Costa Rica is home to 28 national parks, of which 3 are UNESCO World Heritage Sites. Because 28% of the land, rainforests, and wildlife in Costa Rica is protected by national parks and reserves, visiting one of them is a must to have a complete Costa Rican experience.
Costa Rica is vast, and while there are plenty of national parks to choose from, they are spread out across the country. Where you choose to stay during your visit may be a deciding factor on which national park you choose. Plus, you’ll want to prepare so you know what to expect ahead of time.
Choosing Which National Park To Visit
Choosing a national park can be a bit nerve-wracking. I can honestly say I quickly got lost in the weeds, and it took me longer than it should have to choose a tour (which is the number one reason I created this guide). The options are endless, with each national park offering its own unique experience.
Adding to the many options, you can also combine your national park visit with other activities. For example, you can begin your day exploring the park and end with a mud bath. Or, if you’re like me, an afternoon sipping on Costa Rican coffee and sampling chocolate at a local farm is all you need.
Another important thing to consider is the traveling distance. It is not uncommon for the commute from your hotel to the park or reserve to average 3 hours each way. Many tours are scheduled for a full-day for this very reason.
With that said, I recommend choosing your national park first. Here are my top five (use the map below as a location reference):
Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve
A perfect choice for birdwatchers and nature lovers, Monteverde is where you’ll discover plants that you can’t find in any other place in the world. At this reserve, you can even experience the Continental Divide with one foot on the Caribbean side, and the other on the Pacific! Add their hanging bridges, aerial tram, and a sugar cane, coffee, and chocolate tour to your day for a more in-depth experience. Monteverde is located within the Puntarenas and Alajuela regions.
Rincon de la Veja National Park
This was my choice during my visit to Costa Rica due to its proximity to Andaz Papagayo in Guanacaste. A mere 1-hour drive, and I was there. Although the Rincon de la Vieja (volcano) is not currently active, activity from geysers, fumaroles, sulfuric hot springs, and thermal mudbaths can still be seen and enjoyed. Take a guided hike to explore the lush landscapes and waterfalls. And awe in the place many wild cats call their home.
Arenal Volcano National Park
Probably the most popular attraction in Costa Rica, the Arenal Volcano (the most active in the country) covers 290 square miles, and the surrounding park crosses 30,000 acres. This destination is ideal for hiking and spotting various wildlife from birds (850 species are here), white-faced monkeys, and snakes, just to name a few. The higher you go, the more beautiful the views become. This park is located in the Alajuela region.
Corcovado National Park
As one of the last remaining areas of lowland tropical rainforest in the world (plus its 13 major ecosystems), it is no wonder the park was named “the most biologically intense place on earth” by National Geographic. Located in the Puntarenas, It is also home to one last-standing concentration of jaguars in Central America. If you are looking for an untouched and secluded option, Corcovado is the place.
Palo Verde National Park
I added this park to the list because, unlike all the other parks I’ve mentioned, you cannot explore Palo Verde on foot. Engulfed by the Tempisque River in the Guanacaste region, the park’s marshes create the ideal home for wetland bird species like Egrets, Wood Storks, and Herons. Book a leisurely and educational boat ride with a professional naturalist guiding you through this vast network of mangroves searching for wildlife. Pair this experience with a rum tasting tour and end your day sipping on cocktails.
Selecting Your Costa Rica Tour Guide
Once you’ve figured out what type of experience you want to have, the next thing to do is reserve your tour with a company that can bring your adventure to life. Please don’t try to tackle the parks on your own. Hire a guide. (I came across many poisonous creatures during my hike, and my guide pointed them out before I even saw them).
First, locate a tour company that services your area (I mentioned earlier how vast Costa Rica is). Next, decide on your preference for a half-day or full-day journey. And lastly, determine if you want to tour with a group or go with a private guide.
With the group tour, you would share your time and guide with a few other people. Don’t expect 20 people in your van, but you should expect 6-8 others to join you. Also, on a group tour, you don’t have much flexibility in the plans set forth so you have to go with the flow of the group. I would recommend going this route if your internal extrovert requires it. 🙂
I went with a private guide for my tour, and it was the best decision for me. I got to explore the park on my terms and didn’t feel rushed. My guide made sure we were happy and comfortable throughout our tour and changed the pace as needed to fit our flow. From a price standpoint, a private guide will cost you double what you would spend taking the same tour with a group. You just have to pick what works best for you.
What To Wear and What To Pack
Now that you’ve chosen your tour and booked your guide, you can officially get excited! Well, only after you finish preparing for the day ahead.
Since you’ll be spending a ton of time in the middle of a rainforest, there are several things you will need to be sure to pack. And when it comes to what to wear, I have several suggestions too.
It doesn’t get cold in Costa Rica, and there are two seasons — dry (summer) and wet (green). That means you want to have adequate coverage, but still, dress comfortably with lightweight materials. Long khaki or yoga pants with a t-shirt or tank top (with a bathing suit underneath) work well. Socks (protects you from any ants other small insects) with sturdy hiking boots or tennis shoes with a rubber sole will also be needed. Give yourself options to layer on or take off layers depending on the level of activity.
During the wet season, May through October, it will most likely rain at some point, especially towards the afternoon. To combat that and remain comfortable, pack a light waterproof jacket or poncho. Note: Monteverde is known to rain during the dry season, too, so I would suggest you pack a poncho just in case.
Carrying a backpack makes it easier to take photos and use your arms when needed. Bring items like sunscreen and natural insect repellent, sunglasses, a hat, a change of clothes, a towel, and bottled water.
And if you have extra space, water shoes are nice to have when you are visiting the waterfalls. The rocks can get very slippery, and these shoes will grip them with ease. They are also great to have if you are planning to add rafting or kayaking to your tour. Dry bags should also be nearby if you are bringing any expensive cameras, lenses, phones, etc. You don’t want to find out what a little rain will do to your DSLR. #VeryBadDay
If you enjoy viewing wildlife in their natural habitat, bird watching, hiking through tropical forests and up volcanoes, cooling off under waterfalls, walking across hanging bridges, and chilling in hot springs, then a visit to a Costa Rican national park is undoubtedly for you.
Have you ever been to a national park in Costa Rica? Drop your favorite one in the comments below!