Bioluminescent bay night kayak tour in Costa Rica. Single-celled algae (dinoflagellates) emit blue-green light underwater. Total bucket list!
My heart was in my throat as we headed down to the beach with our life jackets. I’m not easily scared, but I had never been on a kayaking trip before. Now, I was about to embark on an ocean kayak tour, at night, in a double kayak with my 4-year-old. While I am a strong swimmer, she can’t swim and I didn’t have a light with me.
Our guide Luis got my daughter and I situated in our kayak and pushed us away from the shore. “Just practice rowing a bit while I get the others ready.” As we started floating out to sea, I was FREAKED out. (And if you know me at all, you know that it takes quite a bit to rattle me!)
We paddled around a bit and suddenly I saw just what we came for. A bright flash of blue-green glowing waters that lit up right when my paddle hit the water.
It was the permanent bioluminescence that we were seeking and we had found it. Both my daughter and I started laughing and yelling in delight- and the night only got better from there. Here’s the backstory.
I had no idea until recently that there is a bioluminescent bay right here in Costa Rica. I had found it after researching accommodations near Playa Quesera (still on my bucket list!) in the Curu Natural Reserve. Playa Quesera was blowing up my Instagram feed and I was anxious to check it out… but I found something even better!
Glow in the dark fish aren’t the only reason to visit Costa Rica! 10 awesome reasons to travel to Costa Rica with your family.
What Is A Bioluminescent Bay?
In short, a bioluminescent bay is an area of the ocean that has exactly the right temperatures and eco-structure that allows a type of single-celled marine plankton called dinoflagellates to thrive. This dinoflagellate, or algae, has evolved to give off a glowing light (varying from white to green to blue) when it feels threatened.
This means that when we move the water rapidly using our hand, or a kayak paddle, or when marine life swims through the area where the algae congregate, the algae emit a glow in the dark or bioluminescent light. There are several of these bioluminescent areas in the world in areas such as Puerto Rico (near San Juan), Thailand, and Tasmania- and now we have the opportunity to visit the bioluminescent bay here in Costa Rica as well.
What Is The Best Way To See The Bioluminescence?
Our family chose to see the bioluminescence in Costa Rica by kayak tour, which I highly recommend as the best option. Here’s why:
- Bahia Rica offers accommodations right on site, which we will talk about more in-depth below. This meant we could experience the tour and then sleep right on site.
- The owners Thomas and Vigdis offer their Costa Rica kayak tour for families with young children- but only in very small groups. The focus on safety was huge, so I felt most comfortable taking my 4 and 6-year-olds with me.
- They are the original tour company to have discovered that the bioluminescent bay is a permanent phenomenon in Costa Rica. Bahia Rica has a very low ecological footprint and they hire local Costa Ricans to guide the tours. I wanted to give them our money.
Seeing the bioluminescence by kayak is the best because the kayaks don’t make any noise— this way, fish and other marine life aren’t scared away and it’s easier to see their effect on the algae that they light up. Also; it’s a super intimate experience when you can put your hand in the water and make it glow- something you can’t do from a boat.
Finally- a boat trip means gas, pollution, and engine noise. Since the bioluminescence appears close to shore, it’s just more eco-friendly to go by kayak.
Obviously, you can only see the bioluminescence at night. We checked the moon phases in order to avoid a full moon.
We saw that the absolute best time to see the bioluminescence is on a night with no moon- because the dinoflagellate glow is even brighter without any extra light. If you can’t plan your trip to Costa Rica around the moon phases, any time is a good time to go, but on a darker night is ideal.
Need help planning the perfect itinerary? Let me, Christa, help you plan your trip to Costa Rica.
What To Expect On The Bioluminescent Kayak Tour At Bahia Rica
We absolutely loved our night kayak tour to see the bio bay in Costa Rica- and a huge part of that is because Bahia Rica does such a great job with theirs. The evening starts out with a quick explanation of how bioluminescence works.
The owners have a great visual, and our guide did a wonderful job putting everything in kid-friendly terms. He answered endless questions from the kids and had lots of analogies about how the glowing occurs.
Then we grabbed our life jackets and headed down to the beach for our guided tour. Our guide Luis got us situated in our kayaks. For kids who can’t swim- each child goes in a double kayak with a parent or the guide. Otherwise, you can request a single or double kayak depending on your preference.
We were given quick instructions on how to manage the kayak, and we literally started kayaking into the bay immediately. Like I said in the intro- I was totally freaked out about losing a kid. (Admittedly, I do have a thing about kids and boats- I have to feel really really safe before I get a kid on a boat.)
My fears were assuaged by three main things:
- My paddle could touch the ocean floor for 95% of the tour. The water was never more than about 5 feet deep.
- The bay experience was so calming- the water barely had any waves it was so calm.
- Our kayak tour guide was amazing. He had this very calming presence and voice, and whenever I got nervous he gently talked me through exactly what I needed to do in order to have a great experience.
We spent about an hour paddling around the bay looking at the bioluminescence from various angles. My favorite part of the tour was an area near the mangrove trees where there are tons of manta rays.
When we lightly disturbed the water where the manta rays live they would wake up and swim around. It looked like the manta rays were glowing as they swam.
Once we headed back to shore, there were drinks and snacks for us. We headed back to the guest house up above and enjoyed a perfect night’s sleep.
Accommodations For Bioluminescent Bay Kayak Tour
Bahia Rica has very reasonable accommodations right on site, and we stayed there. (Accommodations are generally less than $80 USD per night). We thought it was easier to do the tour and then put the kids right to bed. Our kids get up at the same time every day (6 am) regardless of the time of night we put them down. Also, we wanted to visit Playa Quesera and Isla Tortuga in the same area so we planned to stay several days.
Bahia Rica has one small cabin with a double bed and a private bath that accommodates two people. They also have a large, two-story guest house with three rooms, a shared bathroom (hot water shower), and a communal kitchen. Breakfast is included with your stay- and it’s delicious. We chose to cook the rest of our meals in the kitchen and it was super well equipped.
There is wireless internet all over the property, and spectacular opportunities for bird watching. The howler monkeys come swinging through the trees throughout the day. The sunsets over the bay are phenomenal- enjoy a cold beer while sitting in the lounge chairs or swinging in the hammocks. It’s so relaxing.
Bahia Rica offers kayak tours, fishing tours, and tours to Turtle Island. They can also hook you up with tours to the Curu Reserve to see Playa Quesera. All their prices are super reasonable the tour guides are local, bilingual, and super knowledgable.
The guesthouse has several colorfully painted Adirondack chairs for lounging, and the second floor has a huge library. The girls found tons of books in Swedish, French, English, and Spanish and had so much fun deciphering the meaning of the words they have never seen.
That said- the accommodations at Bahia Rica are very rustic. There is no air conditioning on site, and the guest house is constructed from driftwood. The guest house is several hundred steps up from the breakfast/beach area, and you need to be in pretty good shape to go up and down it every day.
There isn’t a pool at Bahia Rica, and at high tide, there isn’t a beach either as the water goes all the way up to the rocks next to land.
The walls in the guest house are paper-thin, and the bathroom is shared and located on the first floor. We were the only people staying in the guest house during our visit. Had their been other guests arriving late, or as our kids get up super early, things could have gotten awkward. We also got eaten alive by mosquitoes on our trip.
So if rustic isn’t for you, the area has other options. You could stay in Paquera, or ay another nearby beach such as Tambor. You could also stay in the Central Valley or in Puntarenas and just take the ferry over and back on the same day. Just make sure to let the owners know that you would like to do the first kayak tour of the night so that you have time to get to the dock.
We were able to visit the Bioluminescent Bay in Costa Rica by heading to the hotel Bahia Rica, located near the town of Paquera, and more specifically in the region of Punta Cuchillos.
The area is about 30 minutes from Tambor beach, and about an hour from Montezuma and Santa Teresa beaches. It’s located at the very southernmost tip of the Nicoya Peninsula.
From San Jose, or from the Juan Santamaria Airport in Alajuela, the area is only about a 90-minute drive, as you can take a ferry across the bay from Puntarenas. It’s super centrally located and easy to get to from the Central Valley-and could reasonably be a good day trip from San Jose.
Read about 25 more awesome San Jose Costa Rica day trips here!
If you went right on the 6:30 pm tour and grabbed the 8:30 pm ferry (the last one of the day) to Puntarenas, you would be fine. The tour is only about a 5-minute drive from the port. In this case, the consistently warm temperatures, perfect ocean currents, and the right geographic structure (a bay) create the perfect environment for bioluminescent life.
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What To Bring
Here’s what you need for the tour:
- A bathing suit or other clothes that can get wet. (Water is warm. Really only your bottom gets a bit wet, and your legs when you get in and out of the kayak.)
- Shoes (optional). I generally wear my Chaco sandals when I am in boats, but the kids went barefoot.
- Bug spray (optional). There are lots of mosquitos at Bahia Rica, and during the pre-tour chat, you might get bitten. The owners did burn a mosquito coil during this time which was fairly effective.
- Cell phone/camera (optional.) We chose not to take any electronics on the kayak tour and I don’t regret it. Capturing the bioluminescence on camera or video is pretty tough. I was glad to just be in the moment enjoying the magic with my kids.
- Cash tip for your guide. (Also optional but recommended in case the guide is excellent- like ours was!)
What is provided on the tour:
- Kayak and paddle
- Life jacket
- Fruit juice and water
- Light snacks (cookies) when you return
For more details and booking information for tours and accommodations at Bahia Rica, visit their website.
Other Costa Rica Travel Articles from Pura Vida Moms
- 20+ Amazing San José Costa Rica Day Trips
- A Foodie’s Restaurant Guide to La Fortuna, Costa Rica
- Planning a Trip to Costa Rica– Start Here!
- Basic Spanish Phrases for Travel
Disclosure: I was provided free accommodations and kayak tour in exchange for this review. As always, all opinions are my own.