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.
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.
Lagunillas del Poas - Tico-owned, high-altitude lodge offering rustic rooms and cabinas (sleeping up to four) with simply breathtaking views. You can even catch your dinner from the on-site trout pond, or take a guided hike or horse trot through the surrounding forest.
If you don't have the time to stay in the area overnight, take a guided tour from San Jose and visit other highlights such as the La Paz waterfalls on the way.
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.
Iguana Lodge Beach Resort and Spa - Wonderful hotel run by very friendly Americans Toby and Lauren, with luxurious “club” rooms and four two-storey casitas (sleeping up to 4 people and priced per person) in lovely gardens right on the beach – all rooms face the sea and are attractively decorated. Breakfast is included in the clubroom rate, while breakfast and dinner are included in the casita rate.
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.
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.
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.
Hotel Fonda Vela - Near the reserve amid quiet grounds this old-fashioned, family-run hotel is expertly managed by attentive staff. Junior suites aim for deluxe, with huge bathrooms and beautiful furniture, while the standard rooms have attractive wood-panelled walls and large windows – the better to enjoy the astonishing views, particularly at sunset.
If you're looking for even more adventure in the Monteverde area, take a trip zip-lining, in high ropes and rappelling in the jungle.
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.
Cerro Lodge Tarcoles - This lodge offers good-value rooms and bungalows (sleeping up to 4 people) on a quiet working farm (trails run through the property): it’s set in lush surrounds, with a pool to cool off in after a walk in Carara. Start the day watching scarlet macaws feeding in the trees opposite the on-site restaurant.
If you prefer to stay in Puntarenas but still want to visit Carara, take a day trip to discover the Tarcoles river (with its crocodiles!) and the Carara Adventure Park with stunning views over the national park.
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.
Buena Vista del Rincon Adventure Park Hotel & Spa - A working cattle ranch – you can even ride with the cowhands if your horsemanship is up to it – with stupendous views over Guanacaste and some great trails through pockets of rainforest on the flanks of the volcano and up to the crater. The rooms are housed in individual bungalows, many set around a small lake in which you can swim. A restaurant serves up wholesome meals, and there are reasonably priced horseriding and hiking tours, and cookery and arts classes available – the place even has its very own canopy tour. If you’re driving here, a 4WD is recommended; alternatively, you can arrange to be picked up from Cañas Dulces (which is accessible from Liberia by bus).
Allow yourself some rest after long days of hiking and enjoy a tranquil day at the natural outdoor spa in Rincon de la Vieja.