Must Visit National Parks in Costa Rica

Seeking the ultimate guide to national parks in Costa Rica? From the nesting grounds of Tortuguero to the volcanic slopes of Arenal, this compact guide highlights what you can’t miss. Discover trails where wildcats roam, beaches where sea turtles hatch, and jungles that echo with calls of exotic birds. We’ll reveal why these parks capture the essence of Costa Rica’s wilderness and how you can experience their natural wonders firsthand.

Costa Rican National Parks Overview

  • Costa Rica’s national parks, covering 28% of its territory, protect nearly 6% of the world’s biodiversity, including over 200 endangered species, offering visitors diverse landscapes and activities like hiking, wildlife observation, and snorkeling.
  • Manuel Antonio and Corcovado National Parks stand out with their unique attractions; Manuel Antonio for its beauty and biodiversity in a smaller area, and Corcovado for its vast size and untamed experiences.
  • The country’s unwavering commitment to conservation has positioned it as a leader in environmental protection, reversing deforestation and encouraging sustainable ecotourism, benefiting both its ecology and economy.

Exploring Costa Rica’s National Treasures

For me, Arenal is the best attraction in all of Costa Rica.

Costa Rica’s beautiful national parks, also known as Costa Rica national parks, are a gateway to a world filled with diverse landscapes and thrilling activities. Imagine:

  • hiking through the misty trails of the Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve
  • observing the awe-inspiring wildlife of Tortuguero National Park
  • marveling at the natural landscapes of Corcovado National Park
  • trekking to landmarks like the Rio Celeste Waterfall in Tenorio Volcano National Park
  • spotting monkeys, toucans, reptiles, and amphibians along the trails

Every turn unveils a new adventure.

But these national parks are not just about exploration and adventure. They play a vital role in preserving the world’s biodiversity. Costa Rica, a relatively small country, is home to nearly 6% of the world’s biodiversity. This is made possible by the commitment to allocate about 28% of its territory to national parks, reserves, and wildlife refuges.

These protected areas harbor over 200 endangered species, making Costa Rica a crucial player in global conservation efforts.

The Best National Parks of Costa Rica – Manuel Antonio and Corcovado

Among the plethora of national parks in Costa Rica, two stand out as the crown jewels – Manuel Antonio and Corcovado. These parks, each with their unique features and experiences, represent the quintessential Costa Rican adventure. Manuel Antonio, known for its pristine beaches, lush rainforests, and diverse wildlife, is a compact wonder, while Corcovado, the largest and most biologically intense reserve in the country, offers an untamed beauty that is unparalleled.

We’ll explore these parks further now.

Manuel Antonio National Park: A Compact Wonder

Crystal clear waters and lush greenery at Manuel Antonio National Park
Manuel Antonio is a favorite among locals and tourists alike.

While small in size, Manuel Antonio National Park is a ‘compact wonder’, packing in a dense concentration of diverse flora and fauna, stunning beaches, and crystal-clear blue waters. It truly lives up to the saying, “good things come in small packages”. The park is a sanctuary for a variety of wildlife, including:

  • white-faced monkeys
  • sloths
  • coatis
  • toucans
  • the Central American squirrel monkey

among others.

But the wonders of Manuel Antonio are not just restricted to its wildlife. The park offers a range of attractions and activities that will leave you spoilt for choice. Some of the highlights include:

  • Exploring the lush green trails
  • Taking a dip in the Nauyaca Waterfalls
  • Relaxing on the sandy shores of Playa Manuel Antonio
  • Soaring through the sky on a zip-line at Sukia Park
  • Enjoying the stunning panoramic views from Cathedral Point and Playa Gemelas / Punta Serrucho

With so much to see and do in both Manuel Antonio and Rincon de la Vieja, these destinations are a paradise for nature lovers and adventure seekers alike.

Every moment spent in Manuel Antonio is an opportunity to create a memory.

Corcovado National Park: Untamed Beauty

Corcovado National Park
Corcovado National Park

On the other hand, Corcovado National Park is a testament to unspoiled nature and raw beauty. As the largest national park in Costa Rica, Corcovado offers a wilderness experience like no other. In contrast, Carara National Park provides a different yet equally captivating experience. The park is home to an array of unique wildlife, such as majestic jaguars, fascinating tapirs, and myriad other species. Every guided tour is a chance to encounter these elusive creatures, whether in Santa Rosa National Park or other parks in the region.

Beyond wildlife spotting, Corcovado is an adventure hub, offering a range of thrilling activities. Some of the activities you can enjoy include:

  • Exploring remote beaches
  • Staying overnight in the jungle
  • Snorkeling at Cano Island
  • Embarking on a night walk to discover the park’s nocturnal creatures

The journey to the park itself is an adventure, with visitors having to travel to eco-lodges near Drake Bay or Puerto Jimenez to access the park.

Volcanic Vistas and Soothing Hot Springs

Arenal Volcano National Park
The Arenal Volcano

Shifting our focus from sandy shores and lush rainforests, we’ll explore Costa Rica’s majestic volcanic landscapes. Two parks that beautifully showcase these dramatic vistas are Arenal and Irazu Volcano National Parks. Both parks offer a unique blend of adventure and relaxation, with opportunities for hiking, birdwatching, and soaking in natural hot springs.

Arenal Volcano National Park: Iconic Cone and Natural Baths

Arenal Volcano National Park is an iconic symbol of Costa Rica’s volcanic landscapes. The park features the Arenal Volcano, a nearly perfect cone-shaped volcano that has been shaped over roughly 7,000 years. With a lush tropical forest cover, the park is a playground for nature lovers and adventure seekers alike.

Arenal offers more than just a volcano. The park is home to a rich array of wildlife, including the white-faced capuchin monkey, jaguars, deer, coati, and various snake species. Moreover, it offers a variety of attractions and activities, such as hiking, swimming at Nauyaca Waterfalls, lounging at Playa Manuel Antonio, zip-lining at Sukia Park, exploring tropical waterfalls, and relaxing at Playa Biesanz. And to top it all, the park offers a unique opportunity to relax in natural hot springs located at several spots within the park.

Irazu Volcano National Park: Craters and Views

Irazu National Park
Crater of the Irazu volcano, the closest one to the City of San Jose.

Contrastingly, Irazu Volcano National Park is renowned for the breathtaking views from its summit, while Poas Volcano National Park offers a different experience. The park houses two main craters and a shimmering green lake that formed during the 1963-65 eruption period. The park is a visual delight and offers a unique and otherworldly experience.

Apart from its stunning views, Irazu is home to an array of wildlife, providing visitors with ample opportunities to spot diverse fauna. The park also offers a range of activities for adventure seekers, including hiking the trails, wildlife spotting, birdwatching, and swimming and diving in the crystal-clear waters.

Wildlife Wonders and Conservation Efforts

Costa Rica’s commitment to wildlife conservation is best exemplified in Tortuguero and Palo Verde National Parks. Both parks are dedicated to the preservation and protection of wildlife, providing visitors with unique opportunities to observe sea turtles, birds, and other native species in their natural habitats.

Tortuguero National Park: A Haven for Sea Turtles

Tortuguero National Park
Tortuguero National Park

Tortuguero National Park is a vital sanctuary for sea turtles. The park serves as a critical nesting site for several species of sea turtles, including the green turtle and the Atlantic green sea turtle. The best time to witness this incredible phenomenon is from July to October, during the turtle nesting season.

In addition to sea turtles, the park is home to an impressive array of wildlife, including 57 species of amphibians, 111 species of reptiles, and 60 species of mammals such as jaguars, pumas, ocelots, sloths, river otters, and manatees. The park also encompasses 11 unique habitats, such as rainforests, mangroves, swamps, and beaches, adding to its biodiversity.

Palo Verde National Park: Birdwatcher’s Paradise

Palo Verde National Park
Palo Verde National Park

In contrast, Palo Verde National Park is a birdwatcher’s dream. The park is home to a diverse range of bird species including:

  • Jabiru Stork
  • Roseate Spoonbill
  • Glossy Ibis
  • White Ibis
  • Black-necked Stilt
  • Black-bellied Whistling-Duck

The best time for birdwatching in the park is during the dry season, from December through April.

The park has also become a haven for birds and birdwatchers, thanks to its sanctuaries and natural marshes that provide a habitat for many species of water and migratory birds. Over the years, Palo Verde has become a crucial sanctuary in Central America for both migrating and resident waterfowl, with over 279 different species of birds thriving there.

Adventure and Discovery in Costa Rica’s Cloud Forests

One of Costa Rica’s unique ecosystems is the Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve. This mystical ecosystem is home to high biodiversity, rare plants, and numerous bird species. It also plays a key role in research and conservation programs, making it a must-visit for nature lovers.

Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve: A Mystical Ecosystem

The Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve is a world of its own. With extensive trails surrounded by a fantastic combination of trees and plants, the reserve protects one of the most pristine Cloud Forests on Earth. It’s home to:

  • Over 100 species of mammals
  • All five of Costa Rica’s wild cats
  • Several endemic amphibian species
  • Lichens, orchids, bromeliads
  • The jaguarundi

This showcases the rich biodiversity of the reserve.

In addition to its rich biodiversity, the reserve offers a variety of attractions and activities. From hiking the lush trails to birdwatching, there’s something for every nature lover at Monteverde. The reserve also plays a significant role in research and conservation, focusing on:

  • Biodiversity research
  • Education
  • Tropical biology
  • Conservation
  • Agro-ecology
  • Sustainable design
  • Community planning

Coastal Gems and Marine Sanctuaries

Costa Rica’s coastal gems are best showcased in Ballena Marine and Cahuita National Parks. These parks offer visitors the chance to explore the country’s coastal beauty and marine life, providing opportunities for snorkeling, diving, and observing whales, dolphins, and vibrant coral reefs.

Ballena Marine National Park: Whales and Coral Reefs

Ballena Marine National Park holds significant importance for humpback whale conservation. During certain seasons, these magnificent creatures can be spotted migrating in the waters of the park. In addition to whales, visitors can also spot various species of dolphins, manta rays, and hammerhead sharks.

Complementing its rich marine life, the park is home to one of the largest collections of coral species in Costa Rica, with 18 distinct species contributing to its marine biodiversity. Whether you’re a marine life enthusiast or just someone looking for a unique beach experience, Ballena Marine National Park is the place to be.

Cahuita National Park: Tropical Underwater World

Conversely, Cahuita National Park and Cocos Island National Park are havens for lovers of the underwater world. The parks feature pristine white sand beaches, clear turquoise sea, and vibrant coral reefs, making them prime spots for snorkeling and observing marine life.

In the waters of Cahuita National Park, you can find various types of marine life, including:

  • Corals
  • Sea fans
  • Lobsters
  • Urchins
  • Clams
  • Ghost shrimp
  • Sea cucumbers
  • A diversity of fish species

The best time to explore this underwater world is from July to October, when conditions are usually most favorable for underwater exploration.

Navigating the National Parks: Practical Tips and Entrance Fees

Visiting Costa Rica’s national parks requires some planning and preparation. From researching entrance fees to hiring local guides, there are several practicalities to consider to ensure a responsible and enjoyable experience. Additionally, following conservation guidelines is critical to preserving the integrity of these pristine environments.

Costa Rica’s national parks have varying entrance fees, starting from ₡1000 ($5) for foreigners and going up to $12 – $16 for entrance fee only. Pre-booking is required for some parks like Carara and Corcovado, while for others like Arenal and Volcán Tenorio, you can simply walk in. Most parks open around 8:00am and close around 4:00pm, though some have different operating hours.

Lastly, remember to adhere to the conservation guidelines: stick to the rules, stay on marked trails, respect wildlife, avoid feeding animals, and leave no trace behind.

Costa Rica’s Commitment to Conservation: A Model for the World

Perhaps the most inspiring aspect of Costa Rica’s national parks is the country’s unwavering commitment to conservation. This dedication extends beyond the boundaries of the parks, with sustainable practices and policies that have earned Costa Rica a reputation as a global leader in environmental conservation.

Costa Rica’s conservation model has had a significant positive impact on preserving the country’s rich biodiversity. It has successfully reversed deforestation and restored its rainforest cover. This commitment to conservation not only attracts eco-tourism but also creates new economic opportunities, enhances the nation’s international reputation, and preserves biodiversity for future generations.

Costa Rica’s dedication to conservation and sustainable ecotourism truly serves as a model for the world.


In conclusion, Costa Rica’s national parks offer an unparalleled window into the country’s rich biodiversity and commitment to conservation. From the lush rainforests of Manuel Antonio and the untamed beauty of Corcovado to the iconic volcanic landscapes of Arenal and Irazu, every park offers a unique adventure. Meanwhile, Tortuguero and Palo Verde National Parks showcase the country’s dedication to wildlife conservation, and the coastal gems of Ballena Marine and Cahuita National Parks highlight the richness of Costa Rica’s marine life. With 28 national parks teeming with life and adventure, Costa Rica is truly a playground for nature lovers.

Frequently Asked Questions

How many national parks do Costa Rica have?

Costa Rica has a total of 28 national parks, including 3 UNESCO World Heritage Sites, showcasing its rich biodiversity and natural resources.

What is the most visited National Park in Costa Rica?

The most visited National Park in Costa Rica is Manuel Antonio National Park, with an annual visitors count of 360,176.

What is Costa Rica’s National Park called?

Costa Rica’s National Park is called Tortuguero National Park, located in the Limón Province and is the third most visited park in the country.

What is the largest reserve in Costa Rica?

The largest reserve in Costa Rica is Corcovado National Park, known for its biological richness and intensity.

What are the entrance fees for national parks in Costa Rica?

The entrance fees for national parks in Costa Rica range from ₡1000 ($5) for foreigners to $12 – $16 for entrance fee only. Enjoy your visit!

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Tim Schmidt is a 20+ year Entrepreneur and Digital Marketer. A Fort Lauderdale-based "Digital Nomad," he enjoys traveling as much as possible with family and friends. AllWorld is his escape to document all of his adventures, including being a hardcore "foodie." He has property in Costa Rica and visits several times each year and is happy to offer his expert advice for planning your trip.

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