Carara National Park is a unique area in Costa Rica and a popular national park for bird watchers. Though it used to be a biological reserve, the immense popularity made the government change its status to a national park.
If you’re planning on visiting Carara, find out what you need to know about it before you go in our post.
This post was updated March 2018.
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Carara National Park Information
Established in 1998 as a national park, Carara National Park is a favorite destination for bird watchers due to its immense amount of primary rain forest. It is also home to one of the largest population of Scarlet Macaws in Costa Rica.
Another reason why Carara is special is that it lies directly in the transition zone between the tropical dry rain forest and tropical rain forest. This mesh of two habitats means flora and fauna from both live in one area, making it an extremely biologically rich zone. Due to the humidity and abundance of trees, there are a lot of insects in this area and in turn, many birds since there is so much food.
This national park is 20 square miles and it protects the river basin of the Rio Tarcoles. At one of the stations, you can even catch a glimpse of a crocodile during rainy season!
Location and Directions
Carara National Park Costa Rica map
The national park entrances are right off of the highway a little bit after the Rio Tarcoles bridge.
How to get from Jaco to Carara National Park:
The best way will be with a car or to book a tour. Since there isn’t a direct bus to either entrance of the national park, you’ll be waiting to take the bus that goes up and down the Costanera Sur. When you get on the bus, make sure to tell the driver you want to get off at the park. To return to Jaco, you will have to be wait on the street outside the national park (no sidewalks) and flag the bus down.
You can go there in a taxi but make sure to coordinate with the driver when to pick you up since there aren’t taxi drivers waiting at the national park. You can also ask the park rangers to call you one. A taxi to the main Carara park entrance is around $30 one way (I am not exactly sure but make sure to have the taxi driver turn the meter on).
Hours and fee
Carara National Park entrance hours are 8AM -4 PM during rainy season (May to November) and 7 AM – 4 PM during dry season (December to April). Laguna Meandrica is closed September and October.
The Carara National Park entrance fee is $10 for foreigners.
The Hiking Trails
There are two sections of this park: Laguna Meandrica and Sendero Universal Access/Quebrada Bonita/Los Araceas and they each have their own separate access. Quebrada Bonita/Sendero Universal Access is the main station. Both have trails of 1-2 kilometers and are all on flat, easy to walk on paths.
There is a small parking lot at Laguna Meandrica and you need to purchase your entrance ticket first at the main ranger station before entering, there is a guard who will ask for it and there is no ticket office at this station.
The Laguna Meandrica trail is closed September and October due to flooding from the rains and you have to watch out for crocodiles. This trail takes about an hour to complete.
This is a nice leisurely trail where we saw many birds and heard the macaws. It’s separate from the main ranger station, about 2 kilometers north and there is a parking lot with a guard. Look out for this sign when driving there.
One of the rangers gave us a tip for the trails: go to Laguna Meandrica first since it has less canopy cover than the main trails. That way you aren’t walking during the peak hours of sunlight and it won’t be so hot.
We didn’t see too much at this trail unfortunately. We heard a lot of Scarlet Macaws and saw a few hummingbirds.
Main ranger station trails
The main station has three different trails: the universal (handicap friendly) trail, Sendero Quebrada Bonita (1.3 km) and Sendero Los Araceas (1.1 km).
The trails at the ranger station take up to 2 hours to complete if you’re going slow and taking photos.
One very nice thing about this national park is that they have a universal trail which is designed for people with disabilities. It is very flat so it’s wheelchair accessible.
They also have animal statues and signs in Braille for blind people on the universal trails. They put statues of the various animals you can see in the park which I thought was really nice.
Signage is excellent in the park and they even have bathrooms and rest areas every so often. It’s wonderful how handicap friendly this park is because not there aren’t that many in Costa Rica. The only other park with a well maintained universal trail like this is Manuel Antonio National Park and they just opened it in March 2018.
Quebrada Bonita and Las Araceas trail
The Quebrada Bonita trail is 1.3 kilometers and the Las Araceas is 1.1 kilometers, so it’s not a very long walk. They all connect together so you can easily loop around to all of them.
These trails were quite pleasant to hike. It has well made platforms and bridges and we saw people raking leaves to clear the paths. They also have small rest areas on the universal access loop with restrooms and water. One of the trails had a huge ficus tree!
Since you’re under the forest canopy the whole time, it’s not too hot. We enjoyed walking through the dry and tropical rain forest and hearing all the birds around us.
It took us a total of about 3 hours for both stations since we walked through Laguna Meandrica fairly quickly.
Carara National Park Animals
Though many mammals call Carara National Park home, they are hard to see due to the dense canopy cover. The prize animal to see in Carara is definitely the birds, specifically the Scarlet Macaw.
We tried bird watching on our own but we only saw a few. No macaws but a couple toucans and trogons which was still nice. We have had a bit of practice looking for toucans (you can hear them before you see him) so we were able to see them on our own.
But if you really want to see wildlife or birds, I highly recommend hiring a guide. Even colorful birds can be difficult to spot to the untrained eye, we pointed out the toucans to a family that walked right underneath them. Even though there is the largest colony of Scarlet Macaws in this area, we didn’t see any.
Here are photos of the animals we saw.
Carara National Park Guided Walks and Tours
If you have a car, you can hire a guide at the entrance of the park but make sure you go early or else all the guides may be booked. A guide last time I checked was around $40-50.
If you don’t have a car, you can book a full tour with a tour company that includes transportation and a bi-lingual guide. You can contact us if you’re interested. If you are staying in Manuel Antonio, you can also do a guided tour from there. Click here to get our Manuel Antonio discount!
Tips for Visiting Carara National Park
- Wear long pants, shirt/tank top and hiking shoes, closed toed hiking sandals will work fine too. Since it is both dry and wet rain forest, the bugs there were pretty intense so bring mosquito repellent. Sunscreen and a hat is also a must. Don’t forget plenty of water – it’s not a tough hike but it is super humid!
- Don’t leave any belongings in your car. This is a popular national park that’s right off the highway and it’s easy for thieves to see which car is easy to get in and out of.
Read about other national parks here!
David Popplewell says
Firstly, thanks for your great website and videos!
We’re considering staying near Carara NP for 2 nights, as it’s only about an hour from San Jose airport and we’ll be landing at 5pm after a long flight from London (so don’t fancy a long transfer that evening).
We’re then planning to go to Santa Elena for 3 nights, then Samara for a week or so. So Carara seems like the most convenient place to start & we can see birds/crocodiles. Is there anywhere else you could suggest given this schedule please?
The other options seem to be east of San Jose & mean a much longer transfer to Santa Elena.
That’s a good idea since it’s about 1 hour from the airport and there are some nice lodges around Carara
We will be driving from San Jose to Quepos with all our luggage in early February. Was thinking this might be a nice spot to see the macaws. Would you recc. we NOT do this due to the theft? We also heard the JACO viewpoint may have macaws but not sure how certain/safe that is either. Thanks!
The Jaco viewpoint does often have macaws and you can be right by your car. Carara is a good place for macaws but they are actually a bit hard to spot in my opinion because their nests are quite further in the park and it’s so dense. I’d actually recommend the Jaco viewpoint over the national park.
We are trying to choose between visiting Carara and Curi Cancha this week. Which one would you recommend?
They are both nice but if you specifically looking to go birding, then Curi Cancha
Thanks. Yes–big bird-watchers here. Sounds great. I should say, kids are upper teens.
Have been studying your blog–for both of our trips. 🙂
So for a break on our long drive from Arenal to next destination Uvita, we should NOT stop at Carara N.P. ? Our rental car would carry ALL our luggage. We planned on stopping, but now you bring up great advice. Do you think we could take turns staying in the car while the other parent and kids hike? Or would you not suggest that?
Thanks so much for your wisdom.
If you go, go to the main entrance and parking lot of Carara National Park as the guard office is right at the parking lot and try to put away as much of your belongings and luggage as possible so it’s not visible.
Right now volume of tourists is very low so there likely won’t be many other people at the park.
I think though that if you’re not going to the park to bird watch, it may not be worth the stop. It’s a nice park but it’s better for bird watching with a guide. Carara is a fascinating park due to its location right in between rainy and dry forest and home to the biggest population of Scarlet Macaws but it’s much more interesting to go to the park with a guide to learn about it. They do have some bulletin boards up with information in the beginning section of the park for the universal trail but that’s it.
Are dogs welcome?
Dogs are not allowed in national parks in Costa Rica
Hi Sammi, what is it like at the Laguna Meandrica trail head? Does the guard there just check for a ticket or do they sell them too? I ask as we’d like to start the trek from the Tarcoles bridge and not have to backtrack from the park headquarters.
Hi Lena, it is a pretty small parking lot and the guard checks for your ticket since you can only buy tickets at the main park entrance. They’re not too far apart though, just a minute drive so I’d buy your tickets first and then go to the Meandrica trail to park and star your walk.
Thank you so much! Your site is so helpful and your willingness to help so appreciated 🙂
Anupam Khanna says
Thank you for the great information you’ve posted on this blog. I am using this extensively for planning my trip 🙂
One quick question, do you know what is the general cost of hiring a bird guide at the ranger station and for how many hours will he provide his service?
Hi Anupam, I think it is around $25 per person for a couple of hours
Anupam Khanna says
Thank you !!
John Staines says
Would you recommend hiring a guide before we go to the park or is hiring one at the gate / ranger station best ?
We will be there in February 2017 but unfortunately do not speak Spanish….will this also be a problem with a guide ?
Hi John, you can hire a guide at the ranger station, I do suggest getting there early when the park opens. But if you’re really into birdwatching, you can check out some tour operators around Jaco who are specializes in birds and hire them for your walk through the park. All guides are bilingual, so no problem.
Thank you for your tips. Is it safe to park at the Laguna Meandrica parking lot as there is a guard?
Hi Laetitia, yes you can park there safely but make sure not to leave any valuables in the car.
Thank you for your answer and for your awesome and convenient website.
I ask because we’ll have suitcases in the car. So our best option is not to stop at this park on the road from Monteverde to Manuel Antonio.
Hi Laetitia, yeah just to be safe I don’t recommend leaving suitcases in the car at the parking lot, Carara NP is very nice but you will see more wildlife at Manuel Antonio, Carara is better for birds. Enjoy!