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