Costa Rica operates nature conservation like out of a picture book. The government quickly realized that Costa Rica’s unique ecosystem needed special protection. To this day, about a third of the area within national parks is protected. It is worth visiting, because not only the climatic differences in the country, but also the enormous differences in altitude result in a flora and fauna that could not be more varied.
Many of the animal species are masters of camouflage. For this reason, it is definitely advisable to have binoculars with you and to use a guide. Guides are trained accordingly and will certainly discover one or the other jungle dweller that you would otherwise walk past carelessly. In order to get a good overview, we have listed the special features of the various national parks below.
The Wilson Botanical Gardens is located at Las Cruces and is internationally renowned for its extensive collection of subtropical and tropical plants from around the world. Among other things we find aracea and other palm species, bromeliads, ferns, ginger plants, heliconia and arrowroot plants in the 10 hectare garden. More than 100 different species from more than 200 families make up this magnificent collection, which is part of the Las Cruces Biological Station.
The garden, the station and the surrounding forest reserve (266 hectares) are extremely rich in native flora (approx. 2,000 species) and fauna. Here you will discover 320 species of birds, more than 800 species of butterflies, many mammals including 38 species of bats and an impressive number of reptiles and amphibians.
This national park is one of the most attractive stretches of land in Costa Rica with white sandy beaches, thousands of coconut trees, a turquoise blue sea and coral reefs. The national park offers a beautiful hiking trail, almost entirely along the sea, where you can explore the fauna and flora of this region. With a bit of luck you can spot monkeys, sloths, parrots and iguanas. Please note that the monkeys are not allowed to be fed. Unfortunately, this is a common problem in this park, which means that the animals not only lose their fear of humans, but also often become ill because they cannot tolerate the food.
The main attraction of the park is the coral reef, which stretches over 600 hectares and is the only reef on the Costa Rican Caribbean coast. It is excellent for snorkeling, not only to see colorful corals, sea urchins and many colorful fish species, but also to see dolphins or sea turtles. Please protect the reef which was already damaged by a strong earthquake in 1991 and by the pesticides from the banana plantations that flow into the sea via the rivers, and do not touch the sensitive corals when snorkeling and diving.
The Children’s Eternal Rainforest is the largest privately owned conservation area in Central America with 22,000 hectares of protected tropical rainforest. It is located in the Tilarán mountain range and is connected to the Monteverde Nature Reserve and the Arenal Volcano National Park.
The children’s rainforest has a touching story. Together with the Conservationists’ League of Monteverde, a school class from Sweden initiated a campaign to save the tropical rainforest. More and more children from all over the world got involved and they managed to raise enough money to buy this piece of land which will now hopefully be protected forever. The scenery and biological richness of this place is impressive – rivers, pristine springs, powerful waterfalls, gas springs and a variety of flora and fauna are some of the attractions that can be found hiking along the trail.
According to the National Geographic Society, Corcovado National Park is “the place with the greatest biological intensity on our planet” and also the area with the highest rainfall rate in the country. Corcovado National Park protects the last remnants of pristine tropical rainforest in Central America’s Pacific region.
Marine flora and fauna, birds, amphibians, reptiles, insects and mammals share this ecosystem. The jaguar (Pantera onca), Baird’s tapir (Tapirus bairdii) and scarlet macaw (Ara macao) are also part of the great variety of species that live in this paradise. The long beaches provide a haven for sea turtles, which come every year to lay their eggs. The tranquil bays of Corcovado are also the perfect retreat for whales and dolphins to give birth to their babies.
The national park can be reached by boat via Drake Bay or via a Corcovado trek from Carate/Puerto Jimenez. The park is located in one of the rainiest areas of Costa Rica, which is evident from the flora at first glance. Especially in May, June, September, October and November it can pour like cats and dogs. During this time, the rivers often burst their banks. Under no circumstances should you cross them, as crocodiles and swarms of bull sharks regularly look for food.
Those who take the route across Drake Bay can choose between various day trips, for example San Pedrillo or La Sirena. Tip: go to Sirena for a small surcharge, because then you are really in the middle of it. The ranger station is surrounded by the park, densely embedded in deep nature. Often you can even look directly over the shoulder of the researchers. Here you can often see tapirs and many other rare animals.
If you choose the trekking route (about 5 days), you should definitely be tough and in very good physical condition. Many of the paths lead through the sand in the blazing sun. In addition, there is no refreshing bath in the evening, just a quick face wash. Even the banquet is usually replaced by simple food you bring with you. Despite all the hardships, the trekking is a great experience and will certainly be a great memory!
The Isla del Caño Biosphere Reserve is an important archaeological site as the island was used as a cemetery by the indigenous peoples of this area in pre-Columbian times. It also protects important coral reefs that are teeming with colorful fish and other marine life. Dolphins can be seen on the crossing from Drake Bay to the island and whales can often be seen in January, February, July and August.
The small island in the Pacific is a popular diving area and is located about 10 nautical miles from the Osa Peninsula. The crossing takes about 45 minutes, depending on the weather. Although you cannot stay overnight on the island, the ranger station has a public toilet and offers the possibility to take a shower. The beach directly in front of the station offers excellent opportunities for snorkeling and swimming.
Marino Ballena National Park is home to marine life such as coral, fish, sea turtles, seabirds and whales. In Punta Uvita, near Playa Dominical, tours to the turtle nesting sites are offered, as well as sailing trips to look for humpback whales (Megaptera novaeangliae) and bottlenose dolphins (Tursiops truncates).
The national park has a relatively small land area of
Originally established as a water sanctuary, the Monteverde Reserve is now the most visited private nature reserve in the country. It lies between 900 and 1,680 meters above sea level and impresses with its dense tropical cloud forests where you may think the clouds rise straight into the sky. Between the trees covered with orchids, ferns, mosses and climbing plants there are over 100 species of mammals and over 400 species of birds, including numerous hummingbirds that buzz from flower to flower and the very shy quetzal, the bird of the gods with its colorful plumage. Jaguars, tapirs and the more frequently seen howler monkeys also live well hidden in the forests.
The 10,500 hectare Monteverde Reserve is characterized by the mystical cloud forest with bromeliads as well as lichens and moses and the unique green vegetation. This is what gave the region its name (Monteverde means green mountain).
Since it can sometimes get chilly up here in the heights of the mountain cloud forest in the evenings, you should always have a long-sleeved sweater or a windproof jacket with you.
The Guayabo National Monument is one of the most important archaeological areas in the country. Ancient walkways, house foundations, aqueducts, cisterns, tombs, monoliths and sculptures suggest a past advanced development in construction, architecture and urban planning.
This historic land where Costa Rica is located today played an important role in the past. Various pre-Columbian peoples met here and archaeological research has shown that this area was inhabited between 1000 BC and 1400 AD. There is a 15 to 20 hectare archaeological area of which a small part has been excavated to date. There are also protected foothill rainforests.
Barra Honda National Park is located on the Nicoya Peninsula, near the town of Nicoya. It has a large cave system with about 42 chambers, 19 of which have been extensively explored to date. The total explored area amounts to around 23km² in size. The fame of these caves is mainly due to the fact that their geologically valuable formations, fascinating stalagmites and stalactites, are in almost original condition. The caves may only be entered with guides, going alone is prohibited.
Braulio Carrillo National Park is located northeast of the Central Plain between Poás and Irazú in the volcanic Central Mountain Range. The two main active volcanoes are Barva and Cacho Negro among other inactive volcanoes. Barva Volcano has various craters and lagoons, such as Barva Lagoon and Danta Lagoon. The evergreen vegetation of the park has a high biodiversity. Due to the fact that the national park is rarely visited and only has a few hiking trails, a large area is untouched. Jaguars, ocelots and many other animals that shy away from humans still live undisturbed here.
The Cabo Blanco National Park is a nature reserve of great scientific value but also of exceptional scenic beauty. Plant and animal life as well as marine flora and fauna of the tropical dry forest are protected here.
Cabo Blanco is located in the province of Puntarenas, in the south of the Nicoya Peninsula. The park was established on October 21, 1963. It has a land area of
The reserve is organized and protected through 4 programs. The research program consists of taking measurements with the aim of having some control over the development of the park. The maintenance program serves to improve and expand the park facilities. The conservation program prevents prohibited acts within the reserve such as hunting, fishing, fire and the removal of any forest products. The community education program supports the communities in creating a positive atmosphere between the people who live near the park and the national and international visitors.
There are 2 hiking trails available to visitors in the park. The shorter one is about 2.5 kilometers long and takes about 1.5 hours, the longer one is 8.5 kilometers long and invites you to take a refreshing dip in the sea halfway along. Due to the steep inclines, this hiking trail is quite strenuous, especially on hot days.
The Caño Negro Wildlife Sanctuary is located in the far north of Costa Rica on the border with Nicaragua. It protects the country’s most important wetland and serves as a stopover for numerous migratory birds. The 10,000-hectare park is home to Caño Negro Lake, which can grow to 500 hectares in size during the rainy season.
The best means of transport in the park is by boat, so you can see a variety of water birds such as herons, kingfishers and cormorants on a wildlife observation tour on the Rio Frio. There are around 300 different bird species in the park. If you are looking for mammals, you can also see tapirs and pumas in addition to the frequently sighted howler monkeys. Various lizards such as crocodiles, caimans and different types of iguanas are observed on almost every boat tour.
Carara National Park includes the transition zone between tropical dry forest and rainforest and the aquatic ecosystem of the Tárcoles River. Here you can find 5 meter long American crocodiles (Cocodrylus acutus) and an incredible variety of waterfowl. Among them are beautiful species such as the Scarlet Macaw (Ara macao) which you are almost certain to see because this national park is the main macaw nesting area in Costa Rica.
The name of the national park Chirripó means “place of the eternal water”. An enchanting and spiritual region of rugged mountain peaks and rock formations, charming valleys and lakes of glacial origin. It is a region that will touch the soul of anyone who dares to explore its peaks.
At 3,820 m Cerro Chirripó is the highest mountain in the Talamanca mountain range and southern Central America. Chirripó offers something for every visitor, because the natural resources of this park are extremely diverse: everything is represented from wasteland to lush vegetation thickets. There are many rocks here that want to be discovered by experienced climbers.
The Juan Castro Blanco National Park protects the tropical cloud forest, an ecosystem with a wide variety of wildlife like the quetzal (Pharomachrus mocinno) and the mutton (Procnias tricalunculado). Due to its rich water resources, the park is also called “National Park of Water”. It is located about 100 km north of San José and is home to the two volcanoes Platanar (active) and Porvenir. The park is still largely undiscovered and few tourists stray into this region. The park entrance is just east of the town of Quesada.
Located in the Talamanca mountain range, La Amistad International Park is said to have the country’s largest stable tropical forest. The highest mountains in the park include Cerro Kámuk (3,549 m) and Cerro Dúrika (3,280 m). In the surrounding area we find reserves of the indigenous peoples of Chirripó, Tayní, Telire and the Talamancas on the Atlantic side and reserves of the Ujarrás, Salitre and the Cabagra on the Pacific side. In 1982 UNESCO declared the area “La Amistad Biosphere Reserve ” and in 1983 named the park a World Heritage Site for its outstanding scientific findings, conservation and natural beauty.
Las Baulas Marine National Park protects 440 hectares of mangrove forest in the Tamarindo area. Playa Grande is one of the most important nesting sites for leatherback turtles (Dermochelys coriacea). This species of turtle is one of the largest in the world and can travel as far as Surinam and Malaysia – some have even been spotted off the coasts of Scandinavia. The leatherback turtles come to Playa Grande in early October to lay their eggs. The season lasts through March, with peak activity from November to December.
When observing the turtles, please ensure that you only wear dark clothing and only use flashlights with a red filter. The animal may only be observed from behind and it must not notice you, otherwise it will feel disturbed, stop laying eggs and lose the entire clutch in the water. It is always best to find a tour or go with a guide so as to not disturb this beautiful natural habitat.
Lomas Barbudal is a small green oasis in the otherwise rather dry Guanacaste region. Countless springs and rivers have their source in this area. Some even have water all year round, which is very unusual for this region. The park’s riverbanks and forests are home to around 130 species of birds and there are an infinite number of butterflies and bees. In the 2,279 hectare park there are also 250 different tree species. A special highlight are the waterfalls that slowly fall over the mountain slopes into a natural pool. Here you can enjoy a bath surrounded by beautiful nature.
Manuel Antonio is located in the province of Puntarenas. There are some very beautiful beaches and bays in the national park such as Playa Espadilla Norte or Playa Manuel Antonio. Many animals such as monkeys and sloths can also be found near the beaches.
Due to the popularity and attractiveness of Manuel Antonio, many hotels and bars have settled here and the prices are sometimes higher than elsewhere. Many of the hotels and restaurants are beautifully located on the hillside and have fantastic views of the Pacific Ocean. Besides visiting the national park, there are other things to do such as fishing, horseback riding or visiting a disco or casino in the evening.
This national park is one of the oldest and smallest national parks in Costa Rica. It includes palm forests, beaches and twelve small offshore islands. Local tour guides often stand in front of the park offering their services. Most of them speak English and it is up to you whether you want to be guided through the park or explore the area on your own. The various hiking trails are well posted so you can explore yourself or see more the Costa Rican guides and their trained eyes. A wide variety of seabirds breed on the 12 offshore islands and the endangered squirrel monkeys, capuchin monkeys, sloths, cheeky raccoons and coatis live in the park itself. Feeding the animals is strictly forbidden but they know exactly where to get something, so keep an eye on your bags. The main attraction, however, are the white sandy beaches with azure water. From the often crowded Playa Manuel Antonio you can hike to Isla Punta Catedral at low tide, as well as to Playa Puerto Escondido.
Tip: It is best to go to the park in the morning, when there are not so many visitors and you can enjoy nature with less crowds.
Irazú is an active volcano with a long history of eruption cycles. The name originally comes from an indigenous town called Iztarú, which was once located right on the side of the volcano. The name means “hill of trembling thunder” and was passed down only by word of mouth. The name then changed over the years to Irazú. The volcano is 3,432 m high, has 5 craters and has strombolian (explosive eruptions) characteristics. At higher altitudes we find wet barrens similar to Andean vegetation – typical of altitudes above 3,300 and 4,000 meters respectively.
The Palo Verde National Park consists of flood plains surrounded by rivers and limestone hills. It is located in the province of Guanacaste, between the Bebedero and Tempisque rivers, about 30 km west of the city of Cañas. The Palo Verde National Park has an area of
Palo Verde is one of the most ecologically diverse places in the country, with about 15 different habitats created by topography, river overflow and tidal effects. The national park owes its name to a bush from this region that is very widespread there, the Palo Verde, which can be found mainly in the swamps. The branches and part of the trunk are light green. Palo Verde National Park has a rich variety of trees and other plants. The natural irrigation system creates the right conditions for the most important concentration of birds in all of Central America.
From September to March, thousands of herons, ibises, ducks and other waterfowl come here to nest and overwinter. During this time you can observe up to 300 different bird species. The 2.3 hectare bird island is located in the front part of the park. In addition to birds, there are of course many other animals in Palo Verde such as monkeys, porcupines, coyotes and crocodiles up to 5 meters long.
Those who like to walk can hike through the forest in Palo Verde and observe animals such as howler monkeys or explore stalactite caves. An optional boat tour to the park across the Gulf of Nicoya is particularly recommended, as the wetlands in the national park are feeding and nesting areas for thousands of birds. If the weather is clear, you can marvel at the Pacific Ocean on one side and the Cordillera on the other on a canopy tour. You can also see the coffee production in the Cooperative Diriá, which produces according to ecological principles and helps the small farmers as a cooperative. A boat tour on the Tempisque, which is home to many animals, is also worthwhile. Among other things, you can also discover crocodiles in the fallow water.
Piedras Blancas National Park is located in southern Costa Rica, near the port town of Golfito in the province of Puntarenas. The protected area was created in 1991 as the Esquinas Sector of Corcovado National Park and was declared Piedras Blancas National Park in 1999. With a total area of
The national park is part of the biological corridor Osa. This corridor is of crucial importance for the conservation of biological diversity and is intended to connect the two national parks of Corcovado and Piedras Blancas through the purchase of land between. In this way, one of the most diverse ecosystems on earth can be preserved. In this area you will find the Rainforest of the Austrians, a project of a non-profit organization that buys up land and incorporates it into the Piedras Blancas National Park. In addition, the association supports projects for the benefit of the population of the village of La Gamba. They also operate the research station La Gamba and the Esquinas Rainforest Lodge.
The national park protects springs, rivers, rare tropical plants and birds, mammals and reptiles. Among the numerous reptiles are coral snakes, boas and vipers. Alligators and crocodiles also thrive in the many ponds, rivers and mangrove swamps. Around 350 bird species fly over the rainforest’s green canopy, including macaws, hummingbirds and trogons. Among the mammals are coati, skunk, jaguar, ocelot, puma, capuchin and squirrel monkey.
The Rincón de la Vieja, meaning corner of the old ones, is one of the active volcanoes in Costa Rica and is located in the Guanacaste region. The region is characterized by a relatively dry climate. Here there is still the rare form of dry forest which sheds its foliage in the dry season. The National Park protects a region of varied vegetation that surrounds the Rincón de la Vieja mountain range. Don’t miss the crater lagoon as well as the active crater of the Rincón which constantly emits gas and water vapor.
In the lower levels of the volcano you can admire the volcanic activity of the “pailas” (mud holes whose liquid bubbles at very high temperatures), hot springs and geysers. The park is also home to a large wild population of the Guaria Morada Orchid (Guarianthe skinneri), Costa Rica’s national flower.
Tapantí Cerro de la Muerte National Park is covered by dense evergreen forest, mainly ancient oak trees (Quercus sp.) and alder trees (Alnus acuminata).
There are 211 species of birds and many mammals who are native here, including the jaguar (Pantera onca) and the ocelot (Leopardus pardalis). Most of the national park is completely unexplored due to the extreme density of the forest. The reserve is recommended to see the famous Quetzal (Pharomachrus mocinno).
The Tenorio National Park is located in the province of Guanacaste and is known for natural thermal pools, great hiking trails, mixed forest, the Tenorio volcano and the light blue river Rio Celeste. The national park has so far been spared from large tourist flows and the flora has thus been able to spread in a very diverse way. The Tenorio Volcano rises to 1,916 meters and is located in the extreme north-west of the National Park. It consists of four volcanic cones and two twin craters that rise from shimmering green rain and wet forests. At the foot of the volcano lies the valley of Bijagua which offers habitats for small otters, powerful pumas, shy tapirs, nimble capuchin monkeys and large boas. The ascent to the crater lake is prohibited for safety reasons.
The hike to the Rio Celeste river is a rather tough terrain with big roots but it is definitely worth it. The brilliant turquoise blue color of the water is caused by a chemical reaction of two rivers with different minerals meeting. This natural reaction is fascinating and a popular photo opportunity.
Tortuguero National Park and the Barra Del Colorado Wilderness Area are the most important nesting sites for green turtles (Chelonia mydas) in the Caribbean. Other turtle species that also lay their eggs here are the leatherback turtle (Dermochelys coriacea) and the hawksbill turtle (Eretmochelys imbricata). The park’s natural system of lagoons and navigable canals is scenic and is also home to manatees (Trichechus manatus), caimans (Caiman cocodrylus) and many freshwater fish.
The turtles are deeply linked to Tortuguero’s history. The name Tortuguero means “turtle hunter” and the small town used to be a Mecca for all hunters. Fortunately, there was a rethink in the past, otherwise we would no longer have the opportunity to observe the magnificent green sea turtles laying their eggs or the turtle hatchlings. The large sea turtles come to Costa Rica from July to October to bury their eggs on the beach. After about 6 weeks, the little baby turtles hatch and make their way back to the sea. Park rangers guard the beach sections so that the turtles can come ashore undisturbed. From 6 p.m. the stand is closed to visitors. Late evening guided turtle watching tours are available at this time. To protect the animals, there are rules that must be observed; dark clothing and no flash photography are the most important. It really is a wonder of nature and watching it is an unforgettable experience.
The small town of Tortuguero lies in the middle of a narrow promontory surrounded by the Canal Tortuguero and the Atlantic. If you want to visit the beautiful natural paradise you can only do it by boat or small propeller plane. The mangrove area offers a completely different nature experience than other national parks. Here you explore the landscape by boat as you weave through small canals and observe animals up close in their natural habitat. Native animals are mainly waterfowl, reptiles such as the caiman or the basilisk, mammals such as the sloth and monkey and sometimes the rare manatee. Guided kayak tours in the Tortuguero National Park are offered on site. You paddle noiselessly through the small canals of the damp rain forest. A kayak tour in the morning hours is a special way to experience the awakening of the forest with its animal inhabitants up close.
The Arenal is a dormant stratovolcano. For many centuries it was considered dormant and did not erupt. In July 1968, the volcano awoke from its long slumber and a sudden eruption produced unexpected lava flows that devastated the volcano’s western flank. Since this date, the volcano was regularly very active with daily small eruptions until October 2010. It has been dormant for several years now, but it is not yet extinct.
The volcanic cone rises 1,633 meters above sea level and casts an almost flawless silhouette on the land. On a clear day, the volcano offers an impressive backdrop for photos and videos. With an area of
Poás Volcano is one of the most spectacular volcanoes in the country and has incredible scenic beauty. Different types of biotopes are found here: the “Bosque Achaparrado” (which means that all vegetation is very small), the Arrayanes grasslands and cloud forests.
In this habitat one finds epiphytes which are plants that grow on top of other plants such as mosses, ferns, bromeliads and orchids. The Poás main crater is 1.5 km in diameter and 300 m deep and has a 350 m diameter lagoon filled with hot water. The second, already extinct crater is the Botos Lagoon. Poás is a very active volcano with regular eruptions including in 1910 when ash clouds were ejected up to 8,000 m. The volcano is one of the most important natural attractions for national and international tourism.
The Turrialba volcano has a height of about 3,340 m above sea level and shares the base with the volcano Irazú (twin volcanoes). It has three clearly identifiable craters: the central crater, Cerro Tiendilla (2,791 m) and Cerro Armando (2,750 m). There are also other craters that are more difficult to see due to constant releases of gasses and sulfurous water vapors. Tropical moist forest and foothill rain forest are the dominant forest types here with trees up to 40m tall. Many of these trees possess the extraordinary buttress roots found only in the rainforest.
The Gandoca-Manzanillo National Game Reserve is located 12 kilometers southeast of Puerto Viejo de Talamanca on the Caribbean coast. With a size of 5,303 hectares it extends to the border with Panama.
On hikes through the diverse reserve, you can discover secluded beaches, a magnificent offshore coral reef and forested areas. You can see monkeys, sloths, scarlet macaws, snakes and toucans as well as very rare animals such as tapirs, green sea turtles and even manatees.
Santa Rosa National Park is one of the more remote parks in Costa Rica. Those who stray here can be sure that they will not have too many companions in their ventures as the place is still a well kept secret. The only exception will probably be the months of October and November, because during this time the beaches of the park are used by thousands of sea turtles as a place to lay their eggs.
In the Santa Rosa National Park we find the well-known “La Casona”, which commemorates the battle of Santa Rosa on March 20, 1856 against Nicaragua, an important part of Costa Rica’s history. The park is also of great importance for the protection and restoration of the biotopes of this region. For example, the attractive beaches of Playa Nancite and Playa Naranjo are important for the nesting of sea turtles. A large part of the park also protects the rare dry forest where trees lose all their leaves in summer and instead produce beautiful flowers.
The park is ideally located for anyone who wants to drive a little further north-west from the Rincón de la Vieja or even all the way to Nicaragua. It spreads across the entire Santa Elena peninsula and extends a little further inland. Here the typical dry forest prevails. Hikes of various lengths lead through the forest and sometimes to the lonely and untouched beaches. There is something for every type of hiker on the 7 – 16 km long trails. Since the park is untouched, you will find not only many species of monkeys but also tapirs, pumas, armadillos and much more. Not only does the fauna have a lot to offer here, the flora comes up with 10 vegetation zones which lead from the grass savannah to native forests.
Tip: If you are interested in more than just the flora and fauna on land, you should go diving in the national park. In addition to beautiful coral formations, sharks, rays and turtles are often seen here. Diving tours are offered from the northern beaches (Coco etc.) and the two northern hotels.
The ecosystem of the Terraba-Sierpe mangrove forest is one of the most important wetlands in the world. It protects a large number of plant species, bird species, molluscs and shellfish, mammals and fish. This mangrove forest, which is the largest in the country at approximately 33,000 hectares, can only be explored by boat and is located just north of Drake Bay on the Osa Peninsula. Here you will find some of the largest mangroves in the world and breathtaking biodiversity. The park is best accessed by boat or canoe from Sierpe or Drake Bay.