With a quarter of the country's overall landmass protected, Costa Rica offers some of the best hiking in Central America. While traveling here, you’ll likely want to get out and explore some of the countryside — after all, half the joy of a good hike is in experiencing the otherwise unreachable vistas. The views from the top are the main attraction, but so are the biodiverse nature trails with rare species of plants, birds, and wildlife, not to mention activities that can usually be found around these parts like hot springs, canyoning, biking, horseback riding, and zip-lining.
A typical hiking trail in a national park lasts a few hours and most have paths that are well maintained. While you can certainly access many of these trails on your own, it may be advantageous to hire a naturalist guide — one who is well-versed in the plants, birds, and mammals that you're guaranteed to see along the trail. Either way, no matter where you're based in Costa Rica, a national park is never too far away.
Please Note: There may be entrance fees to these parks. It’s also a good idea to check for seasonal closures due to weather or volcanic activity.
Arenal National Park (easy to moderate)
A three-hour drive from both San José and Liberia airports, this cone-shaped giant is the nucleus of one of the most popular national parks in Costa Rica. Open daily for hikers, you can embark on several excellent and moderate trails (i.e. El Silencio, Los Toucans, and the official park trail) at the base of this still-active volcano. Walk through unique plant and animal species including primary and secondary rainforests and old lava flows.
For a more challenging hike, lesser-known Cerro Chato is also accessed by entering this park, which takes you to an extinct dormant crater that sits right next to Arenal Volcano. The trail is difficult and should be taken with caution, but the few brave enough to embark on this trail can go down to the crater with a stunning emerald green lake.
Braulio Carrillo National Park (easy to challenging)
Far less touristy than Arenal, Braulio Carrillo is Costa Rica’s largest national park at more than 100,000 acres of rolling hills and dark-green vegetation, though much of this land is inaccessible and preserved for protection. Uncrowded hiking trails — both short and long, ranging from easy to difficult — are certainly a highlight. One of the unique walking opportunities in Braulio Carrillo is the chance to see different species of flora and fauna at different elevations. The rainforest feels very wild, with more than 150 mammals such as white-faced monkeys, jaguars, deer, tapir, raccoons, armadillos, and anteaters.
Great for kids: The park offers a tram ride that takes you on a tour of the rainforest canopy; this admission fee also covers the cost of a guided nature walk.
Cahuita National Park (easy)
Small and compact in comparison to other parks on this list, Cahuita National Park, located on the Southern Caribbean Coast, is fronted by the turquoise sea. Hikers will find flat, well-maintained trails that run parallel to the beach, allowing you to weave back and forth between the sand and the trail for frequent swimming and snorkeling breaks. On land, keep an eye out for colorful crabs, white-faced and howler monkeys, as well as several species of exotic birds. Meanwhile, the seafloor off the coast of Cahuita is as much a jungle as the rainforest, with tropical fish, stingrays, octopus, and nurse sharks.
Carara National Park (easy to moderate)
Carara is one of the country's most popular parks, partly due to its proximity to San José and the beach town of Jaco on the central coast. Several miles of hiking trails range in difficulty from easy to moderate, and like nearby Manuel Antonio to the south, Carara offers easy wildlife viewing.
What makes this park special is its abundance of birds. This is due to the fact that it sits on an ecological transition zone where tropical dry forests to the north meet the wetter rainforests to the south drawing birds from both directions. Early morning and close to sunset is often the best time to see a wide range of birding, especially scarlet macaws.
Corcovado National Park (moderate to challenging)
While not an easy place to get to, the rewards are plentiful. Located in the remote Osa Peninsula in southwest Costa Rica, Corcovado offers a chance to experience untouched rainforest, several distinct ecosystems, and some of the country’s most exotic wildlife including jaguars, red-backed squirrel monkeys, and harpy eagles.
The park has a large, well-designed network of trails to choose from, ranging from moderate to very difficult along with ranger stations for assistance and camping facilities. For instance, the San Pedrillo Station trail is the most common hike due to its proximity to Drake Bay. The Sirena Station trails are further south and less accessible, so there tends to be more wildlife.
Manuel Antonio National Park (easy to moderate)
For casual hiking and easy wildlife viewing, families tend to base themselves near this park and town of the same name, located along the Central Pacific coast near San José. This popular tourist destination features lowland rainforest bordered by beautiful beaches on the Pacific coast with several groomed trails. From these mostly flat trails, you can see wildlife like sloths, lizards, and birds, but it is best known for its large population of sociable monkeys. Finish the hike by relaxing on one of three beautiful beaches and a calm cove — great for swimming and snorkeling.
Poas Volcano National Park (easy to moderate)
Home to the world’s largest active crater volcano (almost a mile wide), this park has fairly easy hiking along groomed trails and is a favorite for locals due to its easy access from San José. The trail leads up to the crater of the active volcano where you will see activity in the form of steam and bubbling within the greenish-blue crater lake. From here, continue hiking to the old crater lake and through a cloud forest habitat with an abundance of hummingbirds. If you manage to visit on a clear day (avoid rainy season), you will increase your chances of seeing the crater lake from the viewing platform.
Rincon de la Vieja Volcano National Park (moderate to challenging)
Home to the largest volcano in Guanacaste, this park is big enough to spend a few days -- and with several different trails all leading to different viewpoints, waterfalls, and other natural attractions, it's one of the top spots for experiencing a tropical dry forest. For instance, there's a five-mile trail to the crater where rare species of birds can be found, or a less strenuous two-mile Las Pailas loop, which is great for those interested in lava flows, hot springs, and bubbling mud pots.
Santa Rosa National Park (easy to challenging)
Located on the northwestern tip of Costa Rica, Santa Rosa is the oldest national park in the country and also one of the biggest. It's especially popular with travelers staying in Guanacaste and offers miles of hiking through tropical dry forest, as well as a protected white-sand beach for excellent surf breaks and nesting sea turtles (August to November). Drive into the park near Estero Real before parking your car to embark on a number of well-maintained trails for day or overnight trips.
Tenorio National Park (moderate to challenging)
Tenorio Volcano National Park has become more popular in recent years as an off-the-beaten-path destination in Costa Rica. While the park has scenic trails that pass through primary rainforest and cloud forest, the Rio Celeste Waterfall is the focal point. The trail is moderate in difficulty and extraordinary for scenery.
The main attraction can be seen from the top, but visitors wanting a closer view can trek down a steep set of stairs that leads to the base where the rushing water escapes into the brightly colored natural pool. Hint: Dry season is the best time to experience the most vibrant blue hues. Trekkers looking to unwind after their waterfall excursion can continue hiking until they reach the end of Rio Celeste's trail. The second portion of the hike is more difficult and leads to Poza Azul, a beautiful blue pool where you will want to take plenty of photos.