National Parks & Wildlife Reserves of Costa Rica
So Many Parks, So Little Time!
As a representation of the geographical and biological diversity of the country, Costa Rica’s national parks are very diverse. They encompass a multitude of ecosystems, such as cloud forests, rainforests, tropical dry forests, mangroves, and even coral reefs.
Depending on the park that you visit, you could peer into a volcano crater, dip your toes in the ocean, look for sloths or monkeys, marvel at giant tree ferns, walk around archeological ruins, or see the site of the most famous battle in Costa Rica’s history.
Wildlife also varies greatly. If you have your heart set on seeing particular animals, make sure to check whether those animals are native to the areas you are visiting. For example, Manuel Antonio is a great place to see white-faced monkeys, as is Tortuguero for sea turtles.
Accessibility is another important factor to consider. While most national parks are not set up for visitors in wheelchairs, there are exceptions such as Carara National Park. If that is a concern, make sure to confirm before making plans.
Parks and Beaches and Reserves: Oh, My!
In addition to its national park system, Costa Rica also has a robust network of private reserves ranging from very small parks to such famous locations as the Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve, non-governmental reserves and protected areas all that play an important role in the country’s conservation efforts.
One of the hallmarks of Costa Rica is also one of its most accessible features: namely, the over 700 miles of coastline. As national heritage, beaches belong to the Costa Rican people and cannot be privatized. This means that all beaches not located in national conservation areas are free to enter and enjoy.
When visiting a national park, expect to pay between $5 and $15 per visit as a non-Costa Rican. Prices for locals, legal residents, and children are lower. Annual passes are not available. Since reserves are private, most also have entrance fees, which can be significantly more than those charged for national parks.
The country’s smallest national park is also one of its most popular (Manuel Antonio National Park).
What to Do (And What Not to Do) In Costa Rican National Parks
Like any natural area, Costa Rican conservation areas have rules and regulations meant to protect the species that call them home. Most rules are common sense, like a prohibition on hunting, going off marked trails, removing specimens such as plants, animals, or shells, and going into volcano craters (!). Visitors cannot smoke or drink alcohol in national parks, nor can they enter with pets. It’s also important to remember not to feed or touch any animals you might come across – no matter how much that white-faced monkey tries to convince you otherwise!
That said, certain parks have special rules. While many national parks allow swimming, one notable exception is Rio Celeste. The same goes for camping and/or staying overnight in ranger stations. Examples of national parks that allow overnight stays include Santa Rosa, Corcovado, Chirripó, and Braulio Carrillo (Barva sector).
What you can definitely do is what you came to Costa Rica to do: use the marked trails to venture into unforgettable landscapes, and take photos of the amazing flora and fauna you find.
He may look hungry, but don’t be fooled! Human food is harmful to wildlife.
Guided Tours: to Use or Not to Use
Since entrance fees to national parks do not include a nature guide, it is up to you to decide if you would like to visit with a guide. Most major national parks have local guides that offer tours. Prices vary depending on the park and whether your tour is private or in a group. Some tours may need to be booked in advance, and, in other cases, you may be able to get a local guide’s contact information at the national park itself.
Whether you choose to go with a guide really depends on your interests and your travel style. You will definitely have a richer wildlife experience with a guide. If you are a birdwatcher or wildlife enthusiast, for example, a guide is essential for what can be a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to view the biodiversity the country is famous for.
If you prefer a relaxed walk in nature, taking in the peace and quiet of your surroundings, you may not need one and may actually prefer to go on your own.
Could you spot this frog in the wild? A nature guide could!
Choose the Right Clothing for Your Costa Rican National Park Visit
Costa Rica’s climate varies greatly depending on the part of the country, and the weather also differs throughout the year. Checking before you head off for your day in the national park can mean the difference between a wonderful experience or a miserable one!
If you are headed to a higher altitude, such as the Poás Volcano National Park, the weather will be cooler, so you will want to dress in layers. Parks at the beach are, of course, hot, but the humidity can be very different depending on the region and whether it is the rainy season. Hats and sunscreen are important, as is mosquito repellent.
Headed to the rainforest? There’s a reason they call it that! Ponchos, windbreakers, or other rain gear will save you from an unexpected soaking, even in the “dry” months of the year.
Also remember to pack water and snacks if you need them, as most conservation areas don’t have stores.
Shorts or long pants? T-shirt or jacket? Make sure to check the weather before you head out!
Discover Costa Rica’s Wild Side
More than 25% of Costa Rica’s total territory is contained in national parks and other conservation areas, protecting the country’s diverse wildlife and preserving the nation’s ecological heritage. Currently, 30 national parks, 58 wildlife refuges, 15 wetlands and mangrove reserves, 11 forest reserves, 8 biological reserves, and other protected areas comprise 169 total parks and 3,223,010 acres (1,304,306 hectares).
As a tourist, this gives you a wide variety of options in terms of ecosystem, climate, terrain, wildlife, scenery, proximity to urban centers, and more. It’s safe to say that most visitors to this Central American environmental oasis spend some time in at least one national park. And those who don’t are certainly missing out! Check out this guide with helpful information about national parks and reserves in Costa Rica.
Manuel Antonio National Park
Manuel Antonio, Central Pacific Coast
- Calm tropical beaches perfect for swimming
- Accessible nature trails, brimming with wildlife
- Thieving monkeys!
Considered the most popular of the National Parks, this is one of the smallest the country has to offer. But don’t let that fool you because within the almost 5,000 acres lives four different species of monkeys, 180 different types of birds and both species of sloths! This incredibly accessible park has a diverse ecosystem which includes forests, lagoons, four different pristine beaches and mangroves.
Best Place to Stay Nearby: Arenas del Mar Beachfront Resort
Arenal Volcano National Park
La Fortuna, Northern Lowlands
- Great volcano views
- Walk on old lava fields
- Learn about the 1968 eruption
Home to two different volcanoes and covering an area of 12,000 hectares, Arenal National Park ranked the 6th Best National Park in the world and number 1 in Latin America. After being dormant for hundreds of years, in 1968 all that changed with it’s fiery eruption creating a landscape of lava fields along with an impressive habitat for flora and fauna.
Best Place to Stay Nearby: Arenal Kioro
Corcovado National Park
- Corcovado holds an amazing 5% of the entire world's biodiversity
- It has beginner to pro level trails
- Accessible by land, air, and sea
The largest park in Costa Rica, Corcovado National Park protects about 1/3 of the Osa Peninsula and is home to a wide variety of animals including tapirs, pumas, eagles, monkeys, ant-eaters, frogs, snakes and turtles. It is one of the most remote and biologically intense places on the planet!
Best Place to Stay Nearby: Aguila de Osa
Rincon de la Vieja National Park
- Expansive park with ample trails
- Impressive volcanic mud pools
- Easily reached from Liberia
Rincon de la Vieja is over 14,000 hectares and surrounds a very active volcano with cascading waterfalls and 32 rivers and hot springs. Explore nature in action here due to rainfall, altitude differences, and the volcanic eruptions!
Best Place to Stay Nearby: Borinquen Thermal Resort
Tortuguero National Park
- Famous tortuguero canals
- Seasonal turtles nesting
- Accessible by boat or plane
Here you will enjoy interlinked bodies of water including rivers, lagoons and canals all filtering out to the beaches and surrounded by dense rainforest. If you are lucky you may see some of the creatures that have chosen Tortuguero National Park as their home including macaws, jaguars, sea turtles, ocelots, river otters and manatees to name a few.
Best Place to Stay Nearby: Manatus Hotel
Monteverde, Province of Puntarenas
- Ideal birding paradise
- Incredible hanging bridges and thrilling adventures
- Refreshing cool climate
Known as the “Cloud Forest Reserve”, this famous park has created habitats you are not able to find anywhere else in the world. The unique wildlife that lives here include 153 species of reptiles, 400 species of birds, 490 species of butterflies, 30 species of hummingbirds, and 100 of mammals including the tapir, the jaguar and stingray.
Best Place to Stay Nearby: Senda Monteverde
Palo Verde National Park
- Large wetland area ideal for birders
- Fun boat experience
- Close to Guanacaste hotels
Located on the banks of the Tempisque River, the Palo Verde National Park combines dry forest and wetlands with migratory birds densely populating the area making this park a birder’s dream. We highly recommended exploring the scenery here by boat!
Best Place to Stay Nearby: Tamarindo Diria
Guanacaste National Park
- Nature Walks
Guanacaste National Park is located in the province of Guanacaste and lies adjacent to Santa Rosa National Park. This park was created in the year 1989.
Best Place to Stay Nearby: Tamarindo Diria
Las Baulas National Marine Park
- One of the largest nesting sites in the world for the leatherback turtle
- Water activities! Snorkeling, paddleboarding, kayaking and swimming
- Hit the walking trails
Marino las Baulas de Guanacaste National Park is another of Costa Rica’s important sea turtle nesting sites. It is located on Costa Rica’s Pacific Coast in the Northern Province of Guanacaste near the tourist town of Tamarindo.
Best Place to Stay Nearby: The Coast Beachfront Hotel
Eastern Tropical Pacific, 300 miles off Coast
- A diver's dream come true. It's one of the best scuba diving locations in the world
- Trek through the national park
- Wide variety of wildlife and spectacular views
Hard to imagine that a country as popular as Costa Rica could have any part left of it considered to be undiscovered and under the radar, but unless you are an avid scuba diver that is most likely the case. The island can only be reached by sea which is part of what makes Cocos Island so special. Liveaboard dive boats are pretty much the only visitors to this island
Caño Negro Wildlife Refuge
Northern part of Costa Rica, near the border with Nicaragua
- Habitat of many migrant and endangered fish, reptiles, birds and plants
- Some of the best birdwatching in Costa Rica
- Floating safaris through tropical rainforest, pastures, and marshland
Caño Negro Wildlife Refuge is located in the northern part of Costa Rica, only about two hours away from La Fortuna, which makes it a popular destination for nature lovers and travelers.
Best Place to Stay Nearby: Magic Mountain Hotel
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