Most visitors only see the dense foliage of Braulio Carrillo National Park from the window of a tour bus that zips by. Instead, I chose to hire a private guide and explore on foot. This is the closest national park to San Jose, Costa Rica's capital. But Braulio Carrillo has few maintained trails and those that are navigable are steep, often muddy, and require a guide who'll lead you to refreshing streams and tumbling waterfalls and, most importantly, keep you at a distance from one of the most venomous snakes in the world, the fer-de-lance. (Luckily, I didn't see the latter.) But this tropical expanse is also a birdwatchers paradise, considering over 500 bird species can be found here, including the magnificent quetzal that I did spot.
You certainly can't hike down the active Poas Volcano crater filled with teal-hued waters. But on the periphery trails wind through an otherworldly landscape of miniature bonsai-type trees and sizzling steam vents. In this crater-hugging cloud forest, one path wanders through a forest of twisted dwarf trees and leads to Laguna Botos, a lake formed from an extinct volcano where you may even see the fiery-throated hummingbird.
Puffy white masses meet the trees and the world becomes enveloped in mist. Welcome to the world of Costa Rica's cloud forests, include the most notable: the Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve. Trails snake through a wilderness dominated by bromeliads, orchids and other epiphytes, 200 types of ferns and hundreds of butterfly species. Birdwatchers who get up very early can spy the resplendent quetzal, a bird that's noted for its iridescent green and ruby red coloration. Dozens of hummingbird species are also a major draw.
A visit to Manuel Antonio National Park offers a cross-training adventure, where you could choose a different activity every day for a week. Among the options:
• horseback ride through the rainforest-coated interior.
• white water raft on the Sevengre River with its Class II and III rapids
• scuba dive where you're likely to spot giant manta rays and white tip reef sharks.
• ocean kayak along the coastline rimmed with white sand beaches or through the nearby mangrove forests around Damas Island where sloths, howler monkeys and anteaters can be seen