Costa Rica’s top 5 National Parks – Which ones to visit and how?

A real insight into Costa Rica’s true beauty

When you close your eyes and think of Costa Rica, you probably imagine dense green jungles thriving with wildlife.

As one of the most biodiverse places in the world, Costa Rica is home to over 500,000 animal species. Representing nearly 5% of the total species estimated worldwide.

This includes a number of native species that can only be found in Costa Rica: tapirs, coatis, ocelots and red-eyed tree frogs to name just a few.

Essentially, if you ever want to see a tapir in its natural habitat, you’ll have to go to Costa Rica. And to see these unique creatures and get a real insight into Costa Rica’s biodiversity, there is no better way than visiting one of the country’s national parks.

How many national parks are there?

If you had all the time and money in the world, you’d want to visit as many national parks in Costa Rica as you could. But for most of us, our time is limited and there may be a budget in mind.

Visiting all of Costa Rica’s 28 national parks, 51 wildlife refuges, 13 forest reserves and 8 biological reserves would take you forever.

This article saves you having to do all the research to find out which national parks are the most worthwhile to visit.

The top 5 national parks in Costa Rica

Not everything can be summed up in a table, but it does definitely help in remembering the differences between the parks

National ParkKnown forStay inTime to spend in the parkEntrance fee
1. Corcovado National ParkIncredible biodiversity and wildlife Drake Bay or Puerto Jimenez5-7 hours or overnight$100 incl. guide
2. Tortuguero National ParkTurtles and it’s canalsTortuguero3-4 hours$15
3. Arenal Volcano National ParkVolcanoes and lava fieldsLa Fortuna2-3 hours$15
4. Rincón de la Vieja National ParkWaterfalls, volcanoes and less visitorsLiberia or Tamarindo5-6 hours$17
5. Cahuita National ParkLand and sea based parkPuerto Viejo4-5 hoursDonation based

Below, we will share what you can expect with some super useful tips about visiting the parks.

#1 Corcovado National Park

Jaguar in Corcovado National Park Costa Rica
If you’re lucky you can even spot jaguar’s in Corcovado National Park

Corcovado National Park undoubtedly has to come in first place. That image you have in your head of Costa Rica? That’s Corcovado!

It was named as ‘the most biologically intense place on earth’ by National Geographic. The 13 different ecosystems encompassed within the park are home to over half of Costa Rica’s species – that’s over 250,000 different ones.

If you’re lucky you can spot the three fingered sloth, jaguar, howler monkeys, tapirs, toucans and crocodiles.

Unlike some of the other national parks in Costa Rica, Corcovado is virtually untouched. The paths you’ll walk along barely look like paths at some points. You’ll be crossing rivers with no bridges, and that’s what makes you feel like you’re really exploring.

If you are only planning to visit one national park in Costa Rica, it has to be Corcovado.

Where to visit Corcovado National Park from?

Corcovado National park in Costa Rica
Areal view of Corcovado National Park

Many travellers visit Corcovado from Puerto Jimenez, but we would recommend visiting Corcovado from Drake Bay.

Offering quaint homestays, incredible coastal trails and remote dark-sand beaches, Drake Bay is a destination to visit in itself. Make sure to check out our guide with top things to do in Drake Bay why you don’t want to miss out on this.

To help you out with the transport, this guide on how to get to Corcovado will cover everything you need to know.

You have to hire a guide

Since 2014, all visitors to Corcovado have to be accompanied by a guide that has been accredited by the ICT (Costa Rican Institute of Tourism).

Even if having a guide wasn’t compulsory, we’d recommend hiring one anyway. The guides in Corcovado National Park have superpowers when it comes to finding the animals. They tend to know where certain animals can be found, and some can even smell the animals from a distance!

A guide also helps you to learn about the national park and the wildlife that calls it home.

How much does it cost?

If you’re visiting Corcovado from Drake Bay, which we recommend doing, then you’re looking at around $100 per person.

From Puerto Jimenez, it’s slightly more expensive at around $135.

At a first glance, $100 sounds expensive for visiting a park, but when the costs are broken down it’s understandable. This price includes:

  • A certified guide
  • Round-trip transportation by boat to Corcovado (around 1-hour each way)
  • Entrance to Corcovado ($15)
  • Lunch
  • Snacks

Is it worth the price? 100%! Corcovado is a magical place that’s flourishing and still feels untouched – something that’s hard to find nowadays. That’s why it’s our favourite national park in Costa Rica.

Book here: Guided Tour of Corcovado National Park for $105

Day trip or overnight stay in the national park?

Frog in Tortuguero Costa Rica
Red-eyed tree frogs are one of the unique creatures whcih can be spotted at a night tour

On a usual day trip to Corcovado, you’ll leave Drake Bay between 6-7am. After the hour-long boat ride, you’ll spend between 4-5 hours hiking and exploring Corcovado National Park, before returning to Drake Bay for a well deserved delicious lunch.

If that’s not enough time for you, then you can also stay overnight in Corcovado and sleep at one of the ranger stations. 2 days including meals costs around $335 per person.

Pro-tip: Bring cash to Drake Bay because there’s no ATM in the town. A lot of the tour companies only accept cash, or add on 10% if you want to pay by card.

Ready to plan your visit to Corcovado? Make sure to also check out our Ultimate Guide for Drake Bay/Corcovado and the top things to do around Corcovado National Park.

#2 Tortuguero National Park

Monkeys in Tortuguero Costa Rica
White faced capuchin in Tortuguero National Park Costa Rica

If you can’t make it to Corcocavdo, looking for a park with lower entrance fee or just can’t wait to visit the next one, Tortuguero is definitely our second favourite.

What sets Tortuguero apart from the other national parks in Costa Rica, is that the best way to explore it isn’t by foot.

Due to its number of winding rivers, mangroves and swamps, you’ll have the best experience by hopping in a canoe or kayak. All around you will be wild and lively jungle, where you’ll be able to spot monkeys and a variety of birds.

Don’t forget to keep an eye on the water too. There may be some crocodiles or caimans lurking around too!

Alternatively, there is also a trail that takes you around Tortuguero National Park in a big loop. It’s a beautiful mixture of the endless jungle and golden-sand beaches, part of the 11 different habitats of Tortuguero park.

Entrance fees to Tortuguero National park are $15 per person and you don’t need a guide.

The journey from Costa Rica’s capital takes about 3-4 hours, but involves a bit of planning. Read our San Jose to Tortuguero guide for all details about this route.

20,000 Green turtles come to nest in Tortuguero each year

Sea turtle in Tortuguero Costa Rica
Huge sea turtle going back in the water after laying eggs on the beach in Tortuguero

Tortuguero is also known as the “Place of the Turtles”. And that’s for a good reason: between the months of July to October, over 20,000 female Green Turtles come to nest in Tortuguero each year.

Loggerhead, Hawksbill and Leatherback turtles also nest there, but the chances of seeing them are lower.

In 1975, over 35 km of beach were added to Tortuguero National Park. With turtle numbers declining, the locals have been doing everything they can to protect the turtles that visit every year.

Watching these surprisingly huge creatures haul themselves onto the beach, spend hours digging their nests and lay the eggs is an absolutely incredible sight to witness.

You can almost feel the exhaustion that the mother turtle is feeling, mixed with the magic of new life!

Tortuguero Town

When visiting Tortuguero National Park, you’ll stay within the town of Tortuguero. This place alone is special! 

The locals are incredibly friendly, the atmosphere simply boasts a ‘pura vida’ lifestyle, and you feel like you’ve escaped to a remote island.

To help you get the most out of your trip to Tortuguero, check out our Ultimate Tortuguero Guide and Top Things to Do.

#3 Arenal Volcano National Park

San Carlos waterfall in La Fortuna Costa Rica
Arenal National Park, La Fortuna

The area of Arenal and La Fortuna end up being a lot of people’s favourite place in Costa Rica. It’s essentially a must-visit place, and whilst you’re there you have to visit Arenal Volcano National Park too.

Just slightly smaller than Rincón de la Vieja National Park, Arenal Volcano National Park covers around 30,000 acres. Also similar to Rincón, it’s home to 2 volcanoes – one of which is active.

The volcanoes – Arenal and Chato

Arenal Volcano, the centrepiece of La Fortuna, stands at 1,633 meters, whilst Chat Volcano is 1,140 meters tall.

Chato is an inactive volcano, but Arenal Volcano is very much still alive. Don’t worry, the last eruption was in 2010, so it’s pretty safe!

Jungle trail in La Fortuna Costa Rica
Travellers hiking through the forest to reach Chato Vulcano

With the national park being home to 2 volcanoes, it means there’s a whole host of things to see that other national parks in Costa Rica don’t have.

After years of eruptions, spectacular lava fields have been left behind all around the base of Arenal Volcano. The trails will also take you past huge volcanic boulders that were thrown out of the volcano at speeds of up to 2,000 km per hour! 

Make use of the hot springs to soothe your muscles after walking around the national park.

TIP: If Arenal Volcano National Park is now on your list of places to visit, here’s how to get from San Jose to La Fortuna.

Visiting Arenal Volcano National Park

Volcano in La Fortuna Costa Rica
View of Arenal Vulcano, La Fortuna

Aside from the volcanoes, there is also an abundance of wildlife thriving within the secondary forest. So keep your eyes peeled for howler monkeys, white-faced monkeys, deer, tapir, snakes and a variety of birds.

There’s a number of trails throughout the national park that can be done both independently and guided. Entrance to Arenal Volcano National Park costs $15 per person.

We talk about the different trails that you can do in the national park in our Top Things to Do in La Fortuna guide. It also includes a secret hike!

#4 Rincón de la Vieja National Park

La Cangreja waterfall in Guanacaste Costa Rica
Waterfalls at Rincon de la Vieja National Park

Rincón de la Vieja National Park is HUGE! It covers over 34,000 acres, is home to 2 volcanoes, 32 rivers, an incredible variety of flora and over 200 species of birds.

One of those volcanoes, Rincón de la Vieja, is the most active volcano in Costa Rica, with the last eruption in 2021. It’s still considered safe to visit the national park, but understandably, the trails up to the volcano crater have been closed.

Why should you visit Rincón de la Vieja?

First off, Rincón de la Vieja National Park is one of the least visited in Costa Rica. Seeing fewer people along the way definitely makes it a more special and intimate experience.

The fewer visitors is probably due to the fact that it’s not extremely close to any of the major tourist towns. Liberia is the best place to visit the national park from, but it can also be reached from Tamarindo.

The national park is definitely worth the journey, especially if you’re an avid hiker. There are 7 main trails within the national park that range from easy to difficult.

Along the trails you’ll be treated to magnificent waterfalls, hot springs, bubbling mud pots, panoramic views of Costa Rica’s landscape and of course the volcanoes. All of that’s in addition to the abundant wildlife such as 3 species of monkey, armadillos, coatis, pumas and some rare birds.

How to visit?

Rincón de la Vieja National Park can be accessed via 2 ranger stations – Las Pailas and Santa Maria

Las Pailas is the easier of the two to reach, as a 4×4 is needed to reach Santa Maria.

Entrance to Rincón de la Vieja National Park costs $17 per person. Unlike some of the other national parks, we don’t think that a guide is really necessary for this one.

TIP: If you’re staying in Tamarindo, here’s how to get to Rincón de la Vieja National Park.

#5 Cahuita National Park

Cahuita beach in Puerto Viejo Costa Rica
Beach side of Cahuita National Park

Puerto Viejo is a small town on the Caribbean side of Costa Rica that’s been appearing on a lot of people’s radars recently.

Only 20 minutes away from Puerto Viejo, you’ll find Cahuita National Park.

There’s two things that make Cahuita even more special. The national park spans across both the land and sea, plus entry to the national park is free! Cahuita is run using donations, so it would be nice to leave a contribution.

The land 

The land area within Cahuita National Park covers 1,100 hectares, boasting lush green jungle and flourishing wildlife.

Some things to keep your eye out for include sloths, howler monkeys, toucans, herons, as well as orchids and mushrooms.

The water

Coral Reefs in Playa del Carmen Mexico
Underwater coral garden filled with tropical fish

The beach inside Cahuita is one of the least developed in the country and is the perfect place to relax and go for a swim. The marine area covers over 22,300 hectares and has some great coral reefs.

You may be able to spot turtles, manta rays, sharks, eels and sea cucumbers. There are at least 35 species of coral and 123 species of fish, so there’s plenty to see!

The best months for snorkelling and scuba diving are between February and April. During this time the water will be at a good temperature and have good visibility.

We’d highly recommend visiting Cahuita National Park if you’re looking to experience somewhere not everyone goes in Costa Rica.

TIP: If you’re making the journey over to Puerto Viejo, here’s how to get there from San Jose and the Top Things to Do whilst you’re in Puerto Viejo.

Some more incredible National parks in Costa Rica

Cloud Forest in Monteverde Costa Rica
Monteverde Cloudforest

Choosing our top 5 favourite parks out of a list of 28 national parks in Costa Rica wasn’t easy! There are some more incredible national parks in Costa Rica that we didn’t want to leave out entirely.

These parks were close, but just didn’t make it to our top 5 national parks in Costa Rica:

  • Manuel Antonio – an extremely popular national park that offers a wide variety of wildlife. Lots of travellers visit this park because it offers pretty high chances of spotting a sloth or a monkey. The beach within Manuel Antonio National Park is some of the best in Costa Rica. This one would have been in our top 5 national parks, but the park feels touristy and it’s often packed with visitors. (Entrance $16)
  • Tenorio Volcano National Park – home to the famous Rio Celeste waterfall with it’s natural vibrant blue colour. While hiking to the waterfall you will see lots of wildlife on the way. (Entrance $12)
  • Monteverde Cloud Forest – is one of two cloud forests in Monteverde, and it’s also the most popular. While you hike through the forest you can witness a variety of animals and birds. It protects over 4,000 hectares that are home to over 100 species of mammals, 400 birds and 500 orchids. This is not the park to visit if you want to see unique wildlife, though. (Entrance $25)
  • Irazu Volcano National Park – Irazu Volcano is Costa Rica’s tallest volcano, standing at an impressive 3,432 meters. The 1,050 metrewide crater houses a bright and beautiful blue-green lake. The colour looks almost radioactive! (Entrance $15)

Others also worth mentioning are Piedras Blancas National Park, Santa Elena Cloud Forest, Ballena Marine National Park, Carara National Park and Poas Volcano National Park.

Rounding it up

Sloth in the forest in Manuel Antonio Costa Rica

National parks are the centrepiece of Costa Rica. The wild and tropical landscapes are what makes Costa Rica a dream destination for so many people.

In truth, whichever national park you end up visiting, you’re probably going to have an amazing time. Each one has something unique and special to offer.

You’ll also probably end up visiting more than one national park because it’s often the top thing to do in a lot of the popular destinations in Costa Rica.

If we had to pick one though, it would definitely be Corcovado National Park!