Costa Rica boasts 26 national parks, where you can hike past thundering waterfalls, zipline near an active volcano, swim off coral reefs and spot abundant wildlife. Here are the best of the best
With 25 per cent of its landmass dedicated to national parks and reserves, Costa Rica takes its natural riches seriously.
Just two-and-a-half times the size of Wales, it is packed with rainforest and cloud forest, volcanoes and pristine protected coastline, all home to 5 per cent of the world’s plant and animal species. You can spot monkeys and sloths, hummingbirds and toucans, see some of the 1,400 species of orchid and watch turtles, who return to the same beach year after year to lay their eggs.
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Blanketed in lush rainforest and cloud forest, this beautiful, mountainous park is home to capuchin monkeys, pumas, tapirs and ocelots. Perhaps its most dramatic site is the Rio Celeste, caused by the confluence of two crystalline rivers, which flows into one of the country’s most striking waterfalls (above). Hiking routes follow the water and take in boiling mud pots and furnace vents. The geothermic activity also creates the park’s natural hot springs, perfect for relaxing after a tiring hike.
Ballena translates as whale in English and the unusual rocky reef that juts out from this Pacific coast park is, indeed, shaped like a whale’s tail. It is also one of the best places to spot migrating humpback whales (above) from December to April. The golden sands are home to marine iguanas, and each year turtles – olive ridley and hawksbill – return to the pristine beaches to lay their eggs. Just offshore is a spectacular coral reef for snorkelling, where you can spot everything from parrotfish to manta rays and starfish.
A tropical dry forest set on the coast of Guanacaste, Santa Rosa almost looks like an African savannah. But these arid plains are home to peccary (also known as a skunk pig), monkeys, coyotes and coatimundis, as well as more than 250 bird species and 4,000 types of butterfly and moth. The long stretches of Pacific beach provide nesting sites for leatherback, Pacific green and olive ridley turtles, and are also home to some of the best surfing in the country. In fact, these beaches were chosen as locations for the cult surfing film The Endless Summer II.
This spectacular park sprawls across half of the Osa Peninsula and is one of the most densely biodiverse places on the planet. Around half of the species found in Costa Rica are packed into this extraordinary area. Primary tropical rainforest is home to rare harpy eagles, monkeys, hawks, tapirs and pumas. When you head for the sea, you’ll fine the vast coastline is edged with a mix of mangroves, freshwater swamps and bright coral reefs that will tempt you to dive and snorkel.
Less than two hours from San José, this popular park encompasses marshlands, lagoons and forests. Here, you can spot spectacular flocks of scarlet macaws (above), monkeys, crocodiles, sloths and margay cats. It also boasts archaeological riches, with pre-Columbian sites dating back 2,000 years scattered throughout the area. With huge hardwood trees and a slightly drier climate, the vegetation isn’t as dense as in rainforests and there is little undergrowth, which makes wildlife spotting on the trails much easier.
Close to the capital San José, this was once the second most visited park in Costa Rica, until the Poás Volcano had a temper tantrum in 2017 and forced its closure. The park is expected to reopen to the public by the end of the year. Thundering waterfalls and the grand Fraijanes Lake offer one delight after another, while fumaroles curl quietly from various craters.
For a full guide to the 29 national parks and marine parks, go to Visit Costa Rica