Although Costa Rica is a relatively small country -- a bit smaller than West Virginia but a smidge larger than Denmark -- the country packs a wallop when it comes to nature, containing between 5 and 6 percent of the world's biodiversity (depending on who you ask). The country's flora and fauna is estimated to include 10,000 species of plants and trees, 850 bird species, 205 mammals, 220 reptiles and more than 1,000 species of fish. It's wildlife lover's paradise. Add to that the fact that larger ships can't get into the country's most remote locations and it's a perfect destination for expedition cruising.
During the day you'll visit national parks and wildlife preserves; hike through thick rainforests; spot monkeys, sloths, toucans and parrots; or snorkel in crystalline waters hoping for an elusive sea turtle sighting. At night the stars shine brightly, though you're likely to be fast asleep early, exhausted from the day's exertions.
Expedition and yachting lines that stop in Costa Rica include UnCruise Adventures, Lindblad Expeditions, Windstar Cruises and Variety Cruises. Read on to see more of what an expedition cruise to Costa Rica is like.
Most expedition cruise itineraries within Costa Rica stick to the same general areas along the country's Pacific coast. Manuel Antonio National Park in Quepos is a stop on just about every Costa Rican expedition cruise. The park is one of the country's most visited natural attractions, boasting a stunning diversity of wildlife including 109 specials of mammals and 184 birds. Guides will help you spot three- and two-fingered sloths, as well as howler monkeys. You won't need any help spotting the white-faced capuchin monkeys -- they're everywhere trying to steal food from the locals who bring lunch to the beach. Other spots along the coast that might be included in an expedition sailing are Curu National Wildlife Refuge, a privately owned property that is home to tons of wildlife; Osa Peninsula, one of the country's most off-the-beaten path locations; and Golfo Dulce, with its remote mangrove forests.
Tip: Bring bug spray with you, especially if you're sailing during rainy season (May through November). Water is everywhere in Costa Rica, from the wet, muddy rainforests to the briny waters of the mangroves and all play host to thriving mosquito communities.
Expedition cruise ships are designed to make the most of the destinations they visit, as well as for travelers who like to be active, and as such offer a variety of "toys" (as one expedition guide likes to call them) including kayaks, paddleboards and snorkeling gear. (All of which are broken out by expedition lines in both warm and cold weather destinations!) Because visits to areas along a Costa Rican expedition itinerary are usually to remote locations with no docking infrastructure, cruisers need to use small inflatable boats (called Zodiacs, skiffs or DIBS, depending on which cruise line you're sailing with) to get from the boat to shore and back. The inflatable boats, plus all the water toys are typically stored at the back of the expedition vessel, which often have special launching docks to make the entire process easier.
Tip: Always follow crew instructions. Even on docks that can be raised out of the water, rough surf can make boarding and disembarking the inflatables a challenge. Crew are there to make sure no one gets hurt.
All landings -- meaning getting onto the shore from the cruise ship -- are water landings via inflatable boats. There is no way to avoid getting your feet wet as you'll have to step out of the boat into shallow water in order to get onto land. Depending on surf, the water might reach your knees so be prepared to wear shoes and pants/shorts you don't mind getting wet. Most cruisers wear water shoes, sandals or flip-flops on the transfer to the shore, and then switch into hiking boots they've carried over in a bag. Quick drying pants, capris or shorts are best for your clothing as the hot sun will generally get them dried out on your hike fairly quickly.
Tip: Don't go barefoot on the transfer. Coastal waters can have sharp rocks, twigs and even sting rays buried under the water. You don't want to step on any of these in bare feet.
A hallmark of any expedition cruise -- anywhere in the world -- are the hikes that take passengers into the wild environs of the destinations visited. Costa Rica is no different and you'll have many opportunities to hit the trails in rainforests, dry primary forests and through rocky beach jungles. Expedition guides will usually offer a range of hikes with varying degrees of difficulty, though all expedition cruisers should be relatively fit. On UnCruise Adventures' sailings, for instance, there are always three hike options, with one being easier than the other two (but not necessarily easy itself). Keep in mind, in Costa Rica hikes are made more difficult not just by the terrain, which can have lots of high roots and fallen trees blocking your path, but also by the high humidity, which can dehydrate travelers much faster than they're used to.
Tip: We recommend hiking boots over sneakers as boots offer better traction for hiking on the slippery, muddy and root-covered trails you'll be exploring. Additionally, snakes are ever present, and hiking boots are more likely to offer ankle protection than sneakers.
Aside from the onboard crew, expedition cruises always provide one or more naturalists and/or wildlife guides to accompany cruisers on their journey, both onboard the ship and on all land- or water-based activities, whether it be hiking, snorkeling or kayaking. Guides are professionally trained, experts at spotting wildlife and passionate about sharing their love for nature; on some expedition sailings you might also be treated to guest lecturers during the day or in the evening.
Tip: Adventuring with a guide is often a case of "do as I say, not as I do," as guides will often go off path or pluck a flower or leaf from a plant to explain something. You should not do this, but follow whatever instructions guides give you regardless of what they do.
You'll see lots of fancy cameras on an expedition cruise, but don't feel like you need to splurge on a $1,000 camera to get great photos. An automatic camera with a good zoom lens should offer more than enough quality to get photos you can show off to your friends. On some cruise lines, like UnCruise Adventures, you'll also get a flash drive of photos the guides have taken throughout the sailing.
Tip: Though guides will usually carry a pair of binoculars and sometimes even a scope for easier wildlife spotting, you might want to bring your own binoculars or a camera with telephoto lens as most animals will be found high up in the trees.
The highlight of any expedition cruises is the wildlife you'll see. On a Costa Rica expedition cruise you'll be keeping your eyes open for monkeys, sloths (three-fingered are easier to spot than the two-fingered variety), tropical birds like toucans and macaws, white-tailed deer and so much more. Of the four monkey species in the country, you're most likely to see the white-faced capuchin, especially at Manuel Antonio National Park where they've learned that humans often have foodstuffs with them and have developed a variety of techniques for stealing food.
Tip: When it comes to interacting with wildlife, always follow your guide's instructions. White-faced capuchin monkeys can be quite aggressive, both when trying to steal food and if they feel you've invaded their territory. Follow your guide's rules in order to avoid a frightening confrontation.
You'll spend a fair amount of time exploring rainforest environs on a Costa Rica expedition cruise, regardless of whether you're traveling during the rainy or dry season. Be prepared for high humidity and uneven trails, both of which can make even a short hike a challenge. Also be prepared for muddy conditions, even during the dry season. Though some trails might provide wooden walkways above the worst areas, not all will. Water resistant boots are your best bet both for keeping your feet dry and for providing the best traction when the trails are slippery with mud.
Tip: Bring at least one full bottle of water with you on every hike. The temperature might only be in the low to mid-80s but with the high humidity you'll be sweating more than you realize. Dehydration can set in quickly so you'll want to be sipping from your bottle throughout your hike.
Don't just look up when hiking through the Costa Rican rainforests. There's as much wildlife on the ground as there is above your heads. From coati and agouti to raccoons and gray-tailed squirrels, there's plenty to see at your feet. You might even see animals right on the path. Keep in mind, not all sightings are always pleasant. In some cases, you'll see the struggle between life and death play out before your very eyes. Remember not to interfere; it's the circle of life.
Tip: Try to watch where you step whenever possible. You'll not only save yourself from a twisted ankle by avoiding the many tree roots that lie hidden in the fallen leaves, but you could also save yourself from a nasty encounter with a snake.
Expedition cruises offer passengers more activities than just hiking. Kayaking is another popular way to explore a destination's shorelines -- plus it gives your legs a break. In Costa Rica you'll have the opportunity to kayak through mangrove forests and along rainforested shore lines. One or more guides will accompany you on your paddle and while you might not spot any monkeys or sloths from the water, you're likely to see lots of bird life, as well as sea life including brightly colored fish, turtles and, if you're lucky, dolphins.
Tip: The sun is strong in Costa Rica so you'll want to keep your skin's exposure to a minimum. Long-sleeve UV-protective shirts, rash guards and swim leggings or a towel over your legs will go a long way to keeping you protected.
Snorkeling is another popular expedition cruise activity, especially in a place like Costa Rica where the sea life is abundant, and the water is clear and warm. Most expedition cruises will offer snorkeling options for both beginners and those with more experience, giving everyone a chance to see the world from under the water. Fish of all shapes, sizes and colors, and in large and small schools are a common sight, while turtles, rays, eels and sharks are less so.
Tip: If you don't have a waterproof camera or cover for your smartphone, consider picking up a disposable water camera before your cruise. The underwater realm teems with colorful life and you'll want to document some of it to show everyone back home.
Despite there being a lot of water-based fun on a Costa Rica expedition cruise, the country isn't always the best destination for paddleboarding as the water can be quite rough especially along the Pacific coast. Most expedition boats will have a handful of the boards stored onboard for use on calm days, but don't choose an itinerary just because you think you'll get to paddleboard. And be prepared, on the rare days the paddleboards do come out, you'll probably have to wait on line to use one -- they're quite popular.
Tip: Don't be afraid of paddleboarding. Just take it slow and steady; someone will always be there to help you learn the ropes. We saw plenty of folks in their 70s and 80s make it to their feet and stay upright during our Costa Rican sailing.
In areas where hiking and snorkeling aren't possible, skiff tours are another way to explore Costa Rica's flora and fauna. The mangroves, with their dense vegetation and watery root system, are particularly well-suited to skiffs and kayaking. On skiff tours, a guide will point out birds, lizards and orchids, among other wildlife. In the mangrove forest, she (or he) will explain what mangroves are, why they're important and how they reproduce. Passing through narrow passages with the motor at a minimum and everyone onboard quiet is both eerie and beautiful.
Tip: Don't forget to bring your camera with you. While you're likely to see less mammalian life on a skiff tour, there will be plenty of bird life, as well as beautiful plants and flowers to capture digitally.
Updated November 21, 2019