Costa Rica occupies a central spot in the isthmus that joins North and South America. For millennia, this land bridge served as a migratory thoroughfare and mating ground for species native to the once-separate continents. It was also where the Mesoamerican and Andean pre-Columbian indigenous cultures met.
In any one spot in Costa Rica, temperatures remain relatively constant year-round. However, they vary dramatically according to altitude, from tropically hot and steamy along the coasts to below freezing at the highest elevations. These variations in altitude, temperature, and precipitation give rise to a wide range of ecosystems and habitats, which are described in “Costa Rica’s Ecosystems,” below.
For its part, the wide variety of ecosystems and habitats has blessed the country with a unique biological bounty. More than 10,000 identified species of plants; 900 species of birds; 13,500 species of butterflies and moths; and 250 species of mammals, reptiles, and amphibians are found here. Thankfully, for both visitors and the local flora and fauna alike, nearly one-quarter of Costa Rica’s entire landmass is protected either as part of a national park or private nature reserve. This chapter includes descriptions of the most important national parks and bioreserves in the country.
Costa Rica’s Top National Parks & Reserves
Costa Rica, which is smaller than West Virginia, has an astonishing 27 national parks, in addition to scores of public and private reserves dedicated to conservation, often funded in part by tourism. Some of these forests are totally inaccessible and even unexplored, notably the vast La Amistad International Park that straddles the Costa Rican–Panamanian border. Others are compact and easily walkable, including the two most popular parks in the country, Manuel Antonio and Poás Volcano.
Most of the national parks charge foreigners around $10 to $20 admission. Costa Ricans and legal residents pay much less. But some parks charge nothing, accept donations, or charge at one entrance but not at another.
This section is not a complete listing of all of Costa Rica’s national parks and protected areas, but rather a selective list of those parks that are of greatest interest and accessibility. You’ll find detailed information about food and lodging options near some of the individual parks in the regional chapters that follow.
If you’re looking for a camping adventure or an extended stay in one of the national parks, I recommend Corcovado, Santa Rosa, Rincón de la Vieja, or Chirripó. Most of the others are better suited for day trips or guided hikes.
For more information, call the national parks information line at [tel] 1192, or the main office at tel. 2283-8004.
The Central Valley
Guayabo National Monument — ]Like historical puzzles? You’ll want to visit Guayabo, Costa Rica’s top archaeological site. It was once home to a mysterious people whose name has been lost to history and who abandoned the site for reasons unknown before the Spanish arrived. The ruins of homes, roads, and aqueducts, along with petroglyphs and tombs, suggest a complex society led by a cacique, a chief, who ruled from this capital over lesser villages. You won’t find spectacular ruins like at Chichen Itza or Tikal, but if you read the informative signs and use your imagination, you can picture a fascinating civilization that once thrived here. Location: 19km (12 miles) northeast of Turrialba, which is 53km (33 miles) east of San José.
Irazú Volcano National Park — Irazú Volcano is the highest (3,378m/11,080 ft.) of Costa Rica’s active volcanoes and a popular day trip from San José. A paved road leads right up to the crater, and the lookout has a view of both the Pacific and the Caribbean on a clear day. The volcano last erupted in March of 1963, on the same day U.S. President John F. Kennedy visited the country. The park has picnic tables, restrooms, an information center, and a parking area. Location: 55km (34 miles) east of San José.
Poás Volcano National Park — Poás is the other active volcano close to San José. The main crater is more than 1.6km (1 mile) wide, and it is constantly active with fumaroles and hot geysers. Poás is arguably a more inviting trip than Irazú, because it’s surrounded by dense cloud forest and has nice, gentle trails to hike. Although the area around the volcano is lush, much of the growth is stunted due to the gases and acid rain. The park has picnic tables, restrooms, and an information center. Location: 37km (23 miles) northwest of San José. Note: A series of eruptions started in April, 2017, and resulted in the closure of the park, though it is expected to re-open in late 2018 or early 2019.
Guanacaste & the Nicoya Peninsula
The Cabo Blanco Absolute Natural Reserve — At the tip of the Nicoya Peninsula between Malpaís and Montezuma is this stunning conservation area. In addition to its beautiful beaches, the reserve is an important nesting ground for frigate birds, brown boobies, and brown pelicans. Location: 182km (113 miles) southwest of San José.
Palo Verde National Park — A must for bird-watchers, Palo Verde National Park is one of Costa Rica’s best-kept secrets. This part of the Tempisque River lowlands supports a population of more than 50,000 waterfowl and forest bird species. Various ecosystems here include mangroves, savanna brush lands, and evergreen forests. The park has camping facilities, an information center, and some rustic, dorm-style accommodations at the Organization for Tropical Studies (OTS) research station here. Location: 200km (124 miles) northwest of San José. Be warned that the park entrance is 28km (17 miles) off the highway down a very rugged dirt road; it’s another 9km (5[bf]1/2 miles) to the OTS station and campsites. For more information, call the OTS [tel] 2524-0607).
Rincón de la Vieja National Park — This large tract of parkland experiences high volcanic activity, with numerous fumaroles and geysers, as well as hot springs, cold pools, and mud pots. You’ll find excellent hikes to the upper craters and to several waterfalls. Camping is permitted at two sites, each with an information center, a picnic area, and restrooms. Location: 266km (165 miles) northwest of San José.
Santa Rosa National Park — Occupying a large section of Costa Rica’s northwestern Guanacaste province, Santa Rosa has the country’s largest area of tropical dry forest, important turtle-nesting sites, and the historically significant La Casona monument. The beaches are pristine and have basic camping facilities, and the waves make them quite popular with surfers. An information center, a picnic area, and restrooms are at the main campsite and entrance. Additional campsites are located on the almost-always deserted and entirely undeveloped beaches here. Location: 258km (160 miles) northwest of San José. For more information, you can call the park office at [tel] 2666-5051.
The Nicoya Peninsula
Barra Honda National Park — Costa Rica’s only underground national park, Barra Honda features a series of limestone caves that were part of a coral reef some 60 million years ago. Today the caves are home to millions of bats and impressive stalactite and stalagmite formations. Only Terciopelo Cave is open to the public. A camping area, restrooms, and an information center are here, as well as trails through the surrounding tropical dry forest. Location: 335km (208 miles) northwest of San José.
The Northern Zone
Arenal National Park — This park, created to protect the ecosystem that surrounds Arenal Volcano, has a couple of good trails and a prominent lookout point that is extremely close to the volcano. The main trail here takes you through a mix of transitional forest, rainforest, and open savanna, before an invigorating scramble over a massive rock field formed by a cooled-off lava flow. Location: 129km (80 miles) northwest of San José. (Pictured at the top of the page)
Caño Negro National Wildlife Refuge — A lowland swamp and drainage basin for several northern rivers, Caño Negro is excellent for bird-watching. A few basic cabins and lodges are in this area, but the most popular way to visit is on a combined van and boat trip from the La Fortuna/Arenal area. Location: 20km (12 miles) south of Los Chiles, near the Nicaraguan border.
Monteverde Cloud Forest Biological Reserve — This private reserve might be the most famous patch of forest in Costa Rica. It covers some 10,520 hectares (26,000 acres) of primary forest, mostly mid-elevation cloud forest, with a rich variety of flora and fauna. Epiphytes thrive in the cool, misty climate. The most renowned resident is the spectacular resplendent quetzal. The park has a well-maintained trail system, as well as some of the most experienced guides in the country. Nearby you can visit the Santa Elena or other reserves. Location: 167km (104 miles) northwest of San José.
Central Pacific Coast
Carara National Park — Located just south of the famous bridge over the Río Tárcoles, where you can always see crocodiles, Carara is a bird-watcher’s dream, home to scarlet macaws, toucans, trogons, motmots, woodpeckers, and hummingbirds. Several trails run through the park, including one that is wheelchair-accessible. The park contains various ecosystems, ranging from rainforests to mangroves, and is a transitional zone where the dry forests of Guanacaste turn into the wet forests of the central Pacific. Location: 102km (63 miles) west of San José.
Chirripó National Park — Home to Costa Rica’s tallest peak, 3,761m (12,336-ft.) Mount Chirripó, Chirripó National Park is a hike, but on a clear day you can see both the Pacific Ocean and the Caribbean Sea from its summit. In addition to the summit, a number of trails here lead to beautiful rock formations and small lakes—all well above the tree line. Location: 151km (94 miles) southeast of San José.
Manuel Antonio National Park — Though physically small, Manuel Antonio is the most popular national park in Costa Rica and supports the largest number of hotels and resorts. This lowland rainforest is home to a healthy monkey population, including the endangered squirrel monkey, and the park is known for its splendid beaches. Location: 129km (80 miles) south of San José.
The Southern Zone
Corcovado National Park — The largest block of virgin lowland rainforest in Central America, Corcovado National Park receives more than 500cm (200 in.) of rain per year. It’s remote, but it’s easier to get to than you might think, and it’s well worth it. Scarlet macaws are abundant here, and it’s home to two of the country’s largest cats, the jaguar and the puma, as well as Costa Rica’s largest land mammal, the Baird’s tapir. There are camping facilities at the Sirena ranger station, but you’ll have to hire a guide, get a permit, and plan ahead to square away all the logistics. Additionally, there are dozens of ecolodges on the edges of the park that take day hikes to the interior. Location: 335km (208 miles) south of San José, on the Osa Peninsula.
The Caribbean Coast
Cahuita National Park — A combination land and marine park, Cahuita National Park protects one of the few remaining living coral reefs in the country. The topography here is lush lowland tropical rainforest. Monkeys, sloths, and birds are common. Location: On the Caribbean coast, 42km (26 miles) south of Limón.
Tortuguero National Park — Tortuguero National Park has been called the Venice of Costa Rica because of its maze of jungle canals, which meander through a dense lowland rainforest. Small boats, launches, and canoes carry visitors through these waterways, where caimans, manatees, and numerous bird and mammal species are common. The extremely endangered great green macaw lives here. Green sea turtles nest on the beaches every year between June and October. The park has a small but helpful information office and some well-marked trails. Location: 258km (160 miles) northeast of San José.
Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.