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National Parks of Costa Rica

The world is increasingly looking to Costa Rica as an example of environmental stewardship and conservation for its extensive national park system. Through a combination of relentless dedication, support from international wildlife and conservation organizations, and a lot of courage, the Government of Costa Rica has successfully generated prestige and wealth from protecting, rather than exploiting, its natural heritage and resources.

History of the National Park System, Costa Rica

Costa Rica’s national park system was founded in 1970. Today, close to 30 percent of its land and marine territories are protected as national parks, biological and forest reserves, or wildlife refuges. The National System of Conservation Areas (SINAC) is the governing body that provides the maintenance, organization, and strategic planning for the country’s cherished protected areas.

Several privately owned hotels and ecolodges have followed suit with the ecological mindset and dedicated their own properties as reserves and refuges. It is pretty likely that wherever you go in Costa Rica, there is one (or more) national parks or protected areas nearby.

Costa Rica National Parks, hours, and entrance fees

Hours and entrance fees vary depending on which park you visit. However, the following guidelines apply to most. Check the SINAC website before visiting for exact hours and entrance fee information.

National Park access for disabled travelers in Costa Rica

Many parks are converting their access and trail systems to accommodate disabled visitors, but the transition takes time. Poás National Park, to date, is the first entirely handicapped accessible park. Following in its footsteps are Manuel Antonio and Cahuita National Park (which has wide, flat trails and is currently installing a ramp on the beach so that individuals in wheelchairs can enjoy the clear Caribbean waters).  Most of the other parks and reserves are at least in part accessible by wheelchair, as are tours such as the Lankester Botanical Gardens, the Braulio Carrillo National Park aerial tram, and others.

The following is a list of the most frequently visited National Parks in Costa Rica. This is NOT a complete list. If the park, reserve, or refuge you wish to visit is not listed below, feel free to tell an I LOVE CR representatives and they’ll be happy to supply you with plenty of updated information.

Central Valley

Poás National Park

Because of its proximity approximately 1.5 hours from San José, Poás Volcano National Park is one of the most frequently visited. People looking for the perfect day tour often combine a visit to Poás with a waterfall hike and a visit to a local coffee plantation. The park’s well-defined and navigable trail systems pass through otherworldly landscapes of exotic trees and plants and lead to volcanic crater overlooks and a mysterious acidified lake.

Irazú Volcano National Park

Irazú Volcano is also about 1.5 hours from San José in Cartago Province. Its commanding overlook encompasses massive craters (out of five total) and similarly intense shrubs, gnarled trees, and other unusual flora and fauna. Visitors should include a hike in the park’s remarkable Prusia Forest and a stop in the picturesque Orósi Valley.

Tapantí Macizo de la Muerte National Park

Just south of Orósi in Cartago Province is the stunning Tapantí National Park – also one of the wettest parks in Costa Rica. The lush Tapantí mountains reach approximately 11,453 feet (3,491 m) above sea level, the birthplace of the mighty Reventazón and Pacuare rivers – two of Costa Rica’s most popular and beautiful whitewater rafting rivers.

Western Slope and Caribbean Lowlands

Braulio Carrillo National Park

Located on the northern edge of the Central Valley, Braulio Carrillo National Park is a picture-perfect example of what a rainforest should look like. The park encompasses a seemingly endless stretch of steep rolling mountains blanketed in towering trees, lush foliage, and countless waterfalls. Visitors enjoy exploring the treetop environment on the park’s aerial gondola tram ride and canopy tours, in addition to the several hiking trails.

Tortuguero National Park

This one of its kind national park is one of Costa Rica’s most remote destinations and most worth the effort to get to. Visitors can only access the protected area, associated ecolodges, and the town of Tortuga by boat or one of the small domestic air transfers. Tortuguero encompasses pristine jungle interspersed by a vast network of waterway canals and rivers leading to the rugged Atlantic Coast. In addition to its astounding ecological intensity, the area is most renowned for the massive migrations of giant sea turtles that arrive annually to lay their eggs in the protected coastal sands of the park.

South Caribbean Coast

Cahuita National Park

Cahuita National Park is the embodiment of a Caribbean paradise. Bordering the small beachfront town of the same name, it harbors terrestrial and marine habitats, including shallow inshore coral reefs, calm turquoise waters, a mangrove swamp, and palm-fringed white-sand beaches, among other habitats. Its network of wide and flat walking trails beneath palm and wild almond trees makes it a perfect destination for disabled visitors or individuals looking for a casual stroll instead of a challenging hike.

Gandoca Manzanillo Wildlife Refuge

Although it is technically not a national park, Gandoca is just too pretty and has so much to offer that it would be a shame not to mention it here. Located south of Puerto Viejo, this stunning refuge harbors land and marine territory, quiet bays with shallow reefs for snorkeling or swimming, natural mangrove oyster beds, palm swamp, and humid tropical forests, among other attractions.

The Southern Zone

Chirripó National Park

Chirripó National Park is home to Costa Rica’s tallest peak, Cerro Chirripó, which challenges seasoned hikers and mountaineers from across the globe. The mountain is one of Central America’s highest because it originates at sea level and climbs over 7,218 feet (2,000 m) before reaching its limit at 12,533 feet (3,820 m). Those who make it to the top are rewarded with sweeping vistas of both the Atlantic and Pacific oceans (if weather permits) and the beautiful Talamanca Mountains. Reservations to hike Chirripó must be made ahead of time, and a licensed guide must accompany hikers.

Los Quetzales National Park

Los Quetzales National Park covers rain and cloud forests between 6,500- and 9,800-feet altitude (2,000 – 3,000 m) in the verdant Talamanca Mountains. It is home to hundreds of Costa Rica’s endemic bird species, including the brilliantly plumed resplendent quetzal – sacred bird of the Maya. It also harbors hundreds of animal and plant species found nowhere else in Costa Rica, such as the Baird’s Tapir, jaguars, puma, collared peccaries, tayras, and numerous others.

South Pacific Coast

Corcovado National Park

Corcovado National Park is “the most biologically intense place on earth in terms of biodiversity,” according to the National Geographic Society. The massive park encompasses land and marine territories and covers most of the Osa Peninsula. Approximately 13 distinct ecosystems are found in its coastal and mountain habitats, including one of the few remaining Pacific old-growth wet forests in Central America. Because of the park’s vast size and intense wilderness, visitors must always be accompanied by a local guide or risk becoming lost in its depths. Its remote location makes getting to Corcovado an adventure in itself; however, the reward is well worth it. Several plant, animal, and reptile species in Corcovado are found nowhere else on earth.

Marino Ballena National Par

Located just south of Manuel Antonio and north of the Osa Peninsula, this stretch of stunning coastline is also known as Costa Rica’s Whale’s Coast (Costa Ballena). Marino Ballena National Park protects coastal and marine habitats, including several unpopulated offshore islands. The main beach is famous for its immense whale tail-shaped sand bar that juts out into the Pacific at low tide. A strange coincidence considering large numbers of Humpback whales migrate to the area seasonally to breed and raise their young in the warm, nutrient-rich waters.

Central Pacific Coast

Manuel Antonio National Park

Despite its small size, Manuel Antonio National Park is considered Costa Rica’s crown jewel of national parks. Located in the popular vacationer’s mecca of the same name—next door to the Port of Quepos and world-class Marina Pez Vela—Manuel Antonio National Park harbors unique transitional coastal forests and a surprising abundance of bird, animal, and reptile species. It also boasts some of the country’s most beautiful beaches and bays that are perfect for a leisurely afternoon of swimming and exploring. Because of its popularity, choose to visit the park during the week (Tuesday to Friday) to avoid the crowds and maximize your chance of spotting wildlife.

Carara National Park

Carara National Park is less than one hour from San José, just after the giant crocodile overlook at Tarcoles River Bridge. The park is extremely popular among birders for its myriad species, including the vivacious scarlet macaw. It is also home to lowland rainforest ecosystems and exotic species like crocodiles, monkeys, and sloths.

Palo Verde National Park

Located just north of San Jose and bordering the Tempisque River and Gulf of Nicoya is the little-known Palo Verde National Park. The park encompasses scenic countryside, tropical dry forests, and extensive wetlands that swell and expand during the rainy season when the Tempisque River overflows its banks. Visitors come for the dramatic landscapes teeming with birds, including dozens of marine species. Horseback riding, kayaking, and canoe tours into the wetlands are popular ways to explore the area.

Central Lowlands

Arenal Volcano National Park

Arenal Volcano is perhaps Costa Rica’s most famous and frequented landmark. The dramatic volcano emerges out of picturesque rolling hills covered in croplands and rainforest. Its iconic cone used to spew steam and lava—much to the delight of visitors; however, in 2010, the volcano entered a dormant phase and currently only emits the occasional puff of steam. Bubbling, mineral-rich hot springs still flow from the mountain’s depths and are the main feature of dozens of ecolodges and wellness resorts in the surrounding countryside and town of La Fortuna, Costa Rica. The park itself is enormous and includes a volcano monitoring station and amazing scenery, including dramatic canyons, steep mountains, ancient lava fields, and thousands of fascinating plant and animal species. The nearby Arenal Lake (and Dam) attracts visitors for its natural beauty, sport fishing, windsurfing, and canoeing. Visiting Arenal and the surrounding area is a dream come true for the adventurous at heart as just about every eco-tour is offered. Options include canyoning, rock climbing/rappelling, horseback riding, ATV expeditions, river rafting, spelunking, nature hikes, night hikes, waterfall hikes, fishing, suspended bridge walks, zipline canopy tours, and more.

Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve

Located in the cool misty mountains along Costa Rica’s Continental Divide, Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve, Costa Rica, harbors plant and animal species from both the Atlantic and Pacific hemispheres. It is also home to nearly 2.5% of the world’s entire biodiversity. Hundreds of unique species, including the resplendent quetzal, trogons, sloth, tapir, wild cats, and deer, not to mention the myriad insects and reptiles, all call the park home. Visitors come to explore the park, the nearby Santa Elena Cloud Forest Reserve, and charming local towns.

North Pacific Coast

Playa Grande Las Baulas National Park

Located just north of the booming beach town and surf mecca, Tamarindo, Costa Rica, lies Marino las Baulas de Guanacaste Tamarindo/Playa Grande National Park. The idyllic park protects marine (coral reef), beach, mangrove, and coastal territories. It is an important stopping point for migratory birds and the habitat of endemic species such as the crocodile, iguana, dolphin, and others. Playa Grande was originally founded in 1990 to protect the nesting sites of endangered leatherback sea turtles. Seasonal turtle conservation tours are organized by the local MINAE park rangers. Surfing Playa Grande is another big draw when the swells are right, and bordering the park is the idyllic mangrove estuary in Tamarindo National Wildlife Refuge, highly popular for kayaking and nature tours.

Santa Rosa National Park

Located near the Nicaraguan border in northern Guanacaste Province, Costa Rica, Santa Rosa National Park holds both historical and ecological importance. Apart from protecting a large swath of unique coastal habitats, including some of the last tropical dry forests in the world, Santa Rosa is also the site of the famous battle of Santa Rosa. In 1856, a small battalion of Costa Rican civilians ousted an army of mercenaries led by the U.S. filibuster William Walker who wished to convert all of Central America into slaving territory. Walker was eventually defeated in Nicaragua, and further attempts to usurp control in Central America failed. In addition to its history, the large park protects the nesting grounds of Pacific Ridley Sea Turtles. It also serves as part of a large biological corridor made up of two or more national parks.

Northern Lowlands

Rincón de la Vieja, Tenorio, and Miravalles Volcano National Parks

Rincon de la Vieja Volcano is a perfect example of geothermal energy at work. The complex volcano and its dormant sister craters lie approximately 25 km northeast of Liberia in Guanacaste Province. The national park features otherworldly terrain like bubbling clay pots, fumaroles, and steam vents. Several hot springs and thermal rivers emerge from the mountain’s depths. Visitors can explore La Viejas’s mysteries walking the park’s extensive trails or at one of the traditional ranch-style ecolodges dotting the rugged grasslands and forests around the volcano. In addition to soaking in hot springs or a therapeutic massage, countless eco-adventure tours are available.

The nearby Tenorio Volcano National Park is also worth visiting. Its show-stopping centerpiece is the stunning Rio Celeste River that runs through the park. Due to a mysterious chemical reaction that occurs when two distinct volcanic rivers intersect, the river turns a brilliant shade of milky turquoise as it tumbles through the park’s expansive cloud and rainforests.

Miravalles Volcano National Park, just next door, also offers hiking trails, beautiful overlooks, and waterfalls. However, most visitors opt to explore the trails of Tenorio and Rincon de la Vieja. All three volcanoes are the source of geothermal energy production – part of Costa Rica’s massive renewable energy production.
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