Hiking Costa Rica’s Rainforests
Rent a car and explore Costa Rica’s biodiversity on foot
Costa Rica is a hiker’s paradise with 27 national parks, many with unique ecosystems not found elsewhere. They make up some 25% of Costa Rica, so driving from one to another is a great way to see more than a little of the country’s natural wonders when it comes to plants and animals.
Irazú Volcano National Park, about an hour’s drive from San José, is Costa Rica’s tallest volcano. The summit is near the tree line and the landscape has scrubbed volcanic and wind activity. The 1 km-loop trail around the pyroclastic cone connects the main crater and the Diego de la Haya, Playa Hermosa, and La Laguna craters.
Poas Volcano National Park, just an hour-and-a-half’s drive from San José is a beautiful park where coffee plantations and cloud and rain forests dot the slopes. As of February 2019, access is limited to a short 10-minute hike to the observation point and advance purchase ($15) of entry tickets to the park is required. However, you can join a full-day tour that also includes visits to the Doka Coffee Estate and La Paz Waterfall Gardens, which is a must in our opinion.
Arenal Volcano National Park’s hiking trails going to, and around the volcano provide fascinating insights on nature’s post-eruption (late 1960s) recovery. In addition, you can try ziplining through rainforest canopy or walk the trails over hanging bridges at Sky Adventures Arenal Park. There are also several hot spring resorts in the area for a good soak after a long hike.
The Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve is a popular destination that accounts for roughly 2.5% of Earth’s biodiversity. Some 10% of the reserve’s plant life is found only in Monteverde, which has numerous hiking trails (we recommend a guided tour for the best value). Birdwatchers will revel in another chance to add to their observations. All entry proceeds fund education and research programs.
The trip to Tenorio Volcano National Park requires some effort that is amply rewarded by the stunning turquoise waters of Rio Celeste. The river’s color is the result of the aluminum and silicon particles in Rio Buenavista mixing with the acidic waters of Sour Creek. The 3.7-mile trail (round trip) is not too difficult but it can be muddy, so wear hiking boots and take a poncho or light jacket.
Carara National Park, on the Central Pacific Coast, was once a biological reserve best known for its wild scarlet macaws, among other tropical species. It’s also home to Tarcoles River Crocodile Bridge, and those who rent a car for their Costa Rica travels can take a rest stop there to see some impressively large, wild crocodiles on the riverbank below the bridge. There are two hiking trails: Araceas Nature Trail (0.6 miles) and Laguna Meandrica Trail (2.7 miles).
National Geographic calls Corcovado National Park, on the Osa Peninsula, “the most biologically intense place on earth.” Stay at one of the eco-lodges in Drake Bay or Puerto Jimenez and take a day tour with a professional naturalist guide for a day’s hike. You can see 4 different monkey species, sloths, silky anteaters, and coatimundi. With a bit of luck, you may catch a glimpse of a jaguar, ocelot, or tapir.
Piedras Blancas National Park, adjacent to Corcovado, is an example of virgin Jurassic forest and a critical wildlife corridor that is home to several endemic plant and animal species. For the best experience, consider staying at Playa Nicuesa Lodge, which is on the park’s front doorstep.
Costa Rica’s national parks are true gems and not to be missed; having a rental car to get you to them makes all the difference.