Over a quarter of Costa Rica’s landmass is National Park, which means you’re more than likely to come across at least one on your visit. Covering rainforests, beaches, volcanoes, cloud forest and more, for many people, exploring the biodiversity of this small but beautifully formed country is a major reason to visit in the first place. Costa Rica might be fairly small, but its road system is still rustic in places, meaning getting from place to place can be a challenge, especially in rainy season. It makes more sense to explore one region to the full than try to hare-brain it around the country ticking off everything. With that in mind, here are some of the most beautiful parks in Costa Rica, and why you should visit each of them.
For an active volcano: Arenal National Park
With its picture-perfect cone-shaped volcano (that often has smoke drifting from the top) a trip to Arenal volcano often features on best-of lists, and for good reason. Although it is currently ‘resting’ the volcano last erupted in 2010 and seismic activity suggests that another eruption is possible in the near future.
The area around Arenal is home to many attractions including the popular Tabacon hot springs, a sizeable lake where you can paddleboard or swim, plus seemingly endless kilometres of forests trails. The one thing you can’t do, however is climb the volcano itself – as we mentioned it’s still very active!
Most people access the park through the town of La Fortuna where you’ll find hotels, restaurants and of course many places offering zip lining and other adventure tours. Despite the fact that tourism is the major industry here, the town remains quite charming and you’re just as likely to see Ticos going about their day as rucksack-toting tourists.
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Arenal volcano © Simon Dannhauer/Shutterstock
For the beaches: Manuel Antonio
A trip to Costa Rica is not complete without a few days lazing on its pristine beaches, and you’ll find some of the best in Manuel Antonio National Park on the central Pacific coast. The beaches are no secret – so be prepared to share the space – but there’s little development and the commitment to protecting the surroundings makes this one of the most beautiful parks in Costa Rica.
There are four beaches in the park (technically, the fourth is just outside the entrance), and while all are beautiful our pick goes to Playa Tres. Confusingly the beach has two names – the other is Playa Manuel Antonio. Here you can swim and snorkel thanks to a rocky outcrop called Punta Catédral that protects the bay. The best snorkelling is at the end of the beach towards the rocks. As with many beaches in the country, locals head down in their numbers at the weekend to enjoy the sands with cool boxes packed to the brim, so if you’re able to visit during the week you’ll have more chance of peace and quiet.
Manuel Antonio National Park in Costa Rica © PAUL ATKINSON/Shutterstock
For the rainforest: Monteverde Cloud Forest
The central highlands of Costa Rica show nature at its most unspoiled. Great swathes of forest cover the area, which is one of the few places in the world to find cloud forest. Shrouded in a near-constant layer of mist and fog, these ancient places force you to slow down and just gaze in wonder at the world around you. A list of the most beautiful parks in Costa Rica would be sorely incomplete without Monteverde!
Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve you’ll see tree trunks festooned with vines and moss, thundering waterfalls and huge orchids proving vivid shots of pink and yellow amid the green. Among the varied wildlife that live in the forest you might see possibly the elusive red-breasted quetzal.
A variety of marked trails (some that cross atmospheric rope bridges) make it fairly simple to get around inside the park once you’ve paid the entrance fee. Remember to bring suitable footwear and wear light, quick-drying clothing as you’ll be walking through mist for much of your visit. The road up to the park can be a challenging drive, but the experience is absolutely worth the effort.
Suspension bridge in Monteverde, Costa Rica © Aves y estrellas/Shutterstock
For the wildlife: Corcovado National Park
A protected reserve on Costa Rica’s remote Osa Peninsula, Corcovado is home some of the oldest wet-growth forest in Central America. It’s also notable for its wealth of wildlife-spotting opportunities (the park is home to 2.5% of the world’s biodiversity). From coatis to jaguars, squirrel monkeys, howler monkeys, capuchins, scarlet macaws and tree frogs, the list goes on. And that’s before we’ve even mentioned the three-toed sloth, perhaps Costa Rica’s most famous resident. While the bigger cats are notoriously shy, and sloths notoriously hard to spot, you’re almost guaranteed to see a tribe of chattering monkeys.
Since 2014 all visitors to Corcovado must visit with a guide. In practical terms, it works out better for you, as experienced local guides have the best chance at spotting some of the park’s more elusive residents. A local guide will know the best trails to take and help you make out animals hidden in the dense foliage.
Corcovado is not easy to get to, and you’ll need to purchase a permit to visit, but you’ll be glad you made the effort. The weather is another factor to consider. Dry season (November to April) is the safest bet as heavy rains can make the roads to the park (and the park itself) very difficult to navigate.
A coati in Corcovado National Park © Tanguy de Saint-Cyr/Shutterstock
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Top image: Corcovado National Park in Costa Rica © Kit Korzun/Shutterstock