Imagine a flat path through the jungle with wildlife at every turn. Birds chirp as you make your way under the lush tree canopy. Not far away, waves crash to the shore on a white-sand Caribbean beach. No this isn’t a fantasy, I am actually describing the beautiful Cahuita National Park in Costa Rica.
Don’t tell the rest of the Costa Rican national parks, but Cahuita is definitely our favorite park in the country. We love the abundance of wildlife, the beautiful beach that runs parallel to the path, and most importantly, we love the fact that it gets way less filled with tourists as some of the other national parks in the country do.
We created this guide to help you plan the best visit to this Costa Rican gem.
Cahuita National Park Background Info
The national park used to be private land until it was converted into a protected national park in 1978. In total, the park stretches 2,732 acres of land and 55,200 acres of marine area. The Cahuita National Park was established as a way of protecting the 600 acres of coral reefs that run along the tip of the park.
In other words, although the land portion of the park is amazing, we highly recommend you check out the surrounding waters on a snorkel tour as well. We will get into how you can set up a snorkel tour further down in this article.
The park is open daily from 6 am until 4 pm. However, most people do not know that it opens at 6 am. The majority of visitors arrive at 8 am or later.
The reason I’m saying this is because the animals tend to be most active early in the morning. So, it is not a bad idea to arrive early. The downside to arriving early is that most guides don’t show up until 8 am. If you would like to hire a guide (I’ll get into this later in this article) it is best to arrive at 8 am.
The Cahuita National Park is the only Costa Rican national park that charges by donation only. It is completely up to you how much you would like to give. This donation is collected at the ranger station located at the park entrance.
How to Get to Cahuita National Park
Cahuita National Park is located on the Caribbean coast of Costa Rica. It is about a four-hour drive from San José. There are three good options for getting here. We will go through each one.
Renting a car and driving to Cahuita yourself is a great option if you plan to explore other areas after. We like having a rental car for the flexibility it allows us in our travel plans.
The drive from the San Jose area is a bit stressful at first because you will have to drive through the outskirts of the city. We suggest avoiding this during rush hour because it can be a bit crazy.
Once through the city, you will continue your drive by going through Braulio Carrillo National Park. This part of the drive has a bit of a Jurassic Park feel with lush jungles and foggy skies. It is almost always drizzling with some rain here.
After driving through the national park you will continue on the main road until you get to the coast. Along the way, you will see plenty of banana and pineapple plantations. As you get closer to the coast, the traffic will pick up with large trucks. This is because Limon is the main export town for these fruits heading to the US and Europe.
Once you hit Limon you will turn right and head south down the coast until you get to Cahuita. This part of the drive is beautiful and calm.
Just be warned, there is a police checkpoint a few miles before you arrive in the village of Cahuita. They may ask for the passports of everyone in the car. It is good to have them easily accessible so you don’t have to dig through your bags.
This checkpoint is here to monitor who is coming and going from the country. The Panama border is not too far south of Cahuita.
Once you turn into the Cahuita town entrance just continue straight until you hit the main downtown area. The national park will be on your right.
There is a parking lot that charges a few dollars a day. This lot is guarded but please still don’t leave anything of value in your vehicle.
If you would like to drive, you can use our 10% discount with our favorite rental car company, Adobe. This discount also includes other perks like a free second driver, discounts GPS, and more.
Here is a map of the route to help you out. Just put in “Cahuita National Park” in any GPS unit and you should be fine.
If you don’t feel great about driving, but still want some comfort in your life, the best way to get to Cahuita National Park is by shuttle. Our go-to shuttle company for Cahuita is Caribe Shuttle.
By Public Bus
It is not the most comfortable, but there is a public bus that runs to and from San Jose and Cahuita multiple times a day. You will want to take the bus route that goes towards Puerto Viejo.
This bus leaves from the MEPE bus terminal in downtown San Jose and will drop you off at the Cahuita bus terminal. This terminal is located just outside of the downtown area. It will take you about seven minutes to walk to the park.
The Second National Park Entrance
I gave you directions to the main entrance of Cahuita National Park. However, there is a second entrance that is located between Cahuita and Puerto Viejo. This second entrance is called Puerto Vargas. We suggest that you start your hike at the main entrance because most wildlife is located in the first two-mile stretch of the park.
However, if you are feeling ambitious you can hike from the main entrance to Puerto Vargas and then take a taxi or public bus back to the main Cahuita entrance. Our last guide told us that the bus runs every 45 minutes and only costs about a dollar, but we have not tried it so I can’t confirm how accurate that really is.
Cahuita National Park Tours
Before you pay for your admission into the park, you will notice some guides standing at the entrance. They will likely ask you if you would like to take a tour.
I suggest deciding with your travel buddies ahead of time if you would like a guide and what you are willing to pay per person. That way you can easily say yes or no to the offer from the guides. In the past, we have paid about $20 a person for a guide. This price will go down if you have a bigger group.
We have hired a guide a few times and recommend it if it is your first time in the park. It can be really difficult to spot wildlife in the thick jungle along the hiking trail, but the guides seem to know exactly where to look.
The guides also carry big telescopic lenses which are great for viewing the animals up close even when they are far up in the trees. They are also typically super knowledgeable on the flora and fauna in the park and can give you very detailed descriptions.
Most guided tours will last about an hour. This is perfect because, as mentioned above, most wildlife is located within the first few miles. After an hour, the guide will leave and let you continue your walk on your own.
If you opt not to hire a guide, we suggest that you at least bring some binoculars with you. Thomas is the binocular lover over here and he recommends either these binoculars or these binoculars. The first set is great because you can easily fit them in your pocket or backpack, but the zoom is not as good. The second set is much larger but has a great zoom and an attachment for your phone so you can get a close up picture.
Note: You can also prebook a tour that includes transportation. These tour options are great because they often combine multiple activities into one full day of adventure!
Wildlife in the Cahuita National Park
There is an abundance of wildlife in the national park. On land, we’ve seen sloths, howler monkeys, pit vipers, colored crabs, lizards, creepy spiders, and more.
In the water, there are over 120 species of fish and apparently even some orcas occasionally.
The park protects nesting ground for sea turtles as well.
If you want to have some fun you can have a wildlife competition. This is something Thomas and I always do (because we are both competitive to the max). Whenever we spot a new animal that we hadn’t seen yet, the person who spotted it first gets a point. At the end of our walk, the loser has to buy lunch.
Thomas always wins….
The Cahuita National Park Hike
The hike is nice because it is relatively flat the entire way. As I previously mentioned, you could potentially hike from the main entrance all the way to the second entrance and then try to get a ride back. Otherwise, you will have to turn around at some point. There are no loop trails.
There are two river crossings that you will have to make. They are both about two miles into the walk. The water level really depends on the tides and the season, but we have never experienced it more than knee-high and usually, it is much lower.
Here is a faded Cahuita National Park map to give you a bit of perspective.
There are picnic tables for guests to use that run along the beach. You could bring a lunch and your bathing suit and spend the whole day here.
There is a basic restroom located just next to the main entrance of the park.
What to Wear
Depending on the time of year you are visiting you could either have hot hot weather or it could be really rainy. No matter when you visit, it has always been very warm for us.
I usually wear my bathing suit under sport shorts and a fast-drying t-shirt. On my feet, I always wear something like Keens. Keens are great because then you won’t have to take your shoes off for the river crossings.
During the rainy season, I also stick to this outfit. A little rain never hurt anyone, but when it is so warm out its never fun to wear a rain jacket that sticks to you.
What to Bring
Lots of water, binoculars, swimsuit (there is a bathroom with changing stations), towel, camera, strong sunscreen, bug spray, rain jacket, snacks.
Snorkeling at the Park
If you get the chance, a snorkeling tour in Cahuita National Park is always fun. You can see tons of fish, 35 species of coral, crustaceans, and mollusks along the reef. To set up a tour it is best to ask your hotel in Cahuita. They sometimes partner with local tour companies and can often get you the best deal.
Hopefully, this helped you plan the perfect national park visit. Let us know in the comment section below if you have any questions about visiting Cahuita National Park on the Southern Caribbean coast of Costa Rica. We are happy to help you out! Also, if you have visited the park and have some tips for your fellow travelers, we would love to hear about that as well.
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