Most travelers come to Costa Rica to experience the country’s 19 national parks. It’s where the wild things are, where the biodiversity is the richest and where a solid core of expert guides is on hand to lead the way. Wonderful little hotels, inns and lodges in magical locations, combining a strong conservation ethic with state-of-the-art jungle comforts, are all additional reasons that Costa Rica’s visitors respond again and again to her natural wonders. Let’s take a look at a quintet of the most sought-after national parks and reserves.
Monteverde Biological Cloud Forest Reserve
This private reserve in the Northern Highlands may be the most famous patch of forest in Costa Rica. Monteverde Biological Cloud Forest Reserve covers some 25,000 acres of primary forest with a rich variety of flora and fauna: more than 450 types of orchids, 400 species of birds and 100 species of mammals. The most famous resident here is the resplendent quetzal living high in a forested world of ferns, orchids and bromeliads. The park boasts not only a well-maintained trail system, but some of the most experienced guides in the country to show visitors around. Stop to see some of the excellent nature exhibits—one focusing on the wonderful world of bugs and butterflies, others on frogs or bats; visit a coffee plantation; and explore the smaller, but naturally grand, Santa Elena Reserve and other neighboring private reserves.
Locator—Northern Highlands: Monteverde is a 104-mile drive from San Jose, 51 miles from Puntarenas; there is also a scenically splendid route here from Arenal Volcano National Park; the lodges of Monteverde couldn’t be lovelier, and most have fireplaces to warm the highland cloud forest guest.
Arenal Volcano National Park
Also in the Northern Highlands is the majestic Arenal Volcano, the largest and most active volcano in Mesoamerica, as well as the centerpiece of the national park. Travelers can explore the park on guided hikes along trails, by mountain bike and horseback, and enjoy such special attractions as aerial trams, canopy tours, canyoning and a Sky Walk for a special perspective on the rain and cloud forests. Bathing in thermal hot springs is the fringe benefit of staying in this volcanic wonderland.
Locator—Northern Highlands: A 3-hour drive from San Jose, the Arenal National Park area has a concentration of excellent hotels and lodges (many with great volcano views, spas and natural hot springs). It makes a nice vacation combination with the nearby Rio Sarapiqui region, while birding clients will particularly enjoy a day trip to Caño Negro National Wildlife Refuge.
Manuel Antonio National Park
Though relatively small, Manuel Antonio National Park is the most popular national park in the country. It is home to the largest number of hotels and resorts, as well as activities ranging from horseback riding to mountain biking, aerial tram rides, ziplining through the canopy, kayaking and rafting. This lowland rainforest is home to a healthy monkey population, white-faced are the most common, but the endangered squirrel monkey is here too. The park, closed on Mondays, has three major trails.
Locator—Mid-Pacific Coast: Located near Quepos (with air service from San Jose) on the Central Pacific coast, Manuel Antonio is sought after for its seaside assets: crescents of white-sand beaches and offshore, world-class deep-sea fishing.
Tortuguero National Park
Here, travelers can enjoy some of the most beautiful landscapes of Costa Rica as they drive from San Jose to the Caribbean coast, cutting across mountains and through the scenic Braulio Carrillo National Park to Tortuguero National Park, the largest nesting area for green sea turtles. Half the fun of staying in Tortuguero National Park is the cruise that begins outside Limon and motors slowly through the jungley maze of canals—home to manatees and crocodiles—that lead to several spiffy riverside lodges. Other pleasures here include listening for howler monkeys, counting macaws and toucans, and kayaking the waterways on one’s own. Primetime in Tortuguero is turtle nesting season—green sea turtles between June and mid-October, giant leatherbacks come February to late-June.
Locator—Caribbean Coast: Without a doubt, touring Tortuguero—the canals are endlessly fascinating—is best arranged through the local lodges, and they do a good job. Be sure clients include a visit to town as the Visitors Center and Museum is interesting and informative on sea turtles. Note: From San Jose, there is one daily flight to the Tortuguero airstrip, often increased in the high season; lodges often operate charter flights to include in their packages.
Corcovado National Park
Tell clients to head south to Corcovado National Park, located on the Osa Peninsula, and called the jewel of Costa Rica’s national parks system. National Geographic calls it “one of the most biologically intense places on earth.” Its pristine, and not easily accessible, precincts shelter the likes of jaguar, puma, ocelot and tapir, as well as all four monkey species and scarlet macaws galore, with sea turtles nesting on park beaches. There are excellent choices in lodgings (rustic to high-end) on the peninsula, adding such attractions as sportfishing, scuba diving and whale watching.
Locator—Southern Pacific Coast: The airport gateway to Corcovado is Puerto Jimenez. Local lodges arrange 1-day expeditions into the park, leaving from one of four ranger stations, then hiking for the day; there are no roads in the park, but there are good hiking trails, including two along the beach.
Quite aptly, Greenspot Travel (greenspot.travel) offers many tour options to the country they call “The Green Spot.” Focusing on Costa Rica’s diverse natural habitat, for example, is the Luxury Adventure in Green, an 8-day mix of amazing wildlife viewing, cloud forest, rainforest and seaside experiences, and luxury lodging and services. Arrangements start with a night at the delightful Finca Rosa Blanca (fincarosablanca.com) complemented by coffee plantation touring and tasting; two nights at El Silencio Lodge & Spa (elsilenciolodge.com) with hiking in the cloud forest; three nights at Lapa Rios Ecolodge (laparios.com) right next to Corcovado National Park; and two nights on the Pacific coast at Arenas del Mar (areanasdelmar.com) for surfing, kayaking among the mangroves, and visiting Manuel Antonio National Park. Priced from $2,890, the tour includes deluxe accommodations, private transport, sightseeing and many meals.
THE MOST-REMOTE-OF-ALL-PARKS AWARD
Corcovado National Park is often said to be the most remote of Costa Rica’s national parks, however, the most-remote prize goes to La Amistad International Park, an enormous area (675 sq. miles) that is linked to and jointly administered with neighboring Panama (whose park area is three times larger). Encompassing the highest peaks of the Talamanca Mountain range, there are no villages in the park, nor even any roads to speak of. What one does find is diverse wildlife, including five cat species and the endangered harpy eagle. The Altamira ranger station is the recommended point of entry for experienced hikers who can take a 2-hour circuit from there; a longer 3-day trek requires a local guide.
WHERE (SOME OF) THE BIRDS ARE:
• Right in San Jose, birders are treated to a good look at blue-crowned motmots and oropendolas in Parque del Este.
• Carara National Park, along the Pacific coast and about two hours from San Jose, is home to Costa Rica’s largest population of scarlet macaws.
• The recorded bird list numbers 300 at the La Selva Biological Station, a combination research facility and nature lodge close to Puerto Viejo.
• Caño Negro National Wildlife Refuge, an easy day trip from Arenal National Park, is a major destination for aquatic birds, including the jabiru stork.
• The best place to spot the resplendent quetzal is Cerro de la Muerte, a high mountain pass on the road to San Isidro de El General, about two hours from San Jose; sightings almost guaranteed for guests staying at Trogan Lodge (grupomawamba.com).
• Hummingbirds and tanagers are the numerical superstars at Wilson Botanical Gardens, located about an hour from Golfito. Here, 360 bird species have been recorded and they circulate among the garden’s 7,000 species of tropical flora.
The Costa Rican Bird Route (costaricanbirdroute.com) is a rather new effort to promote ecotourism, using birding as a stimulus to conservation and local community involvement. Focus is on the northeast region, encompassing 13 nature reserves, which collectively are home to more than 500 bird species. The major focus of the project is on the endangered great green macaw, whose habitats are centered in the Sarapiqui-San Carlos region. Special itineraries have been developed with birding as the centerpiece—one tour is actually called On the Trail of the Great Green Macaw—and it also includes activities such as rafting on the Rio Sarapiqui or visits to local communities.