Costa Rica. Just the name conjures up images of powdery sand beaches and verdant, humid rainforests filled with exotic animals. Pair that with the catchphrase “Pura Vida,” and you might just find yourself breathing a little easier and walking with a more relaxed stride. Pura Vida essentially means “Simple Life” or “Pure Life,” is a way of life in Costa Rica. You’ll find the Ticos, as the locals are called, laid back and eager to share their exquisite country with you.
I lived in a blue jungle house in Costa Rica for 4 months and was neighbors with howler monkeys, two and three-toed sloths, and keel-billed toucans. I learned to identify collared aracaris and the hanging nest of the Montezuma oropendola. It was like living in a National Geographic episode.
If you love wildlife, bring a keen eye and patience to the national parks in Costa Rica and you’re guaranteed to see spectacular species. These four national parks are where I had the most memorable wildlife encounters.
1. Tortuguero National Park
I’ll never forget zipping along the canals from the boat launch at La Pavona to Tortuguero National Park. The boat driver sang at the top of his voice a passionate and catchy Spanish tune. Perhaps he was calling to the wildlife because it was here on the branches of a gigantic rainforest tree that a male howler posed for us. We cruised down canals where mangrove tree roots lined the shore and vines dangled from tremendous heights to reach one of the most biodiverse rainforests in Costa Rica.
We had come to Tortuguero National Park on the north Caribbean coast to witness Atlantic green sea turtles lay their eggs. This natural occurrence is only accessible with a certified guide. Dressed in dark clothing, we crept along the beach in the dark and watched a turtle make her way from the ocean to a spot and start digging with her flippers. We silently dropped to our knees and watched as she eventually laid her glistening eggs, the size of ping pong balls, and then covered them with sand. It is one of the most beautiful natural events I have ever witnessed.
Don’t be in a rush In Tortuguero National Park. There are deep jungle night tours, zip lining, birdwatching tours, and kayaking and canoeing expeditions. Leave a little time to also explore the village of Tortuguero. It’s small, frozen in time, and the kind of community where children play marbles in dusty streets under palm trees.
How To Get To Tortuguero National Park
The quickest way to get to Tortuguero National Park is to fly. There is a small domestic airstrip and upon arrival, taxi boats will take you to your hotel. Two Costa Rican airlines that fly into Tortuguero are Sansa and Aerobell Airlines. I have not flown either.
Arriving at Tortuguero involves a boat ride. If you are coming from San José or Arenal, the boat launch is at La Pavona. If you are coming from Limon, the dock is at Moin.
An easy way to get to Tortuguero National Park is by shuttle. Costa Rica Roots offers shuttle service to La Pavona from different locations in Costa Rica.
By Public Bus:
Take the bus from San José to Cariari and then switch buses with the final destination being La Pavona. Buy your ticket for the boat trip at the restaurant. Leave early in the morning as there are only four boat departures a day from La Pavona: 7:30 a.m., 11 a.m., 1 p.m., and 4:30 p.m.
Where To Stay In Tortuguero
Tortuga Lodge and Gardens situated right between the river and the rainforest has its own nature reserve. Wildlife spotting, including exotic toucans and three-toed sloths, can be done right on the property.
Pachira Lodge is another great choice. A little bit of paradise right at your fingertips!
- From April to October is the best season to see turtles laying their eggs. Most often, it is the Atlantic green sea turtles that come ashore but you might luck out and see leatherbacks.
- Turtle hatching season is from November to July. At this time, you can see the baby turtles scurrying across the beach toward the ocean.
- Bring insect repellent, a waterproof jacket, sunscreen, drinking water and a sense of adventure!
2. Cahuita National Park
Cahuita National Park has two white sand beaches, Playa Blanca and Puerto Vargas, the largest coral reef in Costa Rica, and a stunning rainforest to explore. Located on the south Caribbean shore near Puerto Viejo, Cahuita National Park is perfect for hiking along rainforest trails looking for wildlife. Guides are readily available at the park gate. Make sure that your guide is certified by the Costa Rican tourism board. My daughter and I hired a guide who had a great eye for spotting wildlife and a scope for zooming in to see them better. It was in Cahuita National Park that we saw our first Jesus Christ lizard and capuchin monkeys.
There are two entrances to Cahuita National Park, one called Kelly Creek Station, which is in the small town of Cahuita, and the other at Puerto Vargas. The most common entrance used is Kelly Creek Station.
The 5-mile hiking trail in Cahuita National Park is well maintained. The trail is not a loop so plan your day accordingly. Many people go about halfway along the path and then turn around. Don’t forget to take a break on the gorgeous white sand beaches under the gently swaying palm trees.
How To Get To Cahuita National Park
Cahuita National Park is 10 miles from Puerto Viejo and easily accessed by car or public bus.
- Cahuita National Park is open from 8 a.m.–4 p.m. so plan to finish your hike in good time.
- Although the coral reef is struggling to survive, snorkelling tours with a certified guide are available at Cahuita National Park. The best months to snorkel are September and October.
3. Manuel Antonio National Park
Most people have heard of this national park in Costa Rica. It is the most visited of all the parks and can get very crowded. That being said, it is a beautiful and accessible park with multiple trails through the rainforest and two glorious white sand beaches within the park. You could plan to spend an entire day here between wildlife spotting and relaxing on the beaches.
Walk the trails independently, hire a certified guide at the gates or pre-book your tour. Tucanes Tours organizes a wide variety of tours in the Manuel Antonio area. Be ready for macaws, spider monkeys, and plenty of sloths. Go early when the trails are less crowded.
How To Get To Manuel Antonio National Park
Manuel Antonio National Park is near the town of Quepos, 105 miles southeast of San Jose.
It is a 3-hour drive from San Jose and very accessible by direct public bus and shuttle.
Where To Stay Near Manuel Antonio National Park
Si Como No Resort & Wildlife Refuge will completely wow you with its gorgeous rooms with ocean and/ or jungle views. And, it has its own wildlife refuge.
Hotel Costa Verde is situated on a rainforest bluff with magnificent views over the Pacific Ocean.
- In order to access the two beaches within Manuel Antonio National Park, you have to pay the park entrance fee. There are incredible beaches, at no cost, outside the park.
- You must reserve your $16 ticket online. Here is the link to purchase entrance tickets.
4. Corcovado National Park
Now we’re talking remote. And, oh, so worth the journey to get there.
Corcovado National Park is on the Osa Peninsula on the southwest Pacific Coast of Costa Rica. A day in Corcovado National Park is one you will remember for a lifetime. You know you’re a dedicated adventurer if you have Corcovado National Park on your radar!
First of all, you need to get to Drake Bay. The best way to get to Drake Bay is by public water taxi from Sierpe. There are buses that run from San Jose but chances are you will already be exploring Costa Rica and be coming from another location. We took the bus from Dominical to Sierpe and then bought a boat ticket to get to Drake Bay. This journey is unforgettable as the boat travels along a river under mangroves and then pops out into the Pacific Ocean.
Drake Bay is a sleepy, delightful town where one can rise for an early morning coffee and see hundreds of scarlet macaws making their way across the sky. Pure magic.
Day trips run from Drake Bay to Corcovado National Park, one of the most biologically intense places on earth. There are plenty of tour operators to choose from. Our tour to Corcovado National Park left at 6 a.m. by boat and followed the lush Pacific Coast for an hour and a quarter to the black sand beach of Sirena. From there, our guide took us along trails through the deep rainforest to spot incredible wildlife. The squirrel monkeys were calling wildly and a tapir just strolled out onto the beach. Coatis were fun to spot along with the black-throated trogon and great curassow. Just a regular day in the jungle that stays with you forever.
Where To Stay Close To Corcovado National Park
La Paloma Lodge, Drake Bay, offers a tranquil and luxurious experience looking out over the Pacific Ocean and nestled into the jungle. All tours can be booked from the hotel.
Martina’s Place is right in Drake Bay and offers very affordable accommodation. Martina will help you find the tour operators for your desired expeditions.
Another option is to stay at Casa Corcovado Jungle Lodge, a 2-hour boat ride from Sierpe. This lodge is the nearest accommodation to Corcovado National Park.
- Bring cash. There is no bank machine in Drake Bay.
- The only way to visit Corcovado National Park is with a registered guide.
And don’t miss the Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve. Although technically not a national park, it is another must-see destination for wildlife enthusiasts.
Costa Rica offers a wide variety of adventures for visitors: