Costa Rica's Most Popular National Parks
In 2009, more than a million tourists visited Costa Rica’s national parks, exploring steaming volcanoes, beachfront rainforest, roaring waterfalls, and some of the world’s last remaining tropical dry forest. Listed below are the country’s top ten most visited parks, which protect and showcase Costa Rica’s countless natural wonders. If you’re short on time, our top three recommendations are Rincon de la Vieja, Tortuguero (between July and October), and Arenal Volcano; these three parks offer stunning attractions you won’t find anywhere else in the world!
Manuel Antonio Park (261,156 visitors)
Drawn by its serene white sand beaches, troops of inquisitive monkeys and oceanfront rainforest, travelers made Manuel Antonio National Park their favorite destination in 2009. The park’s easy trails will take you through luxuriant forest home to three-toed sloths, raccoons, basilisk lizards and dazzling hummingbirds. A guided tour (about $20) is the best way to maximize your wildlife watching. When you’re finished exploring, spend a few hours lounging on the park’s three secluded beaches, some of the most beautiful in the country! The park is closed on Mondays and early morning is the best time to avoid the crowds, so plan your visit accordingly.
Poas Volcano National Park (182,900 visitors)
Imagine being surrounded by cloud forest mist, the cool air perfect for a leisurely hike; suddenly, the fog clears and a beautiful, aquamarine lagoon materializes before your eyes. You’re at Poas Volcano National Park, viewing the second largest crater in the world at nearly a mile in diameter. The park is blanketed in giant ferns and poor man’s umbrella, their gargantuan leaves nearly three feet wide. Moderate hiking trails will lead you to Botos Lagoon, which resides in a now-extinct volcanic crater, and later to the park’s secluded picnic grounds. Your best chance of seeing Poas is early in the morning, although clouds roll in and out throughout the day.
Irazu Volcano National Park (170,441 visitors)
If you’ve ever wanted to stand on top of the world, be sure to visit Irazu Volcano National Park. Home to Costa Rica’s tallest volcano, the park is located 11,260 feet above sea level. On a clear day, you’ll be treated to views of both the Pacific Ocean and Caribbean Sea – plus you’ll enjoy a front-row seat to Irazu’s principal crater, which is usually filled with lime green water. The surrounding terrain is otherworldly, resembling a moonscape with huge expanses coated in black ash. Temperatures hover around 45-55 ºF, and strong winds are common, so be sure to bring a sweater!
Tortuguero Area (113,532 visitors)
Featuring a winding set of interwoven river canals, Tortuguero National Park and Barra del Colorado Wildlife Refuge form the extraordinary Tortuguero Conservation Area. This north Caribbean region hosts a huge variety of terrestrial and marine life including sloths, basilisk (Jesus Christ) lizards, howler monkeys, river turtles, and myriad waterfowl such as tiger herons, osprey eagles, and egrets. While Barra del Colorado is known for its fabulous tarpon fishing, Tortuguero is most famous as a nesting site for four species of threatened sea turtle. Turtle season runs from March through October, but you’re most likely to spot a nesting mother between July and October, when large numbers of green sea turtles arrive in the area.
Ballena National Marine Park (93,344 visitors)
Named for the humpback whales that migrate there every year, Ballena National Marine Park is a wonderland of pristine beaches, underwater reefs, and gorgeous mangrove forest. Swimming, snorkeling, sunbathing, scuba diving, and dolphin and whale watching are all popular activities within the park. Watching massive humpbacks breech just yards from your boat is a once-in-a-lifetime activity you won’t soon forget. If you visit during low tide, be sure to explore Punta Uvita, the park’s famous rock and reef formation that perfectly resembles a whale’s tale.
Cahuita National Park (71,917 visitors)
Welcome to a park known for its sandy hiking trails, curious monkeys, and one of Costa Rica’s two living coral reefs. Hikers in Cahuita National Park are guaranteed some of the best wildlife watching in the country; the breezy, beachfront park is home to languorous sloths, green iguanas, vociferous howler monkeys, and even a vibrantly colored snake or two. If you’re interested in exploring Cahuita’s underwater offerings, snorkeling expeditions depart daily from the nearby towns of Puerto Viejo and Cahuita.
Arenal Volcano Park (66,298 visitors)
Basking in the shadow of Costa Rica's most active volcano, Arenal Volcano National Park offers hiking trails to old lava flows, wildlife watching, and brilliant lookouts over Lake Arenal. At first glance, you’ll be struck by the odd visual dichotomy of the volcano’s barren slopes and verdant plant life – the result of a major eruption in 1968 and the fruits of mineral-rich volcanic soil. Explore further, and you’ll discover an “overhear,” where you can listen in on the red-hot rumblings emanating from within the volcano’s center.
Rincon de la Vieja Park (46,791 visitors)
Recipient of my vote for Costa Rica’s most unique national park, Rincon de la Vieja National Park offers glimpses into the wild, weird and wonderful. Named after Costa Rica’s third-most active volcano, the area’s attractions revolve around the molten mountain. Tumbling waterfalls and an extensive trail system complement boiling mud pots, natural hot springs, a miniature volcano, and mineral-rich ponds. Brave the 8-hour trek to the volcano’s summit, where some of the country’s best views can be enjoyed – you may even spot Lake Nicaragua in the distance!
Santa Rosa National Park (34,612 visitors)
With high scrub grasses, abundant cacti, and acacia thorn trees, Santa Rosa National Park more closely resembles the African savannah than Costa Rica’s famous rainforests. The 92,000-acre park, located in the country’s arid northwest, protects Central America’s largest remaining tract of tropical dry forest, an important but disappearing habitat. Among the park’s more famous residents are Olive Ridley turtles, which nest at Playa Nancite from August through October. Santa Rosa is also famed for its world-class surfing at Ollie’s Point and Witch's Rock, regarded as two of Central America’s best sites to hang ten.
Corcovado National Park (28,058 visitors)
Named the most biologically intense place on Earth, Corcovado National Park exemplifies the phrase “teeming with wildlife.” Home to 13 types of forest, hundreds of species reside within the park: magnificent scarlet macaws grace the treetops; endangered Baird’s tapirs patrol the forest floor; and four species of sea turtle – Olive Ridley, leatherback, green, and hawksbill – nest on the park’s isolated shores. In addition to wildlife watching, leisure time at Corcovado includes snorkeling, scuba diving, hiking, swimming, canoeing, and camping. Grab your camera and head on down to the Osa Peninsula!