Discover Amazing Coral Reefs At This Popular Central America National Park

Costa Rica is a world of its own. Though it only takes up .03% of the earth's surface area, it contains nearly 6% of the planet's biodiversity. From the jungle canopies to the coral reefs, half a million plant and animal species call this land home. Cahuita National Park in the Limon province demonstrates this eco-abundance in action. Sitting four hours southeast of the capital San Jose, visitors will find a 2,600-acre jungle and 55,000-acre marine reserve teeming with life.

Like many ecological sites in Costa Rica, this park is protected and highly regulated. Part of what makes it so special is that it's a community effort. The park rangers work in tandem with community lifeguards to manage tourists and keep the park looking pristine. The 4.8 rating from 8,000 Google reviews speaks for itself. In this sunny slice of paradise, it's not hard to see how Costa Rica — which means "rich coast" in Spanish — got its name. Cahuita is one snorkeling destination you don't want to miss.

How to snorkel in the coral reef

Cahuita's marine reserve is located on the Caribbean side of the country, hovering just above Panama. It has 35 types of coral and more than 100 species of fish, like the French angelfish, rock beauty, and blue parrotfish, to name a few. You may even catch a glimpse of a stingray, sea turtle, lobster, octopus, sea urchin, or nurse shark. While there's no guarantees that you'll see them all, chances are high that you'll spot a variety of wildlife weaving in and out of the reefs. Despite plenty of tourists flocking to the area and a 7.7 earthquake in 1991 that damaged the seabed, the park continues to thrive as the most developed Caribbean ecosystem in Costa Rica, says the park website.

Snorkeling in Cahuita is a highly regulated activity. Venturing out on your own is not allowed, but there are several tour operators with trained guides who are more than happy to take you offshore and share the best snorkeling sites. For example, Cahuita Experience offers morning tours for $40 per person, including a two-hour excursion, equipment, and sightseeing at two snorkeling locations. If you're looking for a snorkel-and-hike combo, Willie's Tours has a bundle for $50 per person which includes a four and a half hour tour, equipment, and snacks. Eco Tours Costa Rica is another great option for $78 per person.

What to know before you go

While Cahuita's coral reefs are spectacular on their own, be sure to save time in your itinerary to enjoy the rest of the park on land. Visitors are permitted to hike around in the jungle without guides, though do keep in mind that the trained experts will know the best spots to view all the wildlife. With so many species nearby, you may get the chance to spot a sloth, howler monkey, white-faced monkey, raccoon, coati (cousin to the raccoon), trogon (red-chested bird), toucan, or iguana, among dozens of other species.

Cahuita National Park is open every day from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. on both sides of the park, Playa Blanca and Puerto Vargas. There is parking in the Puerto Vargas section, along with toilets, showers, changing rooms, information services, local guides, lifeguards, picnic areas, and drinking water. The entrance fee is $6 for adults and $1 for children. If you enter from the Playa Blanca side, it's a voluntary donation. With so much to see and do, Cahuita is every bit of pura vida — "pure life" — that Costa Rica is known for.