Best Costa Rica National Parks to visit

Jenny Cahill-Jones

written by
Jenny Cahill-Jones

updated 31.05.2024

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, volcanoes, cloud forests 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. With that in mind, here are some of the most beautiful Costa Rica national parks, and why you should visit them.

The information in this article is inspired by The Rough Guide to Costa Rica, your essential guide for visiting Costa Rica.

For an active volcano: Arenal Volcano 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. Not to mention there are seemingly endless kilometres of forest 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.

    Our favourite tailor-made trip:

  • Escape to Arenal on this tailor-made trip to Beaches and Volcanoes. Enjoy gentle hikes or partake in adrenaline-fuelled river rafting. Then journey down to Costa Rica’s Central Pacific for some sand and surf fringed by dense forest that’s teeming with wildlife.

Arenal Volcano National Park - one of the best Costa Rica National Parks for witnessing active volcano © Simon Dannhauer/Shutterstock

For the beaches: Manuel Antonio National Park

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 Costa Rica national parks.

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.

    Where to stay:

  • Gaia Hotel & Reserve Adults Only - This ultra-chic boutique hotel takes style and service to the next level. Well-appointed terraced suites and villas, decked with natural flooring, come with huge, cloud-soft beds, flat-screen TVs and rainforest views. There are two pools, one cascading into the other, and you could quite easily eat all your meals at the fine restaurant.

    Our favourite tailor-made trip:

  • Take your own, private eco adventure through Costa Rica, ending with a 4-nights stay in Manuel Antonio. From bird watching over horseback riding to snorkelling - this trip includes it all. The best part is, as with all of our tailor-made trips, you can modify the trip to fit your preferences 100%.
Best time to visit Costa Rica

Manuel Antonio National Park in Costa Rica © PAUL ATKINSON/Shutterstock

For the rainforest: Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve

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 forests. 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 Costa Rica national parks 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 lives 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 the 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.

    Where to stay:

  • Arco Iris Lodge - Relax in spacious, well-appointed cabins (sleeping up to 6 people) amid quiet landscaped gardens near the town centre. You can also stay in cheaper rooms with double- or bunk-beds. The delicious breakfast of hearty German bread, granola, fresh fruit and eggs is also available to non-guests.

    Our favourite tailor-made trip:

  • Discover Northern Costa Rica with this 10-day tailor-made trip: from Arenal over the Tenorio National Park and the wonderful beaches of Nosara, move to Monteverde for two nights to truly discover the area before heading back to the airport.
monteverde -costa-rica-shutterstock_1164189547

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 to some of the oldest wet-growth forests 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.

    Where to stay:

  • Danta Corcovado Lodge - If you want to begin the Los Patos hike early, this is an outstanding choice. A friendly, family-run lodge outside La Palma, Danta was built entirely from sustainable materials and features intricate woodwork and handmade furniture throughout. Accommodation is in attractive rooms or bungalows (sleeping up to three people) the latter 200m from the main lodge.

Find more accommodation options to stay near Corcovado National Park

    Our favourite tailor-made trip:

  • Stay in the amazing Drake Bay and take a day tour to Corcovado National Park to spot animals such as the tapir or the tamandua. On this tailor-made trip from the Cloud Forest to the Beaches, you will explore authentic local communities, tour volcanoes, go snorkelling and top it all off with a relaxing beach stay at the end.

A coati in Corcovado National Park © Tanguy de Saint-Cyr/Shutterstock

Established in 1971 to protect a stretch of increasingly rare, dry tropical forest, Santa Rosa National Park (also known as the Santa Rosa sector), is the oldest among Costa Rica national parks. Today it’s also one of the most popular Costa Rica national parks, thanks to its good trails, great surfing (though poor swimming) and prolific turtle-spotting opportunities.

It’s also, given a few official restrictions, a great destination for campers, with a site on the beach. Santa Rosa has an amazingly diverse topography for its size, ranging from mangrove swamps to deciduous forests and savannahs. Home to 115 species of mammal, 250 species of bird and 100 amphibians and reptiles, Santa Rosa is a rich biological repository, attracting researchers from all over the world.

The appearance of the park changes drastically between the dry season, when the many streams and small lakes dry up, trees lose their leaves, and thirsty animals can be seen at known water holes. The wet months, which are greener, afford fewer animal-viewing opportunities.

From July to November, you may be able to witness hundreds of olive ridley turtles (tortugas lloras) dragging themselves out of the surf and nesting on Playa Nancite by moonlight. September and October are the months in which you are most likely to see them.

    Where to stay:

  • Cabina Casa Soley offers accommodation in Puerto Soley with free WiFi and garden views. Located 2.9 km from Puerto Soley Beach, the property provides a garden and free private parking. Parque Nacional Santa Rosa is 19 km from the country house, while Junquillal Bay Wildlife Refuge is 8 km away.

    What to do:

  • Charter a 50ft on this sailboat tour with snorkelling to experience sailing in Potrero Bay. Work with the captain to find anchorages for snorkeling or fishing and enjoy the open bar and delicious locally sourced food.

    Our favourite tailor-made trip:

  • On this tailor-made trip to Tropical Costa Rica you will visit volcanoes, take a dip in hot springs, drift lazily along the country’s waterways and seek out wildlife in tropical lowland forest. Costa Rica’s diverse ecosystem beholds a whole host of natural treasures.

For the best hiking and horseriding: Rincón de la Vieja National Park

Rincón de la Vieja National Park is utterly dominated by its massive and majestic namesake volcano, a perfectly proportioned conical peak, and one of Costa Rica's most active volcanoes. In the park’s eastern sector, the crater of Volcán Santa María is impressive in its own right, even if it’s not quite as visually arresting.

The beautifully dry landscape encompasses terrains varying from rock-strewn savannah to patches of tropical dry forest and it’s undeniably an enchanting place, with quite simply the best hiking and horseriding in the country. A variety of elevations and habitats reveals hot springs, sulphur pools, bubbling mud pots, fields of guaria morada plus a great smoking volcano at the top to reward you for your efforts.

Animals in the area include all the big cats (just don’t expect to see them), the shy tapir, red deer, collared peccary, two-toed sloth, and howler, white-faced and spider monkeys. There’s a good chance you will see a brilliant flash of fluttering blue – this is the Blue Morpho butterfly, famous for its electric colours.

Birders will enjoy the profusion of over two hundred species in residence, and may spot the weird-looking three-wattled bellbird, the Montezuma oropendola, the trogon and the spectacled owl, among others.

In our guide to the best hikes in Costa Rica you'll find even more options to stretch your legs in Costa Rica.

Rincon de La Vieja National Park, Costa Rica

Rincon de La Vieja National Park, Costa Rica © Shutterstock

  • Rinconcito Lodge features a garden and complimentary WiFi in public areas. The rooms offer a private bathroom with shower and free toiletries. They have wooden furniture. Rincon de la Vieja National Park can be accesses after a 10 minutes drive from Rinconcito Lodge. Thermal springs are 15 minutes by car from the property. Miravalles Volcano can be reached with in a 30 minutes’ drive.
  • Experience the unique Costa Rican tropical rainforest on Rincon de la Vieja Volcano walking and thermals tour. Swim in thermal pools, feel small beside towering trees, and purify your soul in stunning blue volcanic waterfalls.
  • From paradise beaches, scenic narrow waterways and magical rainforests, Costa Rica has much to offer. On this tailor-made trip to Costa Rica you will head east and discover the tranquil Caribbean Sea, head west for the tumultuous Pacific Ocean and surfer’s paradise.

For witnessing marine turtle hatchlings: Tortuguero National Park

Most people visiting the Tortuguero National Park come for the desove, or egg-laying of endangered marine turtles. Few are disappointed, with the majority of tours during laying seasons resulting in sightings of the surreal procession of the reptiles from the sea to make their egg-nests in the sand.

While turtles have been known to lay in the daylight, it is far more common for them to come ashore in the relative safety of night. Nesting can take place turtle-by-turtle, you can watch a single mother come ashore and scramble up the beach just south of the village. Or, more strikingly, in groups, when dozens emerge from the sea at the same time to form a colony, marching up the sands to their chosen spot.

Each turtle digs a hole in which she lays eighty or more eggs; the collective whirring noise of sand being dug away is extraordinary. Having filled the hole with sand to cover the eggs, the turtles begin their course back to the sea, leaving the eggs to hatch some weeks later. When the hatchlings emerge they instinctively follow the light of the moon on the water, scuttling to safety in the ocean.

What better way to plan a trip than to rely on personalized experiences? Our content manager has traveled to Costa Rica and shares with you what to consider when planning your trip.

Tortuguero National Park

Tortuguero National Park © Shutterstock

    Where to stay:

  • Hotel El Icaco Tortuguero. Set on the beach in Costa Rica’s Tortuguero National Park, El Icaco Tortuguero offer Caribbean Sea views from the terrace. You can observe the protected Green Turtle laying its eggs nearby.

Find more accommodation options to stay near Tortuguero National Park

For fantastic views: Irazu Volcano National Park

The blasted lunar landscape of Irazu Volcano National Park reaches its highest point at 3432m and, on clear days, offers fantastic views all the way to the Caribbean coast. Famous for having had the gall to erupt on the day President John F. Kennedy visited Costa Rica on March 19, 1963, Irazú has been more or less calm ever since.

But while its main crater is far less active, in terms of bubblings and rumblings, than that of Volcán Poás, its deep depression creates an undeniably dramatic sight, even though the strange algae-green lake occasionally dries up.

The volcano makes for a long and entirely uphill but scenic trip from Cartago, especially in the early morning before the inevitable clouds roll in. Be aware that the volcano's altitude is just high enough that some people might feel the first effects of altitude sickness. If you are one of those then descend immediately.

While the main crater draws the crowds, it’s worth noting that the shallow bowl to its right, the flat-bottomed and largely unimpressive Diego de la Haya crater, is the remnant of Irazú’s first and largest eruption. When it blew in 1723, the eruption lasted ten months and showered San José in ash.


Irazu volcano, Costa Rica © Shutterstock

    Where to stay:

  • Casa Chicua. Boasting city views, Casa Chicua provides accommodation with a patio and a coffee machine, around 18 km from Jardin Botanico Lankester. Situated 12 km from Irazú Volcano, the property offers a garden and free private parking.

For snorkelling: Cahuita National Park

One of the smallest Costa Rica national parks, 10.7-square-kilometre Cahuita National Park covers a wedge-shaped piece of land that encompasses the area between Punta Cahuita and the main highway and, most importantly, the coral reef about 500m off shore.

On land, Cahuita protects the coastal rainforest, a lowland habitat of semi-mangroves and tall canopy cover that backs the gently curving white-sand beaches of Playa Vargas to the south and Playa Blanca to the north. Resident birds include ibis and kingfisher, along with white-faced capuchin monkeys, sloths and snakes, but the only animals you’re likely to see are howler monkeys and, perhaps, coati.

The park’s one trail begins at the Kelly Creek entrance and continues on to the Puerto Vargas ranger station 7km away. It skirts Playa Blanca for most of its length, with a gentle path so wide it feels like a road, covered with leaves and other brush and marked by segments of the boardwalk. There is also a disabled access boardwalk to this beach. Stick to the trail, as snakes abound here.

Note that snorkelling here is not permitted on your own; you must make arrangements with a guide or go on a tour.


Cahuita, Costa Rica © Shutterstock

    Where to stay:

  • Playa Grande Lodge offers pet-friendly accommodation in Cahuita. Puerto Viejo is 16 km from the property. Featuring a terrace, all units feature a seating and dining area. The lodge offers free private parking on site. The area is popular for horse riding, snorkeling, diving and hiking.

Find more accommodation options to stay near Cahuita National Park

    Our favourite tailor-made trip:

  • It's time to discover Costa Rica's Caribbean coast in your own rental car: From Boca Pacuare, where the turtles come to lay their eggs, to the unique culture of Cahuita and the beaches of Puerto Viejo! Your tailor-made self drive Caribbean adventure will finish in Turrialba, home of the main archaeological monument in our country.

For the spectacular lagoon: Tenorio Volcano National Park

An active volcano, although so far without spectacular eruptive displays, Tenorio was designated a national park in 1995. Though most people come to the park to glimpse the surreal turquoise waters of the Río Celeste Waterfall, wildlife also thrives within the park’s borders.

A trail (6km; 4hr round trip) departs from the ranger station at the park entrance and enters the forest where it eventually splits into a few well-marked loops. Don’t wander from the trails, for the area is geothermically active. There are fumaroles (little columns of hot vapour escaping from the ground) and mud pots – one false move and you could step into skin-stripping superheated volcanic soil.

The main trail climbs steadily and opens up to a spectacular view of Volcán Miravalles, before eventually leading to a striking Río Celeste waterfall where you can take a dip. The highlights of the park, though, are a stunningly blue lagoon, the Laguna Azul, and similarly coloured (bright blue) sections of the river that flow alongside the trail.

The park – and, indeed, much of this part of Guanacaste – was hit hard by Hurricane Otto in late 2016 although the damage to flora and fauna is no longer visible, and the park’s infrastructure has been rebuilt.

Go to the stunning Río Celeste Waterfall or choose from our list of the best waterfalls in Costa Rica.

Waterfall and natural pool with turquoise water of Rio Celeste, Costa Rica © Shutterstock

Rio Celeste waterfall, Costa Rica © Shutterstock

    Where to stay:

  • Rio Celeste Hideaway Hotel. Located in a secluded rainforest, adjacent to the Tenorio Volcano National Park, Rio Celeste Hideaway Hotel offers luxurious bungalows with a plasma TV. Facilities include an outdoor pool.

For whale watching: Marino Ballena National Park

Created in 1989, the Marino Ballena National Park protects a large area of ocean and coastline south of Uvita that contains one of the biggest chunks of coral reef left on the Pacific coast. It’s also the habitat of humpback whales, who come here from the Arctic and Antarctica to breed.

On land, the sandy and rocky beaches fronting the ocean are also protected, as is Punta Uvita – a former island connected to the mainland by a narrow sandbar. At low tide, you can walk for 1km over the gently-shelving sand to the rocks, tide pools and reefs at the end, which stretches out into the sea and resembles a whale’s tail.

At certain times of the year (usually May–Oct), olive ridley and hawksbill turtles may come ashore to nest, but in nowhere near the same numbers as at other turtle nesting grounds in the country. Other than spotting nesting turtles or dolphins and whales frolicking from the shore, the best way to take in the park’s abundant marine life is either snorkelling, on a boat or in a kayak.

Marino Ballena National Park, Punta Uvita, Dominical, Puntarenas, Costa Rica  © Stefan Neumann/Shutterstock

Marino Ballena National Park, Punta Uvita, Dominical, Puntarenas, Costa Rica © Stefan Neumann/Shutterstock

    Where to stay:

  • Oxygen Jungle Villas & Spa: located 5 km from Playa Hermosa Beach and features an infinity pool, sun decks, spa treatments, Indonesian architecture and free Wi-Fi. This accommodation can arrange activities such as canoeing, rafting, hiking, snorkelling, diving, whale watching, surfing lessons, bird watching, canyoning, kayaking, horseback riding and waterfall viewing.

    Our favourite tailor-made trip:

  • The wild south is an unbeatable destination for hikers and nature lovers with a sense of adventure. On this tailor-made trip to Costa Rica’s Wild South you will explore off the beaten path, a tropical wet forest and one of the most important endangered wildlife sanctuaries in the world.

For birdwatching: Piedras Blancas National Park

Stretching inland from the Golfo Dulce and abutting the village of La Gamba, Piedras Blancas National Park comprises land that was formerly part of Parque Nacional Corcovado. Almost 150 square kilometres of mountainous rainforest, beaches and portions of the Piedras Blancas and Esquinas rivers are protected.

This area is teeming with tropical flora and some of Costa Rica’s signature mammals, including jaguars, pumas, two-toed sloths, kinkajous, and squirrel and capuchin monkeys. The most prevalent mammals, though, are bats: over fifty species have been observed here, among them the vampire bat.

The park is also one of the top spots in the country for birdwatching, mainly due to it being a favoured stopover for migrating birds. Poaching was a significant problem when the park was formed over two decades ago, though efforts throughout the previous decade have been successful in greatly reducing illegal hunting.

    Where to stay:

  • Saladero Ecolodge. Set on the beachfront within Piedras Blancas National Park, Saladero Ecolodge is surrounded by rainforest and is accessible only by boat. This all-inclusive property offers free boat transfers, kayaks and snorkelling gear. Accommodation at the lodge offers views of the tropical gardens, the rainforest or Golfo Dulce bay.

    What to do:

  • Set off on a real adventure into the Costa Rican jungle. Immerse yourself in the primary forest and explore the Tamandua nature reserve and its river canyon on a private or shared guided trip.

For well-maintained hiking trails: Carara National Park

Ecologically vital Carara National Park occupies a transition area between the hot tropical lowlands of the north and the humid, more verdant climate of the southern Pacific coast. Consequently, the park teems with wildlife, from monkeys to margays and motmots to manakins.

Carara’s well-maintained trails are split between the heavily canopied area near the park’s ranger station and visitor centre. The more open terrain around Laguna Meándrica, an oxbow lake, is home to crocodiles and is often smothered in water lilies and other aquatic plants.

The visitor centre is clearly marked, 2.5km south of Río Tárcoles Bridge. From here the fully accessible and paved Sendero Universal loop (1.2km) links up with two rougher loop trails, the Sendero Quebrada Bonita (1.5km) and Sendero Las Aráceas (1.2km), with the latter also accessible from the main highway 3.5km south of the visitor centre.

Both trails take in primary and transitionary forests and are reliable places to spot agouti and other small rodents. You can also often see great tinamou on the paths here, and sometimes even catch the spectacular leks of orange-collared manikins. Birdwatching is perhaps even better along the rivers and in the clearings on the Sendero Laguna Meándrica, where the wide range of avifauna includes boat-billed herons.

Ready to start planning your trip to Costa Rica? Get inspired by our list of the best things to do in Costa Rica. Also, find useful hints in our list of travel tips for Costa Rica.

Scarlet macaw, Carara National Park, Costa Rica

Scarlet macaw, Carara National Park, Costa Rica © Shutterstock

    Where to stay:

  • Hotel Cerro Lodge. This hotel offers an outdoor pool and sun terrace, Cerro Lodge is located in Tárcoles in the Puntarenas Region. Guests can enjoy a meal at the restaurant and free private parking is available on site.

Find more accommodation options to stay near Carara National Park

For impressive volcano: Poas Volcano National Park

Poas Volcano National Park is home to one of the world’s most accessible active volcanoes, with a history of eruptions dating back eleven million years. Poás’s last gigantic blowout was in 1910, when it dumped 640,000 tonnes of ash on the surrounding area, and from time to time you may find the volcano off-limits due to sulphurous gas emissions and other seismic activities.

Though measuring just 65 square kilometres, Poás packs a punch: it’s a strange, otherworldly landscape, dotted with smoking fumaroles and tough ferns and trees valiantly surviving regular scaldings with sulphurous gases. The battle-scarred sombrilla de pobre, or poor man’s umbrella, looks the most woebegone.

The volcano itself has blasted out three craters in its lifetime, and due to the more-or-less constant activity, the appearance of the main crater changes regularly. It’s currently around 1600m wide and filled with milky turquoise water from which sulphurous gases waft and bubble (with a pH value of 0.8, this is reputably the most acidic lake on earth).

Although it’s an impressive sight, you’ll probably only need about fifteen minutes’ viewing and picture-snapping; when you’ve finished you can explore one of the short trails that lead off the main route to the crater.


Volcano Poas, Costa Rica © Shutterstock

    Where to stay:

  • Altura Hotel. Offering a beautiful mountain setting just 2 km from Poás Volcano National Park, Altura Hotel features rooms with views of Costa Rica’s Central Valley. This charming hotel is set on attractive grounds with gazebos and walking paths.

    What to do:

  • Visit 3 destinations in one day on this guided tour from San José. Learn about coffee production, visit the Poas Volcano Crater, and experience the incredible nature around La Paz Waterfall Garden.

    Our favourite tailor-made trip:

  • On this tailor-made trip to a dream of Costa Rica you will spend a few days around Arenal volcano & the Cloud Forest Monteverde before heading to the coast - a beautiful hotel at the Gulf of Papagayo invites you to relax and for some water activities. Return to the Central Valley for another volcano - Poás before heading home.

Ready for a trip to Costa Rica? Check out the snapshot of The Rough Guide to Costa Rica.

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Top image: Corcovado National Park in Costa Rica © Kit Korzun/Shutterstock

Jenny Cahill-Jones

written by
Jenny Cahill-Jones

updated 31.05.2024

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