View of the upper torso of a crocodile with its mouth open.

An American Crocodile suns itself on the shore of the Río Tárcoles. Photo © Eduardo Rivero/123rf.

Twenty-five kilometers (16 miles) south of Orotina, Highway 34 crosses the Río Tárcoles. The bridge over the river is the easiest place in the country to spot crocodiles, which bask on the mud banks below the bridge; don’t lean over too far.

Crocodiles gather at the mouth of the river, near the fishing village of Tárcoles; the turnoff is signed five kilometers (3 miles) south of the bridge. The estuary is also fantastic for birdwatching: More than 400 species have been identified. Frigate birds wheel overhead, while cormorants and kingfishers fish in the lagoons. Roseate spoonbills add a splash of color. Scarlet macaws fly overhead on their way to and from roosts in the mangrove swamps that extend 15 kilometers (9.5 miles) northward.

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Note that several travelers have been victims of armed robberies here, but a bigger threat is the danger of being hit by fast-moving trucks and buses as you walk along the bridge.

Mangrove Birding Tours (tel. 506/2637-0472), by the river mouth, offers tours at 6am, 9am, noon, and 3pm daily.

Opposite the turnoff for Tárcoles from Highway 34, a dirt road leads east and climbs steeply to the hamlet of Bijagual. About two kilometers (1.2 miles) above the road is the SkyWay (tel. 506/2637-0232, adults $20, children $10), a canopy tour with bridges and fantastic views down over the coast. You must buy tickets at the Villa Lapas Hotel, which also operates a zip line ($35 adults, $17 children). Continuing uphill, about five kilometers (3 miles) from Highway 34 you pass the trailhead to Catarata Manantial de Agua Viva (tel. 506/8831-2980, 8am-3pm daily, $20), a spectacular 183-meter-high (600-foot-high) waterfall, also known as the Bijagual Waterfall. The best time to visit is in rainy season, when the falls are going full tilt. They don’t cascade in one great plume but rather tumble down the rock face to natural pools, good for swimming. There are scarlet macaw nesting sites, and poison dart frogs hop along the paths. The trail is a stiff two-hour hike each way (take lots of water).

Two kilometers (1.2 miles) from Highway 34 brings you to Pura Vida Botanical Garden (tel. 506/2645-1001, 8am-5pm daily, $20), a delight for the botanically minded. Manicured gravel trails through the gardens offer dramatic views over mountain ridges toward the Manantial de Agua Viva waterfall and the coast. A self-guided tour takes about one hour. It has a delightful restaurant and a gift store. A bus (tel. 506/8831-2930) departs Orotina for Bijagual at noon daily, returning from Bijagual at 5:30am, and will drop you at the front gate.

Crocodile Safari

You’ll see all manner of birds, such as roseate spoonbills, whistling ducks, jabiru storks, even scarlet macaws as you sidle upriver spotting for crocodiles.A crocodile-watching safari is one of the most thrilling wildlife viewing possibilities in Costa Rica. Several companies compete with twohour croc-spotting trips aboard pontoon boats ($25), but choose carefully, as some companies stupidly permit guides to feed the crocodiles, affecting their natural behavior. Don’t endorse this! Instead, book with a company such as EcoJungle Cruises (tel. 506/2479-9002), or J.D.’s Watersports (tel. 506/2290-1560), neither of which feed the crocs. You’ll see all manner of birds, such as roseate spoonbills, whistling ducks, jabiru storks, even scarlet macaws as you sidle upriver spotting for crocodiles. The three largest—named Mike Tyson, Fidel Castro, and Osama Bin Laden—are five meters (16 feet) long and guard their turf and harems at recognized holes. Morning is best. Tour providers to avoid include Jungle Crocodile Safari and Crocodile Man Tours, both of which feed the animals.

Sports and Recreation

Kayak Jacó (tel. 506/2643-1233) offers outrigger canoe and kayak trips, including inflatable kayaks, on the Río Dulce. It’s based at Playa Agujas, three kilometers (2 miles) south of Tárcoles. Luis Campos leads a two-hour Mangrove Birding Tour & Photography Adventure (tel. 506/2433-8278).

Accommodations and Food

Restaurante y Cabinas El Cocodrilo (tel. 506/2661-8261, $30 s/d), on the north side of the bridge over the Río Tárcoles, has eight simple cabinas with fans and shared baths with cold water. There’s a kids playground, a souvenir store, and an atmospheric restaurant serving típico dishes and casados (set meals, $4).

Hotel Villa Lapas (tel. 506/2637-0232, low season $110 s/d, high season $126 pp, including breakfast), on the road to the Manantial waterfall, is set amid beautifully landscaped grounds on the edge of Carara reserve. It has 55 comfortable (albeit dingy) air-conditioned rooms aligned along the river with simple yet attractive decor, fans, and large baths. Facilities include an elegant hacienda-style restaurant-bar with a deck over the river, plus a swimming pool, whirlpools, miniature golf, volleyball, and nature trails. There’s a netted butterfly garden. Bird-watching and nature walks are offered.

Excerpted from the Ninth Edition of Moon Costa Rica.