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Carara National Park located near Jaco, Costa Rica has been on our list of places to visit for a few years. It seems like we drive by the national park entrance once every few weeks, but we never actually stop. This past weekend we made it our mission to finally visit this park.
We were impressed with what we found! The Carara National Park would make a great day trip for all of you visiting Jaco. You can even make a day trip here from San Jose as we did.
We created this complete guide to give you all the details. So, let’s get to it!
Background Info on Carara National Park
“Carara” in the indigenous language means “River of lizards” and this area definitely holds up to its name. The park is located next to Rio Tarcoles where tons of crocodiles live.
This park is home to the only transition forest in the Central Pacific area of Costa Rica. This means that the area is home to a diverse mix of flaura and fauna due to the convergence of dry and humid forests here.
The park also protects the river basin of the River Tárcoles as well as being home to the second-largest remaining population of wild scarlet macaws in the country
There are two sections to the national park. There is the main entrance (where you should start your trip) and the hard to find second section to the park.
We explored both areas and have all the info for you!
Important Info About Carara National Park
The main portion of the national park is open daily from 7am to 4pm from December through April.
From May through November the park is open daily from 8am until 4pm.
The other section of the national park follows the same hours but it is closed during September and October.
This national park is actually super easy to get to. From Jaco just head north on the main road (route 34). The drive won’t take more than 20 minutes (unless of course there is bad traffic).
From San Jose, it took us a little less than 1.5 hours to get here. Just take route 27 until the Jaco exit. From there follow route 34 south for about 10 minutes. The national park entrance will be on your left.
You will know your in the right spot by the white wooden fence and entrance sign.
To get to the second entrance you will continue down the road for about 2km (if coming from Jaco). The second entrance is very hidden. You will see a white street sign on the right-hand side of the road. Pull your car off directly in front of the white sign and you will see a small driveway down into the parking lot. You will never find it if you don’t know what you are looking for.
At the main entrance to the national park there is a large parking lot. There is nobody officially watching the lot but the ranger station is directly next to the lot so I don’t think people would be gutsy enough to break into your car, but you never know.
At the other section of the national park, there is a small lot that is watched by a local man. He asks for a $4 donation in return for him watching your car.
Please do not leave anything of value in your car at either of these spots. I know the national park is a great stopping point between San Jose and the southern Pacific beaches, but it is best not to leave your stuff unattended.
The reason I say this is because we have heard of many instances of cars being broken into here. Robbers know that people tend to visit this park as a break point during their drive. They know that they can get into cars filled with suitcases.
We felt safe leaving our car in both places, but we also visited on a weekend during dry season. There were plenty of other cars and people around. We also had nothing of value in our car.
$10 per person for adults and $5 for children.
If you are a Costa Rican resident the admission is ¢1,000 for adults and ¢500 for kids.
There are bathrooms at the main section of the national park. There were also sinks with water, but I did not see any place to fill up potable water.
I also did not see any picnic tables (but I could have missed them). I just wanted to pint that out in case you wanted to make a day of visiting here and planned to bring lunch.
What to Bring
We brought sunscreen, bug spray, snacks, water, Gatorade, binoculars, and our camera. This was fine. We didn’t feel like we should have brought anything else. We also used everything we brought.
What to Wear
We kept it simple for clothing. The hikes were not overly strenuous so we didn’t go crazy with special clothing. We both opted for lightweight shorts, t-shirts, and sneakers. That was completely fine for here.
This national park is a birders paradise. It is actually the main draw for most people visiting Carara National Park.
Thomas and I are a bit bird illiterate. I mean, we are all about some nice looking birds, but that is where our interest ends.
During our hike, we were talking and came around a corner to a guy saying “Shhh Shhh!” We stopped and the couple he had been talking to took this chance to keep walking. This guy, bless him, was so excited about a group of antbirds in the woods next to us.
He started telling us all about the coloring of the birds and how they are attracted to the trail of army ants and follow them to eat other insects nearby. He was so cute and incredibly excited by their blue eye rings or something.
Meanwhile, Thomas, who is weirdly obsessed with ants, was asking him all about the nearby trail of army ants. I was just standing behind him laughing to myself at these two animal nerds.
As we walked away we thanked this man for showing us the antbirds and he said, “No problem! Serious birders would give their eye tooth to see what we just saw.” Haha. So cute.
Anyway, if you would give your eye tooth to see antbirds, you know where to go! 😉
We also saw two large packs of scarlet macaws, lizards, and a peccary (a small wild pig).
The Carara National Park website says the park is home to 124 species of reptiles, 112 species of mammals, 62 species of amphibians, and 420 species of birds.
The Best Time to Visit
It’s hard to say when the best time to visit is. We visited during the dry season and there were a lot more people there than we expected. This would have been fine, but there were actually a lot of tour groups.
The problem with tour groups is that the trails are not very wide and these tours tend to stop frequently to take pictures and listen to their guide. It is always annoying to say “excuse me” to a bunch of people and try to squeeze through their tour.
During the rainy season, it is probably far less crowded. However, some of the trails were dirt paths. I could see them potentially being complete mudslides during the rainy season.
As far as time of day, definitely get here early in the day. You will have the best chance at seeing wildlife and you hopefully won’t have to deal with as many tour groups.
The Hikes at Carara National Park
There are two different hiking options at Carara.
The first option is from the main parking lot. After you pay the entrance fee the park ranger will point out the park map to you. This map has definitely gotten a bit faded over its lifespan and is not the easiest to read now. However, if you walk to the start of the first trail you will see this much better map. ↓
There are a few maps throughout, but we suggest taking a picture of this first map to help you out.
We were really impressed that the first part of this hike (the Universal Access Trail) is completely wheelchair accessible. This is something you don’t see very often in national parks and I love when we do see it. This loop is paved, flat, and wide.
After the first paved loop, you can follow the other dirt hiking trails throughout the park. The walk was flat and very manageable. It took us about an hour to walk all the trails.
We then decided to drive to the second entrance. After finding the entrance and parking we began our walk. This trail was a very wide and flat dirt path. There were several offshoots of small paths throughout the walk, but they didn’t seem to actually go anywhere.
Eventually, we came to a sign that said the rest of the path was closed. We happened to run into a guide and asked her if the path was indeed closed and she confirmed it was.
It was strange because at the main part of the park they had told us we could walk all the way to the laguna on the second property, but it was obvious when we saw the “closed” sign that this path had been closed for a long time. It was very overgrown.
However, it was still a nice walk in the woods. We only saw three people during our entire second walk, unlike the 50+ people we saw on the first walk.
One thing to be a bit cautious about is crocodiles. We did not see any but there are plenty of crocodiles living in the Tarcoles river that runs parallel to the path.
Tour of Carara National Park
If you would like to take a tour at the national park instead of going on your own, there are plenty of options for that as well.
We have heard that sometimes there are tour guides at the national park who you can hire on the spot. We did not see any when we were there. However, you can always hire someone ahead of time.
You will obviously pay more for a guide rather than going yourself, but all guides are very knowledgeable and carry telescopes so you can get a close-up view of all wildlife. Plus, there are some fun tours which combine visiting the national park with horseback riding, buggy reading, zip lining, etc.
The other perk to hiring a guide is that most of these tours will include transportation from Jaco (or wherever you are staying).
Our Tips for Visiting Carara National Park
– Get there early. The real gem of this spot is definitely the wildlife. You have the highest chances of seeing some unique animals if you get there close to when the park opens.
– Don’t forget to not leave anything of value in your car. We would hate for you to get your stuff stolen.
– Keep an eye out for crocodiles in the second part of the park.
– We suggest checking out both parts of the park. After paying the entrance fee, you might as well get your money’s worth.
What to Do After Visiting Carara National Park
There is a lot of fun stuff to do nearby!
Just down the road is a bridge over Rio Tarcoles. You will know you are in the right spot by all the people standing on the Tarcoles river bridge and looking over.
It’s possible to just pull your car off on the side of the road either before or after the bridge and walk to the bridge to look over. Below you will see tons of huge crocodiles lounging in the sun.
Another fun thing to do nearby is to visit Playa Mantas and Playa Blanca. These beaches are technically in a private resort, but it is possible for you to visit them as well. We have a complete guide to Playa Blanca which will provide you with all the details.
You can also head into Jaco. Jaco is not our favorite town in Costa Rica, but if you are looking for lunch there are plenty of great options here. The beach is good for swimming and is very long if you would like to do some more walking.
If you have any questions about visiting Carara National Park just leave them in the comment section below. We are always happy to help you out! Also, if you visit Carara and have tips for other travelers we always love to hear those as well!
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