For wheelchair travelers, my advice is to plan months ahead your trip and get all the information you can directly with the service provider, car rentals, hotels, diving and tour operators. This way you can be sure about what you will find and have the best vacation possible in Costa Rica.
Basic Travel Tips
Many restaurants have a flat entrance or a ramp to get inside, along with an accessible bathroom. In El Coco you can roll around the center and find different options for pizza, seafood, sushi and even a Hard Rock Café! On the way to or from Guanacaste there are some very good restaurant options. Tres Hermanas is one and is located in the intersection of the Panamerican Highway with Route 18. Its specialty is meats and is a big nice place with enough parking, flat access and an accessible bathroom. Caballo Blanco is another great place that serves seafood, meat and chicken. There is also the Monteverde Restaurant, where I love the pizza and the milkshakes.
Sidewalks are a real issue in Costa Rica. Most are not accessible. They are in bad shape with almost no ramps and a lot of obstacles, like potholes, electric posts, garbage cans, or even steps. In many cases sidewalks don’t exist. But in front of new building structures you may find nice and new sidewalks with ramps in the corners. For example, you may go around El Coco and Tamarindo in a wheelchair with some help to get along the rough pavements and obstacles and get into many restaurants and artisan shops.
Accessible restrooms are not common, but you can use the ones at restaurants near the beach if you buy something or just pay for it. When at public beaches go to hotels because the hotels have accessible accommodations.
Seasons and People
Costa Rica has only two seasons: summer and winter with temperatures around 16ºC and 32ºC. Summer happens from December to April, clear sky with few clouds, wind and almost no rain. Winter is actually the rainy season, from May to November, because it rains almost every day, but you can have many sunny mornings. Irregular weather patterns, like El Niño, will effect the climate. You may have winter rainy days, but it helps the landscape to be greener and gives you the chance to rest and read in a hammock while the rain stops.
People from Costa Rica (called Ticos) are kind and helpful in Costa Rica and most speak English, especially in touristic places like Tamarindo, Jacó, Puerto Viejo, and La Fortuna. They will always try to help you in your needs. A good phrase to remember is ¡Pura Vida!—an expression used often to indicate that everything is ok.
Guanacaste is on the Pacific Coast with amazing beaches and national parks worthy to visit in any time of the year. None of the beaches have any kind of accessibility because they are in their natural state. Even though, it’s not difficult to enjoy them because most beaches are stable and flat and can be access if someone helps you. Again, Ticos are always willing to help you over barriers. To get into the water you will definitely need help because there are no pathways or systems that allows wheelchair users to accomplish this by themselves.
Playas del Coco is a very popular beach at Guanacaste; it has a boulevard just in front of the beach that allows wheelchair users to get around with ease. This beach is also very close to Playa Hermosa, Playa Panamá, Ocotal, etc.
If you like the underwater world, look for scuba diving and snorkeling activities. Puffer fish, angel fish, urchins, round rays, moray and leopard eels, white tip and nurse sharks, seahorses, octopus, are just some of the sea nature you can see diving in the Pacific coast of Costa Rica. Some hotels have access to beach wheelchairs and more.
August and September are great months for diving, the water temperature is mild and the water is very clean so you can have great visibility. December and January are months I don’t recommend, because the water temperature is cold, there are more currents and there is not such a good visibility.
There are many scuba diving operators; I have dived with Buzos de Aventura in Playa Hermosa, and Rich Coast Diving in Playas del Coco and Brindisi Group in Flamingo. None have accessible modifications, including bathrooms. The boats don’t have ramps or lifts, but the people working in these places are trained to assist disabled people and teach them to dive. The Brindisi Group has a platform on the back of the boat that makes transfers in and out of the water a little easier with some help.
No matter what company you use, I recommend checking the availability of professional divers trained to help people with disabilities before your arrival. Diving is an amazing experience for everyone because of the freedom the water provides. It is an inclusive activity because you can enjoy it with your family or friends. There are some medical restrictions for diving, such as heart issues or epilepsy, which is why you should fill a medical statement in advance (ask the Scuba Diving Center). If you cannot or do not want to dive, then perhaps you can still snorkel and see a lot of fish from the surface.
Kayaking is another water activity sport. In many hotels kayaks are available for rent, like the Four Seasons Resort. The operators are very helpful to get you in and out of the kayak, you just have to be sure you are comfortable and secure in the seat. If you are not, they will look for the way for you to be. Paddleboarding is another option. You won’t find adapted paddleboards to ride with your wheelchair, but you can sit on the board and row. In places like Golfo de Papagayo, you will find there’s almost no currents so riding is very easy and smooth. Even if you get tired you can stop and enjoy the moment. And always follow the instructions of the operators, they know the ocean’s conditions best and can advise you whatever your chosen activity is.
Surfing is also possible in beaches like Tamarindo during low tide as long as you are not in a crowded area. Again, you may not find adapted surfboards unless you know someone who has one, but renting a soft board makes it possible. With the help of two or three people you can get into the water on the board and surf the waves. One person can help you catch the waves and the other can receive you at the shore and get you back out.