There are many well-kept and well-guarded national parks and nature reserves that protect some samples of the extraordinarily varied Costa Rican ecosystems.
1 Tortuguero National Park
If creeping along the coast in the middle of the night, with no torch, wasn’t exciting enough, imagine seeing a massive leatherback turtle coming ashore to nest at Tortuguero National Park. Laboriously dragging itself up the beach to beyond the high watermark, it digs a deep hole to incubate the leathery eggs, and returns exhausted to the restful world of the ocean. See www.tortuguerovillage.com.
2 Marino Ballena National Park
Marino Ballena National Park in the southern central Pacific coast just doesn’t make sense. Every December to April migrating northern hemisphere humpback whales visit, and from August to October their southern hemisphere cousins drop by. Add dolphins and turtles, and it’s a veritable natural zoo. And yet barely anyone visits. True, you’re not guaranteed a sighting, but when you do get one, it’s a truly unforgettable experience. The area is less developed than much of Costa Rica, so the best accommodation is the rustic Hotel Canto de Ballenas.
3 Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve
Whether you’re with a guide, or exploring alone, Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve, offers the chance to discover a great wilderness. Wander the quieter trails passing trees cloaked in moss and epiphytes, drenched by passing clouds. Catch a glimpse of an exotic bird, spider or brightly coloured frog. Take a nocturnal tour to see tarantulas and other creatures of the night. Then get up early to experience the rainforest as dawn breaks. You can happily spend a day enthralled by the jungle, but for real adventure, head deep into the reserve and spend a few days at one of the field stations.
4 Mount Chirripó
In their eagerness to provide good service and a warm welcome, Costa Ricans have taken much of the work out of exploration. However, you can’t avoid the tough stuff if you want to climb Mount Chirripó in the central Talamancas. The trip starts from San Gerardo de Rivas, easily reached from San Isidro de El General. Allow at least one day up and one day down – more if you have the time. It’s not a technical climb, more of a steady plod, but you have to keep moving. As you climb through the different ecosystems, from cloudforest to alpine páramo, you’ll see plenty of birds – and hear even more. Listen out for the rriikkk-rriikk-rriikk of the toucans. It’s a great trek, and leads to the highest point in Costa Rica.
5 Volcán Arenal
Volcán Arenal fell dormant in 2011 for no explicable reason, but activity may or may not resume at any time. The volcano is another casualty of the nature documentary. Having peered down the crater of an explosive volcano at home on TV, could anything match that drama in real life? Probably not, but if Arenal is active, and if you can find a spot to sit, rest and watch, it is mighty impressive. By day, a steady gentle puff of smoke rises from the crater. At night, the dust trails reveal themselves to be molten lava, drawing a bright orange line crashing, smashing and splitting down the volcano. It might seem a long way off, but it can be deadly. Enjoy the geological spectacle.
6 Manuel Antonio National Park
Why does Costa Rica have so many national parks? Because there’s so much to protect. For convenience and beauty, head for Manuel Antonio National Park, which has stunning beaches and rainforest side-by-side. Cahuita National Park on the Caribbean also has a forest-fringed beach, with clear waters and some of the best corals in Costa Rica. For challenging hiking, steaming mudpots and waterfalls head up to Rincón de la Vieja, a little to the east of Liberia. Choosing a favourite national park is like having to choose a favourite child. You can’t – just love them all.