8 Best National Parks in Central America to Visit (With Activities)

Visiting national parks in Central America is a great way to experience the beauty and diversity of this region, as well as to learn about its history and culture. You can enjoy a wide range of activities and attractions in these parks, you can also support the conservation and development efforts of the local communities.

Central America is home to some of the most stunning and diverse national parks in the world. From ancient Maya ruins to active volcanoes, from tropical rainforests to coral reefs, from exotic wildlife to indigenous communities, there is something for everyone in these national parks.

el mirador guatemala a national park in central america
National Parks in Central America are wide and different from each other, some are suitable for exploring ancient ruins, others for hiking, and others for beaches or rafting.

How Many National Parks are in Central America?

Central America is a region rich in natural and cultural diversity, with more than 300 national parks covering about 8% of its land area.

These national parks showcase the stunning landscapes and wildlife of Central America, from tropical rainforests and coral reefs to volcanoes and archaeological sites.

They are also home to some of the most iconic and endangered animals in the world, such as jaguars, tapirs, macaws, sea turtles, and quetzals.

Here are some of the best national parks in Central America:

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Tikal National Park, Guatemala

Tikal National Park is one of the most famous and impressive national parks in Central America. It is located in the northern part of Guatemala, in the Petén region, and covers an area of 575 square kilometers.

The park was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1979, as it preserves the remains of one of the largest and most influential Maya cities in history.

It contains more than 3,000 structures, including temples, palaces, plazas, pyramids, and stelae, that showcase the artistic and architectural achievements of the Maya civilization.

Not only that, Tikal besides being an archeological site, the park is also a biodiversity hotspot, as it hosts a variety of flora and fauna, from jaguars, and monkeys, to toucans, and macaws.

Activities you can do in Tikal National Park

  • Exploring the ancient Maya ruins: The main attraction of the park is the archaeological site of Tikal, where visitors can admire the majestic and mysterious monuments that the Maya built and decorated
  • Hiking: The park offers several trails that allow visitors to explore the natural beauty and structures.
  • Birdwatching: The park is a paradise for bird lovers, it hosts more than 400 species of birds, many of them endemic or endangered.
  • Camping: The park offers the opportunity to spend the night in the jungle, surrounded by the sounds and sights of nature.
kid wildlife tikal temple guatemala
Tikal is one of the most popular national parks in Central America due to the huge amount of nature and wildlife as well as the history and culture you can find there..

Volcán Masaya National Park, Nicaragua

Volcán Masaya National Park is one of the most unique and spectacular national parks in Central America. It is located in the western part of Nicaragua, near the capital city of Managua, and covers an area of 54 square kilometers.

The park was established in 1979, as the first national park in the country, and protects the Masaya Volcano Complex, a group of two volcanoes and several craters.

It’s also a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve, as it harbors a rich diversity of flora and fauna, as well as cultural and historical values.

The park is famous for being one of the few places in the world where visitors can see an active lava lake, which is located in the Santiago Crater, the most active and accessible crater in the complex.

Activities to do in Volcán Masaya National Park

  • Viewing the active volcano: The main attraction of the park is the Santiago Crater, where visitors can witness the amazing sight of the glowing lava lake, which emits smoke, gas, and ash.
  • Hiking: The park has several trails that let you check out all the craters, volcanoes, and wildlife in the area.
  • Horseback riding: It also offers the opportunity to enjoy the scenery and the adventure of the park on horseback. You can rent horses and guides at the park entrance, and ride along the trails or routes.
  • Biking: The park has several roads and trails that are suitable for biking, and offer different views and challenges.
masaya volcano crater
While volcanoes in Central America are abundant you can still find several that are not national parks.

Manuel Antonio National Park, Costa Rica

Manuel Antonio National Park is one of the most popular and beautiful national parks in Central America. It is located on the central Pacific coast of Costa Rica, near the town of Quepos, and covers an area of 16 square kilometers.

It’s one of the most complete national parks around, where you can find anything from hot springs to waterfalls, and a lot more. The park is composed of four beaches, a coral reef, a mangrove forest, and a tropical rainforest.

The park is also a cultural and historical site, as it contains traces of the pre-Columbian and colonial periods of Costa Rica.

Activities to do in Manuel Antonio National Park

  • Swimming: The park has four beautiful beaches, named Manuel Antonio, Tesoro, Espadilla Sur, and Playita, where you can enjoy the warm and clear waters of the Pacific Ocean.
  • Surfing: The park is also a great destination for surfers, as it offers some of the best waves in the country. The best beach for surfing is Playa Manuel Antonio and Playita.
  • Zip-lining: The park also offers the opportunity to experience the thrill and the beauty of the park from above, by zip-lining through the canopy of the forest.
  • Rafting: Another way to have fun and adventure in the park is by rafting on the Naranjo or Savegre rivers, which are located near the park.

Río Plátano Biosphere Reserve, Honduras

Río Plátano Biosphere Reserve is one of the most remote and wild national parks in Central America. It is located in the eastern part of Honduras, in the Mosquitia region, and covers an area of 5,250 square kilometers.

The park was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1982, it represents one of the last remaining tropical rainforests in Central America. The park is home to thousands of species of plants and animals, many of them endangered.

It is also a cultural and historical site, as it contains the ancestral lands and traditions of several indigenous groups, like the Pech, as well as the legendary lost city of the Monkey God, which was recently discovered by archaeologists.

Activities to do in Río Plátano Biosphere Reserve

  • Canoeing: The park is named after the Río Plátano, or the Banana River, which is the main artery of the park and the best way to explore it. You can join a canoeing tour, which involves paddling along the river and its tributaries, and admiring the scenery and the wildlife of the park.
  • Trekking: The park also offers several trails that allow visitors to discover the hidden gems and secrets of the park. The trails vary in length and difficulty, and some of them require a guide.
  • Visiting indigenous communities: The park is also a place to learn about the culture and the history of the indigenous groups, you can visit some of the villages and settlements of the Pech, or other communities, and interact with the locals, who are friendly and hospitable.
  • Learning about biodiversity: It is also a place to appreciate and understand the richness and importance of the biodiversity of the park, which is one of the most diverse and threatened in the world. You can join a guided tour, which involves observing and identifying the different species of plants and animals that the park hosts.

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Corcovado National Park, Costa Rica

Corcovado National Park is one of the most biodiverse places on Earth and one of the last remaining tropical lowland rainforests in the world.

It covers an area of about 424 square kilometers and hosts more than 500 species of trees, hundreds of species of mammals, birds, reptiles, amphibians, and several species of insects.

The park is also one of the last places where you can see the endangered Baird’s tapir, the largest land mammal in Central America.

Corcovado is divided into six sectors: Sirena, El Tigre, San Pedrillo, La Leona, Los Planes and Los Patos. Each sector has its attractions and challenges and requires a different level of difficulty and preparation.

Activities to do in Corcovado National Park

  • Hiking: Corcovado offers several trails but one of the most popular and the one with the best sunsets is the San Pedrillo, another great hike is El Tigre Trail. You can also visit the Sirena Ranger Station, where you can learn about the history and the ecology of the park.
  • Camping: While camping is not completely allowed in the park, you can find several accommodations around that offer this experience, and glamping too.
  • Swimming: In the park, you’ll find several beaches, but the main one is Corcovado Beach, which is a remote beach with clean air and almost no tourists.
  • Wildlife Watching: The amount of wildlife and flora in the park is amazing, one of the best things to do here is just enjoy the tours and check out the animals, plants, and trees.
beach in corcovado national park costa rica
Costa Rica is one of the best places to visit for ecotourism, and Corcovado and Manuel Antonio are good examples of some of the best national parks in Central America.

Coiba National Park, Panama

Coiba National Park is a marine paradise and a UNESCO World Heritage Site, located in the Gulf of Chiriquí, off the Pacific coast of Panama.

The park consists of Coiba Island, the largest island in Central America, and 38 smaller islands and islets. It covers an area of about 2700 square kilometers and protects one of the largest coral reefs in the Eastern Pacific, as well as mangroves, seagrass beds, and coastal forests.

It is also a hotspot for marine life, with an incredible amount of species of fish, sharks, whales, dolphins, and different species of sea turtles.

Activities to do in Coiba National Park

  • Diving and Snorkeling: Coiba National Park is a dream destination for snorkelers and divers, it offers some of the best underwater views in Central America. Fisherman’s dream in Brincanco Island is just one of the many great diving spots.
  • Hiking: You can also enjoy hiking, birdwatching, and wildlife viewing on the islands, where you can see monkeys, agoutis, coatis, iguanas, and scarlet macaws. Hot Springs Trail and Gambute Peak Trail are the best hiking spots.
  • Whale and Dolphin Watching: The park is also home to many of the best spots to watch whales with a higher probability, you can find several different charters and tours that will take.
  • Finishing: The park also offers great opportunities to go deep sea fishing or sport fishing. There are several tours and charters available.
beach and boats in coiba national park panama

Cockscomb Basin Wildlife Sanctuary, Belize

Belize is a country that is famous for its natural and cultural diversity, and one of the places where you can experience both is Cockscomb Basin Wildlife Sanctuary. This wildlife sanctuary is located in the Stann Creek District, in the south of the country, and covers an area of 400 square kilometers.

It is the world’s first jaguar preserve and is home to thousands of jaguars, as well as other animals like pumas, ocelots, tapirs, deer, monkeys, and birds.

Cockscomb Basin Wildlife Sanctuary is a place of fun and adventure, as it offers a variety of activities and attractions for travelers.

Activities to do in Cockscomb Basin Wildlife Sanctuary

  • Hiking: You can hike through the trails and observe the wildlife and the flora, the park offers several trails and waterfalls for you, as well as camping sites and cabins.
  • Swimming: You can swim in the waterfalls and pools and cool off from the heat, not only that, you can also enjoy tubing, and kayaking on the South Stann Creek River.
  • Rafting: You can join a rafting tour, which involves navigating the rapids and the currents of the rivers while enjoying the scenic views of the valley and the forest.
  • Learn about the local culture: The park is also home to several different communities, you can visit the Maya Center Village, and learn about the culture and crafts of the Maya people.
waterfall and river in Cockscomb Basin Wildlife Sanctuary Belize
Waterfalls and freshwater ponds where you can swim are only one of the many attractions you can find in national parks.

Montecristo Cloud Forest National Park, El Salvador

Montecristo National Park in El Salvador is one of those places that most travelers miss out on, but it’s worth a visit!

This national park is located in the Trifinio region, to the northwest side of the country, and covers an area of 19 square kilometers. It is part of a tri-national biosphere reserve that also includes Guatemala and Honduras, and is a unique ecosystem that hosts a cloud forest, a pine-oak forest, and a grassland.

Montecristo National Park is a place of tranquility and relaxation, as it offers a peaceful and serene environment for travelers, and a great place for wildlife watchers as it hosts several different species of animals, birds, and insects.

Some of the wildlife that you can see in Montecristo include pumas, ocelots, monkeys, agoutis, quetzals, hummingbirds, and orchids.

Activities to do in Montecristo National Park

  • Hiking: You can walk through the trails and admire the views and the vegetation, Montecristo Cloud Forest National Park offers several trails and viewpoints, as well as camping sites and cabins.
  • Visit the Trifinio: You can also visit the Montecristo Monument, a stone marker that indicates the border between the three countries.
  • Wildlife Watching: You can also spot some of the rare and endangered animals that live here, such as the quetzal, the spider monkey, the puma, and the agouti.
  • Disconnect: Montecristo National Park is a place where you can escape the hustle and bustle of the city and enjoy the calm and quiet of nature. It is a place where you can recharge your batteries and your spirit.
internal woods in montecristo national park

Tips for Visiting National Parks in Central America

Here are some tips and recommendations for visiting national parks in Central America:

Plan and do your research

Check the official websites and social media of the national parks that you want to visit, and look for updated information on their opening hours, entrance fees, regulations, facilities, and activities.

You can also contact the park authorities or local tour operators for more details and guidance.

Pack smart and be prepared

Bring the necessary equipment and clothing for your trip, such as hiking shoes, a backpack, a water bottle, sunscreen, a hat, sunglasses, insect repellent, a raincoat, a flashlight, and a camera.

You should also bring some snacks, drinks, cash, and identification documents. Don’t forget to leave no trace and dispose of your waste properly.

Respect the wildlife and the environment

Keep a safe distance from the animals and plants, and do not feed, touch, or disturb them. Follow the designated trails and paths, and do not venture into restricted or dangerous areas.

Do not collect or damage any natural or cultural resources, such as flowers, rocks, or artifacts. Be quiet and courteous, and avoid making loud noises or playing music.

woman and kids at the base of a gigant tree in tikal national park
Traveling and exploring some of the best national parks Central America has to offer is one of the most rewarding things you’ll ever do.

Support the local communities and economy

Whenever possible, hire local guides, drivers, and porters, and tip them generously. Buy local products and services, such as handicrafts, food, and accommodation.

Learn about the history and culture of the local people, and respect their customs and traditions. You can also donate or volunteer for the conservation and development projects of the national parks or the nearby villages.

Why Are National Parks Important?

National parks are protected areas of natural beauty and biodiversity that offer a range of benefits for both wildlife and humans.

They conserve the ecosystems and habitats of endangered species, preserve the cultural and historical heritage of indigenous communities, and provide opportunities for recreation, education, and research.

National parks are also important sources of income and employment for local people, as they attract millions of tourists every year.

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Last Updated on February 23, 2024

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