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