Corcovado National Park is the crown jewel of Costa Rica’s extensive national park system. If you’re committed to an adventurous vacation in Costa Rica, it’s probably on your short list. Sure, you can visit Manuel Antonio National Park…but if you’re the type of person who prefers more animals and fewer people, you need to go farther south.
National Geographic has called Corcovado “the most biologically intense place on earth.” There is no question that budding naturalists should go there if at all possible, bearing in mind that it is hot, humid, requires a lot of hiking, and there will be bugs. The real question is: should you bring along the whole family? If you have kids that want to see the most animals possible while on vacation in Costa Rica, then you should consider putting the Osa Peninsula on your itinerary.
Corcovado National Park is made up of 164 square miles of virgin forest, taking up about a third of the Osa Peninsula in southwest Costa Rica. It is one of the most biodiverse places on the planet, and within its dense forests resides an astounding variety of wildlife, including the endangered Baird’s tapir, jaguar, all four species of monkeys found in Costa Rica, sloths, giant anteaters, poison dart frogs, and scarlet macaws. Its rivers and lagoons are home to crocodiles and caimans and bull sharks. And then there are the snakes…
There are 13 major ecosystems within the park. Impossibly tall trees block out the powerful sun, and enormous leaves provide protection for the wildlife. All of this comes at a cost, of course — there is some discomfort involved in visiting a place so wild. In fact, due to the inherent dangers of the wilderness, you must have a licensed guide with you in order to enter Corcovado National Park. There are no paved roads in paradise.
Should you take kids to Corcovado National Park?
Let’s be honest. I wouldn’t know, because I didn’t. But I fully intended to embark on this grand adventure…so let me explain.
I visited Corcovado with my husband on our honeymoon 11 years ago. At that time, we hiked along the beach in the blistering sun from Carate to the Los Patos ranger station, where we delved into the dark (and much cooler) forest. As I recall, the highlight of that trip was getting up close and personal with a giant anteater.
This year, I decided we needed to go back — and take our kids. Our eldest flatly refused to go with us because the trip was going to involve both a boat and hiking (he is vehemently opposed to both of those things right now). We brought along grandma to babysit him so we could take the younger two on the adventure of a lifetime.
Our 3-year-old and 6-year-old sons are, unfortunately, in that in-between stage where they are too big and heavy to carry but too short to hike very far. I decided the only hope was to take the boat approach to the Sirena station, do a quick half-day hike around, and leave. We probably wouldn’t see a jaguar, but we would at least get a photo-op inside the park.
I prepared well for this. I brought zip-off hiking pants for the kids, because there are ticks and lots of other biting bugs in the park that love ankles. Our friend who works in Corcovado warned us to pack lots of insect repellent, so I stocked up.
And then our quest to find a tour guide fell through, in a series of unfortunate events (so to speak). The friend trying to book it for us told us first that the guides really didn’t want to take children. The price is lower for kids, plus let’s be honest — kids can be a pain in the ass. On top of that, there had been a romantic breakup in the office and for many days nobody answered the phone. By the time we got in touch with them, it was almost time for us to leave the Osa Peninsula. And bam, there went our tour.
Why you don’t need to take your kids to Corcovado National Park, but you SHOULD take them to the Osa Peninsula
Botanists love Corcovado. Birders love Corcovado. But for kids, the main draw of Corcovado will be the animals.
However, it turns out that the animals that live in Corcovado don’t much care for the boundaries of the park. They move freely around the Osa Peninsula, crossing the road to Matapalo, flying through almond trees around Puerto Jimenez, swinging through the branches in the front yard of our rental house.
The dense jungle around Carate is home to several ecolodges, and staying at one of these hotels virtually guarantees wildlife sightings. At night around Matapalo and Carate, the symphony of insects is so loud you almost need earphones. Red brocket deer are considered quite rare, and yet we saw two crossing the road while driving at dusk in this area.
Good local guides can help you spot animals while you’re doing all sorts of activities outside the national park, like ziplining over primary forest or snorkeling by a beach. I can’t promise you will see all the animals we did on your next trip to Costa Rica (seeing all four species of monkeys in one trip is a rarity), but the more you get out on different tours and the more time you spend in forests, the more animals you are likely to see. (I’d also never recommend driving after dark…but we saw both the coati and the red-tail deer crossing the road to Carate at dusk, so take that for what you will.)
Here’s a list of all the animals we saw in the wild in our two weeks in Costa Rica:
This list is not exhaustive. If you think I’m looking up every species of ant that bit my feet…then you don’t know me very well.
We saw most of these on the Osa Peninsula, but we had howler monkeys and agoutis in the front yard of our house rental up north on the Nicoya Peninsula.
- Spider monkeys (rare, spotted at a distance in the forest while ziplining on the Osa Peninsula)
- Howler monkeys (woke us up every morning, as they do)
- White-faced capuchins (friendly frequent visitors to our house)
- Squirrel monkeys (moved through the trees in our yard several days)
- Scarlet macaws (as common as pigeons around Puerto Jimenez)
- Spotted neotropical dolphins
- Tree frogs
- Anole lizard
- Lizards galore
- Ants galore
- Army ants (YIKES)
- Sloth (crossing the road!)
- Crabs, crabs, and more crabs
- Hermit crabs
- Moray eel
- Parrot fish…and a zillion other fish
- Red brocket deer
In Case You Want to Anyway…Here’s the Easiest Way to Visit Corcovado National Park with Kids
If you don’t have weeks to hang around the Osa Peninsula, going into Corcovado National Park on a guided tour is still the most reliable way to see the flora and fauna of Costa Rica. If you are an adventurous, outdoorsy, not-afraid-of-a-few-bug-bites type of family, I would never deter you from it. Just make sure you are well prepared to protect your kids from insects, and that you are accustomed to hiking with them on difficult trails.
Unless, of course, you plan to just stand by the sign for a photo-op, like we did. No shame there!
The easiest way to step foot in to the park would be in the El Tigre sector at Los Brazos, but the full loop hike there is rumored to be too difficult with small children. The guides at Los Brazos told us stories about families turning back due to the steep incline at the beginning of the trail, and advised us against trying it with kids under age eight. I suspect it would be doable if you were carrying your children in backpacks.
The Los Planes sector, which is close to Drake Bay, is another relatively new entrance in to the park. It is a flat, short trail. However, this new entrance is dependent on walking through a buffer zone of privately owned land (this is true in Los Brazos as well), and when we visited in 2019 we were told they were having some issues with the local land owners and the entrance was technically closed. The park ranger there that day was super nice (and seemed super bored) and did allow us to go take a photo by the entrance sign, however. If you are looking for an easy hike in with kids, check on the current status of this entrance.
You should know that the trails at El Tigre and Los Planes extend only a short distance in to the park and do not connect with the trails in the heart of the park, where most of the animals are…but you probably aren’t hiking that far with kids anyway.
A half-day boat tour to Sirena ranger station, which is a common tour from Drake Bay, would be reasonable for adventurous families. This was what we PLANNED to do this year. But as we know…flexibility is everything in family travel.
I wouldn’t recommend trying any of the other entrances with kids. They require long hikes before you even reach the ranger stations where the park boundaries begin.
If you plan to visit Corcovado National Park or the surrounding areas, make sure to check out our guide to lodging on the Osa Peninsula.
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Had you visited Corcovado National Park with kids? Are you considering it? I’d love to hear from you! I’ve heard rumors that people have hiked into this park with children but would love to hear first-hand stories.