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.
I have read that it isn’t safe to leave your car at this park or hike without a guide. Is it true that cars are regularly broken into and people are robbed on the trails?
I also thought the San Fernando Waterfall was in this area. Is it in a different area of the park?
We want to visit a rain forest on our trip, and are trying to decide which one. Our time is limited to 7 days, and this one is in a convenient location. Wildlife is high on the priority list. Thank you!
Hi Lori, There were a string of robberies a while back in the early 2000s, but we haven’t heard of anything since then and follow the Costa Rica news very closely. We also haven’t heard about a problem with cars being broken into, but you do have to be careful in Costa Rica about not leaving any valuables in a rental car. The vast majority of crime here is petty theft, with vehicle breakins being one of the most prevalent (here’s a link to our Safety in Costa Rica article with more info). The parking area, at least at the Quebrada Gonzalez sector (the one right off the highway that we visited that I think you’re interested in), is right next to the ranger station so your car should be pretty safe. But when you get there if you have concerns, just talk to the ranger.
We have never felt unsafe hiking in Costa Rica and have done it all across the country. At Braulio Carrillo, we were on the trails by ourselves a lot, but also passed other hikers occasionally, including a group of students from the University of Costa Rica who were there studying.
The Gonzalez sector doesn’t have waterfalls, but the Barva sector (more remote, less visited) does. We are not sure of their names but think the San Fernando Waterfall is slightly outside park limits, closer to La Paz Waterfall. Barva definitely does have waterfalls, though, but is is far less conveniently located. Hope that helps put your mind at ease. It really is an awesome, majestic place!
By far the most comprehensive & detailed blog on Costa Rica. Thanks!
You’re welcome, Bernhard. Glad you are finding it helpful!
Dear Jenn and Matt,
We are really impressed by the B&B Casa Rio Blanca and the Braulio national park. Do you know if it is possible to go on a daytrip from Braulio to Tortuguero and back again? After this we want to travel to Cahuita.
Thanks in advance for you answer
Tobias and Linda Davidson (the Netherlands)
Hi Linda and Tobias, It is definitely possible to visit Tortuguero on a day trip from the Braulio Carrillo area. Casa Río Blanco even offers a specific tour so if you stay there, it would be very easy to coordinate. I believe you have to drive yourself to La Pavona to get the boat and then they have a guide who will meet you when you arrive in Tortuguero. It is a full day activity, but a fun one. Here’s a link to our post on Tortuguero in case you haven’t seen it yet. It links to another post about how to get to Tortuguero that will help you with directions.
Hola, what’s the best way to get to and from Braulio Carrillo National Park via public bus (from/to San Jose)? I’ve heard how to get there, but that it’s difficult to grab a bus for the way back.
Hi Alex, We haven’t been to this park by bus so aren’t totally sure. But if you put the trip details into the CR bus website, it does say that it is possible. We put the park name right into the search parameters but any bus going towards Guapiles should be okay. Not sure how it would work, though, for the bus to drop you off since the park entrance is on a busy highway. I would just confirm with the driver before getting on that he will actually stop at the entrance for you. Coming back after would be the same issue but there is really no good place to wait for the bus on that side. This isn’t the easiest park to get to by public transport, unfortunately. Good luck and let us know how it works out if you try it.
Dear Jenn and Matt,
first and foremost: thanks for this very informative blog, it helped me a lot preparing our trip to CR in February. 🙂
We are planning to visit Braulio Carillo for max a half day trip (since we’re with a 3year old).
Do you think that makes sense for a little kid and which entrance and hike would you recommend?
Would you recommend going with a guide? If so what is the best way to book one?
Thanks for your help, highly appreciated.
Hi Matt, The Quebrada González sector right off Route 32 (this is the sector we talk about in this post) is your best option with a three year old. Las Palmas and El Ceibo trails are both not too difficult, as long as your little one can handle walking around tree roots and doing small inclines (look at the trail pics in the post again to get an idea of what conditions are like). I don’t think you need a guide because the trails are easy to follow, but they would point out more wildlife than you would probably see on your own. Hope your family has a great time!
Hello, I was wondering if the casa Rio Blanco would allow visitors to camp with their own tent on their property?
As well, do you have any suggestions and or advice about using a tent while in Costa Rica? (I plan to be there for about 10 days)
Hi Jonathan, I’m not sure that the hotel would let you, we don’t know them very well. You could always send them an email to find out.
There are lots of places that allow camping and have showers and other facilities. I would research where in advance and plan your trip around that. A lot of times they are campgrounds at the beach but some hotels allow it too. Off the top of my head, there are places on Jaco Beach, Playa Samara, Drake Bay, Montezuma, Uvita, and Rincon de la Vieja. People also just set up tents on many of the beaches if you are comfortable with that.
My husband and I are heading to Costa Rica this weekend. We have heard with recent activity of the Poaz Valcano there are restricted areas. Do you know what towns are affected by this? We were hoping to go to La Paz Waterfalls and to Braulio Carrillo National Park as well as drive to Zarcero, Grecia and Sarchi on our trip. Do you know what conditions are like in these areas? I have tried searching but am having a hard time finding anything.
Hi Patricia, Sorry we weren’t able to respond to your question in time; it is a good one. It usually takes us at least a few days since we receive a lot of comments. Hope you were able to figure this out. Right now, it is basically only the area directly around the volcano that is affected. Here is an article with more info.
Hi Jenn and Matt,
What do you think of this plan: Leave San Jose hotel very early like 7:30am – drive to the Braulio Carrillo National Park ( to the ranger station – it’s a 50 minute drive I believe) and take one of those short trails you said. Get back in the car and have lunch — where?–and then drive onto to La Pavona (how long is the drive from Braulio Carrillo?) to get the boat to Tortuguero. We will spend the night at Tortuguero of course and do tours, etc the next day. *So my question is: is it ‘doable’ to have a short visit at Braulio Carrillo on the way to Tortuguero, like this proposed itinerary suggests? And any lunch restaurants or towns recommendations from or at Braulio Carrillo area would be appreciated. Finally, I want to hire a private driver…I am assuming that I just arrange that with the hotel in San Jose – is that correct?
Thank you! This is a very helpful blog.
Hi Michele, Yes, that would work as long as you leave early in the morning and only hike for an hour and a half or so. If you’re coming soon, we recommend trying to catch the 1 pm boat from La Fortuna. It is most likely to be raining for the 4:30 pm. The drive from Braulio Carrillo to La Pavona is about an hour and 45 minutes. We could help you arrange a shuttle if you’d like. We work with a company that goes from San Jose to La Pavona and we could ask them to stop and wait for you to hike Braulio Carrillo. Here’s the link to our Private Shuttle Booking page with more information.
For restaurants, there was a place we liked near Rio Blanco but it’s closed now. Guapiles has a lot of choices for local food, though. You could try Comidas Caribeñas y Tipicas la Negra for typical food with Caribbean flair.
On our drive from San Jose to Tartuguero we would like to stop in the park and do tram ride but we are not sure where to buy tickets and are they timed? We assume that it would be ok to leave our rented vehicle with our luggage by the ranger station.
Tks for any advise.
Hi Malcolm, The tram tour is not through the national park. It’s through a private company at a separate facility on the fringes of Braulio Carrillo. We’d be happy to send you more info about the tour by email if you’d like. Just send us a quick contact form through our Tour Booking Service page. And yes, they have secure parking.
Hola! I would like to hike the volcano Barva from the other entrance of the Braulio Carrillo. Do you know how the road conditions of route 114 are? Appreciate your answer! Muchas gracias!!
Hi Theresa, We have never hiked Barva Volcano and I don’t think we’ve ever been on Route 114. Sorry we can’t help!