Because of its tropical climate and seven-month rainy season, Costa Rica is filled with hundreds of waterfalls, which makes compiling a list of the best a bit challenging. Despite that, there are several Costa Rica waterfalls that stand out from the rest, and here's a detailed list that should be on every photographer's radar.
Note: There are many articles written about the best waterfalls in Costa Rica, and with the exception of a few travel bloggers, most have copied and pasted incorrect information and mislabeled photos from other articles and websites that make me question whether the author has even been to Costa Rica. Since I live in Costa Rica for half of each year, and have traveled extensively throughout the country since 2012, I can honestly say that I have been to each of the locations described in this article and the information and photographs contained here are accurate.
10. La Paz
Located roughly 75 minutes from the capital city of San Jose, La Paz is the fifth of five tropical waterfalls at La Paz Waterfall Gardens. La Paz waterfall is the most well-known of the group, primarily because it is accessible without paying the hefty park entrance fee, and is one of the most popular waterfalls in all of Costa Rica.
Standing 110' tall, La Paz is powerful and spills into a fast moving, rocky river below, and many visitors miss the trail that leads behind the waterfall that is easily accessible from the roadway.
9. Los Chorros
Near the small city of Grecia, Los Chorros translates as "The Jets," and can be difficult to find. There are two main waterfalls, each approximately 130' tall, and a very unique wall of mini waterfalls that you won't find anywhere else. Downstream from the first waterfall, there's a nice picnic area with tables scattered along the water's edge.
If you want to capture great images at Los Chorros, you need to get wet. There's no getting around it. The main viewing area is very small and off to one side and the perspective from there is extremely limited. Also from there, you can only see the first waterfall, and miss out on the second cascade as well as the wall of mini waterfalls.
Note: Depending on how high the water is, the second waterfall might be out of reach, but when the water is low, it's easy to wade through to discover the hidden gem.
Because Templo is located at La Paz Waterfall Gardens, it is often mislabeled as La Paz, yet the two waterfalls are very different. Templo is the first of five rainforest waterfalls at La Paz Waterfall Gardens, and like I mentioned earlier, La Paz is the last. While not the tallest of the five, Templo is my favorite, due to the surrounding area that allows for close ups and wide-angle perspectives that are both equally amazing. There are several viewing platforms, a bridge, and small beach area that provide endless photo opportunities.
Warning: Although the stream below Templo is shallow, the current is swift, and caution is particularly advised under the bridge as it is only a short distance to the top of Magia Blanca, the tallest and strongest waterfall at La Paz Waterfall Gardens. A misstep here could prove to be fatal.
7. La Cangreja
The hike to La Cangreja is not for the weak and begins at the visitor center near the base of the active Rincón de la Vieja volcano. The six-mile round-trip hike takes you through thick forests, across jungle streams, and into wide-open, sun-drenched spaces. And it's hot. Very, very hot. Add in a backpack with thirty pounds of camera gear and a tripod and you can expect to be completely exhausted at the end of the day.
La Cangreja translates to "The Crab" and measures 130 feet tall. For a waterfall of this height, it is surprisingly gentle, and cascades softly into a gorgeous green-blue pool. La Cangreja is surrounded by unique rock formations and hanging vines and late afternoon sunlight creates stunning streaking patterns across the face of the waterfall. Although technically not permitted, swimming is common at La Cangreja, and the beautiful water is a refreshing relief after the strenuous hike.
Note: La Cangreja is well worth the effort. Just be prepared to spend a full day and take lunch and plenty of water because there are no services available after leaving the visitor center. Trust me, you'll be glad you did.
6. La Fortuna
Catarata La Fortuna is one of Costa Rica's most popular waterfalls, and at 230' tall, is quite powerful. Located ten minutes outside the small bustling tourist town of the same name, La Fortuna waterfall is surrounded by lush, vibrant foliage, large rocks, and a small beach area downstream. There's also an excellent restaurant and nice gift shop near the park entrance.
The hike to the base of falls consists of 400 stairs, which are easy to descend but challenging upon return. Fortunately, there are rest areas with benches and water fountains to make the ascent a little easier.
5. Las Gemelas
Las Gemelas translates as "The Twins" and these two fraternal beauties deliver the goods. I've yet to see a "best of" list featuring the twins and for the life of me, cannot figure out why. Perhaps it's because Las Gemelas are located in Bajos del Toro and are overshadowed by Catarata Bajos del Toro (see #4 below). There's really no other explanation as the twins are simply sensational.
After walking 30 minutes through expansive sloping pastures, you arrive at the entry point to the thick jungle environment that hosts the twins. A few steep metal stairs take you to the river's edge and then suddenly, the first twin appears. Made up of bright orange rock and sky-blue water, the first twin stands 80’ tall and spills into a rocky river below. A rich turquoise pool, surrounded by huge boulders, forms downstream before the water continues on to feed other waterfalls below.
As you approach the first twin, the second twin emerges from a deep canyon to the left. The second twin is slightly smaller and completely different than the first but is equally impressive. The water from the second fall is much bluer than the first, and contrasts beautifully against the other colors in the scene.
4. Bajos del Toro
Buried deep in Costa Rica's vast Central Valley, Bajos del Toro is one of Costa Rica's tallest waterfalls, plunging 300' into an ancient volcano crater below. The rock walls surrounding the towering cascade are scarred with vibrant orange, red, and yellow mineral deposits and bright green mosses, and the scene is absolutely awe-inspiring.
The path to the base of the falls is a mixture of dirt trails and 700 concrete stairs with many incredible viewpoints on the way down. Because of the elevation, clouds often roll in and add drama to photos, and if you're lucky, you might even see howler monkeys swinging on tree branches and vines.
3. Rio Celeste
Due to its magnificent turquoise water, Rio Celeste is without question, Costa Rica's most famous waterfall. Rio Celeste is the main attraction at Tenorio Volcano National Park, and ancient legend has it that while painting the sky, the gods dipped their paintbrushes into the water of Rio Celeste, causing it to turn turquoise. The scientific explanation is that aluminosilicates on rocks along the river bottom absorb all colors of light, except blue, which is reflected and creates the river's incredible color.
Visiting the Rio Celeste waterfall requires a 30-minute hike through the jungle and descending three hundred stairs to a viewing platform. Many visitors are disappointed to find that swimming is not allowed, but the sensational vista more than makes up for the restriction, and keeps the water pristine. It's also beneficial for photographers since there's no waiting around for people to get out of your shot.
2. Llanos de Cortez
While Costa Rica is known for its misty rainforests, dense jungles, and sunny beaches, there's also a region in the northwest part of the country called Guanacaste with a hot, dry climate. Within that atmosphere, it’s hard to believe that a spectacular waterfall could survive year-round, but there is one that does, and it’s called Llanos de Cortez.
Standing sixty-feet tall and falling into a shallow, golden-green pool below, the waterfall is nearly as wide as it is tall and lush vegetation and flowers accentuate the cascade with vivid colors. Due to easy access, many creative compositions can be captured at Llanos de Cortez, like the shot below looking through the trees.
Note: Llanos de Cortez is located twenty minutes outside Liberia, the second-largest city in Costa Rica, and the turnoff can be easily missed if you're not paying close attention.
1. Nauyaca Falls
In the southern region of Puntarenas, Nauyaca Falls thrives in the mountains above the small surf community of Dominical. Made up of two jaw-dropping tiers, Nauyaca Falls stands 200' tall and is simply breathtaking. The upper falls consist of three 135' thundering plumes that crash onto giant, sedan-sized boulders. In comparison, the lower falls are calmer and it's common for visitors to jump from rock ledges on the face of the lower tier into the sparkling green pool below.
Depending on the time of year, the water at Nauyaca Waterfalls can be raging or a very light flow. In order to capture both tiers in one image, crossing the lower pool is necessary, and when the water is high, it can be challenging and dangerous. For the shot below, I hesitantly waded waist deep through the rushing water, using my extended tripod for support, until reaching a semi-submerged rock on the other side that I used for a base.
There are three options for getting to Nauyaca Falls, all handled through the office before entering the property. The first is by horseback, second by 4x4 vehicle, and the third is to hike. I've hiked to the falls, which takes about 75 minutes, and it's extremely hot and humid and every step is relentlessly uphill. Toting heavy camera equipment, the hike to Nauyaca Falls was by far, the most difficult I've ever done. Yes, even tougher than La Cangreja (see #7 above), which was brutal. Consider yourself warned.
Note: If you arrive in the morning, the horseback and 4x4 options offer traditional Costa Rican breakfast and lunch at the home of Don Lulo, the property's original owner.
Due to its lengthy rainy season and tropical climate, Costa Rica is home to an endless supply of spectacular waterfalls that survive year-round. Depending on personal tastes, the order of this list could be rearranged slightly and still be accurate, and I continue to struggle between Nauyaca Falls and Llanos de Cortez for the #1 position. Regardless of order, these are still the best waterfalls in Costa Rica, and every photographer should do what it takes to explore them. The effort will be rewarded with fantastic memories that last a lifetime and photographs that live on forever.
Scott Setterberg is an award-winning professional photographer with nearly 30 years of landscape photography experience. When not in the Pacific Northwest, Scott lives in the tropical paradise of Costa Rica where he operates exceptional, all-inclusive photo tours for photographers of all skill levels. For more information, visit: https://www.colortexturephototours.com