Costa Rica is home to five percent of the world’s biodiversity, with the country divided into 12 unique ecological zones, including deciduous forests, rainforests, cloud forests, dry forests, mangrove swamps and coral reefs. There are 30 national parks in Costa Rica that contain thousands of species of trees and plants, fish and insects, along with hundreds of species of mammals, reptiles, amphibians and birds.
Poás Volcano National Park is home to one of the largest and most active volcanoes in Costa Rica. Thousands of people a year visit this breathtakingly beautiful park to witness the still smoking craters, explosive geysers and rich flora and fauna. It’s only 90 minutes from San José, so a day trip to this area is quite simple and highly rewarding. Aside from the volcanic area, the park is also made up of cloud, rain and low mountain forests. On a clear day, you can actually see both the Pacific and Caribbean coasts from some of the high lookout points.
Braulio Carrillo National Park comprises five different ecological zones, a vast trail system, 6,000 species of plants and trees, 500 bird species and around 150 species of mammals. There are several peaks that are worth climbing for those looking for a bit of a challenge. Don’t miss the San Fernando Waterfall, an awe-inspiring spectacle. There is also an aerial tram that can take four passengers at a time up through the forest to a height of 170ft (52m) for a truly amazing viewpoint.
Arenal Volcano National Park has it all. You can hike to and around the most active volcano (there hasn’t been a major eruption since the late ’60s) in the country, zip-line through lush primary forest, horseback ride to a magnificent waterfall and become enveloped by butterflies, surrounded by flowers and the calls of a wide variety of birds, including the toucan. Arenal Volcano National Park is also famous for its hot springs, where you can indulge in a relaxing soak after a long day of adventuring.
A short and easy drive from San Jose, Tapantí National Park is 18sqmi (47sqkm) of pristine cloud forest. The park offers hiking trails, swimming holes and scenic picnic areas. More than 400 species of birds call this park their home, along with 45 species of mammals, including the elusive ocelot, the social white-faced capuchin monkey and the endangered jaguarondi. Tapantí National Park is an excellent choice for a day trip, especially when staying near and around the San José area. The exquisite beauty of this dense cloud forest is sure to leave an indelible mark on your memory.
While Barra Honda National Park is worth exploring above ground, it is most famous for its ginormous limestone caves. This is an excursion for the adventurous. Witness glittering stalagmites and stalactites, as well as a few rare species that are found nowhere else, including the blind salamander. The Hall of Pearls, the Hall of the Caverns and the Hall of Mushroom will take your breath away. The immense size of the caves and ancient formations within the depths of the earth in this spot is worth the adrenaline-pumping plunge down.
Rincón de la Vieja National Park offers a wide range of activities, including hiking, bathing in mud baths, swimming in pools beneath waterfalls and embracing the natural beauty of the lush forest, home to monkeys, sloths and tapirs. This biologically and geologically diverse national park has something for everyone. For the most ambitious adventurer, there is a full-day trip available to hike to the summit of Von Seebach. Camping is also permitted within this park for those wishing to spend some more time in the great outdoors.
Although Costa Rica’s smallest national park, Manuel Antonio National Park is regarded as one of the most biodiverse parks on the planet. The park includes four pristine white sand beaches, flora and fauna-rich tropical forests and a crystalline ocean ideal for snorkeling and surfing. The endangered squirrel monkey has its home here, along with 108 other species of mammals and 184 species of birds. You can choose to hike a variety of well-marked trails, go swimming, relax on the beach, or do it all. To avoid large crowds, it is best to visit the park between May and November.
Corcovado National Park is Costa Rica’s largest park. This giant stretch of protected tropical rainforest takes up one-third of the Osa Peninsula and is home to an incredible diversity of plants and animals. There are three main entrances to the park: San Pedrillo, Los Patos and La Leona. One of the best ways to have a truly authentic experience here is to hike from one entrance to another; this usually takes about two or three days. Trails are well-marked, and camping is permitted. You’re likely to have some very special wildlife encounters while spending time in this national treasure.
Piedras Blancas National Park offers you a chance to witness immense waterfalls, lush tropical rainforest, pristine and beautiful beaches, untouched coral reefs and a multitude of mammals, birds, insects, reptiles and amphibians. This park is one of the top birdwatching locations in Costa Rica, as it hosts large gatherings of migratory and residential bird species. Piedras Blancas is also home to all five species of cats in the country. It’s a captivating example of what this country has to offer.
Declared a Unesco World Heritage site in 1983 and one of the first international parks (this protected region is shared between Costa Rica and Panama), La Amistad International Park is a truly unique place. There are still areas of the park that are completely unexplored, and it is advised that you hire a professional guide prior to venturing out here, with many of the trails unmarked. La Amistad International Park contains cloud forests, lowland rainforests, oak forests and lakes.
Tortuguero National Park is one of the most prominent nesting zones for the green turtle. Four of the eight species of green turtles reside here and lay their eggs on more than 20mi (32km) of protected coastline. The park is also home to a vast array of other species of animals, and due to the extremely high annual average rainfall, the rainforest is thick with verdant vegetation. The best way to navigate this wild terrain is by boat, which is very affordable to hire, along with professional guides.
These recommendations were updated on September 6, 2021 to keep your travel plans fresh.