CAHUITA NATIONAL PARK COSTA RICA – The Complete Guide
Exploring Cahuita National Park is one of the best things to do in Cahuita. Located along the southern Caribbean Coast on only a 20 minute drive from the laidback town Puerto Viejo, this lush nature park is perfect for outdoor people. Along the 8 km well maintained point to point trail, you can spot a variety of wildlife, relax on the stunning white sand beaches and snorkel to discover the wonderful coral reefs. In our opinion, Cahuita National Park is one of the best and most varied National Parks in Costa Rica that we’ve explored during our 3 months road trip in Costa Rica. Read in this complete guide everything you need to know about Cahuita National Park. What to expect, best time to visit, tips for visiting Cahuita National Park and much more!
About Cahuita National Park
Cahuita National Park is one of the smallest National Parks in Costa Rica protecting an area of 1067 hectare of rainforest, mangrove and coral reefs. It has an 8 km point to point trail leading visitors through the rainforest and along the stunning white sand beaches. Created in 1970, the park has the mission to protect endangered coral reefs and the forest behind the beach.
Wildlife to see in Cahuita National Park
The park offers a lot of bio-diversity and is home to numerous species of wildlife. The most common mammals are armadillos, raccoons, sloths, howler and capuchin monkeys. But there are also many species of reptiles and amphibians to see. Some examples are the blue jeans dart frogs, red-eyed-leaf frogs, green iguanas, whip-tailed lizards, green vine snakes and even boa constrictors! The most notable reptile to see in Cahuita National Park is the yellow eyelash pit viper. We were lucky to see and photograph that one. But also many birds inhabit the park. Some examples are the toucan, fiery-billed aracaris, oropendolas, parakeets, parrots, herons, egrets, and many more.
Where is Cahuita National Park located in Costa Rica
Cahuita National Park is located along the southern Caribbean Coast in Cahuita Town. If your accommodation is in the laidback town Puerto Viejo, it’s only a 20 minute drive with a car or motorbike to the Puerto Vargas entrance of the park. But there are two entrances to the park. More about that in the next paragraph.
How to get to Cahuita National Park
There are two entrances of the park. One at Kelly Creek Station in Cahuita Town, and the other at Puerto Vargas which is at the eastern side of the peninsula. The 8 kilometre trail connects the two rangers stations which is a fantastic way to explore the park and beautiful beaches. However, this means if you want to get back to the entrance where you vehicle is parked, you either have to hike the 8 kilometres back, or take a taxi to the entrance where you started.
The easiest way to get around in Costa Rica is with a rental car. So obviously driving yourself to the entrance of Cahuita National Park is easy and quick. From Puerto Viejo it’s only a 20 – 30 minute drive to the entrance. But you can also take a bus from either Puerto Viejo or San Jose to Cahuita. From Puerto Viejo take the bus to Limon and get off at Cahuita. The bus costs $1.50 USD and takes about 30 minutes. From San José, take the bus to Cahuita bus terminal that leaves from Terminal Atlantico on Ave 7/9, Calle 12 every day at 6AM, 10AM, 2PM and 4PM.
First picture is the entrance at Puerto Vargas. Second picture is the entrance from Cahuita town
Do you need a guide to visit Cahuita National Park?
It is possible to hire a guide that will help you discover the flora and fauna of the park. Usually there are guides waiting at the entrance of Cahuita Town (not Puerto Vargas) that can show you around. Expect to pay around $20 for a guided tour, but prices may vary per season and guide. The guides have binoculars which can make it a bit easier for your to see the wild animals from up close. They also know better where to look to find the animals in the trees and in between the foliage. But if you have a good eye yourself and you like to explore the park on your own pace and terms, the of course it’s no problem to go on your own!
Sometimes the animals are difficult to spot as they are fast and have camouflage colours
You can also book a snorkel tour to see the protected reefs from Cahuita National Park up close. However, it’s important to know that it’s not possible to bring your own gear and snorkel on your own. Because the coral reefs are protected, you have to book a tour. These snorkel tours will take you on a boat to Punta Cahuita which is the best place for snorkeling in Cahuita. While snorkeling, you can see 240 different marine species including wildlife such as tropical fish, mollusks, nurse sharks and lobsters.
Best time to visit Cahuita National Park
If you don’t want to melt in the heat, then visiting Cahuita National Park in the early morning is the best time. It’s not a super touristic park, so you won’t see that many other people. Also, if you want to have a chance of spotting as much wildlife as possible, then the morning is the best time. The animals are likely to go to sleep during the day and are less active because of the heat. Also, to enjoy the beach the morning is the best time because it can get super humid during the day.
Another thing to keep in mind is to avoid visiting Cahuita National Park after heavy rain. Because heavy rain will hugely impact how much of the park you can discover. The trail starting from Kelly Creek Station can overflow easily when Rio Suarez breaks at the seams. However, if you’re short in time and still want to visit Cahuita National Park, then you’ll have more chance of nice experience starting from Puerto Vargas because it’s an elevated wooden boardwalk.
Cahuita National Park entrance fee & opening times
The entrance fee for Cahuita National Park is $5 USD (3000 colones) for foreigners and 1000 colones for locals at both entrances. The opening time for the park is from 8 AM to 4 PM. However, the rangers will walk around between Punta Vargas and Punta Cahuita around 2 PM to ask you to make your way back to one of the entrances.
What to expect at Cahuita National Park
Whether you choose to start at the Puerto Vargas entrance or Cahuita Town entrance, you will walk the first kilometres through the rainforest. However, the side of Puerto Vargas has way more dense foliage and has a wooden boardwalk in comparison to the sandy path at the Kelly Creek Station side. Therefore is this part even a wheelchair friendly trail!
There are maps of Cahuita National Park at the entrance office, but it’s a straightforward path. You can’t get lost as the trail is well maintained and signposted. Remember to only walk on the designated trails and follow the park directions to minimise your impact on the ecosystem. There is a restroom once you get to the entrance of Puerto Vargas beach coming from the Puerto Vargas entrance. However, bring your own toilet paper because that’s most likely not available.
Our experience at Cahuita National Park
We visited the Cahuita National Park two times on different days. The reason was because we had the time cause we stayed for two weeks in Puerto Viejo. But also because we didn’t had enough time the first time to explore the whole park. So once we started the hike from Puerto Vargas, and the other time from Cahuita Town. My personal favourite was to start the hike from Puerto Vargas as it felt more like a rainforest trail. From Puerto Vargas you hike the first 2 kilometres through the jungle on a wooden boardwalk, but from Cahuita Town you hike on a sandy path that is parallel to Playa Bianca.
The first picture if from the Puerto Vargas trail and the second is the trail close to Cahuita town
It’s difficult to say on which part you’ll have the most chance of spotting animals. That logically differs per day. For example, we saw the yellow eyelash pit viper close to Rio Suarez and howler monkeys somewhere in between Puerto Vargas beach and the entrance at Puerto Vargas. And the sloth we saw even before we entered the park from Kelly Creek station. If you wonder, we didn’t had a guide but really took our time to walk and spot animals. Only if you are regularly looking in the trees, you will be able to spot wildlife yourself.
The beaches in Cahuita National Park are beautiful. Very raw and with lots of wildlife around. There is enough natural shade around so the beach is a perfect place for a break. You can relax for some time on the beach and swim in the crystal clear turquoise ocean water. But keep an eye on your stuff! There are thiefs around… No not people, but sometimes racoons will try to steal unattended bags. Especially when there’s food in it!
Tips for visiting Cahuita National Park
Before setting off to exploring Cahuita National Park, here some tips to make your visit smooth.
Wear shoes. Trainers or comfortable sandals are advisable. However, I wouldn’t recommend flip-flops or open shoes shoes such as sandals.
Bring a swimsuit and towel. If you’re planning on swimming or sunbathing at one of the beaches which is highly recommended!
Bring enough water, at least 1,5 – 2 litres per person.
Have mosquito repellent with you. Once you set foot in the rainforest, the mosquitoes will start attacking you. And the more you sweat throughout the trail, the more they will be attracted to you!
Bring your own toilet paper because the toilet in the park most likely doesn’t has toilet paper.
Make sure to have enough cash with you to pay the entrance fee – donation. Also if you decide on having a guide, you also have to pay him cash.
Bring some snacks for along the trail such as dried fruits, nuts etc. Of course remember to not litter in nature!
Bring your camera and if possible, several focal lengths so you can capture the monkeys and other wildlife from up close
Which park is better, Manuel Antonio vs Cahuita National Park
It would be a hard statement to say which one is better, because in the end it is also a personal opinion. Both National Parks have beautiful beaches and are very well maintained and signposted. However, I will try to give some examples of our experiences in both parks and then you can make a decision for yourself.
You will most likely come for wildlife, right? So maybe your question is ‘in which National Park in Costa Rica can I see the most wildlife’? Well, every National Park in Costa Rica has its own specialty in wildlife that you can spot. For example, for big cats you will have to go to Corcovado National Park. To see turtles (and if you’re lucky also big cats), go to Tortuguero NP. But for the smaller mammals either Cahuita NP and Manuel Antonio are great destinations. However, Cahuita offers a more tranquil experience because the park is way less touristic than Manuel Antonio.
You can see the same kind of animals in both parks, but for an overall more laidback experience, Cahuita National Park is better. No matter how early you go to Manuel Antonio (we arrived at the entrance there when they opened), there will be other visitors. But in Cahuita National Park we had plenty of moments that we were completely alone. And those were the moments we saw the most animals. But
More Costa Rica travel tips
I hope you enjoyed this complete guide about the beautiful Cahuita National Park. Enjoy exploring!
For more travel tips about Costa Rica, head over to our other complete guides about Costa Rica.