Costa Rica is best known for its incredible natural landscapes, stunning beaches, and of course, slow moving sloths. What makes the country so special and attractive to nature lovers and tourists from around the world is that 5% of the world’s biodiversity is in Costa Rica. There are half a million species of flora and fauna and 25% of the country is protected parks and land.
When living there, I loved being able to take excursions to visit some of the national parks to get more intimate with nature and experience the variety of microclimates and wildlife. Here are 5 national parks that you must visit to get a taste of all that Costa Rica has to offer.
Tortuguero National Park
Tortuguero National Park is a rare national park that you can experience by boat. It’s more of a trek than the other parks listed here since you need to drive to La Pavona, about 3 hours from San Jose, and then take a 30 minute ferry (really, a small boat) to the village of Tortuguero where you get tours, lodging and food. Located in the northern Caribbean coast of the country, the village is on a sand bar island, separated from the mainland by Tortuguero River, bordering the Caribbean Sea. The park consists of 172,000 hectares, over 425,000 acres, of protected land and only 1 percent of that is used for tourism. The park is open from 8am to 6pm and costs $15 for adults.
I recommend spending at least a night there since the best time to take a boat tour is the morning. It’s too hot to be out there in the middle of the day when the sun is beaming! Also I’m told it’s better to see the animals early in the morning since they are also hiding from the heat too. I could spend two full days in the national park — one on land and one via boat. We only did the boat tour along the Tortugeuro River and it was incredible! We loved our tour guide from Tortuguero Eco Experiences who was super knowledgeable. We got to see so many different types of birds like the Jacana (the feminist bird who hunts and mates while the male bird watches the babies), macaus, parrots and yellow-throated toucans. We saw monkeys, lizards like the “Jesus Christ” lizard who walks on water, and even learned the difference between caymans and crocodiles. (They are both scary af.) We learned that there are two toed sloths, the ones with the non-hairy face, and three toed sloths are the ones with the hairy faces that always look like they are smiling.
Also the village is super chill with many friendly locals who are happy to chat about their home with you. It’s a dope weekend getaway for nature lovers.
Arenal National Park
A super popular destination is the town of La Fortuna, home to the Arenal Volcano and the Arenal National Park. The town is best known for its abundance of natural hot springs — some very fancy and some free local watering holes. The majestic Arenal Volcano is the centerpiece of the town, visible from all directions, depending on how foggy it is! But one of the underrated excursions is a simple hike through Arenal National Park.
There are various hiking trails depending on how much climbing you want to do. We went in February and the weather worked out even though there were some torrential downpours at night making for muddy conditions during sunny days. But there were families of all ages and adventurers of all levels because you can leisurely stroll through the forest and take in 400 year old Ceiba trees, or climb some steep inclines to get 360 degree views of the volcano and Lake Arenal.
There’s also a trail that goes along the lake but the entrance is separate from the main entrance to the park. We couldn’t find it so make sure to get good directions from the park rangers!
It’s really beautiful way to spend a few peaceful hours in nature. Then you can go soak those sore muscles in the hot springs!
Rincon de la Vieja
Most folks visiting the northwestern Guanacaste province are headed to the beaches but if you drive an hour from the Liberia Airport, you will encounter one of the most unique and biodiverse national parks I’ve ever experienced: Rincon de la Vieja. This national park features various microclimates including a rainforest, lava pits, and a “dry forest” tundra laden with succulents which you can walk through during the 3.5 km or 2.5 mile hike. The park in 54 square miles and includes 3 volcanos including Rincon de la Vieja, Santa Maria and the dormant Cerro Von Seebach.
There are numerous versions of the story about the park’s name. It translates directly to “Old Woman’s Corner” but there’s variations to what that really means. There is a legend that there was an indigenous princess named Curubanda who fell in love with the prince of an enemy tribe. Her father found out about their romance and threw her lover into the live volcano center. Curubanda ran away living her life on the high slopes of the volcano where she learned natural medicines and became a healer. People seeking cures were told to go visit “the corner of the volcano” where she was believed to be. Thus the name became the “Old Woman’s Corner” or “Rincon de la Vieja.”
I recommended getting a tour guide to bring you to the park and also to guide you through it. There’s so much that you’ll miss going alone because the animals are often hidden in plain sight and the plant life has such a fascinating history too. You are likely will miss out on a lot if you’re going by yourself. Our go-to guide is Claudio of Clamatours, he’s hilarious, cool af and legit knows everyone!
The cost of admission for adults is $15 for non-residents and is open Tuesday through Sunday from 8am to 3pm.
Manuel Antonio National Park
It’s one of the most travel friendly parks to visit if you only have a few days to spend in Costa Rica. Located a few hours from San Jose, it’s Manuel Antonio is the country’s most visited national park. It used to be second to Poas until the volcano became active (YIKES) and the park closed indefinitely.
Like many of the other national parks, it is an array of biodiversity with over 100 species of mammals and almost 200 species of birds. Even though it spans 4900 acres, it is the country’s smallest national park. There’s a beautiful beach as well as the popular trails, and it’s definitely the kind of park you could spend hours in. Because it’s so popular it’s pretty easy to find local guides to show you all of the plant and animal life, or you can even rent a car with friends (like Talya and the crew above!) to spend the day on your own.
The park is open Wednesday through Monday from 7am to 3pm, and you must purchase tickets here. Admission for adults is $16 and $6 for children ages 2 through 12.
Cahuita National Park
No stop to the southern Caribbean coast is complete without a stop at Cahuita National Park. It is situated between Limon and Puerto Viejo, in the heart of Talamanca where the Afrodescientes (Afro Costa Ricans) and Bribri indigenous communities call home. Talamanca has a distinctly unique flavor because of this history and you definitely feel the Caribbean vibes.
The park spans 1067 hectares of protected land and over 22,000 hectares of protected marine land including the threatened coral reefs. Like other parks most of the land is off limits but there is plenty of space to go hiking, check out the animals and lay on the beach. I’ve gone on my own mostly but would recommend a guide if you really want to experience the full splendor. By yourself, you will absolutely run into monkeys, raccoons, blue butterflies (morphos) and various birds if you’re paying attention but I know there’s so much I miss with my city gurl eyes.
You can also go snorkeling there in the morning with a guide and then hang out at the park by yourself. Or you can do a full day of snorkeling and then wildlife watching with a guide. I recommend booking through ATEC, an organization dedicated to conservation that works with local certified guides who know the land. They ensure that the money you pay for tours goes directly to the guides instead of the mega tour companies based in San Jose that rip off the local guides and the tourists.
Admission to the park is donation-based but please give something to support the preservation of these beautiful lands. The park is open from 8am to 4pm so I highly recommend going early so you can take your time and enjoy the day. Also when you get there early there’s less people so you can claim a dope beach spot. My biggest recommendation is to bring a bookbag or knapsack that you can close with a zipper. The monkeys there have gotten so used to tourists feeding them that they are super aggressive. My friends and I walked away from our stuff for 5 minutes and a monkey went through my personal bag, ripped open our garbage bag and ran away with an empty bag of Trader Joe’s dried mangos. That monkey went up the tree and was PISSED that there was no food in it! They give no fucks about you and your stuff so be prepared. The park staff tell you this at the entrance and they are not lying!
There’s so many beautiful places to explore throughout Costa Rica. Have you been to any of these parks? Where else should we add?