Natural Highlights of Costa Rica

Sierra Club Outings Trip # 14775A, International


  • Search for quetzals, scarlet macaws, four kinds of monkeys, and sloths
  • Hike, explore, swim, snorkel, and relax in a tropical paradise
  • Explore jungle waterways by riverboat and raft


  • All meals, comfortable lodges and eco-lodges, and all gratuities
  • Airport transfers and on-trip transportation in a private bus
  • An expert naturalist who accompanies the entire trip, and local guides


DatesDec 16–28, 2014
StaffShlomo Waser

Trip Overview

The Trip

The treasure-seeking conquistadors called it the "Rich Coast," but Costa Rica offers much more than gold, and the government has made conservation a national priority. We’ll visit four national parks and two private reserves, exploring diverse biological zones. The country's exotic plants and flowers, colorful bird life, and unusual wildlife will delight your senses. We'll get close to nature in a variety of ways, from rainforests and oak forests to mangrove swamps and seashores. Though our days will be filled with as much activity as you like -- hiking, bird watching, boating, and snorkeling -- you'll also have the freedom to just relax in this tropical wonderland.

We’re likely to see a variety of wildlife, including monkeys, coatis, sloths, bats, the resplendent quetzal, toucans, and hummingbirds, as well as an incredible range of insects, reptiles, and brilliantly colored amphibians. The flora includes orchids, bromeliads, ginger, and the ceiba, the sacred tree of the indigenous people of Costa Rica.

We'll travel comfortably by small air-conditioned bus, enjoying spectacular scenery along the way, and feast on tropical fruits and healthy, fresh, local cuisine. While this isn't a luxury trip, we will stay in very pleasant lodges and a few amazing eco-lodges.

Come on this trip and fall in love with the beauty, biodiversity, and friendliness of Costa Rica!


Day 1: Arrive at San Jose’s international airport, where you are met by our hotel bus. In the evening, get to know your traveling companions at a welcome dinner.

Days 2-3: After breakfast, we drive to Poas Volano National Park. From there we drive south along the Talamanca Mountains, heading toward 11,450-foot Cerro de la Muerte. We stop briefly at the 10,000-foot high pass before dropping 3,000 feet down to our cozy lodge that's adjacent to the Savegre Biological Reserve. Our guide helps us search for the quetzal and other exotic birds. We will have time to enjoy two hikes; one to a waterfall and another through an oak cloud forest.

Days 4-6: Today, we head to our amazing eco-lodge adjacent Ballena Marine National Park, one of Costa Rica’s newest national park. This park is dedicated to protecting the migrating whales and nesting grounds of brown boobies, frigate birds, and ibises. While at Ballena, we have opportunities to spend time at the beach, take a snorkeling tour along the reefs, hike on the trails (including a guided nighttime walk), identify as many birds as we can from the comfort of the lodge's deck, or just relax in a hammock in one of the most beautiful settings on Costa Rica’s west coast.

Day 7: We drive north along the Pacific Coastal Highway to our hotel adjacent to Carara National Park. After lunch, we will have a riverboat birding and crocodile tour on the Tarcoles River, sighting crocodiles, boat-billed herons, anhingas, and maybe even the elusive pygmy kingfisher. The night is spent at a serene eco-lodge and small farm, and we hope to see the resident spectacled owls searching for insects this evening.

Day 8: We start the day by witnessing the daily flight of the scarlet macaws over our lodge and numerous hummingbirds in the flowers by the dining area. We take a morning hike in Carara National Park, following the trails of the pecarries along the paths by the stream. After the hike we drive toward Palo Verde National Park, where we settle into our lodge -- a former retreat for a Costa Rican family -- and swim, relax, and get ready for a big day tomorrow in the wetland area along the Tempisque River.

Day 9: Today we hike in Palo Verde National Park, looking for some of the wildlife that abounds here, such as crocodiles, and a myriad of bird species, including the world’s largest stork, the jabiru. After lunch we will enjoy a River Floating Tour at the Coribici River just next to our lodge. In the evening we tour the grounds to see deer and the nightjars on the paths.

Day 10: Through the verdant countryside, we travel to Arenal Volcano National Park and our luxurious cabins, all with fabulous views of the volcano. We take time to relax in lovely local hot springs in very natural surroundings.

Day 11: In the morning we enjoy a bird’s-eye view of the rainforest from a treetop-canopy walkway, where we will see monkeys and hopefully peccaries and sloths. In the afternoon, you will the option to zip-line above the treetop-canopy or you may go back to relax at the hotel grounds.

Day 12: Today we begin our return journey to San Jose area. On the way we stop to hike in the Arenal National Park, walking through the lava flows to see up close the rejuvenation and ecological changes after a major eruption. We then return to our delightful hotel on the outskirts with a fantastic view of the San Jose valley. In the evening, we enjoy a farewell dinner together, reliving our adventures with newfound friends.

Day 13: After breakfast, we’ll be driven to the airport for our flights home.



Getting There

The trip begins and ends in San Jose, Costa Rica. You must make your own travel arrangements to San Jose. It is served from the U.S. by several of the major airlines. Airport transfers are included and will be arranged by the leader. You will need a passport that is valid at least until July 2015. This trip does not include San Jose tourist sights or attractions in the Central Valley. The leader will be happy to assist participants who wish to extend their stay to see San Jose or other areas of Costa Rica.

Accommodations and Food

Although we won’t have the luxury of five-star hotels, we will stay in lovely lodgings, many of which are true eco-lodges. Rooms will be double-occupancy, so if you’re a solo traveler, you will be assigned a roommate of the same gender. If you would like a single supplement, please contact the leader for availability. The food is healthy, fresh, and wholesome. If you have special dietary needs other than vegetarian, it's essential that you contact the trip leader to see if these needs can be accommodated.

Trip Difficulty

This is an active leisure trip, though you'll have plenty of opportunities for more strenuous pursuits. The trip is suitable for old and young alike (minimum age is 12), as long as you are in reasonably good health, enjoy nature, and have a good-humored and flexible approach to traveling in Latin America. Keep in mind that Costa Rica is still a developing country -- things don't always run exactly like they do at home. Rain will fall, clothes will get muddy, and plans will change, but that's all part of the charm of international travel. We will be traveling in an air-conditioned Toyota Coaster private bus. The bus rides between lodgings are three to four hours, with stops along the way. We'll be on good roads most of the time, and the views will be great. The hikes are optional but a very important part of the experience. The most challenging one takes about four hours (round trip) and climbs about 400 feet if you go all the way. The others are mostly on level terrain. The pace is slow because we take time to observe and study the plants and animals. We recommend that you work on your conditioning in order to get the most out of the trip.

To take advantage of the dry season, we've scheduled this trip during December. Temperatures vary with elevation. The Central Valley, which includes San Jose, is known for its eternally spring-like weather, with average temperatures in the high 60s. At lower elevations it is likely to be warm and humid. Cloud-forest nights and mornings can be chilly, so you will need a fleece jacket and perhaps some light gloves and a hat.

Equipment and Clothing

Binoculars, camera, and a daypack (preferably waterproof) are highly recommended. Snorkeling gear is furnished. The leader will send a detailed packing list to each registered participant.



  • Kricher, John, Neotropical Companian. This book has a second edition that is updated and more expensive. The first edition is fine. This book goes into a lot of detail about tropical ecosystems and it takes some time to digest all the information, but is considered a classic for the neotropics and excellent for anyone wanting to learn about this ecosystem (the book explains the term neotropics as compared to tropics in general).
  • Lonely Planet, Watching Wildlife: Central America. This book has excellent information on the various wildlife we might see and discusses the natural history of many of the species.
  • Garrigues, Richard, The Birds of Costa Rica: A Field Guide. This book is the easiest of the bird books to haul around and it has good bird info.
  • Stiles, Gary, A Guide to the Birds of Costa Rica. This is the bird book for the serious birder -- it is thick and has all sorts of detailed information. Serious birders usually cut out the plates and leave the rest of the book at home.
  • Zuchowski, Willow, Tropical Plants of Costa Rica: A Guide to Native and Exotic Flora. This is a great book for helping identify and learn about plants we might see.


  • Costa Rica, Borch Map, 2006.
  • Costa Rica, National Geographic, 2008.


In Costa Rica, we will get an up-close look at the effects of conservation in action. The country has long been committed to protecting, rather than exploiting, its natural resources. Indeed, as Pulitzer Prize-winning author Robert Cahn puts it, the Costa Rican park system is "in some ways the most remarkable national park system in the world." All told, it contains 34 protected areas, including 28 national parks, and the entire system encompasses about 11% of Costa Rica's land area. When forest reserves and wildlife refuges are included, the country's federal lands total about 25%. By comparison, the U.S.'s national parks cover about 3% of our total land area.

There are severe problems, however, and signs of a weakening in this protection. Outside of the national parks and reserves, almost the entire country has been deforested. The nation's forests are falling at a faster rate than anywhere else in the western hemisphere, and, as a percentage of national land area, reportedly nine times faster than the rainforests of Brazil. The present government (and the electorate) must be convinced of the need for true and permanent protection of the environment. As we travel the country, we will learn about the conservation successes and pitfalls that the Costa Ricans have encountered.

Since its founding in 1892, The Sierra Club has worked to preserve and restore the natural environment we all share on this planet. Thousands of grassroots-level volunteers spearhead our efforts to conserve and sustain resources, both in our own backyards and on a global scale. Through direct experience in the outdoors, Sierra Club outings enable participants to better understand, advocate, and participate in the environmental conservation goals of the Club.



Shlomo Waser was born in Israel but spent most of his adult life in the USA. Currently he lives in California in the San Francisco Bay Area, which has been his base to travel to many countries around the globe. He loves nature and wilderness, and is active in many outdoor activities such as hiking, backpacking, mountain climbing, trekking, trail running, and backcountry skiing. He loves to share his enthusiasm for nature and its beauty with other participants, and enjoys meeting new people on these trips.

Associate Leader:

Tom Miller

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