Naturalist Guides in Costa Rica: When You Need Them and How to Find One

In Costa Rica, you can do hundreds of different tours. Of course, some activities require an expert guide, like waterfall rappelling, zip lining, or whitewater rafting. But what about things like national park hikes and hanging bridges? Is it beneficial to have a guide for these activities? In this post, we’ll let you know what it takes to become a tour guide in Costa Rica and when it’s good idea to hire one.

Naturalist Guides Costa Rica

Tour Guides in Costa Rica

Licensing/Certification

Before we get into the specifics of when it is helpful to hire a guide, we’ll first explain about how guides become certified in Costa Rica. It’s a longer, more involved process than many people realize.

In Costa Rica, the Instituto Costarricense de Turismo (Tourism Institute, or ICT for short) certifies guides. There are different types of certifications you can apply for. These include general guide, local guide (specific to one geographic area), adventure guide, and naturalist guide.

To be a general guide, you have to meet several requirements. Most notable is that you must complete a 1,000+ hour tourism course. This ensures knowledge of Costa Rica’s geography, natural history, cultural heritage, and ancient and contemporary history. The course also covers important basics like customer service, English proficiency, and safety (CPR and high-level First Aid).

General guides also need to have their paperwork in order. They must be paying taxes and contribute to the country’s socialized health care system.

Local guides and naturalist guides have similar requirements. To have the naturalist guide designation, you first need to become a general or local guide. Then you need to take additional, specialized courses. These include biology, ornithology, herpetology, botany, and geology. Or, you can show an equivalent educational background. Time is spent both in the classroom and through field work.

Guided Tour Arenal Observatory

Using ICT-Certified Guides

If you hire an ICT-certified guide who has gone through this fairly long process, chances are, they will be good. They will have a solid educational background, be trained in tourism, and have an eagerness to teach visitors about their country.

Guides/Companies Without Certification

ICT certification is not legally required in Costa Rica. Because of this, there are plenty of tour companies/guides operating more informally. While some do have relevant educational background, others do not. This can be a problem at busier national parks, like Manuel Antonio National Park.

This is why it is important to do some research on the guide/company you plan to hire. You can get a lot from reviews online. Checking out a tour company’s website or TripAdvisor page will provide insight into if they seem like a serious business.

If the guide is ICT certified, that is even better. Then you know that they have gone through the formal process of becoming a guide.

Guided Nature Hike Samara
Our knowledgeable guide on a tour of Samara Trails

Here is a link to the ICT website to check if a guide is certified.

Note that just because a guide is not ICT certified doesn’t automatically mean that he or she isn’t reputable. There are other organizations that have learning programs (e.g., Instituto Nacional de Aprendizaje (National Learning Institute); Instituto Costarricense de Educación Turística (Institute of Education for Tourism)). These people may still have a lot of knowledge but not gone through the formal process. Just be a little extra careful when vetting a guide that isn’t ICT certified before using one.

When to Hire a Naturalist Guide

For Expertise

Now that you know that a lot goes into becoming a guide in Costa Rica, you can appreciate more why they would be beneficial.

Not only is a good guide able to teach you about the local flora and fauna you will encounter, but they are able to spot more than you can with their trained eye. They often come with equipment as well, like binoculars or powerful scopes. These let you spot birds and animals hiding high in the treetop canopy.

Guide with scope Manuel Antonio National Park
Our guide helping us get some great iPhone pics with his scope

Another way that guides are useful is by giving background on the place you are visiting. Since most national parks in Costa Rica don’t have much, if any, information along the trail, it can be nice to have a local expert.

For example, on a volcano hike in the Arenal area, a guide can teach you about the prior eruptions. Many guides are locals in the area where they do tours, so they would be talking about their own backyard. For Arenal Volcano, they might be able to share interesting tidbits on how nearby communities were affected by past eruptions and what has changed since then.

Arenal Volcano National Park Guided Tour
Our guide for the Arenal Volcano National Park hike. He was a local from the area.

Guides are also really useful when you want to see a specific animal. Some people come to Costa Rica wanting to see a sloth, for example, so hiring a guide can help make sure that happens.

Sloth Bijagua
A three-toed sloth we saw on a guided tour in the Jaco area

In Specific Areas

In some areas of Costa Rica, having a guide lead the way can be essential. Here are some specific places where we recommend hiring a guide.

In the cloud forests of Monteverde, naturalist guides can add a lot of value. Although this is a very biodiverse area with hundreds of different birds and animals living in its dense forests, spotting wildlife can be tough. Birds and animals are often hiding in the canopy, camouflaged in the foliage, or obscured by cloud cover. A guide will know where to look, and at the same time, teach you some interesting facts about the cloud forest.

Snake Monteverde
This small snake was well camouflaged in Monteverde

Similarly, in San Gerardo de Dota, a guide is essential to spotting the bird that most people come to see, a Resplendent Quetzal. Local guides know where these illusive creatures are nesting or feeding on any given day. This almost guarantees a sighting during prime viewing season.

The tropical dry forest found in the northwestern part of the country in Guanacaste is another region where a guide can be helpful. Hikes to places like Rincon de la Vieja Volcano or Miravalles Volcano can be much more interesting with a guide. They’ll teach you about the geology of the volcanoes and different volcanic features.

These are just a few regions where it can be especially difficult to see wildlife on your own. However, a good naturalist guide can really add value even in places where wildlife is easy to see.

A good example is Manuel Antonio National Park. Although this park has a ton of visible wildlife, we have still enjoyed doing a guided tour of this park ourselves. This is even after living in Costa Rica for many years and visiting this park many times.

On a guided tour a couple of years ago, our naturalist guide taught us some fascinating facts about hornets. These hornets were in a crazy formation on the outside of their nest, and he explained all about it. We also got to see a sleeping red-eyed tree frog! We definitely would have walked right by that frog if it hadn’t been for our guide spotting him on the underside of a broad leaf.

Apoica wasps Manuel Antonio
Apoica wasps in Manuel Antonio National Park

In one place, it is even necessary to hire a guide by law. Because Corcovado National Park is so remote, a guide is required to enter both on day visits and overnights. This is for safety reasons.

When Not to Hire a Guide

In some cases, guides are not always necessary. If you’re familiar with the area and just want to explore at your own pace, you can still enjoy a hike by yourself.

To see the most on your own, we always recommend arriving as early as possible since wildlife is most active during the morning hours. Late afternoon can be a great time too, especially for birds. Wildlife tends to become more active in the late afternoon, when it is moving around to feed before dark.

Another tip is to walk slowly and keep your eyes peeled. Howler and spider monkeys are often sleeping high up in the canopy during the daytime, so it can be easy to walk right past them. At ground level, you can often see frogs or cool bugs camouflaged in the leaves or soil if you look carefully.

Baby Spider Monkey Tortuguero National Park
A baby spider monkey hiding in the trees

Another piece of advice is to take one or two guided tours towards the beginning of your trip and do more self-guided ones later. A guide will not only share specific information about the birds, animals, and plants you’re observing, but also will help teach you how to find these things on your own. This will get you ready for the rest of your visit as you explore other parts of the country.

Conclusion

We hope this post gives you a better idea of what it takes to become a tour guide in Costa Rica and when having a guide can be useful. After taking many guided tours ourselves and seeing the level of knowledge that a good guide has, we certainly have an appreciation for Costa Rica’s guides.

Have a question about guided tours in Costa Rica? Ask us below.

Looking for more information to plan your trip to Costa Rica? Check out these posts:

Bugs, Spiders, and Snakes in Costa Rica: What to ExpectWondering about what kinds of creepy crawlies you may run into along the trail? Check out this article for what you’re likely to see as well as some uncommon critters you may want to miss.

10 Daypack Essentials for Costa Rica: Get tips on what to pack for a day hike.

Driving in Costa Rica: What to Know Before You Go – Most people find that driving wasn’t as bad as they expected. Check out our post for the local rules of the road.

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6 Comments

  1. Matt and Jenn, I am so pleased to see this topic. The ICT is great certification! You noted the training in CPR and high level first aid. While trying to get that perfect photo of a waterfall, I slipped and fell on rocks, banging myself up. My fault, as he had cautioned me about slippery and unstable rocks. My tour guide swung into action, triaged me, and had everything needed to clean and bandage the wounds. I was so reassured by his professionalism and darned glad I had him with me.
    Edgar Blanco Hernandez has numerous ICT certifications and works as a concierge tour guide. All of my guests use him and their feedback is always effusive praise for the experience!

    1. Hi Brad, Thanks for sharing your experience with guides here. They can definitely come in handy, not just for spotting wildlife, but practical stuff like things to watch out for and help when you need it! Always nice to have someone looking out for you. Thanks again for commenting.

  2. Thank you for this informative post. I am planning my 4th trip to Costa Rica (also from Boston area)!. I travel with a group of friends who are very involved in the country and are world travelers interested in low key naturalist trips. After traveling in the Osa, I will always be grateful for our guide through 15 miles of Corcovado. I would never have discovered the Potoo (my new favorite bird), toucans in the way high up canopies, giant Tapir turds, animal tracks, etc. Language barriers no problem. I glad he was there to save me from being stung by the lovely bullet ants. Can’t wait for my next trip. Hire a guide and tip well. They will train your eyes and ears.

    1. Hi Elizabeth, Wow, sounds like an awesome experience in the Osa. Yes, guides can be invaluable, especially in a place like Corcovado. Glad you had a good experience and hope you have an amazing 4th trip to CR!

  3. We are very much do-it-yourselfers and I even have and undergraduate degree in wildlife biology so hiring a guide seemed silly. However, years ago we went from Drake Bay to Sirena station and a guide came with the boat ride anyway. I was blown away by how much he saw (that I didn’t), by what he knew about every living thing, and by how he knew exactly where to find each critter. There is no way we would have seen Tapirs without him. Since then we have hired guides in Manuel Antonio and Monteverde and had the same experience- absolutely worth the money. I would add that in the popular places there are so many guides to choose from it is worth chatting some up to make sure you and they are a good fit for each other and to negotiate a bit. I would also add that in those places the guides all use Whats App to alert each other when they find something interesting so really you are hiring a whole army of guides. We only had one bad experience with a night hike but it wasn’t the guide’s fault- the stars just did not align for us to see anything.

    1. Hi Michael. Thanks so much for this insightful comment. It really says a lot that you always get guides even with your science background. Matt has a science background as well, but feels the same way you do. We really always see more with a guide. Thanks again!

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