Samara Trails: Exploring the Costa Rica Tropical Dry Forest

View of Pacific Ocean from Samara Trails in Playa Samara, Costa Rica
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Playa Sámara is a beautiful and relaxed beach-side town in Costa Rica. If you are spending time in this area, don’t miss out on the opportunity to get off the beach and learn about the tropical dry forest covering this part of the Nicoya Peninsula. A half-day hike in the Werner Sauter Biological Reserve with Samara Trails will leave you excited and knowledgeable about this rare ecosystem.

Samara Trails in the Werner Sauter Biological Reserve

What Is a Tropical Dry Forest?

Costa Rica is a small country, but it packs a punch in biodiversity – 6% of Earth’s total. One of the reasons is that Costa Rica is home to six (!) different kinds of rain forests. When you picture Costa Rica, you likely think of the lush cloud forests of Monteverde. Tucked up in the northern Pacific coast, in the Guanacaste province, you will find a different experience altogether – the tropical dry forest.

Tropical dry forests are warm-climate rain forests of mostly deciduous trees that experience a long dry period each year. In the Guanacaste, the forest has six months of rain and six months of drought, wildlife and plants have evolved to thrive in this environment.

A tree with green underbark at Samara Trails at Werner Sauter Biological Reserve near Playa Samara, Costa Rica showing
During the dry season deciduous trees in tropical dry forests lose their leaves to conserve water. As an adaptation, they reveal green photosynthetic underbark.

What is the Werner Sauter Biological Reserve?

54 years ago, Werner Sauter was looking for a good spot to raise cattle. He travelled Costa Rica until he found this section of 138 hectares just outside Playa Sámara. He raised cattle, crops, and teak trees. A typical farm for Costa Rica at the time. Werner Sauter is still alive today – 94 years old and living in San Jose. 33 years ago, he realized that more needed to be done to protect the tropical dry forests of Costa Rica. He started slowly turning his property into a private nature reserve – Samara Trails was born!

"Samara Trails" sign in a tree at Samara Trails at Werner Sauter Biological Reserve near Playa Samara, Costa Rica

The Samara Trails Experience

One of the great things about the Samara Trails tour is that it changes on a daily basis. Your experience depends on the season, weather, animal migrations, and more! Your bilingual (English-Spanish) guide takes you through the reserve for 2.5 hours. The guide has a telescope for viewing the wildlife, especially the smaller birds. You can even use the telescope to take photos, which is great when you don’t have a super zoom lens for your camera.

A girl look through a telescope at Samara Trails at Werner Sauter Biological Reserve near Playa Samara, Costa Rica

We visited at the end of the wet season (mid-November) and did the morning tour. The deciduous trees were still in full leaf. Our family of four were the only ones on the tour. We will share what we experienced on the tour, but please know that your tour will be unique.

Good to know: Although the tour is offered twice daily, Kids & Passports recommends the morning tour. The wildlife and you will be more active before the heat of the day.

Our tour started in a palm covered pavilion. Make sure and look up at the colony of Long-nosed Bats. We then headed off into the old growth forest. Steps from the pavilion we encountered a troop of Mantled Howler Monkeys, or Congos, as they are called locally. 

Howler Monkey in a tree at Samara Trails at Werner Sauter Biological Reserve near Playa Samara, Costa Rica
Despite having already spent a week waking at dawn to the calls of the Howler Monkeys in the trees outside our house, we enjoyed observing a troop of Mantled Howler Monkeys. The antics of a baby monkey were particularly entertaining.

We then walked through a sample kitchen garden and smelled lemongrass, mint, oregano, etc. We saw pineapple, mangos (tour in March and they will be ripe…all you can eat), aloe, and avocado.

After the kitchen garden, we hiked into the heart of the preserve. The majority of the hiking is gentle with one 15 minute climb to a Pacific Ocean vista. The vista is a good opportunity for a mid-hike snack break.

Family hiking in Samara Trails at Werner Sauter Biological Reserve near Playa Samara, Costa Rica

During the hike we saw seven species of birds new to us, a Golden Orb spider that weaves a 3-D web, and a White-nosed Coati. Not bad when hiking with two kids. 

It’s easy to consider the fauna the highlight of the hike; however, it was the flora where we learned the most. Our guide identified the plants and trees, explained the benefits to wildlife, and highlighted how indigenous people used each for medicine and food.

An Alligator Tree at Samara Trails at Werner Sauter Biological Reserve near Playa Samara, Costa Rica
Survival tip – snap a spike off an Alligator Tree to release enough gas to start a fire. Birds also prefer the tree for nesting since mammals avoid the painful climb.

Tour Details & Booking

Tours can be booked directly with Samara Trails. In 2020, adults cost $39 and children (under 12) $29.

Two tours are offered each day departing Samara at 6:30am or 2:30pm. A minimum of 2 people are required for the tour.

Make sure to bring water, mosquito repellent, and sunscreen/sunhat in the dry season. Before the trees start to lose their leaves, most of the trails are in the shade. In any season, it is hot! Samara Trails will provide you a 500mL bottle of chilled water, but make sure you have more than that for the hike. After the hike, your guide will give you chilled drinks and fresh fruit.

Supporting the Tropical Dry Forest

Sadly, tropical dry forests and their inhabitants struggle for survival in Costa Rica due to wildfires and large scale deforestation for agriculture.  If you want to help, purchase a t-shirt from Samara Adventure Company in downtown Playa Sámara. For every t-shirt purchased, they will plant a tree in the reserve and send you a photo of “your tree” for three years.

Photos of new trees planted in Samara Trails: Marañon, GuanacasteCocobolo, Nance
Our family chose to plant: a fruit-bearing Marañon tree, a Guanacaste hardwood tree (also Costa Rica’s national tree), a Cocobolo hardwood tree, and a fruit-bearing Nance tree.

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Take a break from the beach and visit Samara Trails in Playa Samara to learn about the Costa Rica tropical dry forest with your kids.

  1. Great informational post! I knew that 25% of Costa Rica is set aside for nature preserves, but did not realize it contains 6% of world’s biodiversity. Are you guys just visiting Costa Rica or staying there for some time? We will be starting our family gap year this year and driving to Costa Rica from Virginia with 4 kiddos. I also see you have a post on Mongolia, which I am about to jump to. I grew up in Russia, and Ex-Soviet Republics and Mongolia is on my bucket list.

    1. Thanks for the compliment! All told we will have spent 4 months in Costa Rica. Virginia to Costa Rica will be an epic roadtrip! The nature here is phenomenal. I hope you enjoy it as much as us. I can’t wait to read more about it. Do take a look at the Mongolia content. It’s a unique and extremely kid-friendly country to visit, especially outside of Ulaanbaatar.

  2. We had a wonderful trip around the reserve and noticed the poster for the t-shirts , can you purchase them on line .

    1. I have contacted Samara Trails to see if online t-shirt purchase is possible. I’ll reply here as soon as I’ve heard back.

      1. I checked with Samara Trails. They are evaluating options for online t-shirt sales, but nothing definite yet. Right now the only way to buy t-shirts is in person at the Samara Adventure Company office.

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