Just a short drive from the hustle and bustle of San Jose is a vast expanse of pristine primary and secondary rainforest teeming with wildlife. Braulio Carrillo National Park is often overlooked by travelers, but those heading to the Caribbean coast will likely pass right through its bounding forests. On a recent trip to Tortuguero, we stopped for a day to explore the trails of Braulio Carrillo’s Quebrada Gonzalez sector and are so glad we did. In this post, we’ll tell you more about the park, including some of the interesting wildlife you can spot, and also share where to stay nearby.
Braulio Carrillo National Park is located northeast of San Jose and encompasses an impressive 47,689 hectares (117,842 acres). The park has two public entrances, a more remote ranger station near Barva Volcano and an easier-to-access entrance at the Quebrada Gonzalez ranger station. We visited the Quebrada Gonzalez sector, right off Route 32 (see detailed directions and a map at the end of this post).
Route 32 is the main highway leading to the Caribbean coast from San Jose and its construction in the 1970s actually led to the creation of the park. If you have ever driven along Route 32, you no doubt remember traveling down the steep, curvy road and passing through Costa Rica’s only underground tunnel, the Zurqui. Part of Braulio Carrillo National Park actually sits atop this tunnel and provides a very important land bridge for animals, like big cats, passing through. It was just this type of impact that conservationists had in mind when they petitioned the government to protect land surrounding the new highway.
Trails of Braulio Carrillo National Park
From the Quebrada Gonzalez ranger station, you can access three trails. All of the trails easily can be hiked in a half-day, but if you are short on time, we recommend just doing the Las Palmas and Ceibo Trails.
Here’s a photo we took of the trail map to help you get your bearings.
Las Palmas Trail starts next to the ranger station, parking area, and covered picnic area. This trail is 1.6 km (1 mile) long and climbs slightly up before looping back down to the parking area. The trail is easy to moderate with some uneven steps and slippery roots but nothing too difficult.
El Ceibo Trail is across the highway from the parking lot (be careful when crossing the busy road) and starts at a well-marked wooden gate. This trail is fairly flat and well maintained with gravel paths and small bridges that cross several creeks. El Ceibo Trail is an easy 1 km (0.6 mile) walk and loops back toward the road.
The Botarrama Trail forks off the Ceibo trail, starting a little more than halfway through. This is the longest trail at 2.5 km (1.5 miles) and it’s also the most difficult. The Botarrama Trail has lots of slippery rocks and roots with some steep slopes and drop-offs (not recommended for very young children or people with mobility issues). At times, it feels like you are hiking along a steep riverbed. There is actually one stream crossing along this trail, the Quebrada Botarrama, which doesn’t have a bridge and depending on rainfall may require you to get a bit wet. We took our boots off and easily waded through since it was only ankle deep at the time.
What You’ll See
There are great jungle views on all three of the Quebrada Gonzalez sector trails. This area of the Caribbean slope gets a lot of rainfall throughout the year so everything is lush and green. Moss, ferns, orchids, and bromeliads seem to be growing on and out of every surface. Some very large trees are found along the trails with huge canopies towering overhead. On the Ceibo Trail, there is a lookout point where you also can catch a glimpse of the Rio Sucio (Sucio River). This river is unique in that it carries volcanic minerals in its waters, which make the otherwise clear water change to a rusty brown. It was a little muddy when we visited but we could still see the rust-stained rocks along the banks.
Although finding birds during our hike was difficult due to on-and-off drizzle and thick foliage, the park is known to have more than 500 species. We did manage to see a beautiful Rufous Motmot though and heard lots of other species too, including some very chatty toucans. Fortunately, we had much better luck with mammals. On the Botarrama trail, we saw mantled-howler monkeys overhead, and on the Ceibo trail, we came across a family of white-faced capuchin monkeys. The best sighting we had though was a northern tamandua, a type of anteater! These are one of our favorite animals in Costa Rica and we’ve only seen them a few other times.
Note: With the nearby highway, you will notice some noise from trucks and traffic. Don’t worry, this can actually work in your favor when spotting wildlife. Much like waves on a beach, the sound of traffic can help drown out your footsteps and let you sneak up on some of these amazing creatures.
What to Wear/Bring
With the high rainfall amounts, it is a good idea to come to Braulio Carrillo well prepared as trail conditions can be wet and muddy. We recommend hiking boots if you do any trails other than the very easy Ceibo trail. A raincoat or poncho and some very good insect repellent are also a necessity. Those that are especially prone to insect bites (like Jenn) might want to wear long pants as well. As always, don’t forget the water and snacks as there aren’t any stores or amenities in the immediate area.
For a more detailed packing list for your entire trip, check out this post, Packing for Costa Rica: The Essentials.
8:00 a.m. to 4:00 p.m.
$12 foreigners. ₡1000 nationals
Where to Stay
Since we were driving to the Caribbean side of Costa Rica all the way from the southern Pacific coast, an overnight stop near Braulio Carrillo National Park was the perfect way to break up the long day. We checked into a really cute bed and breakfast called Casa Rio Blanco B&B in the afternoon and had a wonderful dinner, cooked by the friendly owner, Annette, that night. The next morning, we drove to the park (about 15 minutes away) and had time to hike for several hours while still making it to our boat taxi for Tortuguero in the afternoon.
The small wooden cabin we had at Casa Rio Blanco was really comfortable and quiet. We enjoyed the sound of the river nearby and all the beautiful birds in the gardens. Annette and her husband Herbie have lived in this area of Costa Rica for a long time and are very knowledgeable about the different activities nearby. Their rooms start at around $75 per night (double occupancy) and they have different cabins setup for families too. If you’re looking for a hotel near Braulio Carrillo National Park or the town of Guapiles, we would definitely recommend this little B&B.
Directions to Braulio Carrillo National Park
From San Jose: Connect with Route 32 going north and east to Guapiles and Limon. Continue on Route 32, passing through the tunnel. Look for the large signs overhead that say “Welcome to Braulio Carrillo National Park.” After you see the sign, start to look for a smaller sign for the Quebrada Gonzalez sector and a parking lot and ranger station on the right side of the road. Drive time is approximately 50 minutes from downtown San Jose.
From Limon: Connect with Route 32 going northwest to Guapiles and San Jose. Continue on Route 32, passing through Guapiles. Look for the large signs overhead that say “Welcome to Braulio Carrillo National Park.” After you see the sign, start to look for a smaller sign for the Quebrada Gonzalez sector and a parking lot and ranger station on the left side of the road. Drive time is approximately 2 hours from Limon.
Note: The drive from Braulio Carrillo National Park to the docks at La Pavona where boats leave for Tortuguero is about 2 hours.