The billions of gallons of rain that falls on Costa Rica’s mountainous forests has to get to sea level eventually and the intersection of streams and rivers with vertical geography creates some of the most amazing freshwater falls anywhere. I’ve listed my top ten favorites below.
I chose La Roca north of Arenal Volcano as the number one best waterfall in Costa Rica because it’s the perfect mix of adventure, newness, excitement and beauty. For most people seeing beautiful waterfalls has always been enough but Costa Rica inspires adventurous spirits and I encourage you to try something new – canyoning. After my first descent I was hooked and now seek out undiscovered cataratas even more enthusiastically than I used to chase new beaches.
La Roca is designed to specs, fully guided, very professional, and safe. No experience necessary and you don’t have to be an athlete to enjoy it. Pull on a harness, click in your carabiner, and drop in. Pools of inviting, clear, cool water await at the bottom!
La Paz Waterfall Gardens comes second on the overall list but is without a doubt the best place to see waterfalls. Steel ramps and stairs lead through old growth rainforest down a gorge past five falls each with its own personality and drama. When you reach the bottom a shuttle returns you to the visitors center and gift shop. Plan several hours to visit – especially if you have children or photographers along – because La Paz also boasts entries in the ten the best mariposarios (butterfly houses), aviaries, and frog and snake terrariums in Costa Rica. If you’re really lucky you might be able to get a room reservation at the Peace Lodge on the grounds (booked years in advance for high season).
Santo Christo (aka Nauyaca Waterfall) upstream from Dominical is the quintessential tropical waterfall experience. There are many falls where you can jump from rocks and swim in a pool at the bottom but this is the best. Those pictures with the sunbather on the big smooth rocks in the foreground, the kids looking up from splashing in the blue water to see the perfect swan dive executed in front of a curtain of white water bracketed by slick glistening rocks green moss and towering rainforest topped by fluffy white clouds in a sapphire blue sky were all taken here.
Far and away the best if you want to really immerse yourself in waterfalls is the Diamante cave and lower falls. Two or three days of swimming, jumping, scrambling and rappelling with a stay in a unique camp behind one of the upper falls in-between.
The cave and upper falls are suitable for hikers who just want to look but most people take a few rappelling lessons here before entering the lower canyon (outfitter and guides to set the route required). Canyoneering aficionados with at least 350 feet of rope can challenge one of the biggest drops in Costa Rica.
The very best waterfalls you cannot visit are on Quebrada Gata high above the Río Peñas Blancas valley. Several years ago we we’re lucky enough to make what was probably the first (and maybe the only) descent of the canyon at the behest of the mayor of San Isidro to explore the possibility of building a commercial canyoneering tour to benefit the community. The Quebrada was much too rugged for tourists and access has since been blocked by the construction of a hydroelectric project at the bottom of the canyon.
There aren’t any huge waterfalls on the Tenorio River unless you’re headed at them in a little four man raft then they look gargantuan…! Keeping with my theme that waterfalls aren’t just to look at the little falls and pools below them are perfect for cooling off on a hot dry Guanacaste summer day. The guided rafting trip is suitable for most ages and ability levels (mostly class II with a bit of class III) and we’ve seen more wildlife along the shores here than any other boat ride.
One of the biggest waterfalls I’ve ever rappelled is just northwest of Monteverde cloud forest on Quebrada Moras (yes the little dot in the middle of the photo is me) and it was also one of the scariest. It was set up as a commercial operation for tourists and we were some of the earliest visitors. Unfortunately they were operating on a shoestring and that was what one of the ropes looked like after the German guy who followed me down bounced off a couple of rocks when the sheath of the rope he was rappelling from snapped and he dropped a dozen feet before the safety belay caught him. That’s one of the reasons we never recommend tours until we’ve tried them ourselves and why you should always seek out certified operators. The tour is still operating and seems to have improved so one day we’ll go back to check it out again.
The jumping canyon was how we referred to it on early explorations to determine if it was an appropriate location for a commercial operation. Now it’s one of the best new attractions in the La Fortuna area and called Gravity Falls. After an initial 80 foot rappel to the point of no return (okay so you really can return but it’s a pain) there’s a series of smaller 10-30 ft drops where you can show off your diving skills.
La Llorona is one of the most viewed but least visited waterfalls in Costa Rica. It’s the only one on the list I haven’t stood under, on top of or gone over in a raft or on a rope. It plunges straight out of the rainforest of Corcovado National Park and into the ocean on the Osa Peninsula coastline. It’s a short (~2km) hike from the San Pedrillo ranger station and although only a few people make the trek each month, dozens see it from small boats as they ply the Pacific between Drake Bay and Sirena.
Many people would claim that my list is upside down since Celeste Waterfall is at the end, but those people haven’t visited nearly as many of Costa Rica’s waterfalls. It is stunning and the hike through the park to see it is beautiful as well but since they built the viewing platform and prohibited approaching or swimming in the pool it’s slipped down a bit in my estimation. You’ll never see a prettier tropical waterfall but there are others that are better to experience!
Number(s) Eleven – the Honorable Mentions
And finally the number eleven spot is reserved for the dozens of fantastic cataratas that won’t fit on the list — Montezuma on the tip of the Nicoya Peninsula, the cavern and other falls on the Savegre river near San Gerardo de Dota, Río Chirripó Pacífico has enough beautiful falls to rate a whole top ten list of its own, the no-name 300ft waterfall we walked 3 days up a tributary of the Río Coen to see, Llanuras de Cortez near Liberia, the eleven waterfalls you zip over on the Waterfall Canopy tour above Miramar and at least a hundred other unnamed falls equally enticing and beautiful.