Costa Rica's National Parks

Choosing the best national park in Costa Rica

National Park

Most famous for ...

Best for ...

How to get there ...

Manuel Antonio National Park
4,825 land acres

Coastal rainforests, beaches; the smallest but most visited national park in Costa Rica

Kayaking and snorkeling, family beaches, sandy coastal hiking path, luxury resorts

3-hour transfer from SJO, then stay in Quepos or Manuel Antonio.

Poás Volcano National Park

16,077 acres

The iconic blue lagoon in a crater, proximity to SJO, 2nd most visited park

Lagoon and crater sightseeing, birdwatching, wheelchair access

1 hour from SJO. Many tour operators run daily trips to Poás, often combined with stops at other nearby sites.

Tortuguero National Park

65,861 land acres

Sea turtle nesting sites, remote location, strict visitor regulations

Sea turtle hatching events (seasonal), birdwatching, aquatic trails by boat

Accessible only by boat and plane. Most visitors use package tours, including transport from SJO.

Cahuita National Park

2,723 land acres

Caribbean white sand beaches, sea turtle nesting

Snorkeling, kayaking and water sports, sandy hiking trails, wildlife spotting

4-5 hours drive from SJO or a local flight to Limón. Take a public bus, private shuttle, or rental car another 29 miles.

Arenal Volcano National Park

29,692 acres

Iconic cone-shaped volcano, “Adventure Capital of Costa Rica”

Wildlife spotting, adrenaline fixes, family fun, luxury lodges with hot springs

2-3 hour drive from SJO. Stay in La Fortuna, Nuevo Arenal or Tilarán. Most visits are by private tour. No public buses.

Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve

10,193 acres

Misty cloud forest highlands, coffee plantations

Wildlife spotting, hiking, canopy tours, adventure activities

3-4 hour drive from SJO. Fly into either San José or Liberia, and stay in Santa Elena, Cerro Plano or Monteverde.

Corcovado National Park

105,168 land acres

Biodiversity, Osa Peninsula, remote and secluded

Challenging hikes, horseback riding, eco-luxury lodges

5-7 hour drive from SJO. No roads into the park, fly or hike-in only, 1-15 hours on foot.

Tenorio Volcano National Park

31,805 acres

Río Celeste and waterfalls, a bright blue lagoon, and hot springs

Birdwatching, day trips to famous waterfalls, hike to hot springs

3.5 hour drive from SJO. Day trips, often labeled “Río Celeste”, are common from La Fortuna/Arenal.

Guanacaste National Park

84,000 acres

Two volcanoes, hiking trails, research stations, biodiversity, nearby beach resorts

Challenging hiking on low-traffic trails, family beaches, luxury resorts

1 hour drive from LIR (Liberia airport in the north) and 2 hours from Playa del Coco. No public buses to the park.

Rincón de la Vieja Volcano National Park

34,993 acres

Volcanic landscapes (steaming fumaroles, boiling mud cauldrons, springs)

Moderate hikes along two established trail loops, challenging hike to a volcano’s apex

4 hour drive from SJO. Fly into Liberia, stay in Liberia or Rincón de la Vieja. Park is a 1 hour drive from Liberia.

How to get to Manuel Antonio National Park

Emerald rainforest meets undisturbed beach

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.

Costa-Rica_manuel-antonio-national-park

Manuel Antonio National Park highlights

  • Beaches are the primary draw to the park. As opposed to other national parks in Costa Rica, where people come to hike, most visitors to Manuel Antonio National Park consider hiking to be secondary; they’ll walk only to get where they’re going — the beach. A highlight is Playa Gemelas, or Twin Beach, so named for its split coastline, divided by a large boulder. Playa Manuel Antonio is regarded as one of the most beautiful beaches in Costa Rica. Playa Espadilla Sur, a wide expanse, draws many visitors — especially during low tide.
  • Mangrove forests are observable from the trails parallel to Playa Manuel Antonio and Espadilla Sur.

  • La Trampa (The Trap) is a circular rock formation of archaeological significance. It is thought to have once been used to trap turtles and fish.

  • Punta Catedral was once an island that, thanks to the accumulation of rock and sediment, is now joined to the coast

  • Trails for hiking are short but worthwhile. Choose from one of five: the Main Trail, a sandy path that links the park’s beaches; Cathedral Point, which (unsurprisingly) winds out to Cathedral Point; Trampa, which connects with Cathedral Point and leads to La Trampa; Playa Gemelas and Punto Escondido Trail, which connects the main beach to these two, less visited beaches; and Mirador Trail, which goes up into the forest and leads to beautiful lookout points.

  • Visit a tropical fruit farm to learn about the small-scale farming methods in practice, and have a juicy taste of the produce.

  • Quepos is the nearest town and port that sits just north of Manuel Antonio National Park, with hotels and restaurants scattered on the short road between the town and park. Manuel Antonio, as the general area is called, is one of the top destinations in Costa Rica, and almost every tour includes Manuel Antonio National Park on the itinerary.

At a glance

  • At only 4,825 land acres, Manuel Antonio National Park is Costa Rica’s smallest national park, in terms of land area. However, it also expands across 63,343 marine acres.
  • The park was established on November 15, 1972, making it Costa Rica’s sixth national park.

  • Facilities include potable water, restrooms, changing rooms, and showers (no soap or shampoo allowed). Marked walking trails lead past lookout points, or “miradors”. Camping is not allowed at Manuel Antonio National Park.

To DIY or not?

Manuel Antonio is one of Costa Rica’s most accessible parks and is easily reachable by public bus from San José. That said there are advantages to visiting with a tour, especially if you’ll be covering a lot of ground on your trip. The convenience of private transfers and pre-booked lodges make huge time savings.

Weather

Manuel Antonio National Park comprises very wet rainforest and receives more than 150 inches of rain a year. Average temperature is 27-30 C (81-86 F). This being a rainforest, it rains year-round. That said, the wet season lasts mid-November through May, with the remaining months being drier but with sporadic showers.

High season is during the drier months, when chances of thunderstorms are much lower.

Nature and wildlife

Manuel Antonio is mostly made up of primary rainforest, although there is some secondary growth. Additionally, there are mangroves, coastline, islands, a small lagoon, and of course, the park’s marine acres, which host various ocean life, including coral.

Wildlife seekers can keep an eye out for any of the reported 107 mammal species. Favorites are the Central American squirrel monkeys, white-faced monkeys, howler monkeys, two- and three-toed sloths, white-tailed coatis, and white-tailed deer.

335 bird species span from brown boobies and frigate birds to green kingfishers, and pelicans. In the water, 237 marine animals dwell, including angel fish, sea urchins, crabs, and starfish.

Getting there/around

From San José, the park is 110 miles (3-3.5 hours) southwest by vehicle. The closest airport is the Quepos Regional Airport at 7.5 miles away.

To reach the park, fly into SJO, then stay in Quepos (more budget-friendly) or Manuel Antonio (more upscale resorts).

There is one park entrance, located at the southern end of Playa Espadilla Sur. Parking is available outside the park.

How to get to Poás Volcano National Park

The iconic blue lagoon in a crater

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.

Costa Rica_volcano Poas

Poás Volcano National Park highlights

  • Walking to the crater via a paved “trail” (more like a paved walking path). This trail is wheelchair-accessible.
  • Rustic hiking through the cloud forest is also popular, although you’ll need walking/hiking shoes.

  • The blue lagoon. A huge mirador (viewpoint) overlooks the turquoise-blue lagoon. You’ll often wait an hour or more for the steam and clouds to clear for a good view.

  • The Botos Lagoon, which more accurately is a cold-water lake, is the second-most popular sight at Poás Volcano National Park. Its waters are cool, clear and very tranquil.

  • Buy fresh fruit from the chinamos (fruit stands) on the road to Poás. Choose from strawberries, apples, sour cream and local cheeses.

  • City of Alajuela. Poás Volcano National Park is located high (nearly 9,000 feet of elevation) above the city of Alajuela, which is just 30 min outside the capital and home of San José airport (SJO).

At a glance

  • Poás Volcano National Park is just 16,077 acres in size — one of Costa Rica’s smallest parks, at just 2/3 the size of Disney World.
  • It was established in 1955 (one of the first national parks in Costa Rica); then expanded to its current size on January 25, 1971.

  • Receiving 339,542 annual visitors, Poás is the second-most visited park in Costa Rica, thanks to its proximity to the capital and the airport.

  • Facilities here are plentiful and accessible: a visitor’s centre, guarded parking, recreational areas with picnic areas, a cafeteria, gift shop, non-drinking water, and first aid. Wheelchair-friendly paths are well-maintained.

  • The main trail (Crater Trail) measures 1.5 miles and leads from the visitor’s centre to the main crater, where the Botos Lagoon trail picks up, winding a half-mile to the cold-water lake and looping through the chilly cloud forest and ends at the picnic area. From there, pick up the Escalonia Trail and make your way back to the visitor’s centre.

The perfect airport stopover

Extra time before or after SJO? Stop here! Just an hour or so from the airport, and many tour operators run daily trips to Poás, often combined with stops at Doka Coffee Estate (excellent coffee) and La Paz Waterfall Gardens (spectacular waterfalls and wild animal rescue).

Weather

Poás Volcano National Park can be a surprise for those who assume Costa Rica is always warm. Here at the park, temperatures range from 12-15 C (54-59 F). Then there’s the wind and the rain (158-197 inches, annually)! It can get quite chilly up here at altitude, so bring a jacket or sweatshirt and an umbrella/raincoat.

The rainy season is from May-November, while the “dry season” lasts November-April. Do keep in mind that Poás Volcano National Park is located in the cloud forest, which is essentially high-altitude rainforest, so there’s always a chance of showers.

Arrive early, preferably at opening (8 a.m.) for the best chance to see the iconic blue lagoon. The dry season has the best viewing opportunities.

Nature and wildlife

Poás Volcano National Park is home to four major habitats: the cloud forest, which occupies the majority of the park’s popular trails, relatively uncommon scrub lands, arrayans (think wind-swept trees and almost moonlike landscapes), and stunted forest.

Wildlife sightings are secondary to the crater and lagoon, but that doesn’t mean there’s nothing here to see. There are 80+ bird species, among them the resplendent quetzal, great curassow, flame-throated warblers, golden-hooded tanagers, and squirrel cuckoos. Mammals include Baird’s tapir, squirrels, rabbits and coyotes; and a variety of amphibians and reptiles, including salamanders, frogs and snakes.

Getting there/around

Poás Volcano National Park is located 31 miles (1-1.5 hours) northwest of San José. To get there, fly into SJO airport, and stay in either San José or Alajuela. The famed Peace Lodge, located in Vara Blanca, is even closer. As Poás Volcano National Park is the second-most visited national park in the country, it’s accessible via public bus, taxi ($60+ from Alajuela), on private tours, or by car (from Alajuela, just follow signs to Poás).

There’s one public park entrance, located just 6 miles NW of the town of Poasito.

How to get to Tortuguero National Park

A sea turtle nesting haven

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.

In this truly unique and special place, days are spent exploring motoring through amaretto-, emerald- and black-hued canals, and evenings are dedicated to watching returning sea turtles conclude their epic journeys.

Costa-Rica_Tortuguero National Park

Tortuguero National Park highlights

  • Turtle nesting (July-September) is the activity that gives the park its name and acclaim. Nesting beaches are best visited at night. Important: only visit with a reputable tour operator and qualified guides, and pay close attention to their instructions to avoid disturbing nesting turtles.
  • Boat tours through the canals, primarily for bird and wildlife watching.

  • Cultural encounters with the Afro-Caribbean communities near the park entrance. Take a “coconut tour” for a taste of the local food and live music.

  • Visits are guided due to the park’s strict ecosystem protections, so points of interest are largely determined by a lodge’s specific package. Almost all guests visit the town of Tortuguero, take boat tours down Tortuguero National Park’s canals, and visit the nesting beach at night (during nesting season, July-September).

  • All-inclusive lodges. These lodges range from basic to upscale and are scattered around the park’s canals, some as far as 45+ minutes from the town.

  • The town of Tortuguero, located within the park, is very remote. You’ll find basic services here, but most travellers stay at the lodges.

At a glance

  • Tortuguero is 65,861 land acres and 124,255 marine acres in size — a combined total about the size of New York City.
  • It was established in September 24, 1970. Since then its limits have been modified three times, in 1980, 1995 and 1998.

  • The park receives 57,658 annual visitors, making it the fifth-most visited national park in Costa Rica — an admirable feat considering the park’s remote location.

  • Facilities include a pier, potable water, public restrooms, and a self-service information station. The town of Tortuguero, contained within the park, offers a full range of services, including lodging, food, transportation, phone and Internet.

  • Independent travel to Tortuguero National Park is virtually impossible. Almost without exception, visitors travel on all-inclusive trips and guided tours. Trips typically include round-trip transportation, accommodation at the lodge, all meals, and activities. The only extras are evening turtle tours (an absolute must!), spa services and additional guided excursions.

  • There are four aquatic “trails” (boat routes) and one land trail in Tortuguero National Park. The aquatic trails are:

  • Caño Chiquero-Mora, a 1.5-mile trail restricted to small boats and home to dense vegetation

  • Río Tortuguero, a 2.7-mile trail open to larger boats. A primary entrance to Tortuguero’s network of canals, and home to a wide variety of aquatic bird species, amphibians and reptiles

  • Caño Harold, a 2.2-mile trail through a wide canal, home to secondary forest and popular for wildlife viewing, especially turtles and caimans

  • Caño Palma, a 3.2-mile trail, accessed via Penitencia Lagoon and thick with dense vegetation and aquatic birds.

  • The lone hiking trail, El Jaguar, is 1.6 miles long and is used only during turtle season. During nesting and hatching season, evidence is common along this trail.

Serious about sea turtles

Tortuguero National Park takes its turtle protections very seriously and there are many more restrictions here than at most other national parks. All beaches are restricted (you can only visit with a park ranger/official guide) from March 1-October 31. Fishing is not allowed. The park schedule is very strict, and you will be expected to stay on trails, and follow other regulations.

Weather

This is a very, very rainy area, seeing 175-235 inches of annual rainfall. Temperatures range from 20-32 C (69-90 F), and it is often very humid.

The dry season lasts from December-May and the green season from June-November.

Peak turtle nesting takes place July-September, and this is high season at the park. That said, the park’s landscapes are beautiful year-round, and birdwatching is excellent throughout the year.

Nature and wildlife

Tortuguero National Park is a network of islands and canals, adjacent to the Caribbean Sea. On land, the ecosystem is mostly primary rainforest, with sections of secondary forest.

Tortuguero is a globally important nesting ground for sea turtles. Every year, from July through September, four species of marine turtles (leatherback, hawksbill, loggerhead and green sea turtles) return to their own hatching beaches to nest at Tortuguero National Park. Additionally, 442+ species of aquatic birds (including great green macaws, crested guans, northern jacanas, collared aracari toucans, mandible toucans, and tiger, green, and boat-billed herons) live at Tortuguero National Park. Land sightings may include any of 138 mammals, such as tapirs, monkeys, peccaries, and the not-oft-sighted jaguar, while the once-prevalent manatees have become almost impossible to sight below the water’s surface. Keep an eye out for the 58 amphibian species, and 460 arthropod species on record.

Getting there/around

Tortuguero is very remote; accessible only by boat and plane. There’s nothing much around the park aside from its numerous lodges. To get there, travel 71 miles by road from San José to La Pavona. The park is an additional 10-15 miles by boat from La Pavona.

Most visitors arrive on a tour that includes transportation from San José. Much less commonly, you can arrive via private transfer/bus to La Pavona, taking a one-hour boat ride to Tortuguero National Park. The airport landing strip is located north of town; daily flights into Tortuguero are available via Nature Air and Sansa.

How to get to Cahuita National Park

Coastal rainforests and Caribbean culture

Sandy hiking trails and beach time

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.

Costa-Rica_Cahuita

Cahuita National Park highlights

  • Snorkelling is extremely popular here, as Cahuita is home to Costa Rica’s best coral reefs. Swimming, canoe, and scuba diving are good fun in the water.
  • Turtle nesting tours to see the loggerhead, leatherback and the hawksbill sea turtles that nest here every March-October.

  • Hiking is very popular along the sandy, easy trail where wildlife sightings are the easiest you’ll find in Costa Rica.

  • Playa Blanca attracts beach-goers with its blue-flag status white sand.

  • Caribbean culture the population speaks a patois English as a first language (although everyone also speaks Spanish), and the cuisine is very Caribbean--jerk chicken, breadfruit, and coconut everything.

At a glance

  • In size, Cahuita National Park is 2,723 land acres and 57,550 marine acres--a total area almost 1.5 times the area of Washington DC
  • The park was first protected in 1970, and declared a national park in 1978

  • Cahuita’s name comes from two indigenous words: kawe (“sangrillo”) and ta (“point”)-- Cahuita, or Sangrillo Point.

  • There are restrooms, potable water, showers and changing rooms, an information centre, picnic areas, and parking at the Puerto Vargas sector. The park also has well-trained guides, as well as a lifeguard.

Weather

This coastal region is warm and humid year-round, with rainfall common. The weather is unpredictable, so raingear is recommended. Insects here are pervasive and furious, so bring plenty of repellent.

The southern Caribbean sees a flip-flop of its seasons; in opposition with the rest of the country, the dry (more accurately, drier) season here is May-November, and the rainy season is November-April.

Any time of year offers good hiking, especially in the morning, but if you’re here for the turtles, plan on March-October. This season also sees less rain, so snorkel/scuba waters are generally clearer.

Sandy hike with a sea view

The park’s only trail measures almost five miles and connects the Kelly Creek Ranger Station, in Playa Blanca, to Puerto Vargas. Only a mile of the trail is not the sandy, coastal path for which Cahuita is so well known.

Nature and wildlife

On land, Cahuita National Park comprises lowland coastal rainforest. In the water, the park is home to an impressive 600 acres of coral reef.

The most exciting wildlife at Cahuita lives in the water: the reef is home to a huge variety of corals (staghorn coral, sea fans, and more), sea cucumbers, octopuses, Caribbean lobsters, and 125+ fish species, including angel fish, tropical parrot fish, butterfly fish, and the (invasive) lionfish.

On land, there are 400+ bird species and a good variety of mammals and reptiles, among them howler and white-faced monkeys, two- and three-toed sloths, basilisk (aka Jesus Christ) lizards, eyelash palm pit-vipers, green iguanas, armadillos, anteaters, and agoutis.

Getting there/around

The park is located 126 miles (4-4.5 hours) southeast of San José, and 29 miles (50 minutes) southeast of Limón

For international flights, the closest airport is SJO; local flights travel into Limón. From there, it’s 29 miles south to Cahuita. Most visitors to the area stay in either Puerto Viejo (slightly more urban, with more of a party atmosphere) or the town of Cahuita (more tranquil).

There are two park entrances, one at Puerto Vargas and the other at Playa Blanca. Playa Blanca is the more popular, easier entrance since you simply walk in from the town of Cahuita.

How to get to Arenal Volcano National Park

Must-see peak, and adventure capital

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.

Costa-Rica_arenal-volcano

Arenal Volcano National Park highlights

  • Trail hiking inside the park, including over old lava flows.
  • Birdwatching is superb. Coveted sightings include the resplendent quetzal, keel-billed toucan, laughing falcon, dull-mantled antbird, great potoo, various tanagers, and the endangered three-wattled bellbird.

  • Horseback riding tours skirt the park proper.

  • Arenal Volcano cone. Behold from afar, but note that you cannot climb the volcanic cone (due to the danger of poisonous gases).

  • Magnificent views great for nature photographers. Find sweeping panoramas of Lake Arenal, and the Tilarán mountain range.

  • La Fortuna. Adventure activities are big in La Fortuna (often referred to as “Arenal”), and range from serious adventure (waterfall rappelling, caving at Venado caverns, Class III-IV whitewater rafting, mountain biking, ATV tours, canopy zip-lining, windsurfing, waterskiing, wakeskating, and wakeboarding), to mild adventure (safari floats, class II-III whitewater rafting, lake kayaking, hanging bridges, waterfall/volcano hiking, and horseback riding).

  • Volcano-fed hot springs rumoured to have medicinal properties are very popular in the area. Tabacón, with its incredible botanical gardens, is the most famous, while Baldí is known for its waterpark-like family feel (including waterslides). Many other hot springs have cropped up, including at several of the area’s midrange and luxury hotels.

At a glance

  • Arenal Volcano National Park is 29,692 acres in size -- about twice the size of Manhattan.
  • The park was established September 30, 1991 and is Costa Rica’s fourth-newest national park.

  • You’ll find potable water, parking, and restrooms at the park entrance. A lookout point (volcano and lake) is a short hike from the main entrance. No camping is permitted at Arenal Volcano National Park.

  • Choose from three hiking trails -- Las Heliconias Trail, El Ceibo Trail, and Las Coladas Trail -- measuring from about 1/3 mile to 1.5 miles long.

  • The Peninsula sector is being improved with two new trails -- Los Miradores and El Tororoi -- that lead two great lookouts and a 26-foot observation tower. It will also feature a new visitor centre, cafeteria, and souvenir shop.

  • Note: Off-trail hiking is not permitted. Access to Cerro Chato and the crater are prohibited; entering these zones is illegal and can result in penalties.

Is the volcano active?

Lava flow is inconsistent (there hasn’t been much more than steam and smoke since 2010), but when the lava is flowing, investigate which side has lava (it has alternated over the years), then book a hotel there. Watching red-hot lava flows from your hotel room is spectacular!

Weather

Temperatures generally fall in the 23-32 C (75-90 F) range. There are two main seasons: dry (November-April) and wet (May-October). However, given that the area is mostly rainforest, clouds are common year-round (and often cover the volcanic cone), and rain is possible at any time.

Arenal Volcano National Park is popular with visitors year-round, although your chances of sun and clear skies are better during mornings in the dry season. Always carry lightweight rain gear.

Nature and wildlife

The volcanic cone is partly rainforest, partly old lava flows. The greater park is about a third primary rainforest, with the remaining landscapes comprised of secondary forest, farmland, scrub brush, and volcanic badlands.

With habitats so rich and varied, wildlife abounds. An estimated half of Costa Rica’s land-dwelling vertebrates live in Arenal Volcano National Park. Wildlife sightings often include white-nosed coatimundi, sloths, spider and howler monkeys, and white-tailed deer (Costa Rica’s national symbol of wildlife). More than half of all Costa Rica’s resident bird species, including the resplendent quetzal, can be spotted in or around Arenal Volcano National Park.

Getting there/around

Arenal Volcano National Park is located about 80 miles northwest of San José (2.5 to 3 hours’ drive) and 81 miles southeast of Liberia (2.5 to 3 hours’ drive).

To get there, fly into SJO or LIR; stay in La Fortuna, Nuevo Arenal or Tilarán. Most guests visit the park on a private tour. No public buses run directly to the park (it only travels the main road, and it would be a hike into the park), but taxis from downtown La Fortuna usually run $20-$25.

Arenal Volcano National Park has only one public park entrance, located about 1 mile west (and down a dirt road) of the famous Tabacón Hot Springs.

How to get to Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve

Misty forested highlands, straddling the Continental Divide

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. Don’t be surprised if you imagine a fairy perched on a flower’s delicate stamen.

Costa-Rica_Monteverde

Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve highlights

  • Trail hiking is the favourite pastime within the park.
  • A hummingbird garden, just outside the gift shop at the park’s entrance, is guaranteed to delight adults and kids alike.

  • Adventure activities in the area surrounding Monteverde are incredibly popular, with the full suite of canopy ziplines, aerial trams, hanging bridges and horseback riding.

  • Cultural activities like coffee and sugar cane tours shed light on Costa Rican daily life. To sample a local treat, the Monteverde Cheese Factory is a must.

  • Nature sites, such as the local frog pond and insectarium, are great for young kids.

At a glance

  • Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve’s protected area status is “private biological reserve” rather than national park.
  • At 10,193 acres it’s just two-fifths the size of Disney World.

  • The founding Quakers arrived in the 1950s, and the reserve was established in 1972, with the help of visiting scientist George Powell. An initial purchase of 811 acres established the preserve.

  • As a very popular private reserve, Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve offers a wide range of services: an information centre, guided tours, a gift shop, a restaurant, restrooms, potable water, and dormitory lodging. Guided day and night hikes are popular.

  • The park’s 8 miles of hiking trails are comprised of nine trails, or “senderos”. Pantanoso, Camino, Bosque Nuboso, Quebrada Cuecha, and Chomogo are the most popular. El Río, Wilford Guindon, Roble, and Tosi are less trodden.

What is a cloud forest?

Monteverde bridges the Continental Divide. It is this division that creates the park’s iconic cloud forest, as clouds form on the Caribbean side and blow through the Tilaran Mountain Range and onto the Pacific side of the reserve. The clouds hang beautifully at low levels against the montane forest.

Weather

Average temperatures range 15-25 C (59-77 F). It’s rainy year-round here since the reserve is a rainforest, but it’s slightly cooler, windier and less rainy during the “dry” season of December-April. The best time for bird watching (including the spectacular and much-sought resplendent quetzal) is from December-April.

Nature and wildlife

Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve is home to premontane rainforest, low montane rainforest (the vast majority of the park’s acreage), low montane wet forest, and premontane wet forest.

The reserve houses 500+ bird species (including resplendent quetzals, bare-necked umbrella birds, three-wattled bellbirds, hummingbirds, black guans, and tanangers), 120 reptile and amphibian species (including glass frogs), and 130 mammals (including 58 bat species, Baird’s tapir, porcupines, white-faced and howler monkeys, and two-toed sloths).

A thriving flora consists of 3,000+ plant species, among them 500 species of orchids. An incredible 10% of the flora is endemic, and Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve is home to a breathtaking 2.5% of the world’s total biodiversity.

Getting there/around

The reserve is located 91 miles (3.5-4 hours) northwest of San José; and 72 miles (2.5 hours) southeast of Liberia. To get there, fly into either San José or Liberia, and stay in the towns of Santa Elena, Cerro Plano or Monteverde. Travelers to La Fortuna/Arenal often take the shortcut over Lake Arenal, to visit Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve either on a daytrip or as the next stop on their itinerary.

Monteverde’s public entrance is located at the end of a dirt road. Just follow signs from downtown Santa Elena.

How to get to Corcovado National Park

Remote and biologically intense

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!

Only the truly devoted will reach this incredibly isolated park. Their reward is an oasis of incredible sights--pristine beaches, primary rainforest, waterfalls and rivers--and sightings, including humpback whales, nesting sea turtles, and an array of endangered animals, including jaguars, Central American squirrel monkeys, and Baird’s tapir.

Costa-Rica_Corcovado

Corcovado National Park highlights

  • Trail hiking is a favourite pastime at Corcovado National Park. Long-distance trails include the Leona-Sirena route and Patos-Sirena route. Short-distance trails include paths originating in San Pedrillo, Sirena, El Tigre, Los Patos, and La Leona (trails lead to turtle nesting beaches). All ranger stations offer trails through primary and secondary rainforest.

  • Bird and wildlife watching are very popular, as Corcovado National Park is home to exotic and endangered animals, including Baird’s tapir, northern tamandua anteaters, tayras, and wildcats, including ocelots, pumas and jaguars. In Río Sirena bull shark and American crocodile sightings are common.

  • Sea turtles can be spotted at their nesting site on Playa Llorona, which is connected from San Pedrillo by trails that weave through mangrove forest.

  • Horseback rides and boating are common from both Puerto Jimenez and Drake Bay. Corcovado National Park’s ranger stations are extremely isolated and often difficult to reach by vehicle, so reaching the park is a journey in itself.

  • Learn about land use from local palmito (heart of palm) growers, cocoa growers, and even gold miners who make their living from the land in the area.

At a glance

  • Corcovado National Park covers 105,168 land acres and 8,288 marine acres.
  • The park was established on October 24, 1975, making it Costa Rica’s 10th national park.

  • Unlike most of Costa Rica’s parks, Corcovado has six entrance points, located at a great distance (several hours in a car, due to circuitous driving routes) from each other. They are: San Pedrillo, Sirena, La Leona, El Tigre, Los Planes, and Los Patos. The four most visited ranger stations are Sirena, San Pedrillo, La Leona and Los Patos.

  • Facilities include potable water, public restrooms, public telephones, and an information desk at all stations. There are no facilities between stations, so accidents en route can be quite dangerous. Food service is available at Sirena and El Tigre sectors; prior reservation required. The Sirena sector has a landing strip for small planes.

  • Camping is available for $4 (+ $15 park fee) at San Pedrillo and Sirena; reservations are required, and you must bring your own camping gear (including tent). Maximum stay: 4 nights.

“Biologically Intense”

National Geographic has called Corcovado National Park "the most biologically intense place on Earth" and for very good reason! The park is home to at least 375 bird species, 124 mammal species, 40 freshwater fish species, 71 reptile species, 46 amphibian species, and 8,000 insect species.

Weather

Corcovado National Park has two basic climate zones: the coast and the highlands, which climb to about 2,565 feet (782m) above sea level. The coast sees about 138 inches (3,500mm) of rain a year, while the highlands are significantly wetter, with 217 inches (5,500mm) of rain yearly.

The dry (or less rainy--it is a rainforest!) season spans mid-December through mid-April. The wet season lasts mid-April through mid-December. Visitors choose Corcovado National Park year-round, although it’s important to note that the Sirena station is closed in October, and San Pedrillo is closed May 1 through December 1. While the rainy season is, of course, wetter, this is also prime whale-watching season (July-November; also December-March).

Nature and wildlife

Along the coast and lowlands, Corcovado National Park is mostly primary lowland tropical rainforest. A 1930s gold rush and the logging industry did cause some deforestation, so parts of the park are secondary rainforest. The park’s highlands climb to about 2,500 feet in altitude.

Wildlife reigns supreme in Corcovado National Park. The park is home to at least 375 bird species--white-crested coquette, parakeets, harpy eagles, turquoise cotinga, and various trogons, to name a few. Corcovado is also home to Central America’s largest populations of scarlet macaws and great curassows.

An impressive 124 mammal species inhabit Corcovado NP--think bats, pumas, Baird’s tapirs, anteaters, white-lipped peccaries, and four monkey species (spider, white-faced, howler, and squirrel).

Other park inhabitants are 40 freshwater fish species, 71 reptile species (including pit vipers), 46 amphibian species (many of them tree frogs), and 8,000 insect species.

In the water, humpback whales get top billing, but sightings also extend to sei whales, killer whales (orcas), pilot whales, beaked whales, spinner dolphins, bottlenose dolphins, rough-tooth dolphins, Risso's dolphins, and spotted dolphins.

Costa-Rica_Corcovado_Sloth

Getting there/around

Travel distance and times will depend on the station and point of entry. Drake Bay is located 228 miles (6+ hours) southwest of San José. Puerto Jimenez is 233 miles (5.5 hours) southwest of San José. There are also multiple daily flights from San José to Sierpe, Drake Bay and Puerto Jimenez.

If you’re not camping in the park, you’ll be staying at one of the towns of Sierpe, Drake Bay, or Puerto Jimenez, which means lengthy day trips into the very isolated, often difficult-to-reach ranger stations.

Since there are no roads into the park, you must arrive by air, hike, boat or horseback, often on trails that take 1-15 hours to access on foot. Overnight trips are common, and must be arranged well in advance with a guide or tour operator.

In order to protect Corcovado National Park’s incredible biodiversity (and the people who visit), visits to this park are more regulated than elsewhere. For example, many hikes may only be done at low tide, as higher rivers are not fordable, and are filled with sharks and crocs. Swimming is prohibited at several beaches due to abnormally strong currents, aggressive bull sharks and crocs, and for the protection of sea turtles. Guides are strongly recommended, and visitors should always ask for recommendations and regulations from rangers before setting out on a hike.

How to get to Tenorio Volcano National Park

Startling blue waters and waterfalls

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.

While the park’s eponymous volcano is gently active (and fuels the natural hot springs), the real star of the show is Río Celeste, a cerulean-coloured river that tumbles into a roaring waterfall.

Costa-Rica_Tenorio-Volcan

Highlights

  • Río Celeste, a baby-blue river with an impressive waterfall almost 100 feet tall. Río Celeste waterfall is an iconic image of Costa Rica, one of the most recognizable--a bit ironic, since Tenorio Volcano National Park and Río Celeste are very rural, infrequently visited (due to location far from any tourist hub), hard to hike, and one of the “best-kept secrets” in Costa Rica.
  • The “Mysteries of Tenorio” trail through the park, which is two miles of intermediate difficulty and can take 4-6 hours, depending on whether you stop for a soak in the hot springs.

  • A blue lagoon, intensely coloured, is a very popular attraction, though you can only look--do not touch--due to high chemical concentrations.

  • The teñidero, or dyed waters, are a startling spot where clear and baby-blue waters meet.

  • Volcanic terrain makes for bubbling mud pots, thermal geysers, and fissures where hot, volcanic gases escape. Additionally, there are mineral hot springs.

  • Remote and rural. The area around Tenorio Volcano National Park is extremely rural; the closest “big” towns are Cañas and Upala.

  • Have a local encounter with the campesinos (farmers) who run local restaurants nearby, or try a tour with the Maleku Indian reservation.

At a glance

  • 31,805 acres in size, Tenorio Volcano National Park is roughly three-quarters the size of Washington DC.
  • Established April 27, 1995, Tenorio Volcano is one of Costa Rica’s newest parks.

  • This is one of Costa Rica’s more remote national parks, and services are few: potable water, restrooms, and parking. There are trails through the park, as well as a mirador lookout point. You can order a hearty, filling meal at the park entrance; it will be ready when you finish the hike.

  • The park’s main trail, “The Mysteries of Tenorio,” measures just 2 miles long but is very rustic, and usually takes 4-6 hours to hike. It winds past the waterfall, blue lagoon, Teñidero, and volcanic gases, and can easily make a stop at the hot springs.

Weather

Tenorio Volcano National Park is heavily influenced by its Caribbean side. The park receives an average 138 inches of rainfall each year and is home to rainforest ecosystems, including rainforests classified as high-rain rainforests. Temperatures average 15-23 C (59-75 F).

The park sees year-round rains, although Costa Rica’s dry season (November-April) is a bit dryer, especially on the western (Pacific) side of the park.

Visitors come year-round, although there’s a definite preference for the dry season when the river (which you’ll have to ford) is calmer. No matter when you visit, aim for a morning visit to decrease your chances of being caught in a rainstorm.

Blue paint water

According to local legend, when God painted the sky, he washed his blue brushes in the Río Celeste river, turning its waters an enchanting shade of turquoise. More scientifically, the color comes from a chemical reaction between volcanic minerals.

Nature and wildlife

Tenorio Volcano National Park receives both Caribbean and Pacific influences--influences that contribute to the park’s diverse ecosystems and climates: low-montane rainforest, tropical rainforest, pre-montane transitional tropical forest, high-rain rainforest, and high-rain premontane forest. Bottom line: The park sees a lush average of 138 inches of annual rainfall!

The park is home to a wide variety of wildlife, among them the puma, jaguarundi, Baird's tapir, collared peccary, white-faced monkey, howler monkey, ocelot, Central American agouti, margay, lowland paca, and tayra; birds including crested guan, turkey vultures, hawks, and sunbittern; and snakes, including the Central American bushmaster, eyelash palm pit vipers, coral snakes, and boas.

Getting there/around

Tenorio Volcano National Park is 122 miles (3.5 hours) northwest of San José and 44 miles (65 minutes) east of Liberia.

Day trips, often labelled Río Celeste, are common from La Fortuna/Arenal. Transit time is about 1.5 hours, one way. For travellers who want to stay a little longer, a handful of lodges (from very rustic to borderline luxury) have cropped up around the park, thanks to the relative popularity of Río Celeste and its waterfall. The lodges offer guided trips within the park.

The primary entrance to Tenorio Volcano National Park is located between Upala and Cañas, 7 miles down a via a dirt road.

How to get to Guanacaste National Park

A diamond in the rough for hikers

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.

Costa-Rica_Guanacaste

Guanacaste National Park highlights

  • Trail hiking, if you’re not here for scientific research.

  • Varied ecosystems, which are incredibly diverse and range from arid lowland savannah to highland cloud forest.

  • The park’s two volcanoes, Orosi and Cacao, are prime attractions.

  • Meet the locals, known as Guanacestecos, whose daily life involves bull and horse riding, baking fresh corn tortillas in clay ovens, and roadside sales of the local coyol wine

  • Nearby coastal resorts. Hotspots for fantastic lodges include Papagayo, Playa del Coco, Playa Hermosa, and Tamarindo, within one to two hours from Guanacaste National Park.

At a glance

  • At 84,000 acres, Guanacaste is roughly the size of the U.S. Virgin Islands.

  • The park’s birthday, July 25, 1989, is celebrated as a holiday each year. Guanacaste Day, commemorates the annexation of Guanacaste from Nicaragua to Costa Rica

  • Guanacaste National Park is extremely rustic, but there are restrooms and scientific equipment since the park houses the Guanacaste Conservation Area’s administration building, as well as the Maritza Biological Station, Cacao Biological Station, and Pitilla Biological Station. Camping is permitted within the park, and the biological stations offer dormitory bedding, dining services (by request) and other amenities, including trails and potable water.

  • Primitive hiking trails leave from each of the park’s three biological stations, traversing various ecosystems and connecting one sector to another. A professional hiking guide may not be required but is highly recommended. Hiking without a guide can be dangerous, as trails are rugged and there are no facilities between the park’s sectors.

A home for scientists

Guanacaste is home to dozens of biology researchers at any given time, attracted to the park’s astounding biodiversity. On deep hikes, you’re likely to spot the Maritza Biological Station, Cacao Biological Station, and Pitilla Biological Station.

Weather

The park’s ecosystems are varied, but to generalize, Guanacaste National Park is dry; it does receive 118 average inches of annual rainfall, courtesy of its highland cloud forests. High winds are common, especially from January through March; rains increase during these months, as well. Average temperatures range from 19-28 C (66-83 F).

The rainy season lasts from May to December; dry season is January-April, although some areas of the park still receive regular rains during that time. Other areas see very little rainfall, even during the rainy season.

For planning a visit, the dry season is preferable, since the park’s trails are very rustic and therefore even more difficult to traverse when muddy.

Nature and wildlife

Guanacaste National Park’s ecosystems are diverse and unlike the rest of Costa Rica. There are extremely dry savannahs, similar to the African plains, as well as extensive tropical dry forest, high volcanic terrain (think: moonscapes) and, in the higher elevations, cloud forest, where rain is common along the Guanacaste Mountain Range.

The park is home to 40 species of mammals. Among their ranks are white-faced monkeys, jaguars, tapirs, peccaries, pumas, tayras and armadillos. The 300+ birds include Montezuma oropendola, three-wattled bellbird, collared aracari, bare-necked umbrella bird, and northern caracara. There are over 100 species of amphibians and reptiles including eyelash palm pit vipers. Over 10,000 species of insects (including 5,000 butterfly and moth species) creep and crawl here. As a whole, the Guanacaste Conservation Area is estimated to give refuge to 65% of Costa Rica’s species (235,000!) and 2.6% of the world’s total biodiversity.

Getting there/around

Located in the north of Costa Rica, Guanacaste is 35 miles (1 hour, 15 minutes) north of Liberia and 57 miles (2 hours) northeast of Playa del Coco.

To get there, fly into Liberia (LIR); most park visitors stay along the northern Guanacaste coast, in the hubs of Papagayo, Playa del Coco, Playa Hermosa, and Tamarindo. There is no public bus into the park; a car or guided tour is required. Any of the three biological stations are reachable by vehicle.

How to get to Rincón de la Vieja Volcano National Park

A bubbling hotbed of outdoor activity

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.

A literal hotbed of outdoor activity, the park is best known for its hiking trails, which range from easy to high difficulty. During the wet season, Rincón de la Vieja Volcano National Park turns green and lush, and the park’s waterfalls roar with activity.

Costa Rica_Rincón-de-la-Vieja

Highlights

  • Hiking is the name of the game at Rincón de la Vieja. Both sectors--Las Pailas and Santa Maria--offer hiking trails that lead past a variety of sights, including waterfalls, volcanic craters, mud cauldrons, fumaroles, and hot springs, as well as through dry forest, cloud forest, and desert-like plains.
  • The Las Pailas trail winds past some of the most unique scenery in Costa Rica, including past a small volcanic crater (complete with requisite sulfur stink), fumaroles, boiling mud cauldrons, and a small volcano.

  • Rincón de la Vieja Volcano’s apex demands a difficult hike to reach. Not for the faint of heart, but the views are worth the hike.

At a glance

  • Rincón de la Vieja Volcano National Park covers 34,993 acres.
  • The park was established May 10, 1973, becoming Costa Rica’s eighth national park.

  • Facilities include potable water, parking, a picnic area, and restrooms available within the park. Camping is permitted at Rincón de la Vieja Volcano National Park; you must bring all your own camping gear.

  • There are two main trail loops, which originate at each sector entrance (Las Pailas and Santa Maria). The Las Pailas loop winds past a river, small crater, boiling mud pots, and other volcanic sights, with offshoots to the La Cangreja and Escondidas waterfalls, the crater trail, and Von Seebach Mountain (high difficulty). The Santa Maria loop leads off to the Colibrí trail, Agua Fria mudpots, Bosque Encantado waterfall, hot springs (moderate difficulty), and the mirador lookout point (high difficulty).

Weather

Rincon de la Vieja is located in Guanacaste, the hottest and driest region of Costa Rica. However, the park straddles the Continental Divide, with a different climate on each side. The Caribbean (eastern) side is lush and wet, while the Pacific (western) sector--the more visited--is very dry during half the year.

The Pacific (western) section experiences a dry season from December through April, while the Caribbean (eastern) section is wet and green year-round. The park, primarily the Caribbean side, receives nearly 200 inches of annual rainfall.

On Rincón de la Vieja Volcano National Park’s dirt hiking trails, hiking is easiest during the dry season, when mud is minimal. Additionally, when water is scarce, wildlife gathers at the rivers, facilitating animal sightings. If you’re planning on making the long, arduous (8+ hour) trip to the volcano’s summit, it’s best to do so in the drier months when views are best.

Nature and wildlife

At the volcano’s base, the park’s trails wind through a variety of ecosystems, including plains, dry forest, and cloud forest, as well as volcanic ecosystems, including small craters, fumaroles, boiling mud pots, and hot springs.

A “gently active” volcano

Rincón de la Vieja Volcano, contained within the park and the largest volcano in the Guanacaste Mountain Range, consists of nine contiguous craters. The volcano is considered “gently active,” which means that it sees only minor and infrequent eruptions.

Rincón de la Vieja may be best known for its volcanic sightseeing, but there’s plenty of wildlife here, too. At least 260 bird species (such as three-wattled bellbirds, horned guans, emerald toucanets, various quetzals, curassows, and eagles) reside here, as well as a variety of mammals, including agoutis, anteaters, peccaries, howler monkeys, and white-faced monkeys. The park is also known for its abundance of shimmery blue morpho butterflies.

Getting there/around

The park is located 16 miles (about one hour’s drive) northeast of Liberia. From San José, travel 143 miles (about four hours) northwest.

For international arrivals, fly into Liberia (LIR); stay in Liberia or Rincón de la Vieja. The closest lodging, in Rincón de la Vieja, is comprised of mostly rural lodges and ranches, often with cowboy inspirations. (Cowboy culture is a big part of Guanacaste’s history.)

There are two entrances to the park: Las Pailas (the more popular) and Santa Maria (Rincón de la Vieja Volcano National Park headquarters). No buses run from Liberia to Rincón de la Vieja; the only access is via private transfer, a guided tour or taxi ($45+).

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