Did you know that more than 25 percent of Costa Rica’s terrain has been designated a national park, biological reserve or wildlife refuge? Encompassing rainforests, wetlands, cloud forest, beaches and mangrove estuaries, these diverse areas protect some of the country’s most endangered wildlife and serve as a living laboratory for ongoing scientific studies. Even better, the nation’s parks and refuges allow eco-travelers the opportunity to get up-close and personal with exotic flora and fauna. From the Atlantic to the Pacific coast, here are some of our favorite national parks to consider on your next Costa Rica vacation.
Manuel Antonio National Park
What this park lacks in size, it more than makes up for in sheer natural beauty. In fact, Forbes magazine labeled Manuel Antonio National Park one of the world’s most beautiful, thanks to its aquamarine waters, remarkable wildlife and verdant rainforest that literally spills it over white- sand beaches. Easy trails wind along three protected beaches, with plenty of lookout points that offer magnificent views of the park’s rocky islands. While guided tours are recommended for wildlife aficionados, even self- guided walks will afford sightings of sloths, monkeys, coatimundis, basilisk lizards and other creatures. The National Park is notorious for its boisterous troops of white-faced and howler monkeys and lucky guests may also encounter the diminutive squirrel monkey. Situated just 2.5 hours from San Jose, the park is close to a large selection of luxury beach vacation rentals and other accommodations.
Schedule: Open Tuesday–Sunday from 7 a.m. to 4 p.m. Closed Mondays
Highlights: Pristine beaches; diverse wildlife; easy to access and close to the San Jose international airport
Corcovado National Park
Famously labeled “one of the most biologically intense places on Earth” by National Geographic, Corcovado is located on the Osa Peninsula, and home to thousands of animal and plant species. Rough, rugged and isolated, the park’s varied terrain includes mangrove estuaries, rivers, lagoons, secluded beaches, and miles of untamed jungle. Here, visitors can catch glimpses of endangered animals rarely seen in other parts of the country. White-lipped peccaries, Baird’s tapirs, crocodiles, anteaters, pumas, ocelots, jaguars, and four types of monkeys all inhabit its borders. The park can be accessed through Puerto Jimenez, Drake Bay and Carate.
Schedule: Open from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. daily; inquire about trail closures during the green season months of May through November
Highlights: Safely observing Costa Rica’s largest predator species; camping at the Sirena ranger station; immersing yourself in nature
Cahuita National Park
It’s hard not to fall in love with the backdrop of this laid-back Caribbean hamlet, where capuchin monkeys outnumber visitors during the low tourism period. The park’s well-maintained hiking trails parallel the ocean, allowing pit stops for a quick swim or relaxing siesta beneath the shade of a sea almond tree. Look for enormous green iguanas sleeping in the trees, two and three-toed sloths, keel-billed toucans, and of course, plenty of monkeys. Love to snorkel? Take a tour to one of Costa Rica’s largest living coral reefs, where schools of tropical fish mingle with urchins, lobster, octopi and other marine creatures. And from March through October, travelers can witness leatherback and hawksbill sea turtles nesting along the beaches.
Schedule: Open 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. daily
Highlights: Close to all the nightlife in nearby Puerto Viejo; aquatic adventure tours on offer; more than 35 species of coral and terrific snorkeling from February to April