Local community involvement in natural resource management can be critical to conservation success. Community participation in conservation efforts varies widely, reflecting a continuum from protectionist conservation mechanisms to programmes driven by local communities. Conservation is not one event, but an iterative process with many steps (planning, implementation, monitoring) each with an opportunity for different levels of participation. Barriers and triggers to more community involvement in management of the Cordillera Azul National Park (Peru) were examined. Eleven conservation officials and 73 community members provided information on levels of participation achieved at three management stages: Park establishment, management plan development, and management implementation. Park establishment was not a participatory process, owing to the expediency of the conservation agenda and a narrow window of political opportunity. Community involvement increased during the management plan development and its implementation, with communities eager to participate and a public-private partnership introducing new participatory management tools. However, a perceived lack of capacity in terms of community skills, funding availability, time and sufficient conservation personnel, and the definitions of participation used by different stakeholders, limited community involvement in decision-making processes. If conservation is to achieve more effective community involvement, long-term adaptive co-management approaches are needed that clearly define local participation, build capacity of all stakeholders and monitor levels of participation across all stages of project management.