Costa Rica's National Parks

Braulio Carrillo National Park

Located in one of the country’s most rugged landscapes (a 45-minute drive east of San Jose on the way to Limon), Braulio Carrillo stands out as the most extensive park in the central part of the country. It contains two extinct volcanoes – Cacho Negro, visible because of its conic shape, and Barva, which has several craters.  Five representative forests are found within the park boundaries as well as several watersheds. Bird life is abundant with over 350 species of birds identified in the park, including the king vulture, three-wattled bellbird, the resplendent quetzal, and slack-faced solitaire. Jaguar, pumas, deer, ocelot, white-faced, howler and spider monkeys, Tamandua Anteater, collared peccary, coyote, and Baird’s tapir are found in the park.  One of the reptiles inhabiting this area is the Bushmaster, the largest poisonous snake in the continent.  Both the wet tropical forest and the wet premontane forest house hundreds of varieties of orchids and ferns. There are two park stations: Quebrada González, along the Braulio Carrillo highway, and Volcán Barva, two miles from Sacramento, near Barva, in Heredia. The main tourist attraction in the area is the popular Rainforest Adventures Aerial Tram.

Cahuita National Park

Cahuita National Park, located south of Limon, protects one of the country’s most important reefw. There are also important sections of wetlands and swamps, mostly dominated by the “yolillo” palm and the “sangrillo” tree. Cahuita offers shelter to howler monkeys, white-faced monkeys, sloth, squirrels, coatimundis, as well as several species of birds such as hummingbirds, toucans, herons, and hawks. The rich marine fauna includes Elkhorn, stag horn and brain corals, several mollusks, three species of turtles, and thousands of colorful fish such as the French Angel, Isabelita and Queen Angel fish. Activities include guided walks through the forest, snorkeling tours to the reef, and sun tanning at the beautiful tropical beaches. Diving equipment is not available since the nearest tank compressor is in Limon.  Facilities are well maintained and resident guides are available. Opens daily from 7:30am to 4pm.

Caño Island Biological Reserve

This island reserve is located less than 30 miles off the Pacific coast of southwest Costa Rica. The 790-acre reserve, protected under the administrative jurisdiction of Corcovado National Park, is one of the most valuable archaeological sites in the country.  Officials at Corcovado must be notified of any intentional visits so that island rangers can be informed. Camping is permitted and potable water is available. The entire reserve is a sanctuary for marine and migratory birds. Small rodents, amphibians, and reptiles make up the majority of the fauna. Tourist attractions include secluded white-sand beaches, great snorkeling and diving at the inshore coral reef, and a pre-Columbian Indian cemetery. Opens daily from 8am to 4pm.

Caño Negro National Wildlife Refuge

Caño Negro is located two hours from La Fortuna, still in the Arenal Conservation Area, on the border with Nicaragua. The lake is the central focal point of the refuge since it creates the core of activity during migratory bird movements on the central flyway. Three habitats surround the lake: herbaceous vegetation, mixed seasonal swamp forest, and mixed palm forest. Caño Negro Lake and the Rio Frio river that feeds it are incredibly rich in wildlife and a major nesting and gathering site for aquatic bird species (the lake harbors the only population of the Nicaragua grackle). Caño Negro is also home to several mammals and reptiles including jaguars, cougars, tapirs, ocelots, tayras, and plenty of monkeys. The crocodile and caiman colony is the best protected in Costa Rica and can be easily spotted during a regular tour. Opens daily from 8am to 4pm.

Carara Biological Reserve

Located two hours from San Jose, between Orotina and Jaco, Carara is a transitional zone between the tropical dry forest of the North Pacific and the wet forests of the nearby South Pacific coast. Carara has three life zones: tropical humid forest, premontane rain forest, and montane. Some of the rarest and most spectacular animals of tropical America can be found here: Scarlet macaw, American crocodile, great anteater, ocelot, spider monkey, great curassow, fiery billed aracari, and black and green poison arrow frog. Opens daily from 8am to 4pm.

Corcovado National Park

Located in the Osa Peninsula Conservation Area, it is the last remaining virgin rain forest in Central America. Nearly 300 species of birds, 139 species of mammals and 116 species of amphibians and reptiles are found within the park boundaries. The area contains many species of birds and mammals that are on worldwide endangered species lists, including the ocelot, puma or cougar, Baird’s tapir, and the jaguar. More than one hundred species of trees can be found on one acre of parkland. Although trails are well defined and campsites are clean and well planned it is still advisable to explore the park with a knowledgeable guide. Packages available from local lodges normally include hikes in the rainforest and visits to the offshore Caño Island, a paradise for snorkelers and divers. Opens daily from 8am to 4pm. Admission fee is $6.00 per person.

Gandoca-Manzanillo Wildlife Refuge

The Gandoca-Manzanillo Refuge is a concoction of ecosystems including swamps, lagoons, flooded forests, a reef, and marine plant and alga floors. Located on the Caribbean side, on the border with Panama, this refuge holds the only two living coral reefs in the country. The three-square mile reef runs about 200 yards off the shoreline and gives shelter to more than 60 species of tropical fish. The refuge also protects the habitat of endangered species such as the manatee and marine turtles such as leatherbacks, loggerhead, green and hawksbill, which nest on the beaches of the refuge. Other protected species are crocodiles, caimans, otters, peccaries, pacas, spider monkeys, toucans, parrots and great curassows. Holillo palms and Sajo make up the interior forests near the coast, which is fringed with coconut palms. South of Punta Mona there is the only cativo forest left on the Caribbean side of the country. Popular tourist activities at the refuge include hiking, horseback riding, bird watching, kayaking, diving, observation of dolphins, and guided tours for observing the leatherback turtle nesting, between February and May. Opens daily from 8am to 4pm. Admission fee is $6.00 per person.

Irazu Volcano National Park

At over 11,000 feet and with an extension of 5,700 acres, Irazu is the highest volcano in Costa Rica. It is located 19 miles NE of Cartago, in the center of the country.  From its summit both oceans can be observed on a clear day. There are five craters, all presently dormant, to be hiked and there is still a stream of steam and gas to be observed. It is a popular half-day excursion from San Jose. Opens daily from 8am to 4pm.

Isla del Coco

Located 332 miles SE of the southernmost point of Nicoya Peninsula, the park encompasses 5,900 acres of land and 45,900 of sea. In the 17th and 18th centuries it served as a hideaway for the pirates who flourished along the Pacific coasts of Spanish America. There are stories of treasures hidden here, such as the Lima Booty, consisting of tons of gold bars and sheets of gold, which have attracted over 500 expeditions of treasure hunters, including an official one from the Government of Costa Rica. An evergreen, dense forest covers the rugged terrain of the largest uninhabited island in the world, which is frequently cloudy and lashed by heavy rains. There are also over 200 waterfalls and several underwater caves. Scientists have identified 235 species of plants, 10 species of mammals, 362 species of insects (64 endemic), five species of reptiles, three species of turtles; 97 species of birds, 60 species of arthropods, 510 species of sea mollusks, 32 species of corals, and more than 250 species of fish including white-tipped sharks, hammerheads, yellow fin tuna, parrot fish, and horse mackerel, among others. The turquoise blue waters offer an extraordinary spot for diving and snorkeling although prearranged tours are mandatory.

La Amistad International Park

Located in the southern central inland area, on the border with Panama, La Amistad is considered as the protected area with the highest biological diversity in the country due to its wide altitudinal range, deep climatic changes, and soil variety. Nearly 400 species of birds are estimated to reside in this giant park (479,200 acres) where there are still over 240,000 acres yet to be explored.  In recognition of its bio diversity and high endemism, UNESCO has declared La Amistad a “Reserve of the Biosphere” and World Patrimony Site. The park has a large population of Baird’s tapirs, giant anteaters, jaguars and pumas. Infrastructure at the park includes a park ranger’s station, where you will find basic general information, a biodiversity office and lab where two parataxonomists do their work, campsites, an exhibition room, an amphitheater, a picnic area, fauna and landscape viewpoints, restrooms, potable water, electricity light, and trails. The Altamira station also has a parking lot for up to 10 cars. Opens daily from 8am to 4pm. Admission fee is $6.00 per person.

Las Baulas Marine National Park

This national park covers about 445 hectares of beaches and mangrove swamps and 22,000 hectares of the offshore waters of Playa Grande Beach, near the village of Tamarindo. It was created to protect endangered wildlife species, especially the leatherback turtle, which take over the beach from November to April. In order to minimize visitor impact, the number of people allowed on the beach each night is limited by the National Park Service using a system of reservations. A qualified guide must accompany all visitors. On the access road to Playa Grande, there is a small museum devoted entirely to the life history of the leatherback turtle. Up to date scientists have identified 174 species of sea and land birds, 57 of which live in the mangrove swamps, including the blue-winged teal, black-bellied tree duck, white ibis, cattle egret and Muscovy duck. The mangrove swamp also provides shelter for raccoons, caimans, pacas, grey squirrels, and howler and white-faced capuchin monkeys.

Manuel Antonio National Park

Located four miles south of Quepos, this small park (1,685 acres) is one of the most popular in the country.  The park, outlined by miles of sandy white beaches, is one of the best areas in the country to view migrating marine birds. Squirrel, white-faced, howler and capuchin monkeys, agoutis, three-toed sloth, and black and green iguanas hide among the lush vegetation that grows to the edge of the beaches.  Marked trails lead hikers to campsites and other park facilities. The waters are crystal clear and have become a popular destination for snorkelers. Opens Tuesday to Sunday from 7am to 4pm. Admission fee is $6.00 per person.

Ostional National Wildlife Refuge

This small wildlife refuge protects the nesting grounds of the Pacific Olive Ridley sea turtle. This species’ homing instincts and the limited choice of nesting sites bring regular armadas to this spot, above all from July to December. However, turtles can be seen in lesser numbers almost any night during the nesting season. Leatherbacks turtles are occasionally seen between November and January. Apart from the turtles, there are iguanas, crabs, howler monkeys, coatimundi and many birds to be seen. Some of the best birding is at the southeast end of the refuge, near the mouth of the Nosara River, where there is a small mangrove swamp. The rocky India Point at the northwest end of the refuge has many tide pools abounding with marine creatures such as fish, sea anemones, sea urchins, starfish and shellfish. Along the beach are thousands of almost transparent ghost crabs, bright red Sally light foot crabs and a variety of lizards. The vegetation behind the beach is sparse, and consists mainly of deciduous trees such as frangipani and stands of cacti. Opens daily from 8am to 4pm. Admission fee is $6.00 per person.

Palo Verde National Park

Palo Verde is located in the province of Guanacaste, three hours from San Jose, on 14,100 acres of dry land. This national park is made up of a mosaic of diverse floodplain habitats, bordered by rivers and a ridge of limestone hills. The Palo Verde area is subject to seasonal floods of great magnitude due to its lack of natural drainage. This produces a great ecological diversity–between 12 and 15 habitats have been identified. These habitats include salt and fresh water lakes and swamps, grasslands with black mangroves, mangrove swamps, pastures, lowland stunted forests, wooded savannas and evergreen forests. The most conspicuous species and the one from which the park takes its name is the “palo verde” or horse bean, a leafy bush with its branches and parts of its trunk colored light green. The lignum-vitae, a tree prized for its wood and in imminent danger of extinction, is also found here. Palo Verde’s natural water system has created an environment capable of supporting one of the largest concentrations of waterfowl and wading birds, both native and migratory, in all of Central America. The forests are the nesting grounds of the endangered jabiru and home to the only colony of scarlet macaws in the Dry Pacific. Some of the most abundant mammals are the howler and white-faced monkeys, white-nosed coati, white-tailed deer, tree squirrel and porcupine. Crocodiles can be easily spotted in the Tempisque River. It can be visited as a half-day excursion from hotels in Guanacaste.

Poas National Park

Located 1-½ hours north of San Jose, it is one of the few accessible active volcanoes on the continent. Active fumaroles can be observed at the bottom of the crater. Abundant bird life and small mammals are residents of the only true dwarf cloud forest in the country, including the elusive quetzal and many species of hummingbirds. Well-marked trails weave around the craters and afford visitors spectacular views of the steaming fumaroles. Popular half-day excursion from San Jose. Opens daily from 8am to 4pm. Admission fee is $6.00 per person.

Rincon de la Vieja National Park

Located in the Guanacaste Conservation Area, the center of this park is an active volcano featuring nine identified craters on the summit and several cones and lagoons, which can be visited on horseback and on foot.  At the foot of the ridge, in the Las Pailas area, boiling mud pools, hot springs, and steam vents can be observed. The park protects an important watershed. Wildlife is abundant with three species of monkeys, peccary, agouti, tayra, and more than 200 species of birds. One of the most popular canopy tours in Costa Rica is located in the park. Rincon de la Vieja can be visited as a half-day trip from hotels in the Tamarindo and Papagayo area. Opens daily from 8am to 4pm. Admission fee is $6.00 per person.

Santa Rosa National Park

Located on the North Pacific Coast near the border with Nicaragua, this historical park, (122,350 acres in size) is named after the Hacienda Santa Rosa where a historic battle was fought on March, 1856, between a hastily assembled amateur army of Costa Ricans and the invading forces of North American filibuster, William Walker. It is now home to an experimental reforestation project and has become an internationally known research center for the study of its dry forest and two of its beaches. The park protects more than 250 species of birds, 115 species of mammals (including 20 species of bats), and 100 species of amphibians and reptiles. Some of the protected species are whitetail deer, jaguar, tapir, and collared peccary. Four species of turtles: olive Ridley, hawksbill, green and leatherback lay their eggs on the beaches of the park. Santa Rosa is best known for its remote pristine beaches, several miles of hiking trails, and excellent surfing

Tortuguero National Park

One of Costa Rica’s most popular national parks, Tortuguero is located about 50 miles north of Limon. No roads are extended to this area, so the park and the small town of Tortuguero can only be accessed by boat or by aircraft. Located on 46,815 acres, the canals running through are known as Costa Rica’s Amazon.  Beyond the opportunity of observing tropical rainforest and aquatic species in the park, the 22-mile stretch of beach is a principal nesting site for green (June to October), hawksbill (July to October), and giant leatherback sea turtles (Mid February to July). The park has 11 ecological habitats, from high rainforest to herbaceous marsh communities. Wildlife is rich and diverse: 309 species of birds, 60 species of amphibians, 110 species of reptiles and 60 species of mammals have been identified. Some of the species in the park include the howler, white-faced capuchin and spider monkeys, sloth, jaguar, ocelot, manatee, macaw, turkey vulture, and black hawk.