Over a quarter of Costa Rica’s landscape is protected by its comprehensive system of national parks, wildlife refuges and biological reserves.
As well as being crammed with stunning landscapes and startling biodiversity, these parks and reserves contain some truly memorable hikes, which may take you deep into verdant rainforest, past bubbling mud pools or along surf-lashed beaches.
It can be hard to narrow down the choices, so we’ve selected a few of our favourites to help you decide.
1. Volcán Poás, Parque Nacional Volcán Poás
Standing proud in the centre of the park, Poás is one of the world’s more easily accessible active volcanoes – you can reach it by public transport from San José and Alajuela – with an eleven-million-year history of eruptions.
You can take your pick from the very well-maintained, short and unchallenging trails which weave through the park’s unusual dwarf cloudforest. The Crater Overlook Trail, which winds around the main crater along a paved road, is only 750m long and is accessible to wheelchairs and pushchairs.
Poás Volcano crater and lake © Styve Reineck/Shutterstock
2. Sendero Los Patos-Sirena, Parque Nacional Corcovado
This tough 20km trek through dense rainforest (allow 9 hours) gives experienced hikers the chance to spot some of Costa Rica’s more elusive large mammals, such as the tapir and collared peccary. The Los Patos-Sirena route starts near the village of Rincón de Osa, which runs a programme to train locals as naturalist guides.
Everyone trekking in Corcovado must be accompanied by a guide, and they tend to enrich your experience; the guides at Rincón are taught to identify some of the approximately 370 species of bird recorded in the area, not to mention the amphibians, reptiles, insects, mammals and plants. Ask in Rincón or at the Oficina de Área de Conservación Osa in Puerto Jiménez for details.
Tree frog, Corcovado National Park © Kit Korzun/Shutterstock
3. Cerro Chirripó, Parque Nacional Chirripó
The multi-day hike up Costa Rica’s highest peak – 3820m (12,533ft) – is a long but varied ascent through cloudforest and paramo to rocky mountaintop; on a clear morning, you can see right across to the Pacific.
The services of a guide can be both useful and illuminating, as they’ll be able to help you identify local species and interpret the landscapes you pass through; ask at the ranger station at the entrance for recommendations.
View from the summit of Cerro Chirripó © Kevin Wells Photography/Shutterstock
4. Reserva Rara Avis
Costa Rica’s premier ecotourism destination flourishes with primitive ferns and has more kinds of plants, birds and butterflies than the whole of Europe; 367 species of bird alone have been identified here. The wonderfully remote, wildlife-rich Reserva Rara Avis has a 30km network of excellent trails, which are well marked and offer walks of thirty minutes to several hours.
Given the effort it takes to reach the reserve, it’s worth staying for a couple of nights and exploring. The informative guided walks are a great opportunity for spotting some of the reserve’s abundant wildlife; night walks are also possible, and show you a different side of the rainforest.
Violet-headed hummingbird (Klais guimeti), Rara Avis Reserve © Salparadis/Shutterstock
5. Estación Biológica Pocosol, Monteverde
This two-day trek from Monteverde to the research station on the eastern edge of the Bosque Eterno de los Niños, Costa Rica’s largest private reserve, is arguably the most adventurous hike in the country.
It’s real bushwhacking stuff, on unmarked trails (pumas have been spotted around the refuge where you spend the night), and you must be escorted by two fully equipped, armed rangers trained in first aid.
Suspended bridge in rainforest near Monteverde © Dmitry Burlakov/Shutterstock
6. Sendero Laguna Meándrica, Parque Nacional Carara
This 4.3km round trip (allow 2–4 hours) is perhaps the finest birding trail of any national park in the country – and that’s saying something. It winds through the western half of the park to a croc-filled oxbow lake, home to myriad bird species.
In particular, Carara is one of Costa Rica’s best spots to see the scarlet macaw in its natural habitat – they migrate at dawn and dusk between the lowland forest areas and swampy mangroves, soaring overhead in a burst of red and blue. It’s worth hiring a guide from the visitor centre, 2km south of the trail entrance, as there are some areas visitors can’t access when unaccompanied.
Scarlet macaw, Carara National Park © Colin D. Young/Shutterstock
7. Sendero Las Pailas, Parque Nacional Rincón de la Vieja
This terrific 6km circuit takes in the best of this memorable national park in the shadow of a smoking volcano. The trail is not too demanding and has recently been updated with smooth concrete pathways and a wheelchair-accessible section.
It heads past many of the unusual natural features with which the park abounds, including mud pots (pilas de barro) and geothermal hornillas (literally, “stoves”), mystical-looking holes in the ground exhaling elegant puffs of steam. Make sure not to go nearer than a metre or so, though, or you’ll be steamed in no time. The trail also takes you through forest with abundant fauna and flora, and you should be prepared to ford a couple of streams.
Rincón de La Vieja National Park © Nicholas Courtney/Shutterstock
Explore more of Costa Rica with The Rough Guide to Costa Rica. Compare and book flights, tours, hostels and hotels for your trip, and don’t forget to buy travel insurance before you go. Header image: Cerro Chirripó © Kevin Wells Photography/Shutterstock