Compact, bio-diverse and bursting with wildlife, Costa Rica is one of the world’s great destinations for hiking. From misty cloud forests to smoking volcanoes, you'll find it all here...
Centred around the magnificently conical Arenal volcano, this National Park offers a number of well-marked hikes through a variety of ecosystems. One minute you will be walking through a tropical rainforest full of palms, orchids, heliconias and ferns, the next you’ll be scrambling across loose scree on the side of the volcano.
Birders will love Arenal too. Most of Costa Rica’s 850 species of bird can be found here, including the endangered quetzal. It is also home to white-faced monkeys, jaguar, coati and toucans. Try the popular hike to Chato Volcano. Passing through tropical rainforest and old lava beds, it leads to a peaceful lake in an extinct crater.
The park is open from 8am to 6pm every day, and visitors can purchase maps and ask for advice at the park’s ranger station, 16 kilometres west of Fortuna.
Arenal is regarded as one of the world’s ten most active volcanoes, and although it has been quiet for a while, rangers will close the park if there is any hint of danger.
The Rio Celeste is one of the most mesmerising sights in Costa Rica. Sulphur and carbonate from the Tenorio Volcano has turned the river an unnatural shade of blue. Set against the verdant green of the rainforest, it appears luminous.
Starting at the ranger station at the gates of the Tenorio Volcano National Park, this hike will take you through thick primary rainforest, past chattering monkeys and the occasional sloth, to the banks of the Rio Celeste. From here, you can follow the river upstream to the source of its extraordinary colour, the confluence of the Buena Vista and Roble rivers.
The colour of the river deepens the further upstream you go and the waterfall that awaits you at the end is a welcome treat in the thick tropical heat. If you choose, you can kick on from here to the slopes of Tenorio Volcano and its distinctive furnace vents.
Manuel Antonio National Park may be one of Costa Rica’s smallest national parks, but it packs a lot into its tiny 680-hectare frame. Set on the country’s central Pacific coast, it offers rugged rainforest, white sand beaches and colourful coral reefs. It is criss-crossed with hiking trails, leading from the coast up into the mountains.
The main trail starts from the park entrance and follows a flat, sandy track. It’s not a difficult hike. Consider it a gentle introduction to the diversity of the park’s plants and wildlife, including three-toed sloths, white-face capuchins and numerous birds.
A slightly more challenging path is the Cathedral Point Trail, a 0.9-mile loop around the park’s ridge, offering a number of spectacular view points. An added bonus is that the trail starts and ends near Manuel Antonio and Escondido Sur beaches, the perfect place to cool down after your strenuous climb.
Hikers who like their rainforest on the dry side should head to Santa Rosa National Park. The oldest national park in Costa Rica, it protects some of the last remaining tropical dry forest in the world. The patch of oak forest near the entrance to Comelco Ranch is a good example of the original habitat here.
The park has over 12 miles of hiking trails, most leading to a series of white sand beaches, popular with surfers. The park is also home to the world’s only fully protected beach for nesting Olive Ridley sea turtles. Visit between August and November and chances are you’ll spot a bunch of tiny turtles emerging from the sand and making a dash for the water.
Set in Guanacaste, this one of Costa Rica’s hotter and drier regions, meaning your hike, whichever route you take, is less likely to be affected by heavy rain, even in the wet season. It is also one of the few parks that allow overnight stays, with a campground on Naranjo Beach.
Created in 1972, the Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve is one of the oldest and most famous in Costa Rica. The 4,000-hectare reserve is one of the last tropical cloud forests in the world and straddles the continental divide between the country’s Pacific and Caribbean halves. There are six different life zones, each with a slightly different ecosystem, contributing to an incredible diversity of plants and wildlife in a relatively small space.
The reserve is criss-crossed with ten different trails, each giving a unique perspective on the reserve’s bio-diverse treasures. Sendero Bosque Nuboso, the Cloud Forest Trail, is the most popular and arguably the prettiest, with misty forest and giant strangler figs. Sendero Pantanoso (Swamp Trail) will take you through a swamp forest to a viewpoint of the Continental Divide. Sendero Chomogo is the highest trail on the reserve, while the Sky Walk will take you over all five of the reserve’s suspended bridges.
A map marking all the trails is available from the office on arrival.
Tucked away on the remote Osa Peninsula, the Corcovado National Park is one of the most biologically diverse places on the planet. It contains 13 diverse ecosystems and is home to a large number of endangered species like jaguars, red-backed squirrel monkeys, Baird’s tapirs and harpy eagles.
The park has a good network of hiking trails, each venturing deep into the dense lowland rain forest. The hiking here is the most strenuous in Costa Rica, following both coastal and inland routes and passing by habitats ranging from Pacific beaches and mangrove swamps to lowland and montane rainforests.
While there are camp grounds in the park, there have been changes to the regulations recently. Visitors must be accompanied by a guide at all times.
Known as the ‘Yellowstone’ of Costa Rica, Rincon de la Vieja National Park is a temperamental landscape of geothermal vents, fossilised lava flows, loose lava rock, hot springs, bubbling mud pots, and several waterfalls. The hikes here pass through environments quite unlike anywhere else in the country.
Trails stem from the Santa Maria ranger station and spread throughout the park. The two-mile Las Pailas Loop is a good introduction to the park’s geothermal features. Serious hikers can walk to the summit of the crater, a strenuous all-day trek through montane tropical forest and dwarf cloud forest to the barren slopes. Three miles from the ranger station, you’ll find a hot spring where you can relax in its naturally heated pools before cooling off in the nearby stream.
Be warned: any sign of unusual volcanic activity and the rangers will close the trails.