Best national parks in Costa Rica
Article updated November 2021
Ecotourists and traditional travelers to Costa Rica support the national parks system by paying park fees, taking nature tours and staying at the private reserves, as well as through their work and contributions to the many conservation foundations operating in Costa Rica. For those with an interest in preserving the wildlife in this country of unique biological diversity, visiting its protected natural areas can certainly be a positive step. Here are some of the best to travel to:
1. Manuel Antonio National Park
Within easy reach of San José on the Pacific coast, Manuel Antonio National Park is actually the smallest in Costa Rica. However, its compact verdant jungle terrain edged by three extended arcs of white-sand beach with turquoise waters beyond supports an incredible abundance of wildlife.
There are excellent trails for hikinhg – as you walk keep an eye out for all four of Costa Rica’s monkey species: white-faced capuchin monkeys that may try to steal your food (so don’t feed them); acrobatic spider monkeys; sedentary leaf-eating howler monkeys; and tiny squirrel monkeys that tumble through the treetops.
Birdlife encompasses literally hundreds of species, including boobies, frigate birds, pelicans, and terns. Snakes and iguanas abound, and if you are sharp-eyed, you may even be able to distinguish a sloth from a tangle of vegetation up in the trees.
You can sunbathe, body surf, swim, snorkel (bring your own gear), and picnic if you pack your own food. There is no restaurant in the park, but there are simple restrooms and showers at Espadilla Sur and Manuel Antonio beaches.
Green iguanas in Tortuguero National Park. Photo: Kevin Wells Photography/Shutterstock
2. Rincón de la Vieja National Park
In the north east of the country, the spectacular Rincón de la Vieja National Park contains two towering volcanic peaks – the slightly higher one reaching a height of 1,916 metres (6,286ft) – as well as four complete ecosystems within its verdant expanses. The volcano is intermittently active nowadays and some hiking trails are consequently off limits, owing to emissions of noxious gases. Check on current conditions with the park office before heading out on the trails. Adventurous visitors can take on the self-guided Las Pailas trail that skirts around boiling mud fumaroles and sulfurous hot rocks. Or hike through jungle areas and lush meadows to reach La Cangreja waterfall, which boasts both thermal springs and a cool swimming hole.
Track down waterfalls in the Rincón de la Vieja National Park, Costa Rica. Photo: Wouter Tolenaars/Shutterstock
3. Isla del Coco
Isla del Coco is the most remote part of Costa Rica, adrift in the Pacific Ocean nearly 600km (360 miles) southwest of the mainland. Isolated as it is, the island receives few visitors, yet millions have seen it on film, in the opening shot of the movie Jurassic Park. Covering an area roughly 12km by 5km (8 miles by 3 miles), Isla del Coco is the largest uninhabited island in the world, and in all senses, a highly dramatic destination.
The cliffs around most of the island are more than 100 meters (300ft) high and covered with thick tropical vegetation. Magnificent waterfalls plummet from their heights straight down to the sea. At the island's crown a thick coniferous forest is criss-crossed by springs and rivers. Natural paths lead up to the highest part of the humid jungle, from where you can take in views of an astonishingly green landscape surrounded by an incredibly blue sea. The water is exceptionally clear making the reefs around the island prime diving spots where marine life, including sharks, rays, and dolphins, is abundant. Specialist tour companies operate boats out of Puntarenas on the mainland to Isla del Coco National Park – the trip takes around 36 hours.
Frigate birds are a common sight on Isla del Coco nature tours. Photo: Bildagentur Zoonar GmbH/Shutterstock
4. Corcovado National Park
Covering 445 sq km (172 sq miles), Corcovado National Park on the Osa Peninsula is the largest lowland Pacific rainforest in Central America and Costa Rica’s most important sanctuary of biological diversity and endangered wildlife. Because Corcovado Park is inundated with nearly 6 meters (20ft) of rain a year, it is technically known as a ‘tropical wet forest.’ But the simplicity of that classification belies the ecological complexity of the park. Thirteen distinct habitats here are each characterized by unique assemblages of plants, animals, and topography. Five hundred species of trees – one quarter of all the species in Costa Rica – thousands of types of insects, almost 375 species of birds, plus frogs, butterflies, and many of the world’s most endangered and spectacular mammals, including tapirs and jaguars, live here.
To experience the park, visitors must be prepared to make a considerable commitment in time and energy. Camping with your own tent is possible, or you can book accommodation at one of the nearby luxury eco-lodges. Alternatively, visit the park as part of Insight Guides' Costa Rica Wild South trip, which includes a guided hiking tour to help you discover its wildlife highlights. The best time to visit Corcovado is during the dry season, from December to April.
A pair of wild scarlet macaws in Corcovado National Park, Costa Rica. Photo: worldswildlifewonders/Shutterstock
5. Tortuguero National Park
Around 19,000 hectares (47,000 acres) of Costa Rica’s northern Caribbean coast and hinterland have been designated as the Tortuguero National Park. There are many ways to navigate its maze of waterways, including renting a dug-out canoe or kayak, or taking one of many nature tours on offer in the area. Drifting silently in a canoe along Tortuguero’s narrow waterways overhung with vine-draped trees, you can spot caimans along the shore, iguanas sunning themselves, and monkeys up in the trees.
One of the best ways to tour the canals is on a boat with an electric motor accompanied by a local expert naturalist guide, who may help you to catch glimpses of sloths and basking freshwater turtles. Note that you cannot enter the land portion of the park without wearing rubber boots, which you can hire at the park office or in the village. Alternatively, take a package tour that includes a room at one of the jungle lodges that range from modest to luxurious, plus meals, nature guides, and a trip through the park's canals.
A 'smiling' crocodile in Tortuguero National Park – Costa Rica. Photo: Shutterstock
Ready to take a trip to see Costa Rica's best national parks?
Insight Guides can help you to plan and book fantastic tailor-made trips in Costa Rica. Simply contact us to let us know your ideas for the trip and when you would like to travel. Local travel experts will then prepare a personalized itinerary based on your preferences, which you can amend until you're totally happy with every detail before booking. Seek inspiration in our existing Costa Rica itineraries, and keep in mind that all our planned itineraries can be fully tailored to suit your specific needs.