Costa Rica is renowned for its stunning nature. Almost everywhere you go, you’ll find impressive landscapes and exotic wildlife, even outside the parks. However, it’s still worth visiting a national park. With 29 different options (and the number keeps growing), it can be difficult to choose. That’s why we’ve compiled an overview of the national parks in Costa Rica that you shouldn’t miss.
Should you visit a national park at all?
During our road trip through Costa Rica, we stumbled upon beautiful places, sometimes unintentionally. The nature is breathtakingly beautiful almost everywhere you go, and the same can be said for the wildlife in Costa Rica. For example, the first sloth we saw was lazily hanging from a tree along the road.
You might think that visiting a national park is unnecessary. However, we recommend visiting a few parks because the biodiversity there is particularly extraordinary. This increases your chances of encountering exotic animals. Additionally, by buying a ticket or making a donation, you contribute to the conservation of nature.
Costa Rica takes good care of its nature
More than a quarter of Costa Rica is protected natural areas, surpassing any other country in the world. A significant portion of this protected land is located within national parks. Currently, Costa Rica boasts 29 such parks, managed by a specialized division of the government.
Tips for visiting a national park in Costa Rica
Our most important tip: hire a guide at least once. This guarantees that you’ll see more animals and learn a great deal about nature. Some parks offer guided tours, but you’ll often find “freelancers” near the entrance. If you opt for the latter, make sure your guide has a good pair of binoculars (preferably on a tripod).
Feeding animals is strictly prohibited. As a result, some parks have strict entrance policies. In heavily visited parks, bringing chips or cookies is not allowed. Drones may not be welcome either. Smaller parks usually have fewer restrictions.
If you want to avoid crowds, visit the park early in the morning. This has multiple benefits: you’ll see more animals, it’s cooler, and you can spend the rest of the day relaxing on the beach.
Here are our favorite national parks in Costa Rica
Enough information. It’s time for our list of Costa Rica’s national parks that you absolutely must not miss.
1. Monteverde Cloud Forest
Monteverde is quite remote, but nearly everyone is willing to endure a bumpy two-hour ride. And for good reason: the hilly area is almost always enveloped in a mysterious mist, hence its name, the Cloud Forest.
Due to its unique climate, Monteverde is home to countless plant and animal species. We visited the Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve with a guide, which we highly recommend as the park harbors half of all flora and fauna species in Costa Rica.
If you’re looking to combine nature with a good dose of adrenaline, consider a zip-lining excursion and a walk across impressive suspension bridges. These activities take place in commercial parks, but the surroundings are equally impressive.
2. Tortuguero National Park
It’s no coincidence that Tortuguero National Park is also difficult to reach. For the most beautiful places on Earth, you often have to make a little more effort. Tortuguero is nestled between the Caribbean Sea and a vast expanse of rainforest. You can only reach it by boat or small plane.
Don’t be discouraged! The boat trip to Tortuguero is affordable and an adventure in itself. A winding river takes you through the rainforest to the village of Tortuguero. Make sure to book accommodation there because you can easily spend multiple days exploring the national park.
We recommend visiting the park with a guide as it can only be accessed by boat. You’ll navigate through mangrove forests and encounter monkeys, birds, and crocodiles. You can also opt to paddle yourself by renting a canoe.
Tortuguero is a popular nesting site for turtles. Various species come here to lay their eggs on the beach a few times a year. To protect the turtles, you can only see them on an organized tour.
3. Arenal National Park
As soon as you enter La Fortuna, you’ll see it: the 1,600-meter-high active volcano, Arenal. Unfortunately, you can’t climb it, but a long hike will bring you close to the base of the volcano. There, you’ll have a magnificent view of Arenal and walk on solidified lava blocks.
People mainly visit Arenal National Park because of the volcano, but it’s worth noting that during a hike through the misty and rainy forests, you’ll encounter many animals. Feeling adventurous? Hike to Chato, a volcano that has been inactive for 3,500 years. The round trip takes about 2 hours (one way only), but you’ll be rewarded with an amazing crater lake.
The Arenal volcano can be especially impressive in the evening. With a bit of luck, you might see glowing lava streaming down.
4. Marino Ballena National Park
Despite its area of 5,300 hectares, Marino Ballena National Park feels quite small. That’s because only 170 hectares of this protected area are located on land. The rest of the park is in the sea, and it’s all about the marine creatures that love to swim here.
The humpback whales specifically come here to breed. This happens between July and the end of October. They return with their calves from December to March. But even outside of these months, you can spot whales here. So, rent a boat with a guide and hope for some luck. We saw a mother with her baby, an unforgettable experience!
What makes Marino Ballena even more special is that its beach is shaped like a whale’s tail. According to our Costa Rican guide, that can’t be a coincidence.
5. Cahuita National Park
Cahuita National Park is the hidden gem of Costa Rica, located near the popular coastal town of Puerto Viejo. The park consists of a manageable stretch of jungle that extends as a point into the sea. Along a clearly marked trail, you’ll walk between tropical beaches and dense jungle.
We hired a guide here, but even without one, you’re guaranteed to see coatis and capuchin monkeys. You should keep a close eye on them, though. If you’re unsuspectingly lying on one of the wonderfully peaceful beaches, they might snatch your belongings and run off. We witnessed several tourists panicking and chasing after a monkey or raccoon. In vain.
Snorkeling is highly recommended here as part of the sea is also included in Cahuita National Park. The underwater life is just as extraordinary as the flora and fauna on land. With a mask and snorkel, you can spot sea turtles, 35 species of coral, 140 species of mollusks, and over 120 different fish.
6. Manuel Antonio National Park
The most popular park in Costa Rica was the least impressive for us, probably due to its enormous popularity. There were queues at the entrance, similar to an amusement park, neatly laid-out paths, and information boards you would find in a zoo. It’s well-organized but somewhat crowded.
Nevertheless, Manuel Antonio is a beautiful nature park with multiple walking trails and a lovely beach. You’ll even find showers and changing rooms there. That’s the advantage of a tourist attraction.
If you plan to visit Manuel Antonio National Park, book a hotel nearby, avoid bringing prohibited items (such as soda or a professional camera), and leave as early as possible.
These are six parks in Costa Rica that you absolutely must visit. We understand that this list is highly subjective, so we’re curious which park in Costa Rica has made the biggest impression on you. It might even be a place we haven’t mentioned at all. Let us know in the comments below.
All national parks in Costa Rica
These are six parks in Costa Rica that you absolutely must visit. Curious about other parks? The number of national parks in Costa Rica continues to grow. For an up-to-date overview of all parks, it’s best to visit this Wikipedia page.
What is your favorite national park in Costa Rica?
As we mentioned before, this list is highly subjective. That’s why we’re curious to know which park in Costa Rica has made the biggest impression on you. It might even be a place we haven’t mentioned at all. Feel free to let us know in the comments below.