Costa Rica — home of the three-toed sloth, spider monkeys, fer-de-lance snakes, 894 types of birds and a half million more plant/bird/mammal species.
With 4% of the entire world’s biodiversity packed into a small territory, it’s only natural that Costa Rica trips gear toward seeing as much of the country’s biodiversity as possible.
Thanks to a government that’s historically been hyper-sensitive to environmental sustainability (Costa Rica aims to become the first carbon-neutral country by 2021) and a year-round tropical climate, Costa Rica is the preeminent eco-travel destination on the planet.
But visitors shouldn’t expect to see howler monkeys or furry cowatees at every turn — on their own, anyway.
Even the most independent travelers will admit that a trained guide can be one of the most important elements of a Costa Rica trip.
Through rainforests, “cloud forests,” rivers and dives, these five Costa Rica activities are better with a guide.
1. Rainforest walks
The best way to experience a rainforest? Go for a walk among its spectacularly high treetops.
After biologists discovered that approximately 90% of all rainforest organisms live in the treetop canopy, they built suspension bridges to explore and study the complex ecosystems up high.
The Sky Walk offers guided two- to three-hour tours on six different suspension bridges at Monteverde, a small town in Puntarenas known as one of the Seven Natural Wonders of Costa Rica. National Geographic dubbed it “the jewel in the crown of cloud forest reserves.”
Spanning canyons and drainages, the bridges can take up to 12 people at one time.
The boardwalk at Cinco Ceibas is Costa Rica’s newest attraction. The private reserve and adventure park is three hours north of San Jose and offers an interesting perspective of the rainforest basin.
The reserve has an extraordinary mile-long wooden boardwalk and personable guides who explain the details behind the green cathedrals of life. The guides also serve another useful purpose: protecting visitors from deadly insects and venomous snakes, such as the fer-de-lance.
2. Diving off Cano Island
Approximately an hour’s boat ride from Costa Rica’s southern Pacific Coast, Cano Island is a tantalizing destination, especially since most of it is off-limits to visitors.
Only a tiny section of beach and a handful of dive sites are open on the protected island, which means it’s also home to some of the world’s healthiest coral reefs and best diving.
Rapidly changing currents bring in an abundance of big fish (sharks, rays, large grouper), but it takes experienced dive masters to point out the more elusive moray eel, tiger snake, puffer fish and sea anemones.
The dive center at the Jinetes de Osa Hotel leads various dive trips; 506 2231 5806 (in Costa Rica), 866 553 7073 (in United States)
3. Birding at Corcovado National Park
A pocket of untouched beauty, Corcovado National Park in Drake Bay is described by National Geographic as the “most biologically intense place on earth.”
Guides can help spot many of the recorded 894 species of colorful birds hidden throughout the dense treetops and shrubbery.
They also provide expensive telescopes.
Reservations with the park’s administration must be made at least one month in advance. Official reservation confirmation is required by guards at various stations throughout the park.
Corcovado National Park, Edificio de ACOSA, frente al aeropuerto de Puerto Jimenez, Peninsula de OSA, Costa Rica; +506 2 735 5036
Costa Rica has no shortage of raging whitewater rapids and deep rainforest canyons to paddle.
Water temperatures stay around 21-24 C (70-75 F) year-round, even in the rainy season (May-November), so it’s never a bad time to pop into the water for a swim.
Multi-day rafting trips are highlighted by intense hikes and camping, with pit stops for fruit picking, photo ops and rope swings.
Rafting guides are a must. Not only do they know where to go, what fruit to eat and necessary safety measures, they’re good for pointing out sloths, toucans and other creatures above.
Costa Rica Descents offers a number of raft trips, from day trips to longer excursions.
5. Horseback riding
Horses have long been an integral part of Costa Rican culture.
With many cattle ranches that have been breeding their own horses for generations, Guanacaste (one of the first areas conquered by the Spanish) has a pronounced cowboy culture.
Throughout the rest of the country, locals often use horses as transportation and hold frequent horse parades to show off the best animals and riders.
Horseback riding is a popular, inexpensive and low-impact way to explore the country, from riding on the sandy beaches of Puerto Viejo de Limon to galloping along the stunning Lake Route from Arenal to Monteverde.
A variety of guided tours to suit any level can be booked through Anywhere Costa Rica.
More on CNN: Living large in Costa Rica