The National Parks of Costa Rica
By Martha Hales
The difficulty with an article on Costa Rica’s national parks is narrowing down the list. There are 28 to choose from in Costa Rica, along with another 170 or so wildlife refuges and nature reserves, bringing the total number of protected areas to just under 200 which amounts to more than a quarter of the Costa Rican territory. The diversity of ecosystems in Costa Rica merits protection, especially when you consider that this is a tiny nation that hosts more than 9,000 species of flowering plants, 850 species of birds, 250,000 different kinds of insects, 400 reptiles and 250 mammals. Here’s an introduction to seven of the most popular National Parks in Costa Rica.
Easily accessible and beautiful coastal scenery make Manuel Antonio one of the most popular national parks. Enclosing a dramatic shore of rocky inlets, sandy coves and mangroves backed by dense tropical forests, it is a stunning area for a seaside hike and time on the beach but beware the capuchin monkeys who are quite used to humans and may pinch your picnic. Look out for sloths, squirrel monkeys, iguanas, coatis and plenty of interesting birds as you make your way through the forest to one of the several lovely beaches surrounding the rocky bluff of Punta Catedral which is the focal point of this stretch of coast.
Occupying nearly 200 square kilometres of territory along Costa Rica’s Caribbean coast, Tortuguero National Park is one of the prime nesting sites for leatherback, green and hawksbill marine turtles. Come between July and October for the nesting of the green and hawksbill species, March to May for leatherbacks. You can also explore the mangroves by boat and spot monkeys, macaws, toucans and caimans, to name just a few. Nearby, the village of Tortuguero has a distinctly Caribbean flavour reflected in its simple, colourful buildings, lovely lush surroundings and excellent cocktails.
Less accessible than some parks and all the wilder for it, Corcovado occupies part of the Osa peninsula, offering a real slice of pristine nature to those who make the effort to get there. Apart from gloriously untouched beaches and tropical wet forest, the main attractions at Corcovado are the hiking and the wildlife, both of which require a certain amount of grit and tenacity. The hikes are long and can be tough with tricky conditions underfoot, and the larger wildlife can be elusive but if you are lucky you may catch sight of tapirs and ocelots.
The conical silhouette of Arenal Volcano is one of Costa Rica’s most recognisable landscapes and it is located in the north of Costa Rica. The volcano is currently dormant, but that doesn’t mean to say its not an exciting destination, as Arenal and its surroundings is the adventure sports hub of the nation. Hike the forests around the volcano, soak in idyllic hot springs amid the sounds of the jungle, take a zipwire tour of the rainforest canopy and enjoy stunning waterfalls and lakes.
Protecting a swathe of Caribbean coast on shore and its pristine reefs out at sea, this is a small but perfectly formed National Park with a special allure for snorkelers. Plentiful coral brings the sea bed to colourful life, attracting a huge variety of underwater species to observe. Rays and barracudas are not uncommon, and you may see an octopus or two if you are lucky. On land, birds are a major attraction, so look out for kingfisher and ibis as you walk along the easy trails.
This National Park contains its namesake volcano, the dominant feature of the whole area. The volcano itself may not have shown any eruptive movement since 2011, but the geothermal activity all around is still very much in evidence, and gives the park its unique appeal. Hikes through the park are hugely rewarding, with numerous exciting geological features to look out for, as well as the wildlife. Bubbling mud pools, geysers, fumaroles and hot springs are highlights, as are the beautiful waterfalls.
Though strictly speaking not a National Park, this reserve is one of the most important and renowned in Costa Rica, so we had to include it here! High altitude forests such as Monteverde, dripping in moisture and permanently enveloped in cloud, are extremely rare, especially primary forests like this one. The infrastructure in the national park is excellent, with a variety of trails weaving among the awesome flora, home to almost 500 species of butterflies and at least 400 different birds. Hanging bridges have been erected in the canopy allowing you a close up view of life in this strata of the cloud forest, and it's a fascinating adventure to undertake. Keep you eyes peeled for the resplendent quetzal, a stunning, colourful and much loved bird of the region.
Make it happen
Costa Rica’s forward thinking authorities have made sure that much of their natural heritage is safeguarded for future generations to enjoy. Whether you spot monkeys, birds, frogs or some of the 800 types of fern that grow here, this is a country where the biodiversity is breathtaking. With so much to do as well as soaking up all that natural splendour - adventure sports, surfing, hiking or horse riding for example - there’s enough to fill a two week itinerary with ease. Hopefully our overview of some of the most popular National Parks will help you to narrow down your priorities and give you some holiday inspiration, too. Get in touch with our local experts in Costa Rica and they will craft a bespoke itinerary according to your preferences. To speak to someone in the TravelLocal office please call +44 (0)117 325 7898.