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Costa Rican national parks/nature reserves

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Did You Know … ?

  • It took Costa Ricans 15 minutes, at today’s Santa Rosa park, to fend off an 1856 Nicaraguan invasion.
  • Costa Rica is home to 1,500 species of orchids.
  • In the 1960s, the Irazu volcano spewed ash and mud on San Jose, 35 miles away.
  • Monteverde (the town) was founded by American Quakers; they now maintain the reserve.
  • Costa Rica has set aside a quarter of its land as parks and other conservation areas.

Protection, Costa Rican style

Costa Rica formed the habit decades ago of setting aside large pieces of its landscape and waters for protection. There is much to protect because the country, located in the tropics with Pacific and Caribbean coasts and mountains in the interior, is one of the most biologically diverse places on the planet.

Costa Rica’s habit is good for tourists. For North Americans, it translates into access to a wide variety of flora and fauna, beaches, mountains and volcanoes, all in a rather small space. Although there are activities and attractions suitable for all personality types, adventurous travelers are more likely to train their sights on Costa Rica’s protected places.

The following seven, listed alphabetically, are a sample of the country’s three dozen national parks and reserves.

  • Arenal Volcano National Park. The centerpiece is the volcano and attractions include the adjacent lake, mineral springs, water sports, hiking, horseback riding and canopy tours.
  • Corcovado National Park. Occupying a peninsula on the Pacific, this 105,000-acre park may be the country’s most biologically diverse. It is good for hiking and spotting wildlife.
  • Irazu Volcano National Park. Centered around the country’s tallest volcano, Irazu can be visited on a day trip from San Jose, 35 miles away, a trip that typically includes Cartago, the former capital.
  • Manuel Antonio National Park. Located on the Pacific with several alluring beaches, the park limits the number of daily visitors. Snorkeling and a canopy tour are options. Some of the country’s most elegant lodges are on site.
  • Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve. The popular mountainous reserve offers hiking, horseback riding, a canopy tour, walking on suspended bridges — and orchid gardens. It also limits the number of visitors.
  • Poas Volcano National Park. The most visited Costa Rican park, Poas shows off at close range the country’s largest active crater. It is accessible on day trips from San Jose, and the area is all the lovelier for its flower farms and coffee plantations.
  • Santa Rosa National Park. The 122,000-acre park was created to remember the 1856 defeat of Nicaraguan invaders (led by American blowhard William Walker). With a permit, one may watch nesting sea turtles.

Things to do for Venturers

  • After you enter Tortuguero National Park (on the Caribbean side of Costa Rica) in a small jungle craft, explore the waterways on your own in a dugout canoe.
  • Follow one of several hiking trails, and look for the elusive cats (jaguar, margay, ocelot and puma) in the somewhat remote Corcovado National Park on the country’s southwest coast. Or, get away from it all on a guided three-day hike into the very remote 432,000-acre La Armistad International Park. Here there are no villages and no roads worth mentioning.
  • Fly over one of the parks on a zipline. There are several choices in Costa Rica.
  • Hone your windsurfing skills on Lake Arenal in north central Costa Rica, or head to the adjacent Arenal Volcano National Park for canyoning and caving.
  • Hike to the top of Costa Rica’s tallest volcano Irazu (11,325 feet), for a view from the top, on a clear day, of both the Pacific and the Caribbean. Hiking trails lead to twin craters, one 300 feet deep, the other 900 feet deep. (You can drive to the top, too.)
  • Choose a multiday live-aboard boat trip for scuba diving at Cocos Island National Park, a UNESCO World Heritage Site located 341 miles out in the Pacific. Manta rays and sharks are among the key attractions.

Things to do for Centrics

  • Costa Rica is bird-watching country. Take the binoculars and use your opportunities to spot the big ones, the bright ones, the small ones at any of the parks.
  • Take the 80-minute ride provided by the Atlantic Rain Forest Aerial Tram on a 1,200-acre private reserve on the border of Braulio Carrillo National Park.
  • Sign on for a guided horseback ride in Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve.
  • Look for the living-snakes museum in the Monteverde reserve, then for something a little more soothing, take in the park’s orchid gardens.
  • Take a boat trip in Ballena National Marine Park for dolphin spotting and to look for the birds (310 species in the park). This park protects the country’s largest Pacific coast barrier reef.
  • Quepos, the air gateway to Manuel Antonio National Park, is a top destination for fishing. Join the anglers who love it; see if you can hook a marlin, sailfish, tuna or one of several others in these Pacific waters.

Things to do for Authentics

  • Take a day tour (from San Jose) to Poas Volcano National Park that includes a stop at the Doka coffee estate. You will learn how the farm produces and roasts its organically grown coffee, and you can sample the brands.
  • Drop by at the organic cheese factory in the town of Monteverde.
  • Head to one of several beaches in Manuel Antonio National Park on the Pacific coast — where, by the way, you might run into howler and white-face monkeys, two-toed sloths and other critters. The park’s Espadilla beach is secluded and good for snorkeling.
  • Dip yourself in one of the natural mineral springs pools in the area of the Arenal volcano.
  • Buy a package tour that encompasses the things you want to see most, whether volcanoes and mountains, wildlife and/or beaches, plus some of the better accommodations with beautiful mountain and water views.
  • Ask your tour operator to obtain the necessary permit so you can watch the Olive Ridley sea turtles nesting on Playa Nancite in the 122,000-acre Santa Rosa National Park. Alternatively, there are guided turtle walks nightly at Tortuguero National Park on the Caribbean side of the country.

Additional Resources

For more information, consult the Costa Rica Tourism Board at