Templo is the first of five rainforest waterfalls at La Paz Waterfall Gardens. While not the tallest of the five, Templo is a 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 waterfall at La Paz Waterfall Gardens. A misstep here could prove to be fatal.
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.
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.
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.
Las Gemelas translates to "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 is located in Bajos del Toro and 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 equally impressive. The water from the second fall is much bluer than the first, and contrasts beautifully against the other colors in the scene.
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 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 see howler monkeys swinging on tree branches and vines.
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.
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 and the turnoff can be easily missed if you're not paying close attention.
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 individual 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.
If you are ready to make the effort and photograph some of these extraordinary Costa Rica waterfalls, all my Costa Rica photo tours are booking now. Registration deadlines are quickly approaching and there are only 6 spots available on each tour, so click the link above, check out all the itineraries, and book your spots today!