Where To See Wildlife In Costa Rica

Costa Rica's Best National Parks

Costa Rica’s national parks are a beacon of inspiration to the world.

As a leader in land conservation and habitat protection, Costa Rica has designated an astonishing 25% of its landmass as protected area—the highest anywhere in the world.

A dizzying 26 national parks encompass all kinds of landscapes, habitats, and ecosystems. Sound overwhelming? Here's a summary of the best of Costa Rica's national parks.

View of Guanacaste from Cerro Pelado costa rica

Sweeping views over Guanacaste, one of Costa Rica's most diverse national parks

Costa Rica's top national parks

Costa Rica has several dozen national parks and protected areas, some more accessible than others. Here are a handful of the most impressive, more easily-visited, and activity-packed locations.

Costa Rica manuel antonio national park

Classic beach scenes in Manuel Antonio National Park

Manuel Antonio National Park

Size: 4,825 land acres (20 km sq)

Famous for: Coastal rainforests, beaches, and being the smallest but most visited national park in Costa Rica.

Best for: Kayaking and snorkelling, family beaches, sandy coastal hiking path, luxury resorts.

How to get there: Three-hour transfer from San Jose airport, then stay in Quepos or Manuel Antonio.

If you imagine Costa Rica to be a paradise of pristine beaches, exotic flowers, thick rainforests, and crystal-clear waters, where monkeys and sloths and scarlet macaws frolic freely, then you have Manuel Antonio National Park in mind.

The smallest national park in the country, this is also the most visited—a true paradise for beach-goers and nature lovers, where emerald rainforest spills into the turquoise sea.

Read more: How to get to Manuel Antonio National Park

Costa Rica volcano Poas lowres

Poás Volcano National Park

Poás Volcano National Park

Size: 16,077 acres (65 sq km)

Famous for: The iconic blue lagoon in a crater, its proximity to San Jose, and being Costa Rica's second most visited park.

Best for: Lagoon and crater sightseeing, birdwatching, wheelchair access.

How to get there: One hour from San Jose. Many tour operators run daily trips to Poás, often combined with stops at other nearby sites.

Poás Volcano is the second-most visited national park in Costa Rica for one excellent reason: a gently active volcano (and its triplet craters). Here, a turquoise lagoon—the most acidic lagoon on earth—fills the world’s second-widest crater (0.9 miles wide). A second crater, now extinct, houses Botos Lagoon, a cold-water lake. Trails wind through the park, connecting the visitor’s centre with the volcano’s craters, cloud forests, and other habitats.

Read more: How to get to Poás Volcano National Park

Costa Rica Tortuguero

Winding waterways in Tortuguero National Park

Tortuguero National Park

Size: 65,861 land acres (266 sq km)

Famous for: Sea turtle nesting sites, its remote location and strict visitor regulations.

Best for: Sea turtle hatching events (seasonal), birdwatching and aquatic boat safari.

How to get there: Accessible only by boat and plane. Most visitors visit on a package tour, including transport from San Jose.

This wild and interconnected web of canals is an aquatic fairyland, where gavilan trees stand sentry at the water’s edge, caiman snouts poke out of canals, tiger herons perch atop driftwood, and four species of endangered sea turtle travel thousands of miles every year to lay their eggs on the beaches where they once hatched.

Read more: How to get to Tortuguero National Park

Costa Rica Cahuita sloth

Sloth in Cahuita National Park

Cahuita National Park

Size: 2,723 land acres (11 sq km)

Famous for: Caribbean white sand beaches and its sea turtle nesting sites.

Best for: Snorkelling, kayaking and water sports, sandy hiking trails and wildlife spotting.

How to get there: Four to five hour drive from San Jose or a local flight to Limón; from there it's another 29 miles by public bus, private shuttle, or rental car.

Cahuita National Park is a dreamy destination, where coastal rainforest spills onto sand, and sand fades into the turquoise Caribbean. Here, a sandy hiking trail leads parallel to a blue-flag beach—a shimmering stretch of coastline that borders nearly 600 acres of living, vibrant coral reef. This fusion of colours, textures, and shapes is both spectacularly beautiful and ecologically fascinating.

Read more: How to get to Cahuita National Park

Costa Rica Arenal Volcano viewfromfaraway

Costa Rica's Arenal Volcano

Arenal Volcano National Park

Size: 29,692 acres (120 sq km)

Famous for: Iconic cone-shaped volcano, and being the 'adventure capital' of Costa Rica.

Best for: Wildlife spotting, adrenaline fixes, family fun, luxury lodges with hot springs.

How to get there: Two to three hour drive from San Jose. Stay in La Fortuna, Nuevo Arenal or Tilarán. Most visits are by private tour as it's not served by public bus.

Arenal Volcano is peak-perfect. Its apex standing as centrepiece to one of the nation’s most visited national parks, the volcano’s cone towers tall over the town of La Fortuna, the crowned “adventure capital of Costa Rica.” The park itself is a visual contrast of dense primary rainforest and barren volcanic badlands, where 3,000 years of molten rock and lava have scarred the landscape with igneous rock, deep craters and hardened ash.

Read more: How to get to Arenal Volcano National Park

Costa Rica Monteverde bridge

Monteverde cloud forest

Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve

Size: 10,193 acres (41 sq km)

Famous for: Misty cloud forest highlands and picturesque coffee plantations.

Best for: Wildlife spotting, hiking, canopy tours and adventure activities.

How to get there: Three to four hour drive from San Jose. Fly into either San José or Liberia, and stay in Santa Elena, Cerro Plano or Monteverde.

When you step into the Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve, you step into a world straight out of fairy tales. Here, clouds cling to every surface, shrouding the green forest in white mist. Emerald-hued epiphytes climb the trees, snaking their way heavenward, and blanket the forest floor. The vibrant jewel-tones of Monteverde’s beautiful flora pop, among them 500 orchid species.

Read more: How to get to Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve

Squirrel monkey corcovado np costa rica

Monkeying around in Corcovado National Park

Corcovado National Park

Size: 105,168 land acres (425 sq km)

Famous for: Biodiversity, the Osa Peninsula and being remote and secluded.

Best for: Challenging hikes, horseback riding and eco-luxury lodges.

How to get there: Five to seven hour drive from San Jose. There is no road access into the park itself, so visitors must fly or hike-in.

Few places on Earth are as wild, as rich, and as spectacular as Costa Rica’s Corcovado National Park. It’s secluded in the country’s far southwest, on the Osa Peninsula. National Geographic touts it as "the most biologically intense place on Earth". And they would know!

Read more: How to get to Corcovado National Park

Pit Viper Tenorio Volcano National Park Costa Rica

Pit viper in Tenorio Volcano National Park

Tenorio Volcano National Park

Size: 31,805 acres (129 sq km)

Famous for: Río Celeste and waterfalls, a bright blue lagoon, and hot springs.

Best for: Birdwatching, day trips to the famous waterfalls and hiking to hot springs.

How to get there: Three and a half-hour drive from San Jose. Day trips, often labeled “Río Celeste”, are common from La Fortuna/Arenal.

If wild and wonderful are your jam, then Tenorio Volcano National Park is a must for your Costa Rica agenda. A spectacular park of baby-blue waters, bubbling mud, dual-toned rivers, gurgling hot springs, and steamy geysers, this is a natural wonderland of volcanic proportions.

Read more: How to get to Tenorio Volcano National Park

Costa Rica guanacaste The Golfo de Papagayo

Golfo de Papagayo on the Guanacaste coast

Guanacaste National Park

Size: 84,000 acres (340 sq km)

Famous for: Two volcanoes, hiking trails, research stations, biodiversity and its nearby beach resorts.

Best for: Challenging hiking on low-traffic trails, family beaches, luxury resorts.

How to get there: One hour drive from Liberia airport and two hours from Playa del Coco. There are no public buses to the park.

Sandwiched between Santa Rosa National Park and Rincón de la Vieja National Park—the other two parks in the Guanacaste Conservation Area trio—this incredibly diverse and endearingly rustic national park is one of Costa Rica’s least visited. Hiking trails connect the park’s various biological stations and sectors, offering intermediate to difficult paths for which a professional guide is highly recommended.

Read more: How to get to Guanacaste National Park

Costa Rica_Rincón-de-la-Vieja

Rincón de la Vieja Volcano National Park

Rincón de la Vieja Volcano National Park

Size: 34,993 acres (142 sq km)

Famous for: Volcanic landscapes, steaming fumaroles, boiling mud cauldrons and hot springs.

Best for: Moderate hikes along two established trail loops, and a more challenging hike to a volcano’s apex.

How to get there: Four hour drive from San Jose or fly into Liberia. Stay in Liberia or Rincón de la Vieja. The park is a one hour drive from Liberia.

Home to some of the most startling and unique scenery in Costa Rica, Rincón de la Vieja National Park and its eponymous volcano welcomes visitors to volcanic landscapes, complete with steaming fumaroles, boiling mud cauldrons, and natural hot springs.

Read more: How to get to Rincón de la Vieja Volcano National Park

Costa Rica's best national parks for beaches

With more than 800 miles of shoreline, two oceans (the Pacific and the Caribbean), and multi-coloured sands, from pink, to white, to cinnamon, to nearly black, Costa Rica is an idyllic beach escape. Choose to revel with the crowds or carve out a tiny slice of sandy paradise, all of your own.

Manuel Antonio National Park

This central Pacific town and national park are home to some of the country’s most beautiful white-sand beaches. Here, dense rainforest literally spills into the sea, soft sands are pristine, white-faced monkeys frolic on the beachfront, and the gentle waters are warm.

Read more: How to get to Manuel Antonio National Park

Cahuita National Park

Home to the best beach trails in Costa Rica—beachfront and sandy, they follow rainforest down miles of white sands—Cahuita is also home to 600 acres of the most vibrant, dynamic coral reefs in the country. Turtles also nest on area beaches.

Read more: How to get to Cahuita National Park

Guanacaste National Park

This north-Pacific province is home to many of Costa Rica’s most beautiful beaches, known as the “Gold Coast:” a string of golden beaches, with smatterings of pink and white sand thrown in for good measure. Baby-pink Playa Conchal, surf-haven Playa Grande, and the protected cove of Sugar Beach are regional favourites.

Read more: How to get to Guanacaste National Park

Costa Rica's best national parks for adventure

Costa Rica is a treat for active and adventure travellers of all levels, with easy-to-difficult hiking trails, canoeing and kayaking, whitewater rafting, and more. Thrill-seekers flock to the country’s canopy ziplines, waterfall rappelling, parasailing, and other high-intensity fun.

Corcovado National Park

Corcovado’s rushing rivers and rustic, rugged terrain promise endless options for active travellers. The park itself is not accessible by car, most visitors arrive by air but you can hike (or horseback-ride) in–a trek that can take up to 15 hours. Canoes can be rented within the park, but availability is very limited.

Read more: How to get to Corcovado National Park

Rincón de la Vieja Volcano National Park

Rincón de la Vieja is another rugged destination, as wild as almost anywhere on Earth. Active travellers will enjoy horseback-riding to the park’s entrance, then hiking throughout the park’s rustic trails, which wind past boiling mud pots, small craters, fumaroles, and hot springs.

Read more: How to get to Rincón de la Vieja Volcano National Park

Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve

Monteverde’s dense cloud forests are the ideal setting for active adventures, with approximately eight miles of hiking trails that snake through the reserve. Outside the reserve, this is an adventure playground of hanging bridges, canopy tours, horseback riding, and more. Tip: be sure to book a night hike.

Read more: How to get to Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve

Manuel Antonio National Park

Quepos and Manuel Antonio are an active travel haven on land and by sea, with hiking trails, mangrove kayaking, whitewater rafting, tree-climbing, and snorkelling, as well as adventure activities like parasailing, waverunners, ATV tours, and banana boats.

Read more: How to get to Manuel Antonio National Park

Arenal Volcano National Park

Known as the adventure capital of Costa Rica, La Fortuna (also called Arenal, after the nearby volcano) offers a full host of adrenaline-fuelled activities: caving, ATV tours, hiking, ziplines, horseback riding, kayaking, whitewater rafting, mountain biking, sport fishing, waterfall rappelling, and more.

Read more: How to get to Arenal Volcano National Park

Costa Rica's best national parks for family trips

Bringing your kids to Costa Rica is the best way to endear yourself to the Ticos. What’s more, the country’s lush landscapes seem to love kids, too. Almost every corner of Costa Rica promises outdoor fun to delight the youngest members of your family. Beaches and rivers, rainforest and cloud forests, canals and mountains—everything can be tailored to travellers young and very young.

Guanacaste National Park

For beach-loving kids, Guanacaste has piles of soft sands, oceanfront pools, and plenty of protected swimming spots. Children also love spotting sloths, howler monkeys, and playful (although mischievous) white-faced monkeys, which frolic along the beachfront.

Read more: How to get to Guanacaste National Park

Manuel Antonio National Park

With white-sand beaches and gentle coves, sandy walking trails and ocean adventures, Manuel Antonio offers a host of kid-thrilling activities: swimming, catamaran tours, dolphin and whale watching, surf lessons, and wildlife spotting.

Read more: How to get to Manuel Antonio National Park

Arenal Volcano National Park

For kids who love an adventure, look no further than Arenal Volcano, an action-packed destination of canopy tours (expert guides will accompany the youngest zipliners), hanging bridges, horseback rides, waterfall swims, caving and amusement park-like hot springs, complete with waterslides.

Read more: How to get to Arenal Volcano National Park

Best Costa Rica national parks for luxury trips

Costa Rica’s luxury hotels, lodges and retreats are downright opulent, offering privacy, fine architecture, incredible food, and top-notch service in the most beautiful surrounds. From the Four Seasons to all-inclusive eco resorts, Costa Rican luxury is a fusion of natural setting and glorious details.

Corcovado National Park

As remote as is the Osa Peninsula, you might not expect there to be significant luxury options—but you’d be very wrong. This region is a hotspot for eco-luxury: small lodges that offer all-inclusive packages of beautiful accommodations, fresh food, and nature tours.

Read more: How to get to Corcovado National Park

Guanacaste National Park

Guanacaste was a luxury vacation pioneer in Costa Rica—the country’s first home to international luxury chains, including the Four Seasons, Westin, and the JW Marriott. Over time, local luxury lodges have also cropped up along the coastline.

Read more: How to get to Guanacaste National Park

Manuel Antonio National Park

Manuel Antonio is one of the top destinations in Costa Rica—a must inclusion on any itinerary—so it’s no surprise that lavish luxury hotels have appeared on the breezy hilltops above the national park.

Read more: How to get to Manuel Antonio National Park

Arenal Volcano National Park

Once known solely for its adventure offerings, Arenal has now built thriving luxury-level tourism around its breathtaking hot springs, which promise volcano-fed, therapeutic soaks surrounded by botanical gardens and lush jungle. Some of Costa Rica’s most luxurious new hotels are located in Arenal.

Read more: How to get to Arenal Volcano National Park

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