One of the things that makes Costa Rica unique is the amount of protected land it holds. Beginning in the 1960s, Costa Rica started putting parcels of land aside for conservation in order to protect it from deforestation through ranching, farming, and development. Today, the country boasts 27 national parks and many more reserves and refuges. These protected spaces are located throughout the country and offer many different types of experiences. Some protect nesting sea turtles or offer spectacular wildlife viewing, while others showcase volcanoes and waterfalls. Below we share our top picks for the best national parks in Costa Rica.
Poas Volcano National Park
Known for: The worlds largest active crater volcano
Visit from: San Jose or anywhere in the Central Valley
Best for: Anyone. Park has easy trails and is handicap accessible.
Since Costa Rica is in the ring of fire, it has some pretty spectacular volcanoes. One of the most intriguing is Poas. This active crater volcano is considered to be the largest in the world. It is almost a mile (1.5 kilometers) wide and 900 feet (300 meters) deep. If you manage to time your visit on a clear day, you can see the bright blue crater lake right from the viewing platform. Whats great about this park is that it makes it easy for anyone to see a volcano. Just follow the paved path from the parking lot, and in about 10 minutes, youre there. It is also a nice place to observe the local culture, as the park is a favorite among Ticos visiting from San Jose.
Corcovado National Park
Known for: Amazing biodiversity & wildlife viewing
Visit from: Drake Bay or Puerto Jimenez
Best for: Off-the-beaten-path hiking. Trails vary in difficulty from moderate to very difficult.
While Corcovado may not be easy to get to, it is well worth the effort. This remote park located on the Osa Peninsula offers a chance to see raw, untouched rainforest and some of the countrys most exotic wildlife. Scarlet Macaws, Bairds Tapir, and all four types of monkeys that live in Costa Rica can be discovered, and if youre lucky, big cats too. Corcovado has a large network of trails that span the peninsula, but most people visit one ranger station on day trips. From Drake Bay, you can take a boat to San Pedrillo or Sirena Ranger Stations. From Puerto Jimenez on the other side of the Osa, you can access La Leona or the new El Tigre entrance, just north of town.
Tenorio Volcano National Park
Known for: The bright blue Rio Celeste Waterfall
Visit from: Bijagua, Guatuso, La Fortuna/Arenal, or the Lake Arenal Area
Best for: Anyone up for a moderately difficult hike
Tenorio Volcano National Park has become more popular in recent years as an off-the-beaten-path destination in Costa Rica. It is located in the rural northwestern part of the country, where tourism is just beginning to grow. While the park has scenic trails that pass through primary rainforest and cloud forest, the Rio Celeste Waterfall is the focal point. Photos of this waterfall might have you wondering if the bright blue hue is real. It is, and to see it in person is unforgettable.
Manuel Antonio National Park
This popular park on the Central Pacific Coast offers easy access to the rainforest. It is located right in the booming tourist town of Manuel Antonio and has many different options for trails. You can see wildlife like sloths, lizards, and birds, but it is best known for its abundant, and very social, monkeys. Manuel Antonio National Park also has a protected marine zone with three beautiful beaches, including a calm cove that is especially good for swimming.
Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve
Known for: Biologically rich cloud forest
Visit from: Monteverde or Santa Elena
Best for: Those looking for cooler temps. Trails vary in difficulty from easy to moderate.
Costa Rica has an extremely variable climate. You can be soaking up the sun at the beach one minute, and only a few hours later, be bundling up in the cool cloud forest. The Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve is one of the best places in Costa Rica to experience the biologically diverse cloud forest. Not only is this park noteworthy for its vast flora and fauna, the experience of walking through this type of environment alone is memorable. Thick moss covers nearly all the greenery, vines taper from treetops, and misty clouds come and go with the shifting winds.
Braulio Carrillo National Park
Known for: Vast swaths of lush rainforest
Visit from: San Jose or on the way to the Caribbean Coast
Best for: Off-the-beaten-path hiking. Trails vary in difficulty from easy to difficult.
If you have ever driven from the capital of San Jose to Costa Ricas Caribbean Coast, youve passed right through this park and probably didnt even know it. Braulio Carrillo is Costa Ricas largest national park at more than 100,000 acres. Though much of this land is inaccessible and preserved to protect important aquifers, a ranger station and trails are located right off the highway. Even after visiting many of Costa Ricas parks, Braulio Carrillo was one of our favorites. The rainforest feels very wild, and birds and wildlife are abundant. We were lucky to spot one of our favorite mammals on our visit, a giant anteater.
Carara National Park
Known for: Spectacular birding
Visit from: Jaco, Herradura, or Playa Hermosa
Best for: Anyone. Trails vary in difficulty from easy to moderate. One trail is handicap accessible.
Like many national parks in Costa Rica, Carara National Park offers hiking and wildlife viewing. But what makes this park special is its abundance of birds. Carara, on Costa Ricas Central Pacific Coast, is in an ecological transition zone. Here, tropical dry forests to the north meet the wetter rainforests to the south. This unique hybrid environment draws birds from both habitats, and over 400 different birds have been spotted. Some noteworthy species include three types of Trogans, including the Gartered, Slaty-tailed, and Black-throated; the Orange-collared Manakin; Turquoise-browed Motmot; and Great Tinamou. The area also hosts a large population of Scarlet Macaw parrots.
Tortuguero National Park
Known for: Wildlife viewing and sea turtle nesting
Visit from: Tortuguero
Best for: Families and seniors who can get in and out of a boat.
Tortuguero National Park is unique in that it is not only offers wildlife viewing by land, but also by water. The canals of the village are one of the best ways to see wildlife. By small boat or canoe, you meander along the edge of the dense mangrove and forest to sneak up on animals like spider monkeys, howler monkeys, white-faced monkeys, freshwater turtles, caiman, crocodiles, and green basilisk lizards, as well as many kinds of birds. The park also encompasses protected beach for nesting marine turtles. Tortuguero is one of the most important sea turtle nesting sites in the world, with four different kinds of turtles coming to the shores to lay eggs.
Costa Rica has many more amazing national parks and reserves, but those will give you a good sampling of what the country has to offer.