Costa Rica’s National Parks are world-renowned because of the huge percentage of the country which is preserved by law. National parks, wildlife refuges, and reserves make up almost 30% of the country’s land area. Obviously then, these pristine conservation areas are the major focus of tourism for Costa Rica.
While most visitors enter the country through the capital of San Jose, it has little to offer except as a base of operations. The city was not even conceived until the late 18th century so, unlike most other Latin American capitals, does not have much of a heritage. The few places which might interest a tourist in the city include, especially, the National Theater which is neo-Classical on the exterior and ornately Baroque inside. The Fuerte Bella Vista (Fort with a beautiful view), Central Park and the nearby Cathedral may also be worth a visit.
But the national parks are the thing. Thankfully, the best of them are within a day’s excursion of the capital, making it ideal as a starting point.
Just 20 kilometers (12 miles) to the east is Irazu Volcano National Park which provides an opportunity for visitors to get close to a very active volcano. Irazu, at a height of 3,432 meters (about 9,000 feet), had its last major eruption in March of 1963. Since then it has rumbled and smoked in 1994. Note the Diego de la Haya Crater which contains a lake whose color varies from pea-green to a brownish red. Note also the tiny villages on the slopes of the volcano with their neat and brightly colored homes.
About 20 kilometers (12 miles) northeast of the capital is Braulio Carrillo National Park, known as the “rain forest beside a highway”. The park sports five (5) different ecological zones with their associated wildlife. Take La Botella Trail for waterfalls and a view of Patria Canyon. There are many other trails of varying lengths and levels of difficulty.
Poas Volcano National Park is only 45 kilometers (25 miles) northeast of San Jose. Here, visitors can actually drive to the rim one of the largest active craters in the world (1.5 km/1 mile across). Note that early morning is the best time for viewing the crater and the upper slopes of this 2,700 meter (9,000 foot) mountain since clouds tend to obscure things from mid-morning on. Another good activity is to walk the Botos Trail which leads to Lake Botos, an extinct crater.
A bit further away is Manuel Antonio National Park, perhaps the gem of the park system. It is located about 60 miles (100 kilometers) to the southwest, on the Pacific coast. This park is noted for its particularly stunning beaches with their offshore islands and lush rain forests surrounding them. There are four (4) lovely beaches, Manuel Antonio, which is perhaps the prettiest of them all, Espadilla Sur, Playita, and Escondido (be careful of rip tides)
The park is very small so visitors are limited to 600 per day (800 per day on weekends). Note also that this park is closed on Mondays. There are a number of walking trails available. Of note is Perezoso Trail which leads into the rain forest.
Another wonderful park is Tortuguero National Park, which lies 80 miles (130 kilometers) to the northeast, along the Caribbean coast. Here is a park which consists of forested deltas on an alluvial plain which teem with wildlife. This park preserves the natural habitats of 13 of Costa Rica’s 16 endangered species, including jaguars, tapirs, and manatees.
The area is also a green turtle nesting area, and Guided Turtle Walks are conducted during the nesting season. Check out El Gavilan Trail, a 2 kilometer (1.2 mile) stroll which traverses both beach and rain forest.
1. On the way back to San Jose from Irazu National Park, stop at the town of Cartago, the former capital of Costa Rica, to see its Basilica de los Angeles, an important religious shrine in the country.
2. Be advised that crime, particularly theft, is an issue in the country’s parks and cities. Do not leave valuables unattended.