When it comes to countries with a vast coastline, Costa Rica is really spoiled for choice. Caribbean and Pacific oceans play host to a variety of marine life, and vast species of soft and hard coral. All of which deserves exploring! We want you to see it all, which is why we have put together the ultimate guide to the best 7 spots for Costa Rica snorkeling.
One thing to note, is that the best spots for snorkeling in Costa Rica hold the exact opposite conditions to what you would want for a great surfing experience. So, if you plan to do both, schedule them on different days. Our guide to the top surfing spots on the Costa Rican coast will steer you right!
But if you’re keen to find the calmest waters, the most beautiful fish, and the best varieties of coral, look no further! We signpost the best off-shore adventures to get really wild. And mull over the best national parks to showcase marine ecology. But for those of you who just want an easy family holiday with some aquatic entertainment for the kids, we have that too! Rest assured that snorkelers have never had it so good.
Gandoca Manzanillo National Wildlife Refuge
Situated in Limon province, one of the top spots for natural beauty on Costa Rica’s coast, sits Gandoca Manzanillo. This wildlife refuge is a haven for all manner of protected species. Both plant and animal life. Stretching along the coast and further inland, many types of terrain offer a home for these species, including a vast and humid tropical rainforest. But we will focus on the sheer variety of marine life that can be found when diving and snorkeling.
Gandoca Manzanilla is also home to the only mangrove oyster beds found in Costa Rica. Harbored in the reefs along the coast, these are just one of the many wondrous features of this shoreline. Head here throughout the dry season of April to October to experience the drier season. This means calmer waters and more chance of capturing the awe-inspiring beauty of the differing coral beds and marine life. Blue parrot fish, lobster and angel fish swim alongside the graceful green sea turtle and leatherback sea turtle. You might even see a curious dolphin or two.
This is a great place to spend the day if you love wildlife. On land and sea—and up in the trees—there will always be something to excite your interest!
Cahuita National Park
If coral is your main drive, heading to Cahuita National Park will be a thrilling adventure! This site holds over 35 species of coral, and is known to be one of the largest living coral reefs on the Costa Rica coast. Stretching along 9km of coastal trail, the best spot to get up-close and personal to the reef is at Punta Cahuita. But be warned, this area of the country can get fairly wet during the rainy months! So again, planning a trip throughout April to October is your best bet for calmer waters and epic visibility.
Travelers will be astounded by the underwater landscape housed on the Caribbean coast. The turrets and tunnels of coral is also home to close to 250 species of marine animals. Swim through the magical surroundings and spot colorful tropical fish, nurse sharks, even the odd manta ray or turtle. Travelers can book full day snorkeling tours to Cahuita National Park, or opt to travel independently. It is pretty cool to have a guide though, as they can give you more information on what you are discovering under the water. Snorkeling in Costa Rica does not get much better than this!
Caño Island Biological Reserve
This one is a little bit of adventure! Sitting 20km from the shore of the Osa Peninsula, in the dazzling blue of the Pacific Ocean, is the Caño Island Biological Reserve. This is a snorkeling spot in Costa Rica with unmatched beauty. It is widely thought to be one of the best snorkeling and diving spots in the world! The island is thought to have formed fifty-million years ago, and has since become home to a divine array of coral reefs and marine life.
Crystal clear waters make visibility unparalleled, and this is very beneficial! Travelers to this site have reported seeing everything from the large and otherworldly barracuda, tuna, stingrays and manta ray, to sea turtles and white tipped reef sharks. You can even spot (drumroll please) whales here! Species like the humpback and pilot whale have been known to swim through these waters, making an exciting day even more exhilarating if you are so lucky. Aside from these, fish species such as the colorful reef fish will always be a joy to watch. Sadly, most of the coral reef you will find here is dead. But there is plenty of algae and such, which supports many tropical fish, and in turn supports the food chain.
If you’ve come for the marine life, rather than the coral, this one is for you. Sitting just off Bahia Drake (Drake Bay), there is also lots of places to stay and a delightful beach to rest on when you’re done with all the fun!
Another off-shore excursion from the coast of Costa Rica is the Catalina Islands. Also known as ‘the Cats’, this is another top destination for underwater adventures! Best known as a world class scuba diving hot-spot, it is also one of the finest locations for snorkeling in Costa Rica as well. But why is it so popular? Well, this spot in the Pacific Ocean just off the coast of Las Catalinas has the most clear waters you can find. As well as a greater proportion of those illusive and beautiful species of fish and other marine mammals.
Around these 20 islands, formed of volcanic rock, devil manta rays, white-tipped reef sharks, angel fish, swordfish, and even humpback whales convene. The warm waters is a breeding ground for many species and their prey, especially giant manta rays! These huge creatures can grow to around 23 foot in length. But these are not the only rays in the water. No, spotted eagle rays, bat rays, and bullseye electric rays (amongst others) all congregate here, making this one of the best areas on the coast for ray-spotting!
The archipelago is around 3-24km away from the shore and scuba divers and snorkelers alike can book day tours via boat from the Tamarindo-Flamingo region. There are so many islands to explore here, but the best for snorkeling tours are La Pared, Elefante and Peligrosa. Elefante is especially great for shark and ray sightings. The Little Cupcake is also recommended if you’re into being surrounded by parrot and angel fish! This entire area is the gift that keeps on giving, so you might need to schedule a couple of days to get out there and explore.
Manuel Antonio National Park
If you are up for snorkeling in Costa Rica, without the hassle of booking a tour, Manuel Antonio National Park could be the one for you. Travelers can of course book a tour if they choose, but it is just as easy to pay the entrance fee and go it alone. Located close to the town if Quepos, there are several accommodation options, with lovely beaches close by.
With its signature clear and calm waters, and shoals of tropical fish, there is so much to explore inside Manuel Antonio. But be warned, there are a limited number of people allowed into the park each day, so you will have to arrive early to avoid disappointment. A maximum of 600 per day throughout the week, which rises to 800 on weekends.
Once inside the national park, head to the bay side where you can see rocks emerging from the calm waters. These is the best location to go snorkeling on this stretch. Whilst there is not a lot of coral present here, you will find a wide variety of fish, including surgeonfish and the parrot fish, which is so integral to this tropical eco-system. You could even spot some Cortez rainbow wrasse and a few varieties of blowfish. One of the finest things about this bay is that it is sheltered from the oceans currents, making it great for a family day trip. Pack a picnic and enjoy the sun and white sand between snorkeling expeditions.
Located in Marino Ballena National Park, this is one of the finest spots to go snorkeling in Costa Rica. It is a little way down the coast, but as such is a little less touristy. Therefor quieter throughout the year! The name literally translates to ‘whale island’, and is so called because of its resemblance to a whale’s tail. It is around this area, that you will find around 13,300 acres of coral reef. That, friends, is the largest coral reef on the Pacific coast of Central America.
Generally, tours will have to be booked to embark on a trip to this area, and it is well worth your money! Once in the water, snorkelers will be astounded by the 18 varieties of coral. And much of it is rather shallow coral along the reef. Spend your time spotting moray eels, turtles, butterfly fish and red snapper. Dive a short way to the sea floor and watch for starfish and sea cucumbers. If you are lucky, you might even come across dolphins and whales!
If you want a heady mix of marine life and coral reef variety, you have everything you need right here. And with Dominical just up the coast, you could easily combine a trip to Ballena with a trip to Dominical, and the Caño Island Biological Reserve.
The Gulf of Papagayo
For families visiting Costa Rica’s coast, you might be interested to note that not all snorkeling hot spots are miles away from civilisation. Or on another island. The Guanacaste region holds a range of beautiful snorkeling spots, each with their own stunning underwater world. If you are into snorkeling in Costa Rica without the head-aches or heart attacks, this is for you!
With white sand beaches, calm waters, and year round warmth, beaches like Playa Huevo (literally ‘egg shaped beach’) are the best spots for a family day trip. Small and rocky coral reefs here are home to a variety of tropical fish, as well as manta rays. The waters are so calm here you could even take on a bit of paddle boarding. Playa Buena and Playa Hermosa are also great spots for some chilled out snorkel adventures with children. Though it can get quite busy with people! Playa Blanca is also where you can find resorts like the four seasons. Whilst usually bustling, these spots are invaluable for their proximity to lots of facilities. Bars and restaurants line the shore, meaning everything is mere steps from the shore. Including the reef!
Yes, there are some great resorts in this area! And many golfing resorts located right by the beach. This makes it the perfect area for a family holiday. Do you have a golf fanatic in your family? Ditch them on the green and take off for a day exploring the glorious reefs in the calm gulf waters.
Is there any good Snorkeling in Costa Rica?
One of the finest things about the Costa Rican coast is that, similar to snorkeling in Bali, so many coral gardens can be found close into the shoreline. Which means it’s easy and fun, and requires little planning to do! Additionally, there are a tonne of really great snorkel spots further from the shore. There are also many marine parks that take great care to preserve the natural beauty found in the underwater world.
Due to Costa Rica’s climate, snorkeling is possible year round. Which is great if you are looking to save some money by avoiding peak travel times. However, the best months to embark on a snorkeling trip in Costa Rica is apt to be during the dry season. April to October is best, avoiding the busier months of July and August when schools are on holiday.
Is it safe to Snorkel in Costa Rica?
Costa Rica has many great dive and snorkel locations. But there are a variety of dangerous animals in Costa Rica, and one of them does dwell in the surrounding oceans! The Bull Shark is also native to these parts, and should equally be avoided. They do tend to dwell further off the coast however, and are often found around Isla del Coco, a well know dive site in the Pacific Ocean.
So, whilst snorkeling in Costa Rica has a few dangers, these are apt to be further out to sea. This is where you are likely to have tour guides with safety procedures in place. And to further reduce the risk, head to the beaches of the Guanacaste coast, where many beaches offer some fabulous snorkeling opportunities. All without the danger!
How much does Snorkeling cost in Costa Rica?
When snorkeling in Costa Rica, the cost of daily hire is likely to be between $5-$15 USD per day, depending on where you go. Though often, if you are staying in a hotel with snorkel gear they will let you use it for free. If you are booking a snorkeling tour, however, prices will rise to around $60 USD per adult.
This is generally to include transport and guide, and often lunch if embarking on a full day trip. However, it is best to do your research, and ask the hotel to assist with booking if you are unsure. Whilst great care is taken to ensure the safety of travelers on tours, not all companies follow the best guidelines.
Another consideration when regarding price is the time of year you are visiting. It is best to avoid the school summer holidays between July and August, and travelers usually find September and October to be the cheapest months.
Snorkeling in Costa Rica can be super rewarding if you know where to go. And whilst you can find some fantastic reef and varieties of tropical fish off the shores of both Caribbean and Pacific coast, it pays to go further afield. Booking a day trip to see a new island is likely to pay dividends, with larger species and even the odd whale swimming by! Wherever you go, be sure to pack an underwater camera. You don’t want to miss those candid moments.
If you’ve been nibbled by the tropical travel bug, share this with your friends and family and get packing. A world of beauty and adventure awaits you in Costa Rica. On land, and most certainly in the sea!