Affordable Costa Rica: The Nauyaca Waterfalls
There's no doubt that a trip to Costa Rica can break the bank if you aren't careful. Coined "The American Vacation Spot" by locals, you'll quickly find yourself in a tourist trap while searching for adventure. But there is an affordable aspect to visiting one of the most ecologically diverse countries on the planet: nature and all of its greatness! And no matter how many tour companies try to capitalize on available land, Ticos have been very good about preserving a good chunk of it.
So if you're currently catching surf in Dominical or enjoying a beautiful view from an infinity pool in front of your Uvita villa, here is an adventure that will cost only $5 per person!
Update: As of February 2017, the $5 fee has increased to $8.
Getting the $5 Deal (now $8):
The Cataratas Nauyaca (Nauyaca Waterfalls) is Tico-owned, so there is only one tour that goes through; it isn't widely known beyond the country's southern region. The family that owns it offers horseback-riding tours to the waterfalls for around $30 per person, but also allows the public to enter for $5 if they prefer to hike on foot. The deal isn't advertised but upon arriving at the small white house/office, simply let them know you want to hike.
Tip: If you don't speak Spanish and are having a hard time remembering phrases, a simple "Yo quiero caminar" (I want to walk) will suffice when requesting the five dollar hiking fee. You'll find Ticos are quite supportive of your language journey! :-)
Update: As of February 2017, the $30 horseback riding fee has increased to $70.
How to get there:
Dominical is closest to the hike, mapped at only 8km away. If you have a car, it'll be about a 15 minute drive going north on 34 and making a right on 243. Or you could take 2 hours walking the whole way.
From Uvita, it'll be a 25 minute drive and 5 hour walk. Remember, hitching is also very common... and who doesn't love free transportation?
Once you're on 243, you'll start to see (very) small signs leading up to the location, and then - almost immediately - a little white office/house will pop up on the side of the road with a few cars parked in front of it.
Most likely you'll be driving too fast up this winding hill and will pass it, only to then see a sign pointing into the woods reading "Nauyaca", making you realize the white house now behind you was definitely the right place.
Holy crap that hike is grueling. Comparable to my steep hill walk up to the Jesus de la Misericordia in San Juan del Sur, Nicaragua, this hike was 4km long in each direction. That is, if you came in a car and drove the additional 2km to park. But if you are walking from Dominical... let's just say you're going to have a great looking backside by the end of the day.
We drove our rental: 4WD is necessary. Instead of parking, we took a chance and drove even farther through narrow paths of dust and sticky, deep mud. Once the paths completely closed off to vehicles, we parked and began our trek filled with sweat, heat, and wildlife sightings.
What to Bring:
The hike is steep and a good portion is under the sun. Bring sunblock, a lot of water, and lunch. I hiked in water toe-shoes (BodyGlove) that have a good grip and could stay on in mud, on flat ground, and swimming; others hiked in sneakers. Bring your bathing suit if you want to swim at the waterfalls.
Whichever way you chose to get there: it is worth it. The tallest waterfall is 45 meters high and prohibits climbing/swimming. Of course you'll have some people who want to test that rule.
The second waterfall is 20 meters high and allows swimming in the 6-meter-deep pool below it. There are a number of natural pools depending on the rainfall amongst the rocks, and plenty of spots to enjoy an afternoon lunch or maybe even wash off your now muddy clothing and shoes.