La Paz Waterfall Gardens is a privately owned ecological attraction near to San Jose (the capital of Costa Rica and likely where you’ll fly to when you visit the country) that offers spectacular waterfalls, hiking, and animal encounters, and a solid environmental education program.

We often fly in and out of San Jose and like not to rush our onward transfers after a long flight, or to chance getting back to the airport from either coasts on the day of leaving (roads can be very busy and buses can be late/delayed). So this means we have time to spare in San Jose, and this time we chose to take a tour to these gardens with a company called Mid Morning La Paz Waterafall Gardens Tour. You can find the company on Facebook here – https://www.facebook.com/WaterfallGardensTourMidMorning

or you can send them a message via the La Paz Gardens official website, since they’re the official tour company working in partnership with the property. You can find that page here – http://www.waterfallgardens.com/tours-with-transportation.php

In summary, we loved our day there. The drive to La Paz, winding through coffee plantations as the road climbs up and over the continental divide, was a beautiful surprise. Kind of like Switzerland at times with it’s lush pastures, but also with volcanos! Our guide, Olman, was a kind, enthusiastic and knowledgeable local man who spoke perfect English (also German and of course Spanish), he made for a wonderful companion. And the park itself was beautifully landscaped, with waterfalls as impressive as any we’ve seen during our 4 tours of Costa Rica (they were also more accessible than most, too. If you can walk up and down paved pathways, you can reach the viewpoints, no problem).

Olman picked us up in central San Jose at 10am. That’s why the tour is called the ‘Mid Morning’ tour. Most tours out of the city start earlier (which is nice in a way as sunrise is a wonderful time to be up and about) but one of the great pleasures of being in Costa Rica for us is waking up slowly over a great cup of local coffee as the early sun streams through the window, so a 10am start time was perfect for us as it allowed us to enjoy a leisurely breakfast.

It also meant the rush hour traffic was over, so we were able to move easily out of the city in the direction of the mighty Poas Volcano. We stopped briefly to get a view over the central valley, where San Jose is…

…and then we were off again, heading upwards, passing coffee plantations. Olman drove up a side road so we could get a good view of a coffee field with Poas in the background…

…and then we continued on into the plantation centre, where we got out and looked around. The panorama so reminded me of the vineyards of Tuscany, which I’d toured early in 2019. Rows and rows of greenery, dotted with red, only here it wasn’t grapes but ripe coffee.

The fields were bordered with flower and rainbow eucalyptus. I’d never even heard of such trees before, their multi coloured trunks are incredible.

We bought some coffee in the shop, enjoyed the view from the terrace for a while more…

…then continued upwards, past clumps of blue hydrangea and green pastures grazed by cattle under the clearest of skies.

We’d never expected the drive to La Paz to be such a thrill but it was truly spectacular and by the time we got out of the van, about 90 minutes after we’d been picked up in San Jose, we were smiling widely and very excited to be on the tour.  Olman led us into the reception area and introduced us to some of the staff. He takes tours to La Paz almost daily so he’s very well known there.

“Over 95% of the 120 staff here come from nearby towns and villages,” he explained, “La Paz offers many opportunities, and has done a lot of good for the local economy.”

We exited the reception to the site of the mighty Poas Volcano across the valley, rising out of a vision of banana leaves and rainforest. Amazing.

To our right were washrooms, to our left a feeding station for hummingbirds. Now, being animal lovers, we don’t like to see animals in captivity or being fed unnaturally, and we were to see a lot of that in La Paz over the next few hours. It would be easy to pass a negative judgement, but having toured many a national park and animal rescue centre around Costa Rica and indeed the world and spoken at length to the people working in them, we understand that there are many issues to take into account that should prevent us from passing any sort of judgement at all. 

Signs around La Paz state that none of the animals you see there have been taken from the wild, that they’d been entrusted to the care of La Paz by the Costa Rican Wildlife Ministry, that many of them had been kept illegally as pets before coming there, and that for various reasons they couldn’t be released back into the wild.

Let’s delve into that a little. What might prevent an animal being released back into the wild? Several things; here is a short list of actual cases we have personally encountered at other rescue centres.

1/ A crocodile that was so well treated by its owners that it loved humans, so when it was confiscated it still moved towards human voices when it heard them. It had to be kept captive because if it’d been released and had moved towards humans in the wild, they wouldn’t know it was friendly, and they’d most probably kill it. 

2/ Spider monkeys that understand, after being kept as pets, that they’re stronger and more aggressive than most humans, to the extent that they lose their fear of us. When released into the wild they often become pests, attacking humans for food, and then the humans find a way of killing them. In fact, the Costa Rican government commissions yearly culls of spider monkeys that were once tame and have lost their fear of humans. It’s not ideal to keep them in cages, but at least they’re alive and helping their species by educating the public about why we shouldn’t keep wild animals as pets.

3/ A cage may seem small, but it’s most likely bigger than the space the animal was being kept in before it was rescued. 

4/ In the case of the toucans and scarlet macaws that you see at La Paz, some of them have clipped wings, or wings that are faulty due to accidents (flying into glass windows is a problem for birds in all countries), and others are so used to humans that they couldn’t survive at all in the wild. At least at La Paz they are able to live, they’re providing that public education I’ve spoken of, and also they’re an attraction. Tourists pay to enter places like La Paz to get close to them (they’re beautiful, so it’s understandable) and that money goes to support the whole centre, including all the other animals and the rescue program. 

5/ Finally, for now, animals that are raised in captivity often don’t have an idea of what they should eat, or what is looking to eat them. They can’t hunt well, or defend themselves. To set them free would be sending them to their deaths.

One day we hope that all animals will be free and people will be educated and brave enough to live with them in harmony, but until that day comes we hope tourists choose where to spend their money wisely, and support animal rescue centres and education programs that are working towards helping animals. There are almost 300 animal rescue centres in Costa Rica and unfortunately some of them are just tourist traps, using animals to take your money. We think La Paz is one of the good ones and that it’s worth your money, and that it will spend it in service of the environment and the animals that you will see there. 

Ok, back to our tour. We passed the hummingbirds, a fair few tourists were photographing them, it’s understandable, they glittered in the sun and looked so delicately innocent and beautiful. Some fed from the sugar water dispensers, I was unsure about how good that was for them (it’s no good for us, so likely not great for them either) but they did have the option of feeding from flowers or flying off into the forest and like the other animals here they were responsible for bringing tourist money in to support the less visually exciting elements of the park, so we understood what was going on. (After returning home I looked at the La Paz website and found this very interesting page, which does go into detail about the hummingbirds and the feeding – http://www.waterfallgardens.com/hummingbirds.php)

We moved down a path, under the shade of towering ferns, and into the aviary.

We’d seen macaws and toucans in the wild quite often during the previous couple of weeks (in Carara National Park and in the areas around Drake Bay, where a toucan sat about 2 meters from our hotel balcony, and macaws swooped down to feed from a tree under which we were having a picnic) and it was always a huge thrill, and bearing in mind all I’ve said about cages and animals in captivity, we now appreciated seeing them up close here. 

It’s a privilege to be this close to wild animals, but one should take into account that this is not what one should expect to happen all the time, and that animals can find proximity to humans quite stressful if they neither chose the situation and haven’t got a clear exit. If you come here, please don’t try to touch them (we saw some tourists doing this, it seemed to disturb the birds a lot). We moved slowly and let the birds come to us if they wished. It was magical to be there. These birds really help you appreciate how incredible our world is. We were sad that for various reasons they couldn’t be free, but at least they were alive and with others of their own kind instead of being kept alone in a small cage. We left with a true appreciation for how magnificent they are.

We passed through the sloth house, and then the butterfly house, where Olman pointed out the eggs of a Blue Morpho on the tops of leaves, and their caterpillars underneath. He didn’t need to point out the actual butterflies, they’re huge! 

A Blue Morpho egg.
A Blue Morpho caterpillar.
A Blue Morpho, about 4 or 5 inches from wing tip to tip.

Then it was time for lunch, and what a lunch it was, in a spectacular location.

One of my plates.
The view from our table. Beautiful.
The tables further into the restaurant had views of a waterfall.

It was buffet style with lots of options (rice, beans, many local dishes and salads, fruit, pizza, garlic bread, fries, juices, and more), and the restaurant was so open plan and peaceful that a rare Black Guan flew in from the nearby forest and began walking about. This turkey-like bird is a much-wanted bird on many a bird watcher’s target list and is considered ‘Near Threatened’ because it has such a small range and is susceptible to hunting pressure. But here it was, wandering around the restaurant, offering us a rare sighting as we ate. Fantastic. 

After lunch we visited the monkeys and cats. One of the cats was 22 years old. In the wild she would have been lucky to reach 15. Her enclosure was pretty large, larger than the condo she’d been kept in before her rescue, and I was happy to see her still active and living out her days in peace. 

Jaguar.
Puma.
The puma enclosure.

Next came the orchid garden. My partner is just studying landscape gardening and we’re both keen on house plants so this was another place to pause, study the available information, admire the possibilities, learn and gain inspiration. 

There was much to educate us in the snake and frog houses, we skim read the extensive notices that told of how venom is collected, how most bites occur when locals are working in the fields beside snakes, and the facts and figures that offered so much more than the newspaper headlines that are designed more to frighten us than inform us.

It was a great opportunity to take photos of the frogs as they were all free to move around the ponds but easily seen, which they aren’t always in the wild.

Then we passed through a traditional homestead where coffee was ground old style, where we tasted sugar cane juice and where outside cattle roamed.  

The paths down to and between the 5 waterfalls are all laid with solid flagstone and are the most easily accessible in the country. The lower falls, called ‘La Paz’, is one of the country’s more famous waterfalls as tourists driving to Arenal pass by it on the roadside and more often than not stop to take photos. It’s scenic, but perhaps not so scenic as the falls further up in the property, which we explored.

There are viewing platforms above, halfway down (at one point almost behind) and at the bottom of each falls, making it a fine place to stroll and to linger, soaking up the atmosphere whilst you perhaps get soaked by the spray (not compulsory, only if you want to get close!). The jungle is so lush, there’s birdcall and the roar of rushing water all around and the gardeners have done a superb job of getting the sightlines spot on. If it’s waterfall photos you’re looking for, they are waiting for you to take them here. We spent an hour in this area but could easily extend that to half a day or more. I urge you to put aside a few hours for it. 

There are way more trails on the property than we managed to cover and we hope to return one day soon and stay in the onsite hotel, the Peace Lodge, so that we might explore them all at varying times of the day when the changing light would offer different insights into this landscape that is dripping in color and atmosphere. 

One of the information signs beside the path.

La Paz Waterfall Gardens really does offer a fine day out in the most beautifully landscaped gardens. The lunch is tasty and eaten in wonderful surroundings, Olman knows the gardens intimately and answered any questions we had (or in the case of a single bug we saw on an orchid which had antenna on its nose and which we didn’t know the name of, he knew the staff member to ask), and the walking trails and waterfalls offer you the dream you probably had of tropical Costa Rica in an accessible format. 

We were exceptionally happy with our tour, and consider it one of the finest available from San Jose. I can’t imagine anybody visiting La Paz with Olman and not being overwhelmingly happy that they did so. 

If you want to learn about the countries wildlife before you begin your tour, La Paz is a good place to do it. Olman can pick you up from the airport and bring you straight here before your onward travel, or bring you here before your flight, or any variety of combinations, he’s 100% flexible. Just email him your requirements. He’s a friendly, knowledgeable and extremely accommodating guy, and this is a great tour.

You can reach him by email at waterfallgardenstour@gmail.com

Or by phone in Costa Rica on +(506) 83714679
If you’re in the U.S.A you can phone 209 207 3140

And the La Paz official tour page website is here http://www.waterfallgardens.com/tours-with-transportation.php