Only a short drive from one of Costa Rica’s most popular and developed beach towns is an oasis of nature. Carara National Park, just north of Jaco, not only has impressive jungle and easy trails, but this park is considered one of the country’s best birding destinations. Even if you aren’t a serious birder, it’s hard not to appreciate that over 400 species have been identified here. In this post, we’ll give you an overview of the park, tell you why it attracts so many different birds, and share which ones we saw during a recent visit.
Carara National Park or Parque Nacional Carara is located on Costa Rica’s central Pacific coast just 22 km (14 miles) north of Jaco and about 70 km (44 miles) from the international airport in San Jose. From the coast, the 5,242 hectare (12,953 acre) park stretches east into the mountains. The best public access is at a ranger station right off the Costanera Highway (Route 34), near the town of Tarcoles.
The location of Carara National Park is key to attracting birds and other wildlife. This park sits in what biologists call a transition zone. To the northwest of Carara, higher temperatures and lower rainfall create what is called the tropical dry forest. To the south, higher rainfall creates much lusher, tropical rainforest. The coast provides its own unique habitat. And inland mountains create wet forest with some primary (old growth) forests that have been around for centuries. Carara National Park sits between all of these so called life zones and has some elements of each. This makes it the perfect meeting place for birds that normally aren’t seen near one another and great for birders looking to spot them.
Exploring Carara National Park is easy. A single trail can be done for just an hour or you can hike them all in about a half day. Here’s a picture we took of the trail map to help you plan.
From the ranger station, one main trail, the Universal Loop (1.2 km/0.75 miles), circles through shaded forest with shrubby undergrowth. This short trail is flat, paved with concrete, and has resting benches, a bathroom facility, and many informational signs that give details on the flora and fauna. This is the most popular trail for casual tourists but still has a lot of birds.
About halfway through the Universal Loop, the Quebrada Bonita Trail (1.5 km/1 mile) branches off. This trail is much more rustic and what you would typically think of as a hiking trail. It is also fairly flat but not paved and has some roots and steps to traverse. This area has taller trees, some of which are upwards of 100 years old, and a nice bridge over a river. A third trail, the Araceas, branches off the Quebrada Bonita and makes another 1.2 km (0.75 mile) loop. This trail is even more rustic and has lots of steps. Essentially the farther you go along these three loops, the less foot traffic you will encounter and the harder the hiking is.
A separate trail, the Meandrica or Riverside Trail, is located about 2 km (1.2 miles) north of the main ranger station. This is the place to go if you’re serious about birding. To access this trail, you have to drive a couple of minutes north on the highway and park at a separate lot after checking in at the main ranger station (look for a gate on the right). A parking attendant will watch your car in exchange for a small tip.
The Meandrica Trail (4 km/2.5 miles) is flat but had many obstacles like downed trees to climb over when we visited. The nice thing about the Meandrica Trail is that the vegetation is lower and there are several clearings, which are perfect for birdwatching. It also leads to some ponds next to the river, which are great for viewing a variety of wading birds like herons. For these reasons, we recommend birding the Meandrica Trail first (early morning is best) and visiting the other trails, which are deeper into the woods, afterwards.
Note: The Meandrica Trail is closed in September and October due to flooding.
Birding in Carara National Park: Our Species List
We are far from expert birders but our enthusiasm outweighs our lack of skill. Having read up about all the different birds on the Meandrica Trail, we birded that first. We walked this trail for about 3 hours, stopping almost constantly with each shake of a bush or strange call. Some of the highlights for us were the Orange-collared Manakin, both the Gartered and Black-throated Trogon, a Pale-billed Woodpecker, Bare-throated Tiger Heron, and best of all, a pair of Scarlet Macaw Parrots that were in the middle of mating.
In total, we were able to identify 17 different species along the Meandrica Trail. In addition to the ones mentioned above we saw: the Tawny-winged Woodcreeper, Ruddy-tailed Flycatcher, White-tipped Dove, Black-hooded Antshrike, Clay-colored Robin, Turquoise-browed Motmot, Squirrel Cuckoo, Yellow Warbler, Northern Waterthrush, Prothonotary Warbler, Streaked Flycatcher, and many more that we weren’t sure about.
Afterwards, we drove back to the main ranger station and set off on the three loops, starting at the Universal. It was mid-day at this point and many of the birds were hard to identify, hiding high in the canopy or deep in thick brush. Still we were happy to add four more interesting species to our list. We spotted the Slaty-tailed Trogon, Golden-crowned Spadebill, several Great Tinamou, and a half-dozen Marbled Wood-quails.
Tip: It’s almost always best to get an early start when birding but this is especially true in Costa Rica where temperatures heat up quickly and the hot sun can keep birds hiding or resting in the thick brush.
Although birding was slow for the second part of our hike, a highlight was the many animals we saw. On the Quebrada Bonita Trail, we happened upon a big troop of white-faced capuchin monkeys, and later on the Araceas Trail, a small family of howler monkeys with babies. On the way back, we even saw some agouti, a small rabbit-type animal, crossing the Universal Trail.
The park is also a nice place to spend the day just for its beauty. Huge trees climb into the sky, broad-leafed plants and flowers border the trails, and gorgeous streams and ponds glisten in the filtered sunlight. If you’re visiting the area and want to see wild forest, we definitely recommend it.
Open daily. Low Season Hours (May to November), 8:00 a.m. to 4:00 p.m. High Season Hours (December to April) 7:00 a.m. to 4:00 p.m. Note: The ranger station closes from 12:00– 12:45 p.m. for lunch.
$10 Foreigners, ₡1000 Nationals
The local association of registered tour guides has several guides onsite daily. Small group tours are $25 per person and larger groups are negotiable.
Carara National Park is located right off the Costanera Highway (Route 34). The park entrance is 22 km (14 miles) north of Jaco or 2.5 km south of the Tarcoles River Bridge. Look for the small sign and parking lot on the eastern side of the highway.
Looking for more information to plan your trip? Check out these posts:
Jaco, Costa Rica’s Booming Beach Town: Just south of Carara National Park, this tourist mecca has plenty of activities, restaurants, and shops to keep everyone else entertained while you go birding.
A Riverboat Adventure with Jose’s Crocodile River Tour: More than just crocodiles, the Tarcoles River runs right near Carara National Park and has dozens of bird species along its banks. We spotted our first Roseate Spoonbill on this tour!
Packing for Costa Rica – The Essentials: Packing list that will have you ready for anything. Special tips for rainy season travel and Costa Rica’s many micro-climates.
Costa Rica Rental Car Discount: Save 10-25% with this special discount for our readers.
Also, for a complete birding itinerary that will take you all across Costa Rica, check out the Birding chapter in our new book, Top 10 Costa Rica Itineraries.