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Before God created waterfalls, He knew He would need torrential amounts of rain, multiple rushing rivers and abrupt changes in elevation. So when He got around to making Costa Rica, He basically perfected the formula.
The best ones offer five attractions in one: 1) a stunning view, 2) a swimming hole, 3) cliff-jumping, 4) a great way to beat the heat, and 5) an exhilarating adventure just getting there.
So here are our picks for the five best waterfalls in Costa Rica. We dare you to visit them all!
Montezuma, near the southern tip of Nicoya Peninsula, is sort of like a Costa Rican town from another dimension. It’s a tiny but thriving village filled with hipsters, rastas, European trekkers and other chilled-out people. It’s sometimes called “Montefuma,” from the Spanish word for “smoke,” and we’re not talking tobacco.
Within walking distance of the downtown is what may be the greatest waterfall in Costa Rica. You can walk or drive to the parking lot, just south of town, and then you have to walk along the banks of the Río Montezuma to get to the falls. This involves scampering over boulders, wading across the river and even holding onto some ropes thoughtfully attached to a little cliff. We recommend humming the tune from “Mission Impossible” while negotiating the ropes.
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Just when you think you must be on the wrong trail, an 80-foot waterfall suddenly comes into view, and it’s dazzling. There are actually three falls here, and if you like you can drive to the top and hike down a hill to the uppermost fall instead of walking up the river. You can even go ziplining above these falls.
But at the bottom, there’s a wonderfully cool pool where you can swim around, or muster the courage to jump off a pretty tall boulder into the water.
Speaking of cliff-jumping, have you heard of Tom Brady, the greatest quarterback of all time? He and his supermodel wife Gisele Bündchen own a home not far away, and he once proved his immortal cred by taking the very scary 39-foot leap from the top of the middle fall, a feat you can watch on YouTube.
Located 2.5 miles off the highway between Dominical and San Isidro on the central Pacific coast, Nauyaca is possibly more spectacular than Montezuma, though harder to get to. The best option is to pony up for a horseback tour, though you can also hike to the falls in less than an hour.
This two-tiered catarata has an upper fall that’s 45 meters (148 feet) and a bottom fall that’s 25 meters (82 feet). The top fall is kind of a narrow shower emptying into a small pool – not recommended for either jumping or swimming. But the bottom fall is a real beauty, as it cascades over a broad cliff face into a delightfully swimmable pool.
Best of all, if you’ve paid for a guide, he will attach ropes to the cliff and lead you through the thundering bottom fall to a climbable cliff, where you can jump from as high as you dare.
La Fortuna Waterfall
Probably Costa Rica’s most famous waterfall, La Fortuna is a short drive from the town of the same name in the adventure capital known as Arenal. It’s visited by some 100,000 people a year, at least in normal years.
At 70 meters (230 feet), La Fortuna is quite a bit taller than Niagara Falls – and no, there’s no jumping. To get there, you have to walk down a hillside stairwell of nearly 500 steps. And if you think that’s hard, wait until you have to walk back up.
The pool at the bottom is a ridiculously fun adventure. Rather than a place to “swim,” it’s more like a place to wade into a giant, wet wind machine. Most people don’t have to be warned not to get too close to the bottom of the waterfall, because it’s almost impossible to approach the ferocious blast of the water. It’s like trying to walk into a hurricane.
Río Celeste Waterfall
Nothing tops this one for sheer beauty. Río Celeste is famous for the unique sky-blue color of the water, which is caused by suspended alumino-silicate particles. They say that after God was finished painting the sky, he washed his brushes in the Río Celeste.
This fall is located in Tenorio Volcano National Park, a remote and often overlooked gem north of Monteverde and Arenal. It makes a great day trip because its main attraction is an easy trail you can hike in two or three hours, with great views of the bright blue river.
Like La Fortuna, the fall is accessed by a long set of stairs carved into a hillside. At the bottom there are viewing platforms, but unfortunately there’s no swimming, and “Do Not Enter” signs are prominently posted on the railing. However, locals sometimes hike up the river to get there.
Llanos de Cortés Waterfall
This is another contender for most beautiful waterfall in Costa Rica, located a half-hour southeast of Liberia in the northwestern province of Guanacaste. If you’re staying near Playas del Coco or Flamingo, it’s the closest waterfall on this list, and it’s well worth a visit.
Llanos de Cortés (sometimes spelled “Cortez”) is about 20 meters (66 feet) tall and almost as wide. The water spills off a broad cliff face, similar to Nauyaca, making for a splendid view.
The pool at the bottom is swimmable and delightfully refreshing, and in most places you can walk on the sandy bottom comfortably in bare feet. But this is not a good place for cliff-jumping, as the pool is not very deep and the rocks are too brittle to climb.
What is the tallest waterfall in Costa Rica?
If you’re an incurable waterfall junkie, find your way to Diamante, a set of 10 falls on private property near Dominical, Uvita and the aforementioned Nauyaca. The largest of these waterfalls is estimated to be an astonishing 600 feet, though there’s no telling how they measured it. Some of the smaller falls have caves behind them complete with kitchens, sleeping platforms and bathrooms.
These falls are WAY off the beaten path and rarely visited, though you can book a tour with the property owners if you have the stamina for the hike.
What waterfalls can you swim at in Costa Rica?
As noted, all the falls on our list are swimmable except Río Celeste. We should also mention La Paz Waterfall Gardens, a very popular nature park and wildlife refuge near Poás Volcano National Park. It has five striking falls, but they are for viewing and not swimming.
Is it safe to swim in rivers in Costa Rica?
Swimming in the rivers of Costa Rica is generally safe, with certain caveats. Drowning is sadly common in Costa Rica, though drownings usually occur in the ocean. In one extremely unusual incident, four U.S. citizens and a Costa Rican guide drowned in the swollen Naranjo River in 2018 while whitewater rafting under unsafe weather conditions.
Crocodiles can be a threat in certain places, though crocodile attacks on humans are very rare. Bull sharks sometimes feed at the mouth of rivers that spill into the ocean, but shark attacks are almost unheard of. Costa Rica does not have piranhas or the dreaded Amazonian candiru that supposedly swims up your urethra if you urinate in the water. So feel free to pee freely!
The most common injury that swimmers in Costa Rica suffer is … wait for it … sunburn.