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Costa Rica Day Tours & Shore Excursions: Things You Don’t Know About

  • cruise ship in puntarenas

Are you putting yourself at risk on day tours or shore excursions on vacation?  Many of us take these tours all the time.  What we don’t seem to do is put as much importance on our safety and look for the cheapest price going.  Find out some insider tips on things you need to know before taking a day tour in Costa Rica.

Costa Rica Day Tours & Shore Excursions:  Things You Don’t Know About

puntarenas pier

tourists in port at Puntarenas, Costa Rica

When you think of day tours in Costa Rica seeing sloths, monkeys, and volcanoes usually come to mind with the possibility of adventure sports like zip lining.  It all sounds so amazing you may find yourself torn between which activity to do.  There are plenty of websites out there including this one you can book a tour on well in advance.

Should you wait til you get to the country or on shore before booking a tour hoping for a better deal?   You may have even read plenty of other people’s reviews prior to deciding on which one and company is right for you.  By waiting til the last minute you may wait longer until the van or bus is full of people.  They do try to get as many tourists in each van as possible unless you want a private tour.

talking to potential clients in puntarenas

talking to potential clients

Tourist observation

Over the years I have observed the behaviors of the companies selling the tours and the tourists buying the tours.  Tourists seem to be quite willing to bargain at the pier for the cheapest price going.  Tour operators or pirates (people who have no license to sell tours) will fight or undercut each other just to get a group sale.  What happens I think they set a bad example for a few reasons.  One it looks bad to the people arriving in their country, the other now they have set a standard that tourists can now tell people when they go back home.   Buy it cheaper at the pier!

Think about it?  Could you work for almost nothing for 6 or 7 hours, waste your gas, and have no money left to feed your family at the end of the day?  I don’t think so!  So why should you expect locals to do the same.

Don’t get me wrong I love tours in Costa Rica!  They can certainly enhance your experience or give you a bad impression of the country in a hurry.

People in the country

fisherman in tarcoleslocal fisherman in Tarcoles

If you took an authentic tour to see where the locals lived and how they lived you would be shocked.

I’ve walked the streets on the way to the pier almost stepping on a homeless person to get to the ship’s pier.  These people I see sleeping on the sidewalk, beach, eating out of the garbage cans because they can’t afford food or a place to live.  We have the same situation in North America.  We see our government travel on exotic family vacations, give away lots of the tax payers money to other countries or give away our precious resources for little money.

Here in Costa Rica I’ve seen them put up signs in each province costing lots of money that could help feed the homeless, educate people or at least something more productive.

Needless to say we still feel entitled to have the best tour at the cheapest price going regardless of who it effects.

What you don’t know is cheap tours come with lots of risks involved.  I warn people many times before traveling to use safety precautions yet they sometimes disregard my efforts.  All I can do is make them aware and of course worry while they are gone.

Local experiences

esparza park costa ricalocal dance put on the community school

I’ve heard many tourists say they read it’s cheaper to wait to purchase tours on the beach.  The answer is probably yes.  However most of the time this person is not trustworthy, licensed or pay their taxes to the country.  Half of the time documents are fake or expired.

There’s been stories of tourists who have been robbed while on a tour.  For the sake of a few more dollars is it really worth your life?  I guess so because people keep doing it.


wildlife is important to the countries tourism

Tripadvisor or website reviews should be a guideline.  Some people swear by them others take the reviews with a grain of salt.  You cannot beat a local experience with a licensed tour guide.

You may have booked with a company on line because of the reviews.  Are you impressed with the vehicles they have while you are on the tour?  Did you know that some of those vehicles are rented for the day and a metal sign is attached to the door?  You think that company owns them, but they don’t.  Just because some companies have newer Mercedes vehicle with wifi doesn’t make it the best tour company.  Look closer and listen to what they are telling you.

Don’t get me wrong about renting a van or larger bus to accommodate the amount of clients.  It can be done legally with insurance and all the right documents.  Not everyone can afford to have these high cost vehicles on hand.

Cruise line tours

When taking a cruise, the cruise line suggests you use them to book with or your travel agent for security & also a guaranteed to arrive back on time.  The ship will not wait if you booked with people at the pier, but not everyone wants to travel on a large bus with lots of people.  A travel agent will also help you should you need assistance because you missed the boat.  I get it!  I am one of those people.

There are alternatives such as smaller group tours.  Take Shore Trips or Shore Excursions for example.  Both companies offer the same thing but with lower prices and smaller vehicles.  They also guaranteed back to ship on time.

Smaller companies

What’s nice about smaller vehicles is you can go where the big buses cannot.  I personally love smaller tours.  They are fantastic at seeing the local communities and experiencing an in-depth look at the country.  Chosen wisely you can get the best local guide & driver, choose wrong and you could put yourself or family’s life at risk.

You can also choose a local tour operator.  Sometimes you can book directly on their website or email them for confirmation.  Some of these local tour operators are fantastic.  You just need to know who is legal and who is not.  Don’t forget to ask to see their identification.

Building relationships

I love building relationships with locals to provide my tours for clients.  I’m very selective on who I trust.  I want the best person because at the end of the day it will be on my head if things don’t go well.  I could go for the cheapest tour operator and still charge my clients more.  I however feel the need as a travel advisor to offer the best experience at fare prices but safety is my first priority.  Cheap is not always the best option.  It is true you get what you pay for.

papayas growing on the tree

Some people selling the tours are very in your face, bossy or really don’t give a damn about the tourists as long as they make money for the day.  I’ve seen people herded off like cows.    We are all humans yet we treat each other poorly.  I’m proud of who I work with because they are wonderful people who actually care about others and not try to rip people off.

It’s not always what it seems

Something I see all the time is a 10 in 1 day tour in Costa Rica for example.  Some companies actually make 10 stops others make excuses and try to confuse you into thinking you made 10 stops.  Yes, I have personally heard this from others.  If you dare to complain it’s usually “no entiendo” or “pura vida”.  Meaning in English everything is good I don’t understand.  Then the driver or company will make excuses.

Did you know anyone can make a business card, a website or get fake id?  What I am saying is stay cautious, be alert and ask questions.  Don’t just get in someone’s vehicles because the tour is cheaper.  Ask to see the registration or insurance.  Look at the person selling the tour.  Do they have a legal badge?  Is there a number?  Is it up-to-date or expired?

I also hear many people promised to be taken to the rainforest.  I know they are not going there.  Do you?  The rainforest is many hours away so you need to leave early in the morning or when the ship arrives.  This will also cost more for a tour.

Our thoughts are there needs to be an improved in our expectations as a tourist as well as the tour companies and guides.  We travel for experiences so lets make it a positive one.

These comments are not directed at any one person or any company in particular they are just our observation on a system that requires change.


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About the Author:

Laurie Johnson is travel writer, agent, and founder of Pura Vida Vacations. She finds her inspirations from travelling of the beaten path, meeting the locals, and sharing her travel stories, reviews, and tips with her readers.

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