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Best National Parks in Costa Rica

  • Costa Rica

  • Bucket List Experience

Last updated: 05 April, 2024

Protected jungles and reefs preserving an astonishing 900 bird species and nearly 250 mammals; fuming volcanoes swathed in cloud forest; tens of kilometres of beaches nested by critically-endangered turtles; no army (the money goes to education) and political stability…

Costa Rica’s status as a pioneer of sustainability and peace in turbulent Latin America is remarkable.

As is the story of this success. After World War II, 65% of the wild had gone to aggressive agriculture. Then a few mavericks took a stand – like Scandinavian hippy turned pioneer eco-campaigner Olaf Wessburg, who lost his life fighting to preserve the Osa Peninsula.

And Latin America’s ‘David Attenborough’ Mario Boza, whose relentless force of will inspired the wife of the president, led to Ley Forestal law of 1969 and the founding of 28 national parks. These now form the backbone of protected areas, covering 30% of the country.

Who to go with: tour operators

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  • Alajuela Province, Costa Rica

For just over forty years Arenal was one of the world’s safest active volcanoes to visit – a rumbling cone set in lush forest, spewing out lava that glowed red in the night.

Today, Arenal sleeps but remains truly spectacular – oozing hot rivers and springs, with a near-perfect cone, fuming puffs of gas, and shrouded in black ash. On its slopes, lush forest fringes crumbling, congealed lava fields, and the trees are rich in wildlife – including peccaries, ocelots and capuchin monkeys.

The forests are beautiful, cut with numerous wildlife trails and dripping with waterfalls. There are spectacular views of the mountains’ perfect cone at every turn – framed by rainforest trees.

The entire area is protected as a national park, a larger conservation area and a series of private reserves – all part of the 204,000-hectare Arenal Conservation Area.

Over the years, a series of luxurious hotels and a string of hot river spas grew around its flanks and ecotourism parks with canopy walkways – at toucan’s eye level – were built in the beautiful cloud forests around the mountain.

It’s illegal and potentially dangerous to summit the mountain itself, but there are great hikes in the area; trails run across lava fields through pine woods filled with peccary and parakeets. Other trails lead to waterfalls like the 75m-high La Fortuna, which drops into a refreshing, clear-water pool that you can hike to and swim in.

There’s a range of other bucket list things to do in and around the national park too.

Canopy walkways offer monkey-eye views and the park environs have some of the country’s longest and fastest zip lines. There’s also rainforest river kayaking, tubing and white-water rafting, mountain biking and canyoning.

Good for age: 8+

Duration: -

Braulio Carrillo National Park

  • Heredia Province, Costa Rica

Braulio Carrillo National Park

Experience

Located 30 minutes outside of San Jose, this cloud forest park has a riot of dense vegetation, as well as a small network of trails for day hikes, zip-lines and an aerial tram. Book online here.

Good for age: 13+

  • Cahuita, Limon Province, Costa Rica

Just outside the laid-back little one-street village of Cahuita, this Atlantic coastal national park protects long sandy beaches, beautiful offshore reefs and crocodile-filled creeks and rivers.

Ocelots live in the rainforest behind the coast and Cahuita is an important turtle-nesting ground.

The park has exceptional biodiversity and species variety because it is contiguous with the huge UNESCO World Heritage listed Parque Internacional La Amistad (shared with neighbouring Panama) and the Refugio Nacional Gandoca-Manzanillo; together they make one of the largest wilderness areas on the Caribbean coast of Central America.

Good for age: 8+

  • Osa Peninsula, Puntarenas Province, Costa Rica

waterfall dropping down to aqua blue water

Bucket List Experience

Corcovado National Park

The last remaining stand of coastal Pacific rainforest in Central America is protected by this, the crown jewel in Costa Rica’s park system – a sprawling 425sq km reserve that occupies much of the Osa Peninsula.

It’s a National Geographic special waiting to happen: a riot of lush forest occupied by bellowing monkeys, snorting peccaries and noisy flocks of scarlet macaws – not to mention elusive night-time species such as pumas and jaguars.

The marine areas around the Osa Peninsula are an important breeding ground for dolphins and whales. Lodges can arrange boating trips in search of these incredible mammals.

Cabo Matapalo, at the south-eastern tip of the Osa Peninsula, is blessed with a good point break. Most lodges can arrange lessons, surfboard rentals and transport.

Good for age: 13+

Duration: 2 days

  • Guanacaste Province, Costa Rica

Costa Rica is justifiably famous for its rain and cloud forests. Less well-known are the country’s tropical dry forests.

This 147,000-hectare UNESCO World Heritage-listed biome preserves the largest stretch in Central America, through a series of public and private protected areas.

The landscapes – from volcanoes to empty beaches and mangrove swamps – are breathtaking and the area is home to spectacular rare animals including the endangered Central American tapir, jaguar and ocelot. Critically endangered leatherback turtles nest on the beaches.

Light adventure includes hiking, canyoning and zip lines.

Good for age: 8+

Manuel Antonio National Park

  • Puntarenas Province, Costa Rica

Manuel Antonio National Park

Experience

One of Costa Rica’s most popular (and crowded) national parks, with easy-to-access, trail-cut rainforest (with abundant monkeys, lowland birds and smaller cats) backing a gently arching series of beaches. Editor: Alex has not done a full review as there are alot better options than this one.

Good for age: 13+

  • Monteverde, Alajuela Province, Costa Rica

Spread across rugged mountains 1,400m above sea level, this private reserve (and adjacent protected areas) covers more than 10,000 hectares of wildlife-rich, misty cloud forest.

This is where dedicated twitchers come to combe the 15kms of trails in search of the resplendent quetzal, the brightly-plumed bird sacred to the Mayas.

But there is plenty of other wildlife to discover – from spider monkeys and over 400 bird species, to wild orchids and prehistoric ferns – and a variety of ways to explore Monteverde.

Walking trails lead through a forest encrusted with orchids and covered in thick carpets of dripping moss (there are day and night safaris available). Canopy walkways and cable cars run through the trees, affording an eagle’s eye view of the extraordinary landscape, or you can see it at high-speed on a zip-line experience.

Good for age: 8+

  • Osa Peninsula, Puntarenas Province, Costa Rica

Piedras Blancas is far less visited or well-known than neighbouring Corcovado National Park on the Osa peninsula, yet it’s equally biodiverse and its landscapes are even more stunning.

The primary rainforest drips with waterfalls and drops to a deep-water fjord where whales calve; black sand beaches spread to extensive mangrove forests.

The hiking, kayaking and scuba diving are wonderful.

Good for age: 8+

Santa Rosa National Park [Surfing]

  • Guanacaste Province, Costa Rica

Olive turtle (Pacific coast of Guanacaste) on the Ostional beach during the ocean sunset,

Experience

Covering a remote peninsula in Costa Rica’s far north-west, Santa Rosa protects important sea turtle nesting beaches and was the site of a historic battle in 1856. It’s also a prime surfing location, with two renowned breaks: Witch’s Rock and Ollie’s Point, both generally accessed by boat.

Good for age: 13+

  • Limon Province, Costa Rica

Tortuguero National Park, on Costa Rica’s northeastern Caribbean coast, is the best place in the northern Atlantic to see nesting and hatching sea turtles; four species can be seen including giant leatherbacks.

The dominant species is the Green Turtle – Tortuguero’s black sand beach is the most important nesting site for the species in the Western Hemisphere, thanks to half a century of conservation. Visit in the right months and sightings are virtually guaranteed.

There’s much more besides – some 160 species of reptiles and amphibians, 60 species of mammals and 300+ species of birds. Shoreside lagoons, filled with crocodiles stretch back from the beaches; gallery forests are busy with capuchin monkeys, toucans, spider monkeys, iguanas and three-toed sloths.

Lush hills rise above the whole landscape – offering stunning viewpoints that look as wild and primeval as the Jurassic World.

See it all on short hikes, boat excursions on the long lagoons or by kayak.

But this is wilderness with ease and comfort – there are accommodation options for adults of all ages and families with even the youngest kids.

Good for age: 8+

Logistics

Price: Free
Minimum age: 0
Age suitable: 8+
When: All year around

Getting there & doing it

The best way – and often the only way (due to strict environmental laws) – to see Costa Rica’s national parks is with an accredited guide. While some parks can be explored independently, remoteness, seasonal flooding, poor signage and rough roads make them difficult to access. And contrary to Tarzan mythology, wildlife is very hard to see in tropical forests. Guides know where (and when) to look and they’ll be able to identify species.

Guides are easy to find in Costa Rica – there’s a wealth of local operators and well-managed hotels and jungle lodges. And with the bulk of tourists coming from the USA and Canada, English is widely spoken. Trips organised with a guide will include food and drink (not available in remote national parks) and there’s no risk of getting lost (Satnavs are unreliable in rural areas in Costa Rica).

When to do it

The dry season is seasonally the best time for wildlife (December-April on the Pacific, February-March on the Caribbean, May-November around Arenal). Turtles nest on the Caribbean beaches March-November.

The best time to spot wildlife – especially birds and monkeys is just before and for 90 minutes after dawn and around dusk. Animals retreat into the shade during the heat of the day. Other mammals are best spotted during the night (when cats hunt and larger animals like tapirs feed). Night safaris are easily organised with guides.