Costa Rica’s landscape is diverse, teeming with wildlife, and best experienced on foot. In fact, the sheer amount of hiking opportunities in the country—of which 25% is federally protected land—is one of the major reasons to plan a visit…or at least, one of the best justifications for peeling yourself off the beach for a day. Whether you’re a serious trekker or simply interested in a beautiful stroll, in Costa Rica there’s an ideal hike for you. With difficulty, we’ve narrowed our must-trek list down to seven stunners. The only question is, which one will you try first?
1. Rincón de la Vieja National Park’s Las Pailas Loop & Cangreja Waterfall Hike
Sometimes called Costa Rica’s Yellowstone, this glorious park in Costa Rica’s Guanacaste region has it all: geysers, mud pots, fumaroles, waterfalls, crater lakes, and volcanic craters. The two-mile Las Pailas loop is ideal for anyone seeking a less strenuous yet still wildlife-rich hike, but if you’re up for it, check out the picturesque three-mile trek that leads to the beautiful Cangreja (crab) waterfall for some extremely Instagrammable jungle waterfall shots and swimming. You can also hike up to two craters and a crater lake here. If you’re staying in one of Costa Rica’s beach cities like Playa Hermosa or Playa Flamingo, hiking here is an easy day trip away.
2. The Rio Celeste Waterfall & Lagoon Hike
The dazzling, how-is-this-real turquoise color of the Rio Celeste waterfall and lagoon within Tenorio Volcano National Park is known for leaving visitors wide-eyed and breathless in wonder. The water’s cool aqua hue is created from a mix of minerals from a two rivers just beyond the falls.
Trekking to the waterfall’s viewing platform is a breeze, and takes only about 30 minutes of walking from the ranger station. But continue on, and you’ll cross a few hanging bridges and soon see the tenideros, the point where two rivers converge and the chemical reaction occurs. The phrase the term is derived from is teñi de rios, or the dyeing of the rivers. The trail dead-ends and turns back here (and swimming isn’t allowed, unfortunately) but seeing this naturally occurring phenomenon is well-worth the extra effort.
3. Arenal Volcano Park’s La Fortuna Waterfall Hike & Hanging Bridges Hike
Iconic Arenal is one of Costa Rica’s most active volcanos, and the national park that it calls home is one of Costa Rica’s busiest. The park has tons of trails, some of which lead through natural lava fields, plus there are hanging bridges, canopy tours, botanical gardens, waterfalls, and natural hot springs. A few trekker favorites include the hike to pretty La Fortuna waterfall—where you can also take a refreshing dip after you descend the long staircase that leads to it—and the popular sky-high hanging bridges hike that loops through the rainforest reserve’s canopy.
4. Manuel Antonio National Park’s Beach Hikes
Located along the Central Pacific coast and featuring lowland rainforest bordered by unspoiled beaches, Manuel Antonio is the most popular National Park with both ticos (aka, native Costa Ricans) and tourists. Head to popular Playa Manuel Antonio, a white sand beach surrounded by lush rainforest, or follow the trail to Puerto Escondido, where an impressive blowhole sends up plumes of spray at high tide. From Playa Manuel Antonio, you can also trek to the high promontory bluff of Punta Catedral for a fantastic view often punctuated with encounters of white-faced monkeys.
5. Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve’s Sendero Bosque Nuboso Trail
This private reserve located in the cloud forests of the Monteverde and Santa Elena region has an elevation of around 4,500 feet, creating a misty, almost permanently cloud-covered habitat for monkeys, sloths and birds. Try the lovely 1.2-mile Sendero Bosque Nuboso trail, known as one of the best places to spot the elusive resplendant queztal (if you’re very, very lucky). Along the way, there’s also a lookout called la ventana (the window), with a view of the point where the Atlantic and Pacific slopes converge.
6. Corcovado National Park (various hikes)
In a country where nearly every destination is on the beaten path, this environmental reserve is most definitely off. Located on the remote Osa peninsula in southwestern Costa Rica, Corcovado National Park boasts great hiking past deserted beaches, waterfalls, and rainforest. The only catch is, there’s no road access to the park. You either have to hike in, or arrive via boat or bush plane. But if you make the effort, the reward is a glimpse at land National Geographic called “one of the most biologically intense places in the world,” with a robust population of tapirs, jaguars, and scarlet macaws. Note that you must have a guide to hike in Corcovado. But in this rugged park, you’ll definitely want one.
7. Carara National Park’s Laguna Meandrica Trail & Araceas Nature Trail
Due to its proximity to San José, Carara is one of Costa Rica’s most-visited national parks. But don’t let the thought of crowds deter you, as this pretty park is popular for a reason. Here, tropical dry rain forest and tropical rain forest meet and mesh, making the wildlife of both zones (an incredible diversity of birds, especially) easy to spot in this biologically rich zone. Wander either of two trails, the 2.7-mile Laguna Meandrica trail and the short, looping 0.6-mile Araceas Nature trail, and keep a sharp eye out for scarlet macaws—the park has the largest population in the country.