Resplendent Quetzal Bird.
Story and photos by James Kaiser
A few years back I visited Costa Rica on vacation. I liked it so much, I decided to stay. Having just finished a series of successful guidebooks to U.S. national parks, I was looking for a new destination to write about, and Costa Rica seemed like the perfect fit. Over 25% of the country has been set aside as national parks or protected areas. By some estimates, Costa Rica contains 5% of all biodiversity on Earth. For a nature lover like myself, this tiny Central American country is paradise.
While researching my new guidebook, Costa Rica: The Complete Guide, I visited every one of the country’s 26 national parks. From lush rainforests to cool cloud forests to pristine beaches, Costa Rica’s parks protect a stunning range of tropical landscapes. Although it’s difficult to choose “the best” among so many worthy candidates, listed below are my personal favorites.
Located on Costa Rica’s northern Caribbean coast, this remote park is only accessible by boat or plane. There are no roads to Tortuguero, which is sandwiched between the Caribbean Sea and an extensive network of jungle rivers. There are over a dozen hotels along the river banks in Tortuguero, from cheap backpacker hostels to high-end eco-lodges (my favorite is the gorgeous Tortuga Lodge). Most hotels offer multi-day packages that include transportation to and from Costa Rica’s capital, San José. By plane it’s about 30 minutes from San José to Tortuguero. Or there is a three-hour bus ride to La Pavona, followed by a one-hour boat ride through the rivers to Tortuguero.
Howler monkeys can be heard and seen in the jungles around Tortuguero’s waterways. Their call can be terrifying for a first-time visitor to Costa Rica but they are peaceful vegetarians!
Tortuguero’s natural canals are ideal for kayak explorations. In spite of its remote location, this is the third-most visited park in Costa Rica.
During the day, boat and kayak tours explore Tortuguero’s rivers in search of wildlife, and between July and October nesting sea turtles lay their eggs on the beaches at night. Tortuguero means “Place of the Turtles,” and it’s one of the Caribbean’s most important sea turtle nesting areas. Each year thousands of green sea turtles migrate here to lay their eggs on the beach. Guided tours allow visitors to witness this incredible process up-close, and if you’d like to lend a helping hand, volunteer opportunities are available through the Sea Turtle Conservancy.
Home to one of the most pristine rainforests in the world, Corcovado is considered the crown jewel of Costa Rica’s national park system. It protects roughly half of the Osa Peninsula, which National Geographic called the “most biologically intense place on Earth.” Monkeys and sloths dangle from trees, toucans glide through the air, sea turtles nest on the beaches, and migrating humpback whales swim offshore. Perhaps most impressive, the park is home to healthy populations of jaguars, tapirs and scarlet macaws — beautiful animals that have disappeared from much of Central America due to habitat loss. Visiting Corcovado is like stepping back in time, experiencing the tropical rainforest in its purest natural state.
Scarlet Macaws are an endangered species, the largest of the macaws and normally living for 50 to 80 years.
A hiker admires a tree in Corcovado’s forest.
The best way to visit Corcovado National Park is to spend the night at Sirena Ranger Station, at the headquarters in the heart of the park. There are three ways to get there: a rugged 8-hour hike, a 1-hour boat ride from Drake Bay, or a 15-minute flight from one of the regional airports just outside the park. An extensive network of hiking trails around the ranger station offers incredible wildlife watching. After spending the day seeking out amazing animals, fall asleep in the lodge listening to a symphony of rainforest sounds.
3. Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve
Technically Monteverde isn’t a national park. It’s a private reserve. But it’s so beautiful – and so lovingly protected – that I’ve decided to include it here. Located 1,400 meters above sea level, this gorgeous cloud forest is home to more plant species than the U.S. and Canada combined, including the highest concentration of orchids in the world. It is also a bird watchers paradise. In addition to resplendent quetzals like the beautiful bird that opens our article – famous for their long iridescent tails – and bellbirds – famous for their thunderous metallic mating call – Monteverde is home to trogons, hummingbirds and toucanets. All told, over 400 bird species have been identified here.
The Cloud Forest is home to over 400 bird species.
Outside the reserve you can enjoy coffee plantation tours, private museums devoted to frogs and butterflies and Monteverde’s most famous adventure: “Canopy Tours.” Also known as zip-lining, Canopy Tours allow visitors to zoom above the treetops attached to long metal cables. There’s no age limit for Canopy Tours, and visitors in their 70s and 80s have soared through the trees. For a less adrenaline-soaked adventure, consider volunteering for a while with the non-profit Monteverde Institute.
4. Manuel Antonio National Park
Located in the center of the Pacific coast, Manuel Antonio has long been one of Costa Rica’s most popular destinations. Although just 20-square kilometers, the tiny park is home to stunning beaches, lush rainforest and impressive wildlife. It’s also extremely accessible. From the park entrance an easy 2.2-km trail heads through the jungle to a series of beautiful beaches. As you stroll through Manuel Antonio keep your eyes out for the park’s three species of monkey, including the adorable (and endangered) squirrel monkey. To learn more about an inspiring Monkey Bridge Program in the park, see a local non-profit Kids Saving the Rainforest.
Endangered Squirrel monkey.
Manuel Antonio is one of the most popular national parks in Costa Rica, and the hills outside the park are filled with hotels and restaurants, many with spectacular views of the coast. No matter what your price range, you’ll find many choices. And thanks to the wide range of local activities — spas, spice tours, sailboat cruises — there’s plenty to do after you’ve explored the national park.
Manuel Antonio Park has a spectacular Pacific Ocean shoreline.
Arenal Volcano on fire.
5. Arenal National Park
There are over a dozen volcanoes in Costa Rica, but Arenal is the most famous by far. After lying dormant for centuries, it erupted in 1968 and spent the next 40 years emitting a steady stream of lava and “hot rocks.” Although Arenal has been uncharacteristically quiet for the past two years, it could rumble back to life at any moment, at which point visitors will once again enjoy the nightly fireworks. But even if you don’t catch a glimpse of the glowing lava, the massive volcano is a sight in itself, and the geothermically active region is filled with natural hot springs.
My favorite local hotel is the Arenal Observatory Lodge, a beautiful eco-lodge originally built as a volcano research station for Smithsonian scientists. The only lodge inside the park, it features stunning views of the volcano’s charred southern flank. It’s also a short drive away from the official park entrance, where you can hike to the blackened remnants of the 1968 lava flow.
For a complete list and description of Costa Rica’s 26 national parks, click here. We also recommend two other richly-illustrated feature articles in our Travel Article Library: one about Costa Rica’s Community-Based Eco-Lodges, and a personal reflection by the Living Abroad in Costa Rica author as she gets to know her new home country.
Costa Rica, The Complete Guide: Eco-adventures in Paradise
Second Edition, By James Kaiser.
Published in January 2015 by Destination Press in the US. Available at local bookstores and online book shops, 496 pages with hundreds of color photos, Available in Paperback or Kindle through Amazon. ISBN-10: 1940754003 or ISBN 13: 978-1940754000.
From pristine beaches and jungle waterfalls to high-altitude coffee plantations, award-winning author and photographer, James Kaiser, spent five years researching this book. He shows readers the best of Costa Rica, including the country’s stunning collection of national parks.
This guide, which provides fascinating chapters on the country’s unique history, culture, ecology, and wildlife, is sure to appeal to anyone looking for more than just restaurant and hotel reviews. Giving travelers everything they need to plan an unforgettable trip, this resource also includes a “Top 10 Ways to Avoid a Cultural Misunderstanding” that helps visitors avoid common, and potentially embarrassing, cultural mistakes.
James Kaiser is an award-winning travel writer and photographer. In 2012 his guidebooks to Grand Canyon, Yosemite, Joshua Tree and Acadia were the bestselling guidebooks to their respective national parks. He lived in Costa Rica for five years while working on Costa Rica: The Complete Guide. www.jameskaiser.com.