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Six of the Best National Parks to Visit in Costa Rica

Written by Milly Whitehead on 19 / 05 / 2015

Gap Year Advice

Costa Rica may be small, but did you know that this peaceful, sun-drenched corner of Central America boasts more national parks per square mile than any other country in the world? Didn’t think so.

If you've ever considered travelling in Costa Rica on a gap year, this little guide is vital reading. I've put together six of the best and most unique national parks in the country, so be sure to put a trip to at least a couple of these on your travel itinerary if you plan on venturing to this part of the world.

Manuel Antonio National Park

Small but exquisite, Manuel Antonio National Park on the Pacific Coast of Costa Rica is made up of lush tropical forests, lagoons and mangroves, which are bordered by white sandy beaches. Among the different species of mammals and birds, you’ll find white-faced monkeys, howler monkeys, sloths, iguanas and the endangered squirrel monkey here.

The park contains an excellent system of trails for visitors to hike along, with perhaps the best being the hike up to Cathedral point, from where you’ll get a truly spectacular view over the park.

It’s also a wonderful place to kayak or snorkel, as four of the beaches in the park are considered to be some of the best in the country; no wonder this is such a popular place to visit.

You can experience volcanic action up close at Rincón de la Vieja National Park, which boasts bubbling pools of mud, natural swimming holes, thermal springs and waterfalls. Alternatively, you can go hiking through forests and meadows, or up to the volcano’s summit – a demanding hike, but 100% worth the effort.

In terms of animals, expect to see pumas, jaguar, sloths and tapirs, as well as a whole range of different breeds of monkey. Las Pailas ranger station is just a stone’s throw away, where visitors can choose to stay spend the night at one of the adjacent campgrounds.

Isla del Coco

Isla del Coco, home to Cocos Island National Park, sits 500km southwest of the mainland in the eastern Pacific and is the largest uninhabited island in the world. It is also one of the richest in endemic species, with approximately sixty different types of animal living here.

Of these species, it’s those that live beneath the waters that have made the park such a famous attraction, particularly for divers, who rate it as one of the best places to see sharks, rays and dolphins.

Unfortunately, as the island is the most far-flung part of Costa Rica, you will have to pay through the nose to get here, but I can guarantee it will be worth every penny, as few other national parts of the country are as beautiful and exotic.

Corcovado National Park

Corcovado National Park is a remote, untamed jewel in the south of the country, which encompasses rainforest, cloud forest, palm forest and mangrove swamps, as well as beaches. It’s home to about one quarter of all tree species in Costa Rica and almost two-hundred identified species of mammals.

You’ll also get the chance to spot many endangered animals, such as the Baird’s tapir, white-lipped peccary, Red backed squirrel and jaguar. It may be rugged and wet, but the trails here are good and there are campsites are available for those looking to stay overnight, which are grassy and well drained.

You can swim too, though be careful about where you choose to do so, as some areas contain crocodiles and hammerhead sharks!

Tortuguero National Park

Named after the beach-nesting turtles (tortugas) that reside here, which are its main attraction, Tortuguero National Park is recognised as one of the most internationally important wetlands. It is the best place to see some of the remaining 1% of mangrove forests on the Caribbean side of the country and the variety of wildlife that inhabit them, such as jaguars, macaws and tapirs.

The best way to navigate the park is by boat, which you can hire cheaply along with a guide, who’ll help you find nesting turtles, hiking trails and good places to fish. The more active ones amongst you might prefer to head out in a canoe or kayak, which is also more affordable, as price most often correlates with comfort and organization – budget travellers, take note!

Poas Volcano National Park

Poas Volcano National Park is easily one of the most developed parks in Costa Rica, as well as one of the most spectacular, as it’s home to the largest active volcanic crater in the world: Poas. The crater’s sulfuric pool still bubbles and emits smoke into the air, but don’t expect to see a full-fledged eruption or any lava flow here; the last time the volcano saw any eruptive activity was back in 1954.

However, you can still see geysers explode into the air up to 250 metres high. Hiking trails will lead you to Botos Lagoon, the beautiful aquamarine lagoon that’s nestled in the crater, and to the park’s secluded picnic grounds.

Be sure to get up bright and early to see Poas, as once the clouds start rolling in and visibility worsens, it won’t appear quite as remarkable.

Embrace the Pura Vida

Does a trip to this amazing country suddenly seem rather appealing? Then sign up to do The Leap’s Costa Rica program and you’ll have the chance to visit these wonderful national parks, as well as help protect gorgeous little marine turtles.

Photo: Wonderful sky by Victoria White licensed under Creative Commons 2.0

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