Whales, Sea Turtles, and Active Volcanoes—Here Are 9 Must-Visit Costa Rican Parks

Though smaller than the state of West Virginia, Costa Rica has devoted more than 25 percent of its land to protected parks and nature reserves.

Clouds covering Cocos Island National Park in Costa Rica.

Costa Rica is one of the most biodiverse countries in the world—visiting its national parks is the best way to experience all it has to offer.

Photo by Katie Orlinsky

With its towering volcanoes, dreamy cloud forests, and exquisite beaches fronting tropical jungles, Costa Rica is remarkably wild and diverse. There are 29 national parks in Costa Rica—three are UNESCO World Heritage sites and more than a quarter of the country’s land has been set aside as a park or reserve.

To help you choose which parks to explore, here are nine of the most distinctive and enchanting national parks in Costa Rica to visit.

Different species of fish swimming in the ocean off the coast of Costa Rica

Cocos Island National Park is known for its turquoise-blue waters and rich, marine biodiversity.

Photo by Katie Orlinsky

1. Cocos Island National Park

  • Closest town: Puntarenas

A scuba diving paradise, Cocos Island National Park is famous for sheltering one of the largest populations of hammerhead sharks in the world. Several live aboard companies including Aggressor Adventures and Undersea Hunter run excursions off Cocos Island, most of them lasting 10 days. Because of its strong currents, the park requires visitors to have a certified diving license.

The base of a tree growing in Braulio Carrillo National Park

Braulio Carrillo National Park is one of the largest protected areas in Costa Rica.

Photo by Jakub Maculewicz/Shutterstock

2. Braulio Carrillo National Park

  • Closest Town: San Jose

Only a 45-minute drive from bustling San Jose, Braulio Carrillo National Park rises in the Central Volcanic Mountain Range, between the Poas and Irazu volcanoes, a dark-green oasis cloaked in mist. It might be Costa Rica’s most underrated national park. Covering more than 108,000 acres, the park’s steep slopes and forests nurture more than 500 species of birds, including quetzals and toucans, and nearly 100 species of mammals, from jaguars to pumas.

A community of mangroves in Tortuguero National Park

Because of its mangroves and protected beaches, Tortuguero National Park is an important hatching ground for many species of sea turtles, including the giant green sea turtle.

Photo by Marco Lissoni/Shutterstock

3. Tortuguero National Park

  • Closest town: Tortuguero

Located on Costa Rica’s northeastern coast, Tortuguero National Park has the largest protected green turtle nesting beach in the Western Hemisphere. An intricate series of rivers and canal hemmed by tropical jungles, Tortuguero is a place to explore by motor boat, kayak, or canoe. Incredibly biodiverse, the park contains 60 mammal species, 111 species of reptiles, and 300 bird species. With its unique Caribbean flora and fauna, it’s no surprise that it’s a favorite of researchers and ecotourists.

A tamanduas (small anteater) climbing a tree in Corcovado National Park

Corcovado National Park is home to one of the most biodiverse environments on Earth. Here, visitors can find tapirs, macaws, and tamanduas.

Photo by Matthieu Gallet/Shutterstock

4. Corcovado National Park

  • Closest town: Drake Bay

Sitting on the Osa Peninsula, Corcovado National Park is more than Costa Rica’s largest park: A triumph of conservation, the once heavily logged area now holds one of the last intact areas of lowland tropical forest in the world and is home to 500 species of trees. Hikers here will see all manner of unusual creatures, too, like harpy eagles, Baird’s tapirs, tamanduas (small anteaters), and packs of little pigs called peccaries. Six species of wild cats—including the endangered jaguar—also slink through the jungles. To explore the park, you’ll need an accredited guide from the Costa Rica Institute of Tourism, or ICT.

A humpback whale breaching in Costa Rican waters.

Ballena National Marine Park is one of the best places to whale watch in Costa Rica.

Photo by Claude Huot/Shutterstock

5. Ballena National Marine Park

  • Closest town: San Isidro de El General

Hugging the south Pacific coast, Ballena National Marine Park is named after the engaging humpback whales that migrate to its tropical waters from July to October. Here, in a rocky, sandy area resembling a whale’s tail—or tombolo—the humpbacks arrive yearly to give birth. For snorkelers and divers, Ballena offers a wealth of marine life, including parrotfish, bottlenose dolphins, and corals.

A seaside view of Arenal Volcano

At Arenal Volcano National Park, visitors can observe an active volcano system.

Photo by Secretdonkey/Shutterstock

6. Arenal Volcano National Park

  • Closest town: La Fortuna

With its spectacular cone-shaped volcano, Arenal Volcano National Park is one of the most popular destinations in northwest Costa Rica. Between the foothills of the Cordillera de Tilaran mountain range and the San Carlos Plains, the park embraces 8 of Costa Rica’s 12 life zones (a scientific classification of ecosystems) and contains nearly 850 of its known bird species. Until recently, Arenal was extremely active, averaging 41 eruptions a day. While climbing to the caldera is off-limits, the park has several hiking trails where visitors can spot sloths and other local wildlife.

The coastline at Cahuita National Park

Cahuita National Park boasts dreamy Caribbean vibes.

Photo by Simon Dannhauer/Shutterstock

7. Cahuita National Park

  • Closest town: Puerto Viejo

Located on Costa Rica’s east coast, this tiny reserve is renowned for its scenic sandy beaches, clear waters, and vibrant coral reefs swarming with marine life. Schools of tropical fish and sea turtles thrive here, making the area a spectacular snorkeling site. Visitors will also see iguanas lounging on the warm sand and monkeys scrambling in the coastal rain forest. To access the park, stay close by in the quaint town of Cahuita. On weekends, the coastal town can be crammed with cruise ships and visitors, so go when it’s less crowded to fully enjoy the park.

A volcanic crater at Irazu Volcano National Park

Irazu Volcano National Park is 90 minutes away from San Jose, making it a perfect day trip.

Photo by Irazu Milosk50/Shutterstock

8. Irazu Volcano National Park

  • Closest town: Cartago

Named after another of Costa Rica’s famed volcanoes, Irazu soars above the landscape, giving visitors dazzling views from its summit. In Costa Rica, it’s one of a few places where people can see the Pacific Ocean on one side and the Caribbean on the other. Still active, the volcano’s crater also holds a shimmering green lake, adding to its geologic allure.

Two people enjoying a waterfall at Manuel Antonio National Park

Manuel Antonio National Park has both rugged rain forest jungle and white-sand beaches.

Photo by Manamana/Shutterstock

9. Manuel Antonio National Park

  • Closest town: Quepos

Manuel Antonio is often singled out as one of the most beautiful national parks in the world—and for good reason. Sited along the southern Pacific coast, the park features white-sand beaches, rugged headlands, and sparkling blue waters where travelers can snorkel, kayak, and swim. It also has a vibrant rain forest with ample paths snaking through its foliage. Although relatively small at 1,680 acres, Manuel Antonio has an abundance of wildlife, including monkeys, sloths, armadillos, and toucans. Because of its combination of jungle habitat and beach scenery, Manuel Antonio is Costa Rica’s most visited national park—consider visiting in the off-season (roughly from May to November) to avoid crowds.

Mona Gable is the author of Searching for Savanna: The Murder of One Native American Woman and the Violence Against the Many (Atria Books).
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