The Resplendent Quetzal is an elusive, near-threatened bird that often tops the birding bucket list for visitors to Costa Rica.
A vivid, iridescent green with long tail feathers and a fiery red breast, the Quetzal's splendor makes it worth the effort to spot this rare bird. On my recent Costa Rica tour not only did I see a Quetzal for my Costa Rica birding list, but a male, female, and their nest!
How did I do it?
A guided Costa Rica trip with extraordinary guides. While it can be easy, and no doubt enjoyable, to go to Costa Rica and stay in the same hotel for a week, some find a journey through some of the best places in the country even better.
Monteverde, Tortuguero, Guanacaste, and more are incredible destinations worth exploring on a guided, multi-day itinerary. Before I get into the Top Ten Reasons to get a Costa Rica Guide I should briefly explain that there are many different types of guides.
This was exemplified by that Quetzal sighting. My group of seven was there first, and alone. We were quiet, whispering, and respecting the bird. We had the experience to ourselves for 30 minutes with a knowledgeable guide. Without further ado here are our Top 10 Reasons to Get a Guide on your Costa Rica Trip.
1. Guided Trips Offer the Best Chance to See Wildlife in Costa Rica
Here’s a travel secret: the best guides have a network and they share their expertise and rare wildlife sightings with one another. When we spotted our Quetzal, I am quite certain it wasn’t just a quick hike in with a happenstance sighting.
No, my guide was checking in with others in the area. Guides know other guides and they all use WhatsApp to help one another out. Or so I think; I could not get my guide to admit it…which made it feel quite special.
This happened again and again on our Costa Rica tour. For example, within minutes of arriving at the Life Monteverde Farm for a Coffee Tour, our guide, Alex, had a sloth in his spotting scope quite quickly for us. It was ever so tiny up in a tree and hard to see. I could barely see it in his spotting scope! I still have no idea how Alex found it way up in the branches… all I could see was the sloth’s arm. Without Alex we’d never have known it was there. That was my first wild sloth sighting.
2. You’ll Learn as You Go and Ponder the World Around You
Ever hiked and wondered about the world around you? Seen a bird and wondered what they call it, or heard a call and wondered if it’s a monkey? Alex knew everything. I began to try and test him. “Hey Alex, what is this plant!” And he’d know all the plants and flowers too. There was nothing Alex didn’t know. I asked Alex, “What do you do when there is something you don’t know?” His response? “I will find out for you.” Guided trips are educational. From urban culture to the mysteries of the jungle, there is so much to learn and take home with you. Guides have many years of experience, and they love to share their passion.
3. Guides Know the Best Places to Eat in Costa Rica
The guide knows local restaurants and their secret menus. They have been there multiple times. They know those “hole in the wall” places where tourists don’t go. The ones where the staff doesn’t speak English, but still cooks their family recipe.
You’ll drive past the big tour bus with 50 people on it and go a little further to have a meal with the locals. Then your guide translates currency and language alike. You enjoy every bite knowing you have the best quality experience and food.
4. A Guide Translates More Than the Spoken Word, and More Than any App Ever Could
The guide translates! While this seems obvious, it has more to it than just words. Alex didn’t just translate like any phone app would and could. Through his smiles, tone, and cultural awareness, Alex knew how to convey respect. He translated more than words. Through his years of experience Alex could translate culture and tradition as well.
And yes, it’s true, most places you go the people do speak English and you’ll get by, but there’s some situations your guide protects you and ensures all is well. For example, a currency conversion to pay for your email… Be glad for a guide in-the-know versus an app-on-the-go!
5. Guides Drive, You Relax
I’m literally writing number five whilst one of our guides, Werner, is driving us to our next destination. I’m in the back catching up on some things via my laptop. Werner’s not only driving this bus to where I need to go… but he’s navigating, too.
I don’t need to stress over Google Maps or plan my logistics. My guides planned the day out to ensure my group catches our flight today. We were up at 6 a.m., and they already had breakfast and coffee prepared for us. Now that's incredible, amigos!
6. Your Costa Rica Trip Planning is Done and Easy
On my trip, everything was taken care of in advance! That is not to say I was just along for the ride. They give us daily options for dinners and where we’d like to go eat. I didn’t stress over where to go and what to see while at home before the trip, and I felt no stress at all during the trip!
I didn’t have to spend hours researching where to go or what the best thing is. The guides we work with for Austin Adventure’s Costa Rica trip itinerary already do the research. My zip line through the jungle was pre-selected for its reputation for safety. My hotels were checked in advance and chosen for the absolute best quality. All the transfers, meals, and experiences are worry free. What’s happening on the next day? Already planned and handled. I could relax while my guides ensured the next day or next activity was taken care of.
7. You’ll Make New Friends on a Guided Costa Rica Adventure
Guides have a way of bringing groups together. The itineraries are designed to start with light activities when you get off the plane to help you get to know your fellow travelers. Once you’re to the best part of the adventure on about day two you’re laughing and trying new things like kayaking together.
Sometimes group travelers already know one another; that’s cool, too, because you get to know one another better. Sometimes, though, there’s a mix of people from all over. By the end of a guided trip, these new friends and fellow travelers are hard to say goodbye to. They are people you long to see again.
8. Guides Know Where to Find Everything, Even Hidden Wildlife
On the third day of our adventure, we were in La Fortuna, a small Costa Rican town near the Arenal Volcano. My fellow traveler Sonya wanted to find a Soccer Jersey for her son. Sonya said everywhere she travels she finds a local soccer jersey and takes it home to him.
Not only did our guide find us a shop with soccer jerseys, but he helped Sonya translate and ensure she got a good price for it. Another fellow traveler said he was getting some motion sickness while on the twisty-turny Costa Rican roads. He said he needed some ginger chews to help him overcome the motion sickness.
Our guide quickly found us a heath food store in La Fortuna where we asked (in Spanish) if they had ginger chews, and sure enough, we found them. On one of the final days of our trip, while exploring Piedras Blancas, our guide found this gentle Mangrove Boa hidden in a tree.
How he saw that from the middle of the river, "magically" drifted the boat over and pointed it out to us is still a complete mystery to me.
9. Their Reputation Becomes Your Reputation
Guides take pride in their reputation and are often known by the locals in the villages and places they take their travelers. Businesses want these guides to keep bringing folks back. When you step foot in a hotel and are unhappy, your guide becomes unhappy. That hotel wants an Austin Adventure’s guest to have a good time. This ensures that we continue to use their hotel, restaurant, zip line, etc. On my trip, they knew who Alex was when he walked in the door. They greeted and served our group with an extra touch of reverence.
10. Guides in Costa Rica Make You Feel Special
This is your Costa Rica vacation! You’re getting away from it all. If you’re a family, you likely want a break from preparing meals and looking after the kids. If you’re the type who usually is the one who leads the group… you probably want to relax and let someone else handle that. Guides not only do all this, but they also make you feel special.
On my recent trip I asked the zip line guides how to make it feel faster. I told them I used to be an aircrew member in the Air Force… so the zip line guide said he would give me an extra push and told me how to become more aerodynamic to really make it feel fast. On my river tubing experience, my friends told the guides I used to be a whitewater raft guide. My two guides gave me one of their guide tubes which were smaller, lighter, and faster. That made the river a little closer to home for me.
It felt good being pampered with those extra little touches of fun. Especially when the group plotted to flip my tube and get me wet. The group loved it! And you know something? Guides find little quirks like that for just about every guest. The guides not only learn your name on activities and trips… but they remember it. They take joy in sharing Costa Rica with you. They are passionate about what they do every day. Costa Rica guides are very much the embodiment of Pura Vida!