction, but so are the biodiverse nature trails with rare species of plants, birds, and wildlife.
Keep in mind that from January to April it seldom rains in much of the country, which might make the views less spectacular. The wet season — between September and December — is the best time to see gushing waterfalls, especially in Guanacaste, the Pacific Coast, and Central Valley.
Please Note: There may be entrance fees to national parks and private hiking trails.
La Paz Waterfall Gardens (1-2 hours)
An easy jaunt from San José, this popular eco-park and wildlife preserve is not exactly off the beaten path, but parents with small children will appreciate the family-friendliness and clean facilities. There are five waterfalls in total — said to be the most easily accessible in Costa Rica — with numerous species of birds, capuchin (white-faced) monkeys, and one of the largest butterfly observatories in the world.
Hike along 2.2 miles of trails on your own or sign up for a guided tour. The highest waterfall in the park, Magia Blanca, is 120 feet tall, which has a viewing platform directly behind the chute for photo opportunities.
Bijagual Waterfall (2-3 hours)
Far less-visited than La Paz, Bijagual Waterfall (also called Manantial de Agua Viva) can be difficult to find and that’s part of the fun. Located an hour north of the surf town Jaco, this towering 600-foot waterfall is reached by climbing a steep, mossy trail through the rainforest. The path takes about an hour each way and allows for jaw-dropping glimpses through the trees from various viewpoints. Keep an eye out for colorful birds and wildlife like scarlet macaws and poison dart frogs. To cool off, jump into the base of the waterfall, and swim further downstream where small pools of fresh water are located.
Reaching this trailhead requires some patience. Look for rustic hand-painted signs just past Carara National Park. Like many waterfalls in Costa Rica, access is through a private property so you have to pay a local cash who will be holding fort at the entrance. This is where you can safely park your car.
La Fortuna Waterfall (1-2 hours)
Perhaps Costa Rica’s most well-known waterfall, La Fortuna shares a name with a town that receives most of its tourism from Arenal National Park. Though the massive cone-shaped volcano surely gets a lot of attention, the 200-foot waterfall is a sight to behold and should not be missed. The easy to moderate trail is carved into the hillside amongst abundant vegetation and fauna, leading to an emerald green pool below.
To access the hike, look for the visitors center, which has bathroom facilities and changing rooms. Walk carefully down several hundred steep stairs stopping at viewing areas along the way. Use caution when swimming at the base, as the water can sometimes be rough, but there’s a calmer section of river nearby.
Catarata del Toro (2-3 hours)
An hour and a half from San José in the Central Valley is one of Costa Rica’s better-kept secrets. The Catarata del Toro, near the town of Bajos del Toro, drops 300-feet into a dormant volcanic crater. Hiking around the waterfall allows you to experience unique plant species thanks to remnants of acidic lake water from nearby Poas Volcano. In fact, look closely to spot vivid greens, reds, and oranges lining the walls of the pool.
This is a moderate to difficult hike (especially climbing back up) with hundreds of uneven steps, most suitable for mobile adults, though non-hikers can view the falls from the visitors center. Because of the microclimate, make sure to pack warm clothing in case of rain or mist. That being said, this cloud forest habitat is a bird-lover’s paradise with hummingbirds, toucanets, and clay-colored robins -- the national bird of Costa Rica.
Nauyaca Waterfalls (2-3 hours)
Nauyaca may not reach the same elevation as other contenders on this list, but it is no less photogenic. This gorgeous waterfall is tucked deep within rainforest with meandering upper and lower cascades of varying heights. Located in the South Pacific region close to the emerging surf town of Dominical, the moderate 2.5-mile trail splits into two paths towards either the upper or lower falls, so take your pick. Keep in mind this trail is shared with horseback riders so watch where you step.
Down below, the cascades fall into a large, natural swimming hole with nearby smaller pools for swimming. Facilities are available where travelers can change, and there’s plenty of smooth rocks for picnicking and sunbathing. This is a private property, so follow signs for Nauyaca and purchase a visitor pass at the roadside stand. Once you enter, there is a steep and unpaved road to the trailhead that is not recommended unless you have a 4x4 vehicle, otherwise park and hoof it.
Rio Celeste Waterfall (3-4 hours)
The majestic beauty of this waterfall in northwestern Costa Rica is due to natural minerals from nearby Tenorio Volcano, which give the river its cerulean blue color. You’ll likely hear it before you see it, allowing you to appreciate the moderate trail through a canopy of trees with monkeys, butterflies, and colorful dart frogs along the way. The main attraction can be seen from the top, but visitors wanting a closer view can trek down a steep set of stairs that leads to the base where the rushing water escapes into the brightly colored natural pool. Hint: Dry season is the best time to experience the most vibrant blue hues.
Access to the Rio Celeste River is via the network of trails at Tenorio Volcano National Park. Trekkers looking to unwind after their waterfall excursion can continue hiking until they reach the end of Rio Celeste's trail. The second portion of the hike is more difficult and leads to Poza Azul, a beautiful blue pool where you will want to take plenty of photos.
La Cangreja (4 hours)
For another spectacular blue-water view without the crowds of Rio Celeste, head for the Rincon de la Vieja National Park in Guanacaste where La Cangrega (crab) is located. On the edge of the park, you’ll find one of the more beautiful and lesser-visited waterfalls in Costa Rica. The cascade is about 130 feet long and spills into a clear blue pool, made even more vibrant from the volcano’s copper minerals. The vigorous hike is three miles each way making a great half-day trip so pack a picnic and then cool off with a dip in La Cangreja’s fresh pool. This is a great option for those flying in and out of Liberia airport as it's just over an hour drive.