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UPDATED MAY 2019 – The Llanos de Cortes waterfall was once one of Costa Rica’s best kept secrets! Commonly misspelled as Llanos de Cortez, the waterfall is inexpensive to visit and absolutely stunning. Best of all, the cool, shallow water is gentle enough for even kids to swim in.
How to get to the Llanos de Cortes waterfall in Costa Rica
The Llanos de Cortes waterfall is approximately a 30-minute drive east from Liberia, Costa Rica along the Pan American Highway. It is the perfect place to stop if you plan to rent a car in Costa Rica and drive from the beaches and resorts in Guanacaste to the Arenal Volcano area near the town of La Fortuna. It’s a popular drive among tourists because you can see two very different parts of the country, the Pacific coastline and the rainforest where you can zipline, hike and take a hanging bridge tour, or visit some of the most beautiful and amazing hot springs in Central America.
Getting to Llanos de Cortes can be a bit tricky, and the turn off is easy to miss. For this reason, some call Llanos de Cortes a hidden waterfall. It is definitely one of Costa Rica’s best kept secrets, although the internet has made it much more popular in recent years. In fact, according to recent visitors, the Costa Rican government has now made Llanos de Cortes an official pay-to-visit attraction, with a parking area that charges $7 USD per person, and a paved staircase leading to the waterfall. You’ll also find bathrooms at the parking lot, although they are not the best.
There is no obvious signage from the highway to direct you to the Llanos de Cortes waterfall. There is just a handmade, white sign with painted red letters that says “Catarata”, which is Spanish for waterfall. There are however, signs pointing you to the government run parking lot.
There is a second parking area run by locals for the waterfall located about 20 minutes further down the very bumpy dirt road, which can turn muddy quickly if it is raining. For this reason, a small SUV is extremely beneficial if visiting Llanos de Cortes, especially if you decide to go to the second parking area, which is not government run.
The second parking lot costs about $4 USD to park. There is a local attendant who greeted us and watched the car while we were down enjoying the waterfall. From the second parking lot, the walk down to the waterfall is not paved, and it is a bit longer than the 7-10 minute walk from the official entrance. A guide walked us down, pointing out wildlife in the trees. The short hike wasn’t strenuous at all. I was able to walk down wearing flip flops and carrying my 6-month-old. My elderly parents were also able to make the trek up and down without any issues.
Visiting Costa Rica’s Llanos de Cortes waterfall
The waterfall itself is stunning! The water is shallow, and there is no undercurrent so it’s safe for children to swim, although obviously swimming at your own risk. You can actually swim fairly close to the waterfall. At the base it is probably 6-8 feet deep. When we visited, we were able to climb behind the falls and sit or stand on the rocks behind the water. We’ve learned that is no longer the case, now that it is government regulated. It was a cool experience to go behind the waterfall, although I understand why they have now stopped people from doing so. The rocks are covered in moss and can be quite slippery. It is easy to slip on the rocks and injure yourself or land on a sharp rock underneath the water if you jumped off. There is a lifeguard on duty now that it is government run.
We were fortunate enough to see monkeys hanging out in the trees above us while we visited the Llanos de Cortes waterfall. We also met some extremely friendly locals and a few other tourists. During our visit, the waterfall and beach area were mostly empty. This was a popular place for a picnic, and when we visited there was a local vendor grilling and selling food. Although, I’m guessing that is now prohibited now that the waterfall is no longer just a local swimming hole.
Tips for visiting the Llanos de Cortes waterfall
- There are no restrooms or changing areas at the waterfall itself. The only restroom or changing areas is in the government-run parking area. I’d suggest wearing your swim suit under your clothes and bringing a towel with you.
- There are larger boulders around the beach that can serve as seating for those who don’t feel like getting in the water and would rather enjoy the falls from the shore.
- You can’t climb on the rocks anymore or jump from them. Honestly, jumping from them is dangerous, so I wouldn’t have recommended it anyway. But the lifeguard will stop you if you get too close to the waterfall or try to go behind the falls.
- Go first thing in the morning when the waterfall opens instead of the afternoon to avoid crowds.
- Watch for your turn off and rent an SUV, if possible.
- Swim as close to the base of the waterfall as you are allowed, float on your back and look up. It is both exhilarating and peaceful to swim so close to the base of a waterfall and feel the mist gently hitting your face.
Looking for more things to do with kids in Costa Rica? Check out our Costa Rica family itinerary here.
Llanos de Cortes – No longer a hidden gem?
What was once a local swimming hole in Costa Rica that was practically free to visit has now become somewhat tainted by tourism. Llanos de Cortes was, for all intents and purposes, a hidden gem. But I don’t know that this majestic waterfall qualifies for that title anymore. Although government regulation has ultimately made it safer, it has also restricted the experience and capitalized on it. Despite the fact that it is no longer an off-the-beaten path experience, the beautiful waterfall is worth seeing. And luckily, the price is still relatively affordable for people to visit.
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