The Must-See National Parks of Costa Rica
When you think of the national parks of Costa Rica, what comes to mind?
Think lush jungle and thick rainforests. Think 918 species of birds, 4 species of monkeys, 2 species of sloths (of course), 6 species of elusive wildcats, and 140 species of snakes. Look up; Look down; they’re everywhere! Add to that list: turtles, iguanas, crocodiles, ant eaters, caimans, butterflies and you are setting yourself up for an incredible trip full of wildlife, sure to please!
The national parks of Costa Rica offer variety. Your choice will depend on your wildlife preferences, your accommodation requirements, your adventure level and time constraints, but also the range of other activity options you want to package around the wildlife encounters, because there’s so much more to see and do!
We start with Parque Nacional Manuel Antonio! Three hours by public bus from the capital of San Jose, you will find yourself in a completely different environment: from the concrete jungle to the real jungle. What makes this national park so special is the phenomenal abundance of wildlife, even though the park is the smallest of Costa Rica’s national parks. We suggest getting to the park as it opens at 7am, and we strongly advise obtaining a local guide who, with their scopes, can spot even the smallest animal to capture on your camera. A two-hour guided early morning walk-through will guarantee sloths, iguanas, monkeys, crabs and perhaps a crocodile, snake and numerous types of birds.
The other special aspect of this park is its beach location. Once you are done with your spotting, you can chill out on one of the beaches inside the park, or head back to the public beach for an ice cold coconut or some adrenaline-pumping activities. If you are up for some more hiking, there are a few trails you can take throughout the rest of the park.
There are many options for hotels and restaurants around the national park but an absolute must visit, for either sundowners or dinner is El Avion restaurant. The restaurant itself is a Fairchild C-123 plane, which was part of the one of the biggest scandals of the 1980s, The Iran-Contra Affair. The plane, abandoned at the International Airport of San Jose, was purchased by the proprietors of El Avion for $3000US, and broken apart to be transported to its final resting place at Manuel Antonio, where it now offers absolutely stunning views over the Pacific Ocean.
On your way to Parque Nacional Manuel Antonio, stop at Rio Tarcoles, where you can, from the bridge, gape at the spectacle below. The number of American crocodiles in this river is simply mind blowing. And we aren’t talking wee little ones, these guys are huge, but seemingly live in harmony with the cows that they share the bank with.
Rio Tarcoles is also the northern boundary of another national park, Parque Nacional Carara. Carara is a favourite amongst bird watchers who sit in awe at the amount of Scarlett Macaws that screech overhead.
Moving up to the highlands (1400 m. above sea level), we find Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve. Steeped in the clouds yields verdant flora. Here, you can also enjoy some impressive hiking trails, at cooler temperatures, with beautiful views to the Nicoya Gulf. To top off the experience, you might be lucky enough to run into the movie star of this establishment, the Resplendent Quetzal. Although the national bird of Guatemala, this beauty is easier to spot in Costa Rica and Panama. The male’s green and red feathers are striking, his mohawk, commanding, a true sight to behold. The Resplendent Quetzal also plays an important role in various types of Mesoamerican mythology. Other residents of the reserve include white-faced capuchin monkeys, sloths, magueys, ocelots, eyelash vipers and toucans. Around the area, a night walk is also highly recommended. Seeing the animals at night is something entirely different and exciting!
Monteverde is also full of adventure activities: Zip-lining (this is where the sport began), horseback riding, bungee jumping, hanging bridges and more. With absolutely magnificent views at every turn, why wouldn’t you enjoy it at its epicentre?
Across to the Caribbean side of Costa Rica we introduce you to Parque Nacional Cahuita. This small park is both terrestrial and marine. The park has no entrance fee, simply a donation will do, and you can hire a guide inside if you wish. A day trip includes a guided snorkelling adventure and hike inside the park, one of the best places, according to this author, to see sloths, both two- and three-toed. The beach inside the park is also one of the nicest and least developed in Costa Rica. A small walk out of the town center will see you on Playa Negra, a black sand beach hosting a couple of beach-side restaurants, perfect for sunset drinks and dinner!
About an hour from Cahuita you will find yourself at Puerto Moin, one of the entrances to Parque Nacional Tortuguero. Known as “Central America’s Amazon,” the beaches of Tortuguero are famous nesting grounds for many species of turtles including the endangered Green, Hawksbill, Leatherback, Loggerhead and Olive Ridley. At the right time of year, you could be lucky enough to see the females laying their eggs and the hatchlings scrambling to their destiny.
Tortuguero is also a maze of canals and rivers leading to the town, which has a cultural mix of Hispanic, Caribbean and Miskito (Nicaragua) population. The boat trip alone from Moin to Tortuguero Village is fascinating; Crocodiles, caimans, toucans, macaws, monkeys, iguanas and sloths are all ready to greet you! And if you are extremely lucky you might even spot a jaguar. You’ll probably smell him first, though!
In Tortuguero, although it’s remote and basic, you have your choice of independent, locally run, rustic accommodations, through to more luxurious chain-type resorts. When we use the word “resort,” we use it loosely: Remember, you are in the middle of the jungle.
The last park we touch on was referred by National Geographic as the “the most biologically intense place on Earth in terms of biodiversity.” Welcome to the remote Parque Nacional Corcovado, located on the Osa Peninsula in southwestern Costa Rica. If you are after extreme wildlife, some tough hiking, absolute remoteness and escape from wifi, then you have found your spot!
There are two tracks, one coastal and the other inland. Because of its remoteness and sensitivity, all visitors to Corcovado must be accompanied by a certified guide. This will add to your trip cost, but your safety will be guaranteed and the probability of wildlife spotting enhanced. If you hope to catch sight of a jaguar or tapir, have a couple of days and a truly excellent nature guide, this is the place to do it!
Getting there is via Drake Bay or Puerto Jimenez (around 10 hours by bus from San Jose), or an hour’s flight. It is highly recommended that you have a decent level of fitness and at least a couple of days to fully experience the park. Minimal accommodations within the park means advanced booking is a must if you’re not camping.
We hope you have had an incentivized glimpse into the diverse beauty of the national parks of Costa Rica. While there are more, these are some of the “must-sees” in Costa Rica! See you soon! West Adventures’ Pura Vida – Costa Rica Essentials takes you to most of the places mentioned in this article.
Pura Vida! (Read more about what Pura Vida means in Costa Rica here)