Caño Negro National Wildlife Refuge:This nearly 10,000 hectare refuge is important as a wintering site for migrant waterfowl, as well as a year-round habitat for resident wetland species. From October to April, when the migrant birds are at the refuge, the variety of species and sheer quantity of individuals creates a spectacle that even non-birdwatchers will marvel at. Among the many birds usually present then are: Wood Stork, White Ibis, Glossy Ibis, Black-necked Stilt, Anhinga, Black-bellied Whistling-Duck, Snail Kite, American Widgeon, Northern Shoveler, and Blue-winged Teal. One species that birdwatchers hope to see here is the Nicaraguan Grackle, since in Costa Rica it is found only in marshy areas just south of Lake Nicaragua.
During the winter residents' visit, the habitat at Caño Negro undergoes a dramatic seasonal change. With the water accumulated in the rainy season, a shallow lake of some 800 ha. is formed. As the dry season progresses from December to March, the lake dries up. By April, all that is left is the main channel of the Río Frio (Cold River).
Getting there: Most of the increasing number of visitors to the area come from hotels in the San Carlos region and drive to the town of Los Chiles, near the Nicaraguan border. Here a number of boats are kept at the town dock that can be hired for the approximately 15-kilometer trip upriver to Playuelas on the northern edge of the refuge. However, in March 1998, a bridge was completed across the Río Frio making it possible to drive to the actual village of Caño Negro. The turn off to the bridge is several kilometers before Los Chiles (at Jobo?).
An alternative approach is to drive to Upala (especially for those coming from Guanacaste) and continue east on a gravel road for 36 km. until reaching the village of Caño Negro. Here dugout canoes can be hired for exploration of the marsh area. (Given the nature of the principal kind of habitat protected at Caño Negro, there are at present no hiking trails.)
Buses from San José service both the towns of Upala and Los Chiles. There is a bus that runs from Upala to Caño Negro.
Fishing: The Río Frio is just now becoming discovered by vacationing fishermen, and although it doesn't yet have much infrastructure available, it has good fishing for snook, guapote, alligator gar, drum, and huge tarpon (up to 90 kg., by some sight estimates). The legal fishing season for this area is from September 1 to March 31.
Climate: Daytime temperatures are quite warm and it is usually humid. Although Caño Negro is on the Atlantic side of Costa Rica, it is far enough inland in the northern plains to have a weather pattern with a short but distinct dry season from January to April.
Arenal National Park:Undisputedly one of Costa Rica's foremost tourist attractions, the highly eruptive Arenal Volcano is the centerpiece of this new national park declared in October of 1994. In addition to including in the national park system what is currently one of the world's most active volcanoes, the area now under park service protection encompasses the watersheds of several rivers and streams that flow into Lake Arenal, the country's most important source of hydroelectric power.
The imposing Arenal Volcano rises in nearly perfect conical form out of the western end of the San Carlos plains. Its periodic eruptions of ash and molten rock, accompanied by thundering sonic blasts, are an unforgettable experience anytime, but become extremely spectacular after dark. When the light of day has dimmed, the glowing red igneous rocks ejected with each eruption trace fiery arches in the night sky before crashing down on the steep slopes and finally extinguishing themselves.
Columns of lava also push their way down the sides of the volcano and pieces of the advancing sections continually break off under the weight of new flows bearing down from above. At night, these falling pieces are visible as chunks of rolling red rocks, adding to the natural fireworks display between the frequent eruptions.
From the 600-meter elevation where visitors are allowed to approach atop a lava flow from the 1968 eruption, Arenal rises another 1000 meters to its 1,633-meter summit, and although the peak is still 3 kilometers away, it is definitely "in your face!"
There is little vegetation or wildlife to be seen in the immediate area of the main viewing site since the effects of the major devastating eruption of 1968 are only slowly being overcome. Nevertheless, this area offers a unique opportunity to witness the early stages of lava flow colonization by a handful of plant species adapted to the task. Farther away there are other areas which escaped direct damage and provide better wildlife viewing in the forested sections, however, as yet the park service does not maintain any well-marked trails in these areas, which include the dormant Volcano Chato to the southeast of Arenal.
Getting there: A bit of a long way from anywhere, Arenal National Park is most quickly reached from San José by taking the PanAmerican Highway west to the town of San Ramón and the road north through Angeles, La Tigra, and Chachagua to La Fortuna. Driving west out of La Fortuna, the road takes you 180 degrees around the volcano to the park ranger station.
There is public bus service from both San José and Ciudad Quesada to La Fortuna.
An alternative, and equally scenic, route for those coming from Guanacaste is to take the PanAmerican Highway to the town of Cañas and then drive up into the hills to the town of Tilarán and follow Lake Arenal around its northern shore to the base of the volcano.
Fishing: seeLake Arenal.
Climate: Being under the influence of Caribbean slope weather patterns, Arenal Volcano receives anywhere from 3.5 to 5 meters of rain per year. Even when it isn't raining, clouds often gather around the volcano's peak, obliterating a full view of the mountain. At lower elevations within the park (e.g., the viewing area at the volcano's western base), the temperatures are warm during the day, but can get chilly at night, especially if there is a breeze.
History: The settlers that colonized this region in the early part of the 20th century referred to Arenal Volcano as "the mountain" and apparently, despite its conical shape, did not realize it for what it is. Thus, when the quiescent volcano exploded on July 29, 1968, producing a cloud of hot volcanic gases and covering several square kilometers with lava, some 87 people living in the areas of Tabacón and Pueblo Nuevo lost their lives.
Since this tragic eruption (the first following at least 300 years of inactivity, according to some geologists), Arenal has remained active, but fortunately at a level posing little threat to visitors.
Poás Volcano National Park:Like the other volcanoes in the Central Volcanic Cordillera, the silhouette of Poás Volcano as seen from the Central Valley gives no hint of the power and pent-up fury below the surface. But once at the summit and standing on the crater's rim, it becomes easier to understand the forces that have shaped this region of the planet.
With a diameter of 1.5 km., the active crater is reportedly the widest of any volcano in the world. If it is clear enough to see to the bottom of the 300-meter deep crater, you will surely observe some type of activity ranging from fumaroles to bubbling emissions on the surface of the small rain-filled lake to actual geyser-type eruptions, but it is constantly changing. During the early 1990s, there was enough geyser activity to cause the lake to lose its water by the end of the dry season (April/May); this resulted in increased gaseous emanations that forced the park to close on a few occasions.
Looking to the left of the crater you can see the deleterious effects of the volcanic gases that cause a localized form of acid rain. For several kilometers downwind from the crater the vegetation is brown and dying. On exceptionally clear days you can see the top of Arenal Volcano (60 km. distant) by looking in this direction. If you keep your eye on it long enough, you may be able to see the cloud of ash that accompanies an eruption.
A few meters back down the trail from the active crater overlook, a 1.5 km. trail leads off to Lake Botos, a densely forested dormant crater filled with rain water. A portion of this trail goes through an eerie-looking section of stunted forest. The trunks and branches of the small trees here are gnarled and twisted from the harsh climatic conditions in exposed areas at high elevations. At the Lake Botos overlook you'll be near the highest point in the park which is 2,704 meters.
At this elevation wildlife is not particularly abundant, but there is usually a fair amount of bird activity. Some of the more common species are the Fiery-throated Hummingbird, Sooty-capped Bush-Tanager, Slaty Flowerpiercer, Mountain Eleania, Black-billed Nightingale-Thrush, and Black-and-yellow Silky-Flycatcher.
Given its high visitation, the National Park Service has chosen Poás as a model park. One of the benefits of this is the Visitors' Center which presents a thorough explanation of volcanism and the natural history of Poás using a variety of entertaining and informative displays.
Getting there: From San José, drive to the town of Alajuela. Coming in from the airport will put you on calle 2, take this street all the way through town and follow it (Rt. 130) to Itiquis and Fraijanes, following the signs for the volcano.
As it only takes 90 minutes to drive the paved road to the volcano's summit, this national park receives more visitors than any other. On weekends and holidays it is very popular with local citizens as a picnic spot.
Climate: It can get cool at this 2,500+ meter elevation, so layers are advised. If it is sunny, use plenty of sunscreen because the thinner air lets the UV rays through even more intensely than if you were at the beach. Mornings tend to be clear, but the clouds can build up quickly. The driest months are from January to April.
History: Written accounts of Poás only date back to 1828, and the first mention of volcanic activity is from 1834. Between then and the present there have been four other periods of eruptive activity, the most recent one lasting from 1952-54. The largest of any of these relatively recent eruptions was in 1910 when an immense column of smoke and ash issued from the crater. The fallout from this eruption has been estimated to have been nearly three-quarters of a million tons of ash.
In a way, we have Poás Volcano and the Great Smoky Mountains in Tennessee to thank for Costa Rica's extraordinary National Park system. On a visit he made to the U.S. in the 1960's, Park Service founder, Mario Boza, was so impressed with the Great Smokies that upon returning to Costa Rica he drew up a management plan for Poás Volcano as if it were a national park. This, his masters thesis, was the start of what would become perhaps the most ambitious system of national parks and refuges anywhere in the world.
Juan Castro Blanco National Park:Recently declared in 1992, this park is designed to protect the cloud forest habitat and important watershed atop the westernmost peaks of the Central Volcanic Cordillera. Although there have been no eruptions recorded during recent history, the volcanic origins of this massif are underscored by the numerous hot springs that emerge from its northern flank. The highest points on the summit are: Porvenir Volcano (2,267 m.), Platanar Volcano (2,183 m.), and Viejo Volcano (2,060 m.).
Unfortunately, the government has yet to finance the purchase of the private property affected by the declaration of this park, and so to date there are no facilities for visitors.
Irazú Volcano National Park: At 3,432 meters above sea level, Irazú Volcano is the highest point in the Central Volcanic Cordillera. The gently sloping southern flank with its patchwork pattern of potatoes, cabbages, and other vegetable crops, replaced by bucolic dairy farms at higher elevations, belies the violent past of this sleeping behemoth that looms above the city of Cartago.
Upon nearing the summit the destructive forces of volcanism begin to become more noticeable with the presence of scorched dead tree trunks that are still standing. On top of Irazú you will find several deep craters in this barren windswept terrain that is reminiscent of a moonscape. The high elevation itself, being just above the tree line at this latitude, keeps the vegetation from growing very tall, but the periodic devastating effects of eruptions help to keep plant life rather sparse. Among the few species of birds that live in this habitat are the aptly named Volcano Junco and Volcano Hummingbird.
As with all active volcanoes, the level and type of activity changes periodically, often abruptly. Since the last series of eruptions, between August of 1962 and March of 1965, Irazú's principal crater has only emitted fumarole activity -- but things could change again at any time.
Getting there: From San José, take the PanAmerican Highway east to Cartago, from where a good two-lane blacktop road (Highway 8) winds the remaining 34 km. up to the volcano's summit.
Climate: You can always spot the real tourists on Irazú, they're the ones wandering around in shirt sleeves and Bermuda shorts -- and shivering to death. Don't be fooled by the fact that Costa Rica is a tropical country, even here it's cold at 3,400 meters (overnight lows below freezing are not uncommon). The wind chill on the summit can add to the sensation, too, so bring along several layers to assure comfort.
The top of Irazú Volcano receives relatively little precipitation, with an annual average rainfall of just over two meters. The driest months are from December to April.
History: The geological history of Irazú Volcano over the past tens of millions of years has been deduced by geologists, but the first written record we have of its volcanic activity only dates back to 1723 when the Spanish Governor of Costa Rica, Diego de la Haya Fernández, chronicled an eruption that began in February of that year. It was a spectacular eruption that threw columns of smoke and ash into the air and sent chunks of incandescent rock rolling down the sides of the volcano, all accompanied by much noise and periodic seismic activity.
Since then, there are accounts of a dozen other eruptions, some equally violent, others milder. The last series of events was from 1962 to 1965.
In August of 1962, Irazú began belching steam, and by early 1963 it was producing such considerable amounts of ash and rock that people living and farming on the upper slopes had to be evacuated. The prevailing easterly winds eventually brought a fallout of volcanic ash over much of the Central Valley, including the capital city of San José. It is said that the ash first began to settle on the city the same day in March of 1963 that the former U.S. President, John F. Kennedy, arrived in town to meet with the presidents of Central America and promote his regional economic development plan known as the Alliance for Progress -- an ominous portent indeed.
For the next two years, ash continued to drift down on the residents of San José and much of the rest of the valley making life very unpleasant and causing eye irritations and respiratory problems for many people. Finally, in March of 1965, this period of volcanic activity subsided, and by 1966 a rock plug had solidified and blocked off the vent -- at least until the next time.
Tapantí National Park: Tucked away to the south of theOrosi Valley and north of Cerro de la Muerte, lies this 5,090 hectare middle- to upper-elevation rain forest. Although originally created as a National Wildlife Refuge, Tapantí National Park is not an easy place to see mammals, even though many species inhabit the area. Observation of birds, butterflies, and plant life will surely prove more rewarding pursuits.
Birds at this elevation often forage in flocks containing a variety of species, the most common ones being the Three-striped Warbler and the Common Bush-Tanager, but the sharp-eyed observer will also be able to pick out other species such as Spotted Barbtail, Spotted Woodcreeper, Redheaded Barbet, and Spangle-cheeked Tanager. Numerous hummingbird species are also often quite active around clumps of flowering epiphytes.
The rich diversity of epiphytes (plants growing on the trunks and branches of trees) found in this humid environment will provide the plant enthusiast with endless surprises. Orchids in particular are very diverse and abundant at Tapantí and careful inspection will certainly result in finding several species in bloom at any time of year.
Getting there: From San José, take the PanAmerican Highway to Cartago, drive through the town and follow Highway 10 to Paraíso (the next town to the east). Here look for signs or ask directions to Orosi, and once in Orosi do the same for Tapantí which is still another 14 km. distant. The road between the town of Orosi and the national park consists of more potholes than pavement, so take it carefully. Ironically, once you leave pavement (shortly before entering the national park) the gravel road actually becomes much better; this is due to its upkeep by the national electric company versus the Municipality of Paraíso which supposedly takes care of the "paved" portion.
By public bus from either Cartago or Orosi you can only get as far as the village of Río Macho, some 9 kilometers short of the park entrance.
Fishing: The Orosi River has been stocked with rainbow trout (an introduced fish in Costa Rica), and with a valid fishing license you can try your luck on this scenic stream from May 1 through January 31. There is a limit of five fish per day, and a minimum allowable size of 25 centimeters. Freshwater species other than trout are limited to a total of five fish per day, again with a 25 cm. minimum, and fishing for these species is permitted from December 1 through July 31.
Climate: Most mornings are sunny and very pleasant with mild temperatures. However, it typically clouds over by midday, or early afternoon at the latest, and the rains which fall almost daily in this area are usually soon in coming. Therefore, it is recommended that you get an early start when visiting Tapantí and bring your rain gear. A sweater or jacket will also be welcome when the temperatures start to drop once the sun goes behind clouds.
History: The combination of Costa Rica's topography and numerous areas of high annual rainfall result in a tremendous potential for hydroelectric power production, which in fact is the source of more than 90% of the country's electricity. The upper Orosi River watershed is located in one of the rainiest parts of the country, receiving as much as 7 meters of rain per year. Given the relatively close proximity to the Central Valley -- the area of greatest energy consumption -- it was only natural that the Costa Rican Electrical Institute (I.C.E.) should decide to develop a hydroelectric project in this forested region. And to be able to do so meant first constructing a road into this previously inaccessible area.
To protect the watershed's forest cover and to preserve its wildlife from the destruction that would accompany colonization along the new road, Tapantí was created as a National Wildlife Refuge in 1982. Only in 1994 did it gain National Park status.
Guayabo National Monument: This is Costa Rica's premier archeological site. Although not on a par with the large-scale pre-Columbian architecture found in some other parts of the New World, Guayabo offers a fascinating insight into the lives of the people who once populated the region.
The peaceful park-like setting of the area adds to the pleasure of contemplating the raised mounds of earth supported around their bases by large rounded stones and interconnected by cobblestone walkways. It is assumed that buildings once stood atop these mounds, but because they were built of perishable materials, no evidence of them remains. Other preserved features include a still-functioning aqueduct system, burial sites, and numerous petroglyphs. Many high-quality examples of pottery, gold, and stone workmanship on display at the National Museum came from this site. Archeologists estimate that half of the village area still awaits excavation.
Given that the monument only protects 217 hectares of land, wildlife viewing potential is rather limited. Among the creatures that might be seen at Guayabo are the Nine-banded Armadillo, Montezuma Oropendola, Central American Coral Snake, and Blue Morpho Butterfly. A variety of orchids also grow in the trees in the wooded portions of the monument grounds.
Getting there: From the town of Turrialba (64 km. east of San José), it is 19 km. to Guayabo and signs mark the way over a road which is paved as you leave town and eventually becomes a gravel road which is passable year-round.
Climate: Guayabo is located in the premontane rain forest life zone, and as such has mild temperatures and abundant rain fall.
History: The monument area was first given government protection in 1973 when 65 ha. were preserved due to their archeological significance. In 1980, another executive decree enlarged the site to its present 217 ha., principally to protect areas of forested habitat along the Guayabo River canyon.
Although there is evidence that people may have lived in the area since as much as 2,500 years ago, it was only during a 500 year period from 1200 to 700 years ago that Guayabo reached its zenith both culturally and politically. Based on the geographic position of the site, in the mountains between the Atlantic coast and the Central Valley, and the excellent quality of the craftsmanship found in excavated pieces of ceramics, stone, and gold, it is thought that this chieftanship was one of power and privilege. However, for unknown reasons, prior to the beginning of the Spanish Conquest in the New World, this once thriving indigenous settlement slid into decline and finally abandonment.
The site was discovered in the late 1800's, presumably by colonists who were clearing the land for coffee plantations, and in 1882 the first excavations took place under the guidance of Anastasio Alfaro, director of theNational Museum. Following those initial digs, many years passed until in 1968 Carlos Aguilar, working through the University of Costa Rica, established a program of permanent excavations on the site. Much of what is known today about Guayabo is owed to the efforts of Aguilar and his colleagues.
Isla Bolaños Biological Reserve: This 14-hectare island and the surrounding marine environment were included in the country's wildlife refuge system in 1981, primarily to protect one of the few nesting sites for Brown Pelicans and Magnificent Frigatebirds in Costa Rica. Some 200 pairs of pelicans nest in treetops on the northern side of the island, while about half as many frigatebirds use similar nest sites on the island's southern cliffs. Isla Bolaños is also the only place in the country where American Oystercatchers have ever been found nesting.
The waters around the island are a beautiful clear blue and support abundant marine life.
Admission policy: No visitation is permitted from December through March so as not to disturb the nesting seabird colonies. At other times of the year, prior permission must be obtained from the Park Service, either in San José (Phone: 192) or in Santa Rosa.
Getting there: Located in Salinas Bay near the border with Nicaragua, Isla Bolaños is only accessible by boat. Transportation may be hired in Puerto Soley for the 3-km. voyage to the island.
Climate: The island receives less than a meter and a half of rain annually, making it one of the driest places in the country. The low shrubby vegetation that dominates the island is a result of the dry climatic conditions and poor, rocky soil.
Santa Rosa National Park: One of the first national parks to be declared, Santa Rosa is important for its history, geology, and ecology. The old hacienda buildings have been preserved as a cultural and historical museum, especially commemorating the Battle of Santa Rosa in 1856.
The rocks that form much of the Santa Elena peninsula in the extreme western sector of the park are among the oldest in Costa Rica dating back to the Cretaceous period, some 130 million years ago. The forested portions of the park comprise a large percentage of the precious little remaining area of tropical dry forest habitat throughout all of Central America.
In addition to providing refuge to the many plants and animals adapted to dry forest conditions, Santa Rosa protects two important sea turtle nesting beaches, Naranjo and Nancite. The latter is one of two beaches in Costa Rica (the other is Ostional) where Pacific Ridley Sea Turtles come ashore each year in large concentrations to lay their eggs.
Among the many creatures inhabiting the 49,515 hectares of Santa Rosa National Park, some of the more commonly seen species include: White-tailed Deer, Long-tongued Bats (that roost in the historic buildings), White-throated Capuchin Monkeys, White-throated Magpie-Jays, Orange-fronted Parakeets, and Roadside Hawks.
The vegetation in most parts of the park is characterized by being deciduous and many plant species remain leafless for much of the dry season as a means of conserving precious moisture. Another common feature of the dry forest vegetation is the high percentage of plants that have thorns or spines. The prevalence of this form of mechanical protection has led tropical biologist, Dr. Daniel Janzen, to speculate that this defense evolved eons ago in response to the pressure from huge herbivores such as Giant Ground Sloths and Mastodons that once roamed this region. Whatever the evolutionary reason may be, do be careful what you touch or brush up against in the tropical dry forest!
Getting there: From the town of Liberia, the main entrance to Santa Rosa National Park lies 32 km. north on the PanAmerican Highway. Public buses going to the town of La Cruz will let you off at the main gate. From here, it is another 10 km. to the administration area and the historical buildings. The 12 km. dirt road from the administration to Naranjo beach is normally passable only in the dry season with a four-wheel-drive vehicle (check with park service personnel before attempting this drive). Nancite beach is restricted because of turtle nesting and research programs, so advance permission is required to visit this beach -- which involves a difficult hike from Naranjo beach.
The less-developed northern sector of the park, known as Murciélago, can be reached by continuing another 10 km. north on the highway before turning left on the paved road that winds down to the coastal village of Cuajiniquil. The park ranger station is another 9 km. to the west.
Fishing: Although a bit far from most of the deep-sea fishing operations in northern Guanacaste, the Bat Islands (Islas Murciélago) off the Santa Elena Peninsula are well-known as a productive fishing spot, and are also a popular scuba-diving site.
Climate: Hot throughout the year, the chance of rain is almost nil from December to April. The rainy season which lasts from May until November is normally punctuated by a several-week dry period in July and August.
History: In 1855, a brilliant, but somewhat megalomaniacal, young North American named William Walker arrived in Nicaragua in time to bolster a flailing regime. As a result of his efforts, he set himself up as Commander-in-Chief of Nicaragua, and with the support of a mercenary army of international origin and the financial backing of interests from the Confederate Union of the southern United States, began a military campaign to conquer Central America.
His sights turned first towards Costa Rica. When word of the invasion reached San José, President Juan Rafael Mora organized a civilian militia to march to Guanacaste and confront the filibusteros, as the mercenaries were known.
When the Costa Rican forces reached the hacienda of Santa Rosa on March 20, 1856, the mercenaries were housed in the main farm building, La Casona. The ensuing battle lasted all of fourteen minutes with the national militia victorious in ousting the invaders. [This being the "epic" battle of Costa Rican history gives an insight into just how peaceful the nation's history has been.]
The filibusteros were followed back across the border into Nicaragua where the Costa Ricans clashed again with the mercenaries in the decisive battle in the town of Rivas on April 11, 1856.
Walker himself was not present in either of these battles, but after seeing his plans thwarted by the valiant defense presented by the Central American nations, he fled Nicaragua and returned to the U.S. where he practiced law for two years in San Francisco. He was unable to completely forget his ideas for a Central American takeover and in 1860 he returned to the region, but was captured and put on trial for treason by the government of Honduras. His death in front of a firing squad put an end to this strange chapter in the region's history.
History proved that it does repeat itself, and Santa Rosa was again the site of battles between Costa Rican troops and invading forces from Nicaragua in both 1919 and 1955. The first was an attempt to overthrow the dictatorship of General Federico Tinoco, the second was a coup attempt against the government of José Figueres Ferrer.
Guanacaste National Park: Created in 1989, Guanacaste National Park was declared with the principal intention of forming a biological corridor to connect Santa Rosa National Park with high elevation cloud forest and Caribbean slope rain forest. The 70,000 hectares of Guanacaste National Park extend from Santa Rosa's border with the PanAmerican Highway northeastward to the peaks of Orosi and Cacao Volcanoes and across the Continental Divide onto the Caribbean slopes of these two volcanoes.
This extension of Santa Rosa will hopefully provide a sufficiently large area of protected land to ensure the future of wide-ranging species such as Jaguar and Mountain Lion, while at the same time allowing those species of birds and insects that make local seasonal migrations between the dry forest and the evergreen cloud and rain forests to continue their annual movements without threat of continued loss of habitat.
Getting there: From Liberia, take the PanAmerican Highway north for 42 km. and then take a right turn onto a dirt road (across from the turnoff for Cuajiniquil). From here it is a rough 17 km. to the Maritza Biological Field Station.
Climate: A wide variety of climates are represented here given the change in elevation from 300 meters to 1,659 meters (the summit of Cacao Volcano) within the park and the crossing from dry forest to rain forest as one goes eastward over the Continental Divide.
History: The creation of Guanacaste National Park was an ambitious project spearheaded by Dr. Daniel Janzen whose efforts were critical in raising the international donations necessary to purchase the land in question. Using the clever slogan, "How to Grow a National Park," Janzen stressed the need to reclaim degraded pasture land and recreate more of the severely threatened tropical dry forest habitat as well as a biological corridor to cooler and moister habitats.
Fortunately, the conservation campaign came at a time when international beef prices were low and many of the ranch owners with extensive holdings in the area were willing, if not eager, to sell their rather nonproductive grazing lands.
Among the primary goals of Guanacaste National Park are the desire to be "user friendly," encourage local participation in environmental programs, and employee as many of the previous ranch hands as possible as park personnel.
Rincón de la Vieja National Park: Straddling the Guanacaste Cordillera lies Rincón de la Vieja National Park, invariably a favorite of those fortunate few people privileged enough to have visited the majority of parks in the system. Highlights of this park include six different life zones, abundant wildlife, gorgeous waterfalls, fascinating geothermal features, and an active volcano.
One of the most unique and easily observed aspects of this park is an area known as Las Pailas, a 50 ha. sector on the southern slope of the volcano with numerous kinds of geothermal activity. Bubbling, boiling hot mud springs, sulfur springs, steam vents, and fumaroles are all present in this relatively small area at the base of the volcano.
For those in good physical condition, a hike from the Las Pailas ranger station to the volcano's summit makes for a rigorous full day outing. The walk starts out through a magnificent stand of tropical moist forest where the most striking trees are strangler figs seen in every phase of the process of enveloping the doomed host tree. As the trail continues upwards it enters premontane wet forest and the trees become smaller and covered with epiphytic vegetation.
The last hour and a half (or more) of the hike is on steep, exposed rock rubble that has resulted from past eruptions. Cairns mark the way to the summit since this part of the climb is frequently in the clouds.
Getting there: From Liberia, take the PanAmerican Highway north for 5 km., turn right at the village of Cereceda and continue on for 23 km. (past Hacienda Guachipelín and Hacienda Rincón de la Vieja) to the Las Pailas ranger station.
Climate: Around the Las Pailas area the temperatures are quite warm (scalding if you manage to fall into one of the geothermal features) and the typical Guanacaste weather pattern prevails. As you go up the slopes of the volcano, the conditions get progressively cooler and wetter.
History: The name Rincón de la Vieja means "the old lady's nook" and is attributed to indigenous people of the Guatuso tribe living on the eastern side of the volcano who believed that an old witch lived on top of the mountain and would send columns of smoke into the air whenever she got annoyed.
Indeed, the active crater which bears this name periodically lets off steam (and large quantities of ash, too). Since 1863, there have been at least eight episodes of intense volcanic activity, the latest one in 1991.
Barra Honda National Park: Although Barra Honda National Park covers 2,295 ha., its reason for being is not what lies on the surface, but the geological treasure housed below. This is the only park in the country designed to protect caves.
To date, 19 separate caves have been discovered in the limestone ridge that makes up the Barra Honda formation. The entrances to these caves are all vertical. Therefore, ropes and climbing equipment are necessary for those who are interested in exploring this subterranean world. Cave depths vary from 21 to 240 meters.
In addition to stalactites and stalagmites, the wide variety of other curious geological formations inside these caves have given rise to the following descriptive names: soda straws, cave grapes, curtains, terraces, pearls, flowers, needles, and even fried eggs! Compared to many other caves with horizontal entrances, the geological features of Barra Honda are in excellent condition owing to the difficulty of access.
The natural vegetation that once covered much of the park is sadly not in as perfect a condition, due to deforestation and cattle ranching, nor is there a well-marked system of trails to the few decent patches of forest in the park.
Admission policy: To go spelunking in Barra Honda requires previous permission which can be arranged through the Park Service offices in San José (phone: 192).
Getting there: From San José, take the PanAmerican Highway north to just beyond the entrance to Las Juntas de Abangares, look for the sign indicating the left turn to the Tempisque Ferry. Once across the river, continue on for about 12 km. before taking a right turn to the village of Barra Honda (also known as Nacaome). Continue on towards the village of Santa Ana and follow signs for the park entrance.
Climate: Hot and dry from December through April, and hot and humid during the rainy season.
History: Over the course of the past 70 million years, nature has patiently worked to create the remarkable system of caves at Barra Honda. First, millions of years were necessary to form the marine limestone deposits derived from ancient coral reefs. Then, seismic activity along local fault lines was responsible for raising the ridge above sea level where rain water and atmospheric gases could combine to dissolve away portions of the rock, while also leaving calcium deposits in an endless pattern of strange shapes inside the still-forming caves.
As recently as 1967, it was still a matter of debate whether or not Barra Honda Mountain was a volcano. Credibility was given to this belief by the foul odor and strange sounds -- likened to the roar of a steam engine -- that emanated from one of the "craters" on top of the ridge. As explorations of the caverns continued it became obvious that volcanism had nothing to do with the formation of Barra Honda and the opening that produced the smells and noise turned out to harbor a tremendous quantity of bats. The odor came from the accumulated guano and the "roar" was the sound made by the fluttering wings of tens of thousands of these creatures of the night. Perhaps even more intriguing is the question, "Why are there so few bats found in the other caves at Barra Honda?"
Palo Verde National Park & Dr. Rafael Lucas Rodríguez Caballero National Wildlife Refuge: What were formerly a national park and an adjacent national wildlife refuge are now managed as one large conservation unit that also includes the nearby Lomas Barbudal Biological Reserve. The Palo Verde sector comprises 13,058 ha. of varied habitats in the lower Tempisque River basin. Of the mangrove forests, dry forests, evergreen forests, old pasture land, and other habitats protected here, the habitat that is primarily responsible for the creation of the park and refuge lands is the extensive marsh area that provides an important wintering ground to many species of migrant North American waterfowl, as well as resident tropical species such as the Jabiru, the largest stork in the New World.
The marshes fill up with rain and occasional flood waters during the wet season. As the dry season progresses, the wetlands are reduced to scattered ponds and puddles at which large concentrations of waterfowl gather. Perhaps the most numerous species are the resident Black-bellied Whistling-Ducks and Northern Jacanas.
Palo Verde also provides vital nesting sites for many native species of birds, the most notable is a small island of mangroves in the middle of the Tempisque River known as Isla Pájaros, or Bird Island (not to be confused with another Isla Pájaros located in the Gulf of Nicoya near Punta Morales). Cattle Egrets, Roseate Spoonbills, Wood Storks, Anhingas, Great Egrets, and Black-crowned Night-Herons all use this island for breeding.
During the dry season, when many of the forest trees are leafless and water is at a premium, wildlife is often quite easily seen, especially if you find a water source and wait quietly for the animals to come by for a drink. Commonly seen mammals at Palo Verde include Collared Peccaries, White-throated Capuchin Monkeys, Howler Monkeys, White-nosed Coatis, White-tailed Deer, and Variegated Squirrels. During the wet season, mosquitoes are quite easily seen.
Getting there: From the intersection at the town of Bagaces on the PanAmerican Highway, turn west onto a gravel road that leads 19 km. to the entrance station (there are several turns en route, but the way to the park should be posted). From the entrance it is another 9 km. to the administration at the old Hacienda Palo Verde.
Entering by boat from the Tempisque River is also possible. Six kilometers up river from the village of Puerto Humo (where boats can be hired), there is a rustic dock at a spot known as Puerto Chamorro, 2 km. beyond the administrative area via a dirt road. Further up river from Puerto Chamorro, the Tempisque becomes very sinuous and the riverside vegetation takes on a truly jungly aspect, adding to the sensation of being in a Tarzan movie are the numerous American Crocodiles that slide into the water from the banks as a boat approaches.
Climate: Palo Verde is one of the hottest and driest parts of Costa Rica. The dry season extends from mid-November through mid-May most years, but does vary somewhat. If visiting during the dry season, be sure to drink plenty of liquid and try to avoid staying in direct sunshine for very long so as to eliminate the risk of heat exhaustion, or worse, heat stroke.
History: Geologically, the lower Tempisque River basin is unique in Costa Rica since the surrounding hills are of limestone and not volcanic rock. This material was originally formed by corals some 40 to 60 million years ago when the area was part of the ocean floor. Subsequent shifting of the continental plates has caused these low hills to rise to their present heights and also changed the course of the Tempisque River that once flowed directly out to sea in the general area of what is now the Tamarindo National Wildlife Refuge.
In the past century, extensive cattle ranching was the principal agricultural activity in the area that is now Palo Verde National Park (in the greater sense). The haciendas were characterized by having large tracts of land on which the cattle roamed and grazed freely with little care other than periodic deparasitizing or being rounded up and driven to market. This meant that the natural forests suffered relatively minor disturbance and the human population level stayed quite low, since just a few men could handle a large herd. Thus, wildlife fortunately is still fairly abundant throughout the park and much of the original natural habitat has been preserved.
Lomas Barbudal Biological Reserve: Costa Rica's extensive system of national parks and biological reserves contains areas which have been set aside to specifically protect nesting beaches for sea turtles, marshlands for wintering migrant waterfowl, nesting sites for seabirds, volcanoes, coral reefs, archeological sites, limestone caves, and on and on. But if Lomas Barbudal was declared a biological reserve to specifically protect anything, then it is insects.
The 2,279 ha. of dry forest habitat and patches of evergreen forests along the streams in the reserve are estimated to hold 240 species of bees; it's anybody's guess how many different kinds of beetles, flies, and butterflies inhabit this relatively small reserve.
However, if insects aren't your thing, Lomas Barbudal has excellent birdwatching potential for the species that occur in tropical dry forest (e.g., Long-tailed Manakin, Turquoise-browed Motmot, Stub-tailed Spadebill, Olive Sparrow, and Black-headed Trogon). In the dry season, mammals can usually be found enjoying the cool shade of the evergreen forest along the Cabuyo River. Mantled Howler Monkeys, White-throated Capuchin Monkeys, Variegated Squirrels, Banded Anteaters, and Tayras (an all black member of the weasel family) are among the possible species that can be seen here.
When the hillside forests turn brown and leafless in the dry season, some visual relief is given by the colorful blossoms of flowering trees that dot the landscape -- and provide pollen and nectar to all those bees!
Getting there: From Bagaces, continue north on the PanAmerican Highway for about 12 km. and look for a sign indicating the left turn onto a gravel road that takes you the remaining 4 km. to the reserve entrance.
Climate: Hot year-round with a pronounced dry season from December through April.
Las Baulas Marine National Park: Another newcomer to the list of Costa Rican national parks, Las Baulas was declared to protect two important nesting beaches for the Giant Leatherback Sea Turtle, as well as offshore areas where these large marine reptiles spend their days during the breeding season.
Leatherbacks, known as baulas in Costa Rica, are the largest of the world's seven species of sea turtles, averaging 350 kg. and more than a meter and a half in length. Watching one of these great ancient beasts come ashore at night to continue the age-old tradition of nesting in tropical sands is a very moving experience for most people, although others find the two-hour process a bit more than their patience and interest levels can tolerate.
In Costa Rica, this species can be found nesting at a number of beaches on both coasts, however, two of the more heavily used beaches are Playa Grande (Big Beach) and Playa Langosta (Lobster Beach), to the north and south, respectively, of Tamarindo Beach. Together, the aforementioned two beaches make up Las Baulas Marine National Park.
The nesting season at Las Baulas extends from October through February. When away from their breeding sites, leatherbacks range widely throughout the world's oceans searching for their principal food, jellyfish.
Admission policy: All visitors on the beach at night must be accompanied by a certified local guide (available at the entrance to the beach during the nesting season).
Getting there: From the intersection on the PanAmerican Highway at Liberia, drive west towards the Pacific coast. At the town of Belén, take a right turn and continue on paved road for 21 km. until reaching the community of Huacas. Here follow a gravel road 8 km. further through the town of Matapalo and on to Salinas, where you enter the national park on Playa Grande.
Fishing: Located in the most developed part of the country for deep-sea fishing, a dozen or more operators between Playa del Coco and Tamarindo offer charter boat service with the target species being Blue Marlin, Black Marlin, and Pacific Sailfish. Between the three species, there's usually action all year long. Other fish that help pick up the slack if the billfish aren't biting are Dorado (Mahi-mahi), Wahoo, and Roosterfish.
Climate: Hot during the daytime, evenings are usually a very pleasant temperature, although when the winds pick up from December through February, a jacket or sweater might be wanted while out looking for turtles. The rainy season lasts from May to November.
Tamarindo National Wildlife Refuge: This small wildlife refuge was declared to protect a mangrove swamp that is unusual in having no freshwater input during nearly half the year. Given the severity of the dry season in this coastal region of northern Guanacaste, the creeks that feed the estuary during the rainy season completely dry up after the rains have stopped.
Five species of mangroves (botanically unrelated trees that have each evolved methods for tolerating life in a brackish water environment where the soil is so waterlogged that oxygen cannot readily be obtained through the underground roots) exist in the Tamarindo estuary and provide an important spawning site for many fish and other marine creatures. An assortment of birds can be found in this habitat, many of them seasonal migrants from North America. One of the more peculiar species encountered here is the Lesser Nighthawk (a relative of the Whip-poor-will), which sleeps lengthwise during the day on low branches in the mangroves, its mottled gray and brown plumage causing it to blend in extremely well with the environment.
There is an average two and a half meter difference between high and low tide on the Pacific coast of Costa Rica, and when the tide is out in the mangroves you can observe the protruding vertical roots (or pneumatophores) of the Black Mangrove. These short projections stick up out of the mud to help aerate the plants. During the dry season, you can also see how this species of mangrove plant exudes particles of salt on the surface of its leaves (in the rainy season the salts are washed off and do not accumulate so as to be visible).
Howler Monkeys, White-throated Capuchin Monkeys, Raccoons, Spectacled Caimans, and Lineated Basilisk Lizards are among the other kinds of wildlife that can be spotted on a boat ride through the mangroves.
Getting there: From the intersection on the PanAmerican Highway at Liberia, drive west towards the Pacific coast. At the town of Belén, take a right turn and continue on paved road for 21 km. until reaching the community of Huacas. Here turn left, staying on pavement, and continue to Villareal and then Tamarindo, where boats can be hired for touring the estuary.
Fishing: Located in the most developed part of the country for deep-sea fishing, a dozen or more operators between Playa del Coco and Tamarindo offer charter boat service with the target species being Blue Marlin, Black Marlin, and Pacific Sailfish. Between the three species, there's usually action all year long. Other fish that help pick up the slack if the billfish aren't biting are Dorado (Mahi-mahi), Wahoo, and Roosterfish.
Climate: Hot year-round, the dry season lasts from about mid-November to mid-May.
History: In a response to the perceived threat the estuary faced from plans to build large tourism complexes on its fringes, the government, urged by concerned residents of the Tamarindo area, decreed it the status of national wildlife refuge.
Ostional National Wildlife Refuge: This refuge was declared to protect a major nesting beach for Pacific Ridley Sea Turtles, as well as the waters offshore from the beach.
Several times a year, female turtles come ashore in such numbers that the sandy beach begins to resemble a stretch of rocky coastline. These mass nesting episodes are locally referred to as "arribadas," or arrivals. One of these events can last from two to eight days with most nesting taking place at night.
Locals will tell you that the arribadas begin three or four nights after the full moon, and this is typically the case in months when relatively small numbers of individuals nest, but during the peak nesting season from July through November when more than 100,000 nests may be made during a single arribada, any correlation with phases of the moon or the tides breaks down completely. What triggers the mass nestings is still a mystery.
Scientists suggest that this species produces a superabundance of nests as a strategy for survival against predators, since with so many eggs laid in just a few nights (a million or more during a large arribada) it is unlikely that the local natural predators could possibly consume them all. Likewise, when the surviving eggs hatch and the young turtles make their scramble down the beach to the ocean, if thousands of them are doing this at more or less the same time, then some percentage of them ought to escape the variety of hungry predators that range from crabs to coyotes.
Getting there: Vehicular access to Ostional is somewhat challenging, and a four-wheel-drive vehicle with good clearance is definitely recommended, especially if going in the wet season when the bulk of the sea turtle nesting occurs. The refuge can be reached from either the town of Santa Cruz or Nicoya (both situated on the main highway that runs down the middle of the Nicoya Peninsula), and following a series of gravel and dirt roads to the coast (at Playa Junquillal if coming from Santa Cruz, or Playa Nosara if coming from Nicoya) and continuing south or north, respectively, until arriving at Ostional. Although more direct, the route via Nicoya-Nosara involves fording a river which can be impassable at times in the rainy season.
To improve your chances of seeing turtles, you can try contacting the village of Ostional to find out the current status of nesting. To do so, you'll need to speak some Spanish since the phone (682-0267) is the local public phone in the village.
Fishing: To the south of Ostional Beach there are a number of charter operations between Nosara and Carrillo that can take you fishing for Sailfish, Marlin, Tuna, Mackerel, Wahoo, Bonito, Amberjack, Roosterfish, Snapper, and other game species found along this section of the Pacific coast.
Climate: The afternoon showers that characterize the months from May through November can make getting to the Ostional National Wildlife Refuge a bit difficult during the peak nesting season for Pacific Ridley Sea Turtles, however, this beach is still far more accessible than the only other beach in the country where this same phenomenon occurs, Nancite Beach in Santa Rosa National Park. Daytime temperatures are hot throughout the year, evenings are comfortable.
History: The creation of the Ostional National Wildlife Refuge is a wonderful example of the "if you can't beat 'em, join 'em" philosophy in conservation. For many years, the wholesale ransacking of turtle nests for eggs was a seasonal activity indulged in by people from all over the region, and from even as far away as San José. The widespread belief that consumption of turtle eggs produces aphrodisiacal effects has led to their popular demand as bocas (snacks served as appetizers in local cantinas).
Hampered by insufficient funding to adequately patrol the beach at Ostional, while at the same time needing the support of the local villagers, the wildlife authorities proposed a new scheme with the declaration of the refuge. The proposal was that Ostional residents, and only Ostional residents, would be granted permission to harvest a limited number of eggs during the first two nights of each nesting period and sell them only to bars with licenses to serve turtle eggs. The idea was to get the local populace to function as a police force to safeguard their own interests and protect the later nests at the same time since these have a better chance of success (early nests are often inadvertently excavated by turtles arriving later on during an arribada).
This novel policy has generated much debate, but it seems to be working effectively.
Braulio Carrillo National Park (Barva Volcano sector): Although Barva Volcano has not been active for many millennia, it is in some ways more attractive than either of its neighbors in the Central Volcanic Cordillera, Poás and Irazú. Barva's dormancy has allowed the majestic highland forest to cover its misty summit, and thus, the associated wildlife is more abundant here than at the two aforementioned volcanoes. At 2906 meters above sea level at its highest point, Barva reaches 200 meters higher than Poás, yet does not approach the timberline as Irazú does at another 500 meters in elevation.
From the ranger station at the entrance to this sector of Braulio Carrillo National Park, there is a fairly flat 1.5-kilometer trail to the Laguna Barva, a rainwater filled lake inside a long-inactive crater. For the really intrepid (and well-prepared) hiker, there is a trail which descends down an elevational transect from the top of the volcano to a mere 35 meters above sea level atLa Selva Biological Station -- in other words, an almost 3,000 meter drop in 60 kilometers of trail. This hike takes about four days and requires serious planning. Prior permission should also be obtained from the Park Service.
The epiphyte-laden cloud forests on top of Barva Volcano are home to many beautiful birds found only in the highlands, a few examples being the Resplendent Quetzal, Golden-browed Chlorophonia, Flame-throated Warbler, and Long-tailed Silky-Flycatcher.
Getting there: To drive all the way to the Barva Volcano ranger station, a four-wheel-drive vehicle with good clearance is necessary, otherwise you'll have to park about three kilometers down the hill from the station and walk up. Even getting that far, however, is not easy since the route is not well marked.
From San José, drive to Heredia and head north out of town towards Barva; from here, continue on to the villages of Birrí, Porrosatí, and Sacramento (where the pavement ends). The route winds up through coffee plantations and dairy farms and is quite scenic, but since there are several places where you could take a wrong turn, it's a good idea to ask directions frequently. The best way to see this part of Braulio Carrillo National Park is probably to use the services of an experienced local tour operator.
Climate: The high elevation of Barva Volcano means cool temperatures, so have several layers of clothing to be comfortable. From May through November, afternoon showers are a strong likelihood. It can be blustery and misty from December through February. March and April are the driest and calmest months, but even then you could get wet. Waterproof footwear is highly recommended.
History: The creation of the extension of Braulio Carrillo National Park from Barva Volcano down to the Atlantic lowlands, where the park abuts the La Selva Biological Station, was an ambitious achievement in tropical conservation. Declared a Protected Zone in 1982, this altitudinal transect of almost 3,000 meters in elevation was officially decreed as part of the park by the out-going President Luis Alberto Monge in 1986, after an international campaign had been successful in raising more than two million dollars for purchasing the 12,700 hectares of land in question.
The various life zones protected in this extension to the park are important not only as home to the plants and animals that are adapted to live in each of them, but also as seasonal home to the many creatures, particularly birds, that migrate up and down slopes within the tropics in search of food resources, especially flowering and/or fruiting plants.
Braulio Carrillo National Park (Zurquí sector): Consisting of 44,099 hectares of virgin rain forest, this is one of Costa Rica's largest national parks. Although the park extends into portions of four different provinces, most visitors enter via the highway from San Jose. Only 30 minutes away from downtown, entering the park is like entering another world -- one of endless verdure and dripping with the frequent mists and rains that bathe the upper reaches of the mountain pass that the road winds through.
As you continue following the highway through the park you will descend from an elevation of more than 1500 meters to less than 500 meters above sea level on the Caribbean side of the Barva Volcano massif. Although perhaps not immediately apparent to the average visitor, there is a nearly complete change of flora and fauna between the two ends of this 1000 meter elevational transect. Trails at both the upper and lower ranger stations allow access to the rain forest, however, be careful as they have some steep and slippery sections. Also, caution should be used if stopping anywhere along the highway other than at the ranger stations as, unfortunately, there have been numerous cases during the past few years of tourists being robbed at gunpoint while attempting to use trails where there is no park service vigilance.
When crossing the Río Sucio bridge, be sure to look upstream (on your right if traveling from San José towards Limón). Here the Río Sucio (literally "Dirty River") joins the Río Hondura which comes in from the right. Unless it has been raining very heavily, the difference between these two streams is striking -- the Hondura is a clear mountain stream, while the Sucio can vary from grayish to reddish-orange due to its origins on the ash-covered upper slopes of Irazú Volcano!
Among the more than 400 species of birds known from Braulio Carrillo National Park, a few of the more sought after species by inveterate birdwatchers are: Bare-necked Umbrellabird, Snowcap, Sharpbill, Brown-billed Scythebill, Black-crowned Antpitta, Yellow-eared Toucanet, and Latticed-tailed Trogon. Tanagers and hummingbirds, in particular, abound in the lower and middle elevations of the park. The mammals are similarly diverse, but usually not easily seen. Several of the relatively more common species are: Deppe's Squirrel, White-nosed Coati, White-throated Capuchin, and Northern Tamandua.
Getting there: From downtown San José take Calle 3 out of town, where it becomes the new highway to Limón. By bus, take either the Guápiles, Siquirres, or Limón bus to either of the ranger stations; however, please note that not all buses will necessarily stop to pick you up on the return (if they're full they probably won't stop).
Climate: Be prepared for rain! The temperature at the upper ranger station can often be chilly, so a jacket or sweater will come in handy. It is usually comfortably warm at the lower station, although if the sun is out it can be hot. Boots are definitely recommended for the trails as they are rarely dry.
History: When the government announced plans in 1973 to build a new highway to Limón through a mountainous area of essentially virgin rain forest, local conservationists were instrumental in persuading the authorities to declare a new national park to protect this important area from settlement -- historically the case wherever a new transportation route is put through an unpopulated region.
The park was created in 1978 and named after the nation's third Chief of State, Braulio Carrillo, who, as one of Costa Rica's principal promoters of coffee plantations in the 1830's, proposed that a road be built to connect the Central Valley with the Caribbean coast so that the invaluable beans could reach European markets in much less time than it took to ship them from Puntarenas and around the tip of South America. Although the project was not carried out in his lifetime, a cobblestone oxcart path was constructed in the 1880's to fulfill that purpose. It was only used for a decade or so, however, because in 1895 the railroad from San José to Limón was inaugurated.
Barra del Colorado National Wildlife Refuge: This sprawling 92,000 ha. refuge is geologically and ecologically similar to Tortuguero National Park, with which it practically abuts on the southern boundary. The northern boundary is formed by the San Juan River (the border with Nicaragua) and runs from its mouth on the Caribbean coast, upriver to just east of the mouth of the Sarapiquí River.
The protected status of this region has come only recently and, unfortunately, after the clearing of much of the eastern sector for farming. A boat ride along the San Juan River dramatically demonstrates the difference in regional land use between the two countries. Much of the Costa Rican side is deforested right to the river bank, while the Nicaraguan side is a veritable wall of impenetrable jungle (and is part of a gargantuan protected area known as Indio Maíz).
The portions of the refuge nearer the coast are more heavily forested, although there are still small farms and clearings scattered about. Much of this sector is characterized by swampy soil that is readily flooded during periods of heavy rains and not at all suitable for agricultural activities.
A labyrinth of creeks and lagoons provides abundant freshwater habitat for myriad creatures from minuscule shrimp that live among the floating mats of water hyacinth to the large bull sharks that seasonally migrate into the area (and all the way to Lake Nicaragua) from the Caribbean Sea. Tarpon and snook also make annual forays into the freshwater system and the village of Barra del Colorado is a Mecca for enthusiastic sport fishermen looking for a potential world-record catch or just a good day of solid fishing.
As in Tortuguero, wildlife viewing from a boat can produce looks at Central American Spider Monkeys, Mantled Howler Monkeys, Three-toed Sloths, Great Green Macaws, Laughing Falcons, Keel-billed Toucans, Northern Jacanas, and a plethora of other mammals, birds, reptiles, insects, and, of course, fascinating tropical plant life.
Getting there: By boat, Barra del Colorado can be reached by taking the canal system 114 km. north from Limón (the dock at Moín), or by coming down the Sarapiquí River from Puerto Viejo. Flying from San José takes just over half an hour in a chartered light plane or one of the regularly scheduled flights on either SANSA or TravelAir airlines.
Fishing: Reputedly the best tarpon and snook fishing in the world! And even if the fish aren't biting on a given day, you can't beat the placid rain forest scenery. Numerous lodges exist in the Barra del Colorado area and are fully-equipped to cater to the fishing clientele. For those looking for a change of pace from fighting the powerful "Silver Kings," as Atlantic Tarpon are sometimes called, there is the option of going after smaller species such as Guapote, Mojarra, Machaca, Drum, and Alligator Gar using light tackle in the quiet backwater areas.
Climate: Warm throughout the year, rain is possible anytime, although the driest months are March and April.
History: This recent addition to the National Park Service system came about as part of an ambitious regional project known as "The Path of the Panther," which is an attempt to preserve a biological corridor from southern Mexico to Panama along the Caribbean side of the isthmus. The declaration of this large area as a wildlife refuge is an important first step to the protection of the remaining wilderness in the country's northeastern corner.
Tortuguero National Park: The creation of this park in 1970 gave much needed protection to one of the region's most important and unique natural resources: a 22-km. stretch of shoreline that serves as the principal nesting site throughout the western half of the Caribbean Sea for the Atlantic Green Sea Turtle. Watching these great reptiles emerge from the tropical sea and haul their 100+ kg. bodies ashore to lay their eggs under cover of darkness is truly a memorable spectacle. The nesting season for the green turtles extends from July to October.
An even larger species, the Leatherback Sea Turtle, also nests on these beaches from February to April, although most nesting is done in the southern portion of the park, far from the actual village of Tortuguero.
In addition to this vital strip of coastline, Tortuguero National Park protects 18,946 ha. of forested habit and an extensive network of freshwater creeks and lagoons. The aquatic environment is home to 7 species of river turtles, as well as Spectacled Caiman, Southern River Otters, the scarce and hard to see West Indian Manatee, the fierce-looking Alligator Gar -- a fish which has remained nearly unchanged in appearance since prehistoric times -- and numerous other fish species including Atlantic Snook and Atlantic Tarpon which bring anxious anglers to this region from all over the world.
Gliding through the tranquil backwaters in a small boat is as enjoyable and rewarding a way to watch wildlife as you're likely to find anywhere. And even if most of the diverse assortment of rain forest denizens manages to elude your gaze, the experience alone, along with the wonderful forest sounds, make this activity one of the highlights of any visit.
In 1994, the Caribbean Conservation Corporation finished a new Visitors Center Building just north of the village of Tortuguero and the exhibits on display are very well done and most informative.
Admission policy: Night walks on the beach to observe nesting sea turtles must be in the company of a trained and authorized local guide (arrangements can be made through any of the area hotels).
Getting there: Accessible only by boat or plane. The 30-minute flight from San José can be arranged with any of the private charter companies, or on the regularly scheduled TravelAir service.
Boats can be hired in Moín (just north of Limón) to take you up the canal system to Tortuguero. The length of time depends on the vessel (averages between two and four hours). Tortuguero can also be reached by boat from Puerto Viejo de Sarapiquí. This is a longer, but equally scenic journey which takes you down the Sarapiquí River to the San Juan River (at which point you will technically be in Nicaragua and thus must go through the corresponding border checks on both sides of the river), and then through Barra del Colorado Wildlife Refuge to Tortuguero. This route usually takes from four to six hours.
Fishing: The species and conditions are essentially the same as at Barra del Colorado.
Climate: This coastal region receives four to five meters of rain per year (sometimes more), so expect very warm and humid conditions.
History: The low-lying areas are of relatively recent geological formation being alluvial sediments washed down from the interior mountains, but the few hilly places in the region, including Tortuguero Hill near the mouth of the Tortuguero River, are remnant volcanic formations that date back to when this portion of Central America consisted of nothing more than an archipelago of volcanic islands.
At some time in the region's history, sea turtles discovered that the beach here made a suitable nesting site and have continued to return faithfully ever since. However, the Green Sea Turtle nearly declined to extinction due to excessive harvesting of its meat for turtle soup and of eggs poached from the nests for their supposed aphrodisiacal properties.
Fortunately, the efforts of the late Dr. Archie Carr, a biologist from the University of Florida, in Gainesville, were in time to initiate the preservation of the species before it was too late. In 1959, he formed the Caribbean Conservation Corporation for the purpose of studying and protecting sea turtles throughout the region. The turtle tagging program begun at Tortuguero in 1955 is still continuing today and has yielded much information about these enigmatic creatures.
Cahuita National Park: Despite having miles and miles of tropical coastline, Costa Rica has very little coral reef development. Cahuita National Park was created in 1970 to protect one of the few such areas in the country, and thus became Costa Rica's first marine national park (about 600 of the 1,067 hectares protected by the park are under water).
Unfortunately, there is not much live coral left at Cahuita, although an interesting assortment of marine life can be seen if the water conditions offer much visibility. While admiring the colorful fish and curious coral formations, be careful not to bump into any of the black spiny sea urchins, they're very painful, and very abundant in these waters.
The relatively small area of "dry" land contained in the park is quite swampy and has no trails going through it other than the trail along the beach from the village of Cahuita to the ranger station area at Puerto Vargas on the opposite side of Cahuita Point (about 7 km.). Sloths, monkeys, lizards, crabs, and many kinds of birds can be seen on the walk.
Getting there: Cahuita is located 42 km. south of Puerto Limón. From the south end of the village of Cahuita, access to the park is by foot trail. To drive into the park, go past the turn offs for the village and continue south until the sign for Puerto Vargas. Buses to and from Limón run several times a day.
Climate: Like the rest of the Caribbean lowlands, Cahuita is very warm and humid, with a chance of rain any day of the year.
History: Most of the original residents of the village of Cahuita were black people who had come to Costa Rica via Jamaica in the latter part of the 1800's to build the railroad or work the banana plantations. This cultural influence is still very much present in this and the other small coastal towns to the south (Puerto Viejo and Manzanillo).
Gandoca - Manzanillo National Wildlife Refuge: A recent addition to the Costa Rican system of parks and refuges and one of a growing number of protected areas that includes marine environments, this refuge consists of 5,013 ha. in its terrestrial portion and 4,436 ha. of marine habitat. The five-kilometer stretch off the coast from the village of Manzanillo to the area known as Punta Mona (Monkey Point) is populated by more live coral than is found on the reef at Cahuita to the north, however, the Manzanillo corals have not yet developed formations as large as those at Cahuita.
The refuge extends to the Sixaola River, which forms the border with Panama. Several other important habitats are protected in the southeastern sector of the refuge, including a sea turtle nesting beach, an estuary with a large population of red mangrove that serves as a spawning site for Atlantic Tarpon, oysters, and many other marine organisms, and a 400 ha. area of swamp forest in which the most common plant is the Raphia Palm -- a short-trunked palm tree having the distinction of being the plant with the largest leaves in the world, since each frond can reach lengths of 12 m. or more.
Getting there: From Puerto Limón, take the road south towards Cahuita and Bribri, but after Cahuita take the turn off in Hone Creek for Puerto Viejo and follow the dirt road all the way to where it ends in Manzanillo. From Manzanillo you can hike to Punta Mona (min. 5 hrs., round-trip). There are one or two public buses a day that run from Manzanillo to Limón.
The southeastern part of the refuge is reached by driving to Bribri and continuing on to the town of Sixaola where a boat must be hired to go downriver to the mouth (at least 3 hrs., round-trip). An alternative, if you have a 4X4 vehicle or hire a jeep taxi, is to drive through the banana plantations west of Sixaola to get to the settlement of Gandoca. In Gandoca, inquire about hiring a dugout for exploring the Gandoca River estuary. There is direct bus service from San José all the way to Sixaola.
It is probably safe to venture that the Gandoca-Manzanillo Wildlife Refuge is one of the least visited reserves in the National Park system.
Fishing: Although potential ought to exist in the area with the important estuaries, no industry or facilities have yet been developed.
Climate: Very warm and humid, the driest months are March and April.
History: The inclusion of this area in the National Park system is in large part due to the efforts of a group known as ANAI (Asociación de los Nuevos Alquimistas) that has its roots in the New Alchemy Institute in North Carolina. A group of people belonging to this organization have been working in the region for several decades in projects concerning tropical agriculture systems and appropriate technology and saw the need to protect the remaining bits of land still in their natural state.
Hitoy - Cerere Biological Reserve: This 9,154 ha. reserve on the interior side of the Valle de la Estrella protects a remote and relatively unexplored area of rain forest. Trails through the forest are limited in extent and tend to be very muddy. One of the best ways of penetrating the reserve is to walk the river beds upstream. This is also a good way to be able to glimpse the strikingly patterned Sunbittern, a bird that frequents tropical streams.
Just getting to the reserve can make for an interesting all-day adventure (see "Getting there"). Huge colonies of Montezuma Oropendolas and Chestnut-headed Oropendolas, large members of the oriole family with bright yellow tails, can be found nesting in the valley from January to August. Nest trees are easy to spot since they sport dozens of meter-long hanging pouch nests that the birds so expertly weave.
Getting there: From Limón, drive towards Cahuita and turn right at the sign for Penshurst (about 34 km. from Puerto Limón). In about nine kilometers you will reach the extensive banana plantations of the Estrella River Valley, where navigation becomes a bit tricky and even claustrophobic as you drive for nearly 10 kilometers through a seemingly endless maze of bananas (it's a good idea to ask directions of people you encounter). Once beyond the banana plantations, the dirt road begins to rise above the valley floor and offers some nice vistas. Four-wheel-drive will also be necessary during these last 14 kilometers to the reserve entrance.
Climate: Be prepared for rain. The daytime temperatures are warm, but given that the reserve is at an elevation of several hundred meters, it could get a bit cool if you are camping overnight.
History: The name of this reserve comes from the two main rivers that run through it, the Hitoy and the Cerere. These are names in the Bribri language which mean "moss-covered" and "clear waters," respectively.
The epicenter of the April 1991 quake that damaged much of the province, was located near the biological reserve which suffered numerous landslides and tree falls.
Peñas Blancas National Wildlife Refuge: Another fairly recent addition to the National Wildlife Refuge system, the 2,400 ha. Peñas Blancas Refuge was declared to protect what remained of three different forest types on the slopes of this region. While already significantly deforested, the lower portions of the refuge contain examples of tropical dry forest. Going up higher in elevation, you will encounter tropical moist forest, and as you approach the ridge, premontane moist forest, characterized by the predominance of live oaks.
Given the disturbed nature of much of the original habitat, wildlife viewing opportunities here are less than superlative, though the more common and widespread mammal species are present, as are a wide variety of birds due to the occurrence of three distinct life zones. However, there are no visitor facilities in the refuge, nor is the area itself well-marked.
Getting there: Take the PanAmerican Highway to the Miramar exit (6 km. north of Barranca). From Miramar, take the road out of town to the east (ask directions for Sabana Bonita). Beyond Sabana Bonita, take the left fork at the T-intersection which will bring you to the village of Peñas Blancas. A four-wheel-drive may be necessary, depending on what the current road conditions are.
Climate: Warm in the lower sector of the refuge and cooling as you gain elevation, the rainy season is from May to November.
Guayabo, Negritos and Pájaros Islands Biological Reserves: These four unpopulated islands (Negritos consists of two islands) in the Gulf of Nicoya were included in the national park system as biological reserves to protect seabird nesting colonies and to spare them from tourism or other development. The park service maintains no facilities for visitors on any of the islands, nor are there any trails to speak of.
Essentially steep-walled chunks of rock jutting above the ocean's surface, these islands support low, scrubby, dry forest vegetation. The thin soil and limited annual rainfall combine to produce harsh conditions for plant growth. However, the western Negritos island once had someone living on it, as is surmised from the remains of a wooden house and various introduced fruit trees. Pre-Columbian pottery fragments found on the same island indicate that it may have been used as a burial site by the previous inhabitants of the Nicoya Peninsula.
Getting there: Probably the easiest way to see the Guayabo and Negritos Islands is to take one of the daily cruises from Puntarenas to Tortuga Island, since the route taken on these excursions passes by these islands. Likewise, the ferry from Puntarenas to Paquera also passes near Guayabo Island.
The only other alternative for closer examination of these island biological reserves would be to hire a small boat to take you out to them. This could possibly be done in the village of Paquera, or to visit Isla Pájaros, in the village of Costa de Pájaros located 21 kilometers off the PanAmerican Highway, north of Puntarenas.
Climate: Hot and sunny most days of the year. The small amount of rain that does affect these islands falls between May and November.
Curú National Wildlife Refuge: The mere 84 ha. of this coastal refuge are effectively enlarged by being part of the 1,214 ha. farm that surrounds the reserve and protects much more forested habitat than the typical farm/ranch found in the region. The ecological-mindedness of the Shutz family, the farm's proprietors, has maintained natural habitat along the ridges, rivercourses, and beach areas in the refuge and the farm. Several trails traverse the area and permit good wildlife viewing opportunities.
White-throated Capuchin Monkeys tend to be quite easily seen in the refuge, as are White-nosed Coatis, Variegated Squirrels, Nine-banded Armadillos, and White-tailed Deer. The bird life is representative of the tropical dry forest and includes Black-headed Trogons, Turquoise-browed Motmots, Rose-throated Becards, Thicket Tinamous, Lesser Ground-Cuckoos, and Canivet's Emeralds.
Additionally, an area of mangrove swamp and three picturesque beaches are part of the refuge. The largest beach, Curú Beach, is an excellent swimming beach with very little wave action. The crystalline waters off the other two beaches, Poza Colorada and Quesera, offer good snorkeling around some coral formations. On top of Quesera Point a large shell midden can be seen that is evidence of pre-Columbian habitation of this easterly end of the Nicoya Peninsula.
Getting there: From Puntarenas, take the Paquera ferry (lancha) across the gulf. The entrance to the farm is 5 km. south of Paquera, and from the farm gate (first one on your left after leaving Paquera) to the refuge is another 1.5 km. Phone: 661-2392.
Fishing: Although located on the Pacific coast, this area is not known as one of the deep-sea fishing hot spots, perhaps because it is too far into the Gulf of Nicoya or because of overfishing by the regional fishermen(?).
Climate: Hot and sunny mornings are the norm throughout the year. Afternoon showers are a possibility from May through November.
History: The desire of the late Federico Shutz and his family to spare this beautiful beach area from development and overharvesting of its marine resources, led to the creation of the Curú National Wildlife Refuge in 1983.
Cabo Blanco Absolute Nature Reserve: Occupying 1,172 ha. on the extreme southern tip of the Nicoya Peninsula, Cabo Blanco Absolute Nature Reserve predates the creation of the National Park Service system, to which it now belongs. Despite its restrictive sounding administrative category, visitors are allowed into the reserve, even though they are only permitted to use one of the existing trails.
The southern portion of the peninsula receives more rain than the area to the north which results in a different look and feel to the forest. Cabo Blanco is characterized by tropical moist forest with many evergreen areas, although numerous plant species found in the tropical dry forest also occur here. One of these is the spiny cedar, or pochote, which can be identified by the sharp, conical spines protruding from the bark. The white "shaving brush" flowers are pollinated at night by bats.
Animals that can be seen in the daytime here include the Variegated Squirrel, Mantled Howler Monkey, White-throated Capuchin Monkey, Central American Agouti, White-nosed Coati, and with some luck even the Jaguarundi, the most diurnal of Costa Rica's six species of wild cats. The variety of habitats from rocky coastline to marsh to moist forest provide homes to many other kinds of creatures, too.
While it is extremely unlikely that you will run into any Procompsognathus, the small prehistoric scavengers that escaped to Cabo Blanco from Jurassic Park in Michael Crichton's novel, there is an area along the beach at the southern end of the cape where marine fossils dating back at least 20 million years can be found in the exposed rocks. An extinct species of giant oyster is among the more common fossils.
Offshore from the point lies Cabo Blanco ("White Cape") Island, from whence the area's name is derived. This rugged piece of rock is devoid of plant life, but harbors abundant roosting seabirds. It is estimated that more than 800 Brown Boobies alone live here, making it the largest colony of this species in Costa Rica. The accumulated guano from so many birds causes the white color visible from the mainland.
Getting there: The reserve lies 11 km. south of the funky beach village of Montezuma (the nearest accommodations). From Montezuma, a four-wheel-drive vehicle is practically a necessity, even during the dry season. Transportation can be arranged for in Montezuma.
To get to Montezuma, take the Paquera ferry from Puntarenas and then continue south for approximately 40 km. There is also public bus service to Montezuma from the village of Relleno where the ferry docks.
Fishing: The rich concentration of nutrients from the seabird colony on Cabo Blanco provides for abundant fish life around the point and ocean currents bring in pelagic species such as billfish and tuna making for excellent sport fishing opportunities. Charter services out of Puntarenas and hotels on the southern portion of the peninsula and even the Jacó area can all reach this spot on a day's outing.
Climate: Even though this sector of the Nicoya Peninsula receives an average of 2.3 meters of rain annually, making it the wettest part of the region, there is still a pronounced dry season from December through April. Being a lowland site, expect temperatures to be hot in the daytime and pleasant in the evening.
History: Cabo Blanco received its protected status in 1963, due primarily to the efforts of the late Olof Wessberg, who a decade earlier had come to Costa Rica from his native Sweden. Living on a farm in the southern end of the Nicoya Peninsula, Wessberg was saddened by the amount of deforestation in the region and took steps to interest the government in doing something to save a patch of remaining forest. He was instrumental in gaining the financial support of conservation organizations in Sweden, England, Austria, and the U.S. Enough funds were contributed to allow the purchase and administration of what is now Cabo Blanco Absolute Nature Reserve.
Carara Biological Reserve: The 4,700 ha. Carara Biological Reserve occupies a unique position at the transition zone between tropical moist forest and tropical wet forest in the Pacific lowlands. Though most of the vegetation in the reserve remains evergreen and is characteristic of the wet forest life zone, there are a number of species that lose their leaves during the dry season, showing their affinity to the drier climate found north of the reserve.
However, Carara's main attraction for most visitors is its wildlife, and star billing goes to the Scarlet Macaw. These large, raucous members of the parrot family add a bright splash of primary colors to the overall green of the rain forest, although at times it is amazing how difficult they can be to see in a leafy tree. It is estimated that about 150 of these blatant birds feed and nest in the reserve. When not brooding eggs or young, they roost in mangroves several kilometers away.
In addition to this and other colorful tropical species, the forest is home to many somber-hued bird species that often travel together in mixed flocks that are a true delight (and challenge!) to birdwatchers. Of the many kinds of birds that can be found in such flocks, a few of the more common ones are the Black-hooded Antshrike, Dot-winged Antwren, Long-billed Gnatwren, Chestnut-backed Antbird, and Lesser Greenlet.
Although the reserve is too small to provide sufficient territory to the larger cats, it does maintain populations of Margay, Ocelot, and Jaguarundi. Collared Peccaries, Central American Agoutis, Banded Anteaters, and White-nosed Coatis may be spotted as they go about their daily routines.
Reptiles and amphibians are well-represented in Carara, though most species are either cryptic or nocturnal and therefore not readily seen. Of the frogs, one species that is fairly common and active during the day is the Harlequin Poison-dart Frog, a handsome creature that is charcoal black with fluorescent green markings. On sunny mornings, whiptail lizards are frequently encountered along the forest trails basking in flecks of light that reach down through the canopy to the ground.
A truly memorable spectacle is standing by the Tarcoles River bridge before sunset and watching the Scarlet Macaws fly out to roost (literally flying into the sunset). Shortly after dawn, the birds make the return flight back to the reserve. While at the bridge, scan the river banks for American Crocodiles. These grotesque-looking reptiles are very abundant along this stretch of the river and the biggest ones can measure nearly 4 meters.
Getting there: From San José, take the PanAmerican Highway west to the Atenas exit, and follow the old highway through the mountains to the town of Orotina where you rejoin a more modern highway. Take the Jacó turnoff and follow this coastal highway south until you come to the bridge over the Tarcoles River. The reserve begins at the river, but the administration building is another three kilometers farther down the highway.
By car, it is less than two hours from San José to the reserve headquarters. Public buses going to Jacó or Quepos/Manuel Antonio will let you off at the reserve.
Climate: Hot and humid, even during most of the dry season which lasts from January through April. The forest transpires sufficient moisture to cause sporadic showers to fall occasionally in the dry months helping the vegetation to stay evergreen. At the height of the rainy season (August to October), portions of the reserve near the river and other smaller streams often become inundated from the heavy rains.
History: The existence of this marvelous example of tropical wet forest in the midst of an area that has otherwise been seriously altered by the effects of deforestation is owed to the fact that before being included in the national park system, Carara was part of a huge cattle ranch known as "El Coyolar." The ranch was so extensive that there apparently was never a need to cut the forest in this hilly "back 40."
When the ranch was taken over by the Costa Rican Land Reform Agency in the mid-1970's and parceled off in small farms, fortunately someone with foresight realized the ecological value of the forested sector and the area was declared a biological reserve to be administered by the young park service.
Ten years after its creation, Carara was still relatively unknown and seldom visited even though a paved highway passed right in front of it. However, as tourism has grown tremendously in the country, Carara is now one of the five most visited sites in the entire national park system.
Manuel Antonio National Park: With a mere 682 ha. of land area, Manuel Antonio is one of the smallest of Costa Rica's national parks. However, with its idyllic beaches, excellent wildlife viewing opportunities, relative ease of access, and good surrounding infrastructure, this is one of the country's most visited parks.
Part of the park's scenic beauty is provided by Cathedral Point, a 72 meter-high point of land that is covered by rain forest. The point was formerly an island just off the mainland, but ocean currents caused the deposition of sand between the two until eventually they were connected, forming a geological feature known as a tombolo. The park's two most frequented beaches, Manuel Antonio and Espadilla Sur, are the sandy arcs on either side of the narrow strip of land that joins Cathedral Point with the mainland.
Due to the diminutive size of the park and the quantity of visitors it receives, much of the wildlife that can still be found here is quite accustomed to human presence and will allow close approach, particularly the White-throated Capuchin Monkeys, Central American Squirrel Monkeys, Brown-throated Three-toed Sloths, White-nosed Coatis, Central American Agoutis and Ctenosaur Lizards. [Note: These are still wild animals and should be respected and treated as such, enjoy the opportunity for a close look, but do not attempt to touch or feed them!]
This is one of the best places in Costa Rica to see Brown-throated Three-toed Sloths. These fascinating, but slow-moving animals feed exclusively on plant material -- the low-energy diet results in their slow metabolism -- and though they are known to eat the leaves of more than 100 species of trees and vines, they are most easily seen when feeding (or resting) in Cecropia trees.
Cecropias are common pioneer trees with large palmate leaves and ringed trunks that make them easy to recognize. The abundance of cecropias and other second growth species in the park is probably in part responsible for the high sloth population.
This is also one of only two areas in the country where the endangered Central American Squirrel Monkey is found. These are the smallest of the four monkey species in Costa Rica, and the only ones without a prehensile tail. They forage actively for insects and fruit in large groups of 30 or more individuals.
Butterflies, birds, and large colorful land crabs are more of the plentiful inhabitants that provide interest during a trail walk through the park. And, if the waters are clear enough, a variety of marine life can be seen by snorkeling around the rocky ends of either beach.
Getting there: Manuel Antonio is approximately four hours from San José by car, taking the PanAmerican Highway west to the Atenas exit, and following the old highway through the mountains to the town of Orotina where you rejoin a more modern highway. Take the Jacó turnoff and follow this coastal highway south to the town of Quepos. From here it's 7 km. to Manuel Antonio. There is regular public bus service to/from San José, but tickets should be purchased in advance, especially during peak tourism periods (from December through March and on weekends).
Flying on the local commercial airlines is another alternative. The flight takes about 18 minutes and the airstrip is about 20 minutes from Manuel Antonio.
The park itself is entered by crossing a small estuary near where it empties into the ocean. At low tide, this rivulet is usually no more than ankle-deep, but at extreme high tides it can be as much as a meter and a half deep! Either time your coming and going accordingly, or be prepared to get wet.
Fishing: The Quepos area is the center for sportfishing in the Central Pacific region of Costa Rica with several charter services operating here. Most anglers are going for billfish which provide plenty of action throughout the year, but especially from December through April. Tuna, dorado, and roosterfish are other reliable alternatives when not seeking sailfish and marlin.
Climate: Though hot and humid throughout the year, the shade produced by the evergreen vegetation and the gentle sea breezes help to ameliorate the heat. The dry season extends from December to April, nearly 4 meters of rainfall is the average accumulation during the remaining months of the year.
History: The creation of Manuel Antonio National Park was another victory for conservation. Although the area had been in private hands for some time, the public had always been allowed to use the beaches. However, when the property was bought by a North American in 1968, things changed. Padlocked gates and fences were put up to keep people out, leading to great discontent among the local inhabitants, who reacted with acts of vandalism.
The local municipal government decreed that access to the beach could not be restricted (this is actually a nationwide law), and the American ended up selling the land to a Frenchman. This new owner apparently had plans to develop the site into a tourism facility, but before he could do so, the land was expropriated by the government and in November of 1972, Manuel Antonio National Park was officially declared, even though the funds to pay for the land acquisition were not completely obtained until 1975.
Ironically, since the mid-1980's, the park service has maintained a locked gate policy on the service road entrance to the park. This one-lane wide gravel road, known as the Perezoso Trail for its abundance of Three-toed Sloths, is a wonderful place for nature observation without having to cross through the estuary by the main entrance -- if only you were allowed to go in this way.
Ballena Marine National Park: This is one of a number of new parks designed to preserve Costa Rica's varied, abundant, but largely unstudied marine resources. The name "ballena" is Spanish for whale and reportedly the offshore waters in this part of the country are used as a wintering area by several species of migratory whales, including Humpback Whales and Pilot Whales. Undoubtedly, the most common marine mammals in the vicinity are Spotted Dolphins which are year-round residents.
Since almost the entire park is marine environment, there obviously are no trails, however, for those interested in diving and snorkeling there are good opportunities around the small islands of Ballena and Las Tres Hermanas.
Getting there: The best way to visit this park is by boat, however, it's a fairly long way from either Quepos or Drake's Bay (more than 40 km.), the two nearest areas with much tourism development and boats equipped for making the run. Eventually (it could still be decades), the government plans to complete the southern portion of the coastal highway between Quepos and Palmar. If the existing dirt road is ever improved it will open up the terrestrial access to this area.
Fishing: Theoretically, the sport fishing in this part of the country ought to be good, although these waters are not often fished owing to their distance from the established charter operations in the region.
La Amistad International Park: The name of this huge wilderness area translates as the International Friendship Park and derives from the fact that it extends into neighboring Panama. The Costa Rican portion accounts for about half of the total area and is in itself the largest protected area in the country with more than 190,000 ha.
The majority of the park's territory is in the province of Limón on the Caribbean side of the Talamanca Cordillera. However, this sector of the park is very difficult to reach, thus, all three existing ranger stations are located on the Pacific side of the ridge. Hiking into the park from any of these entrances will bring you through a variety of life zones as you continue uphill. Lower montane wet forest, characterized by impressive oak forests where Resplendent Quetzals dwell, is one of the principal habitats encountered on the way up to the higher peaks where low-growing paramo vegetation occurs on the highest summits along the ridge. For the most part, though, the trails through this region are not well-marked.
Given the immense size of the park and the variety of life zones it contains, it has been estimated that at least 60% of all the animal species in the country, from termites to primates, can be found within its boundaries. (The only problem is getting to the boundaries and then beyond.)
Getting there: All three ranger stations are located on the southern slopes of the Talamanca Cordillera. From San José, take the PanAmerican Highway south beyond the town of Buenos Aires to the Paso Real ferry crossing over the Río Grande de Térraba. Once across the river it is only a few kilometers to the Potrero Grande turnoff which leads eventually to the Helechales guard post, 14 km. past Potrero Grande. Four-wheel-drive will likely be necessary on this last stretch.
To get to the other two stations, ignore the Potrero Grande turnoff and continue on the paved road to San Vito. Drive northeast out of San Vito to the Las Mellizas ranger station, about 40 km. There is public bus service from San Vito to Las Mellizas.
The La Escuadra ranger station can be reached by driving north out of San Vito toward the village of Santa Elena (there is also public bus service this far) and then hiking to the village of Agua Caliente and the remaining 14 km. to the guard post.
Climate: The climate is cool and damp at all three of the park ranger stations, and gets colder as you hike up to the top of the ridges. February and March are the driest months.
Corcovado National Park: Among tropical biologists and naturalists the name "Corcovado" has taken on almost mythical significance. The fabled reputation of this vast tract of tropical rain forest (41,788 ha.) is not without justification.
The forests themselves, especially those on the ridges and hillsides, have a natural magnificence about them that inspires reverence. Many of the largest trees that grow to heights of 50 meters or more sport enormous buttresses around their bases. Upon close inspection, a botanist could discover as many as 100 different species of trees on any given hectare in this habitat. And that's just trees! Consider all of the varied kinds of vines, shrubs, and epiphytes and you've got an incredibly diverse flora.
Such varied plant life forms the base for a tremendously diverse fauna, from insects on up. For example, it has been estimated that as many as 10,000 insect species may inhabit Corcovado, and researchers have identified 42 species of frogs, 28 species of lizards, 123 species of butterflies, and 16 species of hummingbirds. All six species of felines found in Costa Rica are known to exist in this wilderness area, as are the four native species of monkeys. Additionally, Corcovado supports the country's largest populations of White-lipped Peccaries and Scarlet Macaws, both greatly endangered species due to loss of habitat and hunting or trapping by man.
This great biological diversity still exists in Corcovado because of its remoteness and the fact that most of the park has suffered relatively little disturbance by humans in the past.
For serious backpackers, Corcovado offers a trail system (although much of this is along hot, open beaches) between the six different ranger stations where you can camp with prior permission.
Admission policy: If you are interested in staying overnight at any of the park ranger stations, prior permission and reservations are necessary and can be obtained through the park headquarters in Puerto Jiménez (Phone: 735-5036).
Getting there: The quickest and easiest way to get into Corcovado National Park is to fly in a single-engine charter plane and land at the Sirena ranger station airstrip. This is a truly memorable experience in itself, unfortunately, it is also relatively expensive. Flights to Sirena can be arranged with any of several companies at the Pavas airport (west of San José) or at the airport in Golfito.
Perhaps the best way to visit Corcovado without really roughing it is to stay at one of the nature lodges in the Drake's Bay area. From these lodges day trips can be made (by boat) to the northwestern sector of the park at San Pedrillo. The lodge or your travel agency can make arrangements for you to fly to the Palmar airport on a regularly scheduled commercial flight, be driven to the town of Sierpe, and then taken by boat through a large mangrove system and out the mouth of the Sierpe River into the ocean and across to Drake's Bay -- something of an adventure in its own right.
The other alternatives for those with backpacks are to get to the towns of La Palma or Puerto Jiménez on the Golfo Dulce side of the Osa Peninsula and hike into the interior of the park, or continue all the way around the tip of the peninsula to the settlement of Carate and hike into the park along the beach.
Fishing: Several of the lodges in the Drake's Bay area offer the option of deep-sea fishing. The region is particularly well-known for its abundance of Wahoo, Roosterfish, and Pacific Cubera Snapper, but billfish and tuna are also out there.
Climate: If it weren't for the high heat and humidity and more than four meters of average annual rainfall, this area wouldn't have rain forest. The driest months of the year are February, March, and April, the wettest are September and October.
History: In the mid-1930's, when settlement of the country's southern Pacific region was being spurred by the development of banana plantations, hunters that ventured into this area discovered gold nuggets along several of the rivers that cut through the hilly southern portion of what is today Corcovado National Park. The resulting "gold fever" brought numerous fortune-seekers into the areas known as Madrigal and Carate, where this activity in the form of placer mining can still be seen outside of the park limits.
When the park was created in 1975, the few miners that were working inside the newly formed boundaries were permitted to stay since their activities were seen as being beneficial to the national economy. However, the number of miners in the park continued to increase (and so did damage to the stream ecosystems and the larger species of wildlife -- read: "fresh meat") until in 1986 there were some 1,000 people involved. The situation had gotten so out of hand that the park was closed to the public for several months while the rangers, assisted by hundreds of rural policeman from throughout the country, evicted the miners.
That drastic action has not totally solved the problem, but the incidence of illegal gold mining inside the park is much less now.
The park owes its existence to the international scientific community's concern for tropical rain forest conservation. Since its inception, the National Park Service had been interested in including this expansive and ecologically invaluable tract of forest in the park system, but unfortunately, funding and public opinion did not permit the purchase of such a remote piece of land.
However, in 1975, several potentially critical problems came to the government's attention. An increase in the number of families homesteading in this part of the Osa Peninsula, the threat of a large-scale logging operation by an international lumbering consortium that held title to much of the area's land, and reports of excessive hunting, caused the region to become a matter of concern.
Foreign scientists who had worked in this wonderfully diverse habitat petitioned the then-President, the late Daniel Oduber, to take measures to protect this national resource. They were also of great help in obtaining international donations to fund part of the land acquisition necessary to get the squatters and the lumber company to leave the area. But in the end it was the interest with which President Oduber himself attended to the situation that made Corcovado National Park a reality and earned him the Albert Schweitzer award from the Animal Welfare Institute for his efforts.
Caño Island Biological Reserve: This 300-hectare island rises 30 meters above the ocean's surface and is clearly visible from the western end of the Osa Peninsula, some 15 kilometers away. The distance was not an obstacle to the pre-Columbian peoples that inhabited the mainland and utilized the island as a burial site. Not only did they ferry their dead across this stretch of open water, but they also transported large spherical stones to the cemetery on top of the island. Some of these can still be seen today together with fragments of pottery and stoneware left behind by careless tomb robbers during the latter half of the 20th century.
The diversity of plant and animal species on Caño Island pales in comparison to that of Corcovado National Park on the nearby mainland. For example, fewer than 60 species of trees and only 4 species of orchids are known to grow on the island. Likewise, there are just 4 species each of snakes, lizards, and frogs on the island, and only a dozen kinds of birds breed on this offshore sanctuary. This paucity of terrestrial flora and fauna results from the isolating effects of being an island.
However, where Caño really comes into its own in terms of diversity is in its marine realm. The oceanic sector of the reserve protects 5,800 ha. of marine habitat surrounding the island. A mask, snorkel, and fins are all you need to appreciate the abundance and variety of aquatic life just below the surface. The beach in front of the ranger station is a good swimming beach and the submerged rocks on either side provide hours of snorkeling entertainment with such colorful fish as Moorish Idols, Blue Parrotfish, King Angelfish, Spotted Sharpnose Puffers, Barberfish, and Rainbow Wrasses. Scuba diving is also permitted at one or two sites.
Along the little stream that flows beside the ranger station you can get good looks at the so-called Jesus Christ Lizard doing its thing. More properly termed Lineated Basilisk Lizards, these brownish reptiles can't actually walk across water, but they do run across the surface, reared up on their hind legs so that the flaps of skin on their long toes spread out and function as miniature paddles. The little ones are best at executing this startling maneuver, but if you find a fully developed adult male with its head crest and dorsal fins, you will be looking at an awe-inspiring creature.
Getting there: Access is by boat only. Most visitors to the island come from the lodges in the Drake's Bay area. (The lodge or your travel agency can make arrangements for you to fly to the Palmar airport on a regularly scheduled commercial flight, be driven to the town of Sierpe, and then taken by boat through a large mangrove system and out the mouth of the Sierpe River into the ocean and across to Drake's Bay.)
Fishing: Several of the lodges in the Drake's Bay area offer the option of deep-sea fishing. The waters around the island are particularly well-known for their abundance of Wahoo, Roosterfish, and Pacific Cubera Snapper, but billfish and tuna are also out there.
Climate: Caño Island receives even more precipitation than the adjacent mainland, and so is hot and very humid all year long. From February through April is the driest part of the year.
History: There is much conjecture about the use of the island in pre-Columbian times. Some researchers suggest that the island was actually inhabited at some point. Most assume it was used only as a final resting place, and many assert that this form of interment was reserved only for the more privileged members of the native societies. Sadly, due to the ransacking of the burial sites prior to any investigations by archeologists, we will probably never know with final certainty the exact role that the island played in these vanished cultures.
Caño Island was first given protection as part of Corcovado National Park in 1976. The declaration came in response to a well-organized outcry by the Costa Rican Association of Biologists which in 1973 protested energetically against the leasing of the island to a foreign company with plans to develop it for international tourism. The result was a victory for local conservationists, and one in which scientific arguments outweighed economic interests in the final decision.
Eventually the National Park Service gave the island its own administration by separating it from Corcovado and making it a biological reserve.
Golfito National Wildlife Refuge: Similar in many respects to the much larger Corcovado National Park, this small, 1,309 ha. refuge offers easy access to tropical rain forest. In fact, to get to the forest from the town of Golfito, all you have to do is walk in any direction -- except into the ocean.
Due to its proximity to town, this forest has suffered the effects of hunting and many of the larger birds and mammals that are still found in Corcovado are no longer likely at the Golfito refuge. However, the plant life and the smaller species of fauna are very representative of the region's rain forests. The Black-cheeked Ant-Tanager is a small, darkish bird known only from this southern corner of the country and has not even been reported from neighboring Panama.
Other bird species with limited distributions that can be found in this area are the Yellow-billed Cotinga, Golden-naped Woodpecker, Orange-collared Manakin, Riverside Wren, and Baird's Trogon. Birdwatching can be quite good along the seven-kilometer gravel road that ascends to the radio towers on the ridge behind town.
Of interest to botanists and foresters is a tree species in the genus Caryodaphnopsis which has been discovered growing in the refuge but is unknown from anywhere else in Costa Rica. This genus, related to the avocado, is represented in the New World by one other species which occurs in the Peruvian Amazon. The rest of the genus is found in the Orient.
Getting there: From San José take the PanAmerican Highway south towards Panama. At the town of Río Claro, take the turnoff for Golfito. Total distance is 342 km. Public bus service also exists between San José and Golfito.
Alternatively, two domestic commercial airline companies offer regular service between San José and Golfito.
Fishing: The Golfito region's reputation as a sportfishing destination is growing fast. At least 8 charter operators currently cater to fishermen that venture this far south. Billfish can be found most of the year, although they normally slack off between April and June. The remainder of the catch consists of jacks, mackerel, snappers, snook, and big roosters.
Climate: Like the rest of the southern Pacific lowlands, the weather is hot and humid with a short dry season from January to April.
History: When the United Fruit Company moved its banana growing operation to the southern part of Costa Rica in the mid-1930's, Golfito was chosen as the site for a port because of its protected waters. It also became the principal living area for many of the higher level administrators, including the international staff -- who imported many non-native ornamental plant species into the area, thus making Golfito of additional appeal for those with an interest in botanical curiosities.
Due to the rugged topography surrounding the port town, the area's forests were spared from conversion to banana monocultures and it was these forests that the government decided to protect with the declaration of the Golfito National Wildlife Refuge in the late 1980s, partly to assure the town's water supply.
As a result of a prolonged worker strike marred by violence, the banana company decided to abandon its activities in this region in the mid-1980's. This caused an immediate economic crisis for the local population. One of the government's attempts to help solve the situation was to stimulate tourism to this area so distant from the center of the country. A large duty-free shopping complex was built to attract Costa Ricans that often travel to Panama to buy at bargain prices. With the creation of the wildlife refuge it was also hoped that more foreign tourism would come to this small tropical port town.
Cocos Island National Park: All alone in the Pacific Ocean, this 2,400 hectare island of ancient volcanic rock rises to a height of 634 meters and is covered with luxuriant rain forest. Isolated as it is, few species of plants and animals have managed to colonize its shores over the ages, and of those that have, many of evolved into distinct forms from those that originally reached the island. As on islands everywhere, this process has resulted in the creation of endemics -- species found nowhere else in the world.
Among the endemic creatures of Cocos Island are 2 species of small lizards, 65 insects, various types of freshwater fishes, and three birds, the Cocos Cuckoo, Cocos Flycatcher, and Cocos Finch. This last species is related to the famous Darwin's finches of the Galapagos Islands, several hundred kilometers to the south.
Unfortunately, one way that some species reach remote islands is through introductions by man. In the case of Cocos, humans have been responsible for bringing pigs, cats, goats, and white-tailed deer to the island, as well as plants such as coffee and guava. These non-native species can often cause great damage to the existing flora and fauna, which has happened on Cocos, especially with the pigs and cats.
What draws most visitors to Cocos, however, is the incredible diving experience it offers to those willing to venture the voyage. The visibility in the waters around the island is exceptional and the quantity and variety of marine life is simply astounding. The greatest thrill for most divers is witnessing the huge schools of Hammerhead Sharks that are notoriously famous in these waters, although fortunately not known to be aggressive towards humans.
Getting there: From the port of Puntarenas, navigate on a southwest course for 620 km. and you can't miss it. Actually, since Cocos Island is so far away from the Costa Rican mainland, the only feasible way of visiting the island is with one of the live-aboard diving ships that offer 10-day tours (6 days are spent at the island since it takes about 36 hours traveling time each way). That is, of course, unless you have a private yacht.
Fishing: The opportunities are unimaginable, but its a helluva long way to go just to fish!
History: Tales of pirates and buried treasure are commonly associated with Cocos Island and it is said that this isolated spot was the inspiration for Robert Louis Stevenson's novel, Treasure Island.
Supposedly the island was used as a hideout by buccaneers during colonial times, due to its remoteness, abundance of fresh water, and safe anchorage in both Wafer and Chatham Bays. To have a source of fresh meat each time they returned to the island, these ocean-going outlaws released pigs and goats on the island (causing serious ecological damage to the island's plant life, but this obviously was of no concern to them).
At least three treasures are rumored to have been buried on the island, one by Capt. Edward Davis in 1685, another by Benito Bonito in 1820, and the third a year later by Capt. William Thompson. This final booty was the legendary "Treasure of Lima." As far as is known, although hundreds of attempts have been made to unearth the treasures, none have been successful in finding anything more than a few doubloons.
Scientists and naturalists agree, however, that the greatest riches to be found here are the biological ones. It was the uniqueness of the island's flora and fauna along with the bountiful marine life that earned the island its place among the Costa Rican national parks via an Executive Decree in 1978.
Unfortunately, this status alone has not been adequate in protecting the area's marine resources. Numerous reports cite cases of sharks being caught for their fins, and after these have been removed, the animals are tossed back into the sea to die an agonizing death. Illegal fishing continues to be a problem within the park's jurisdiction as insufficient manpower and funding leave the park service incapable of effectively confronting the situation.
Recently, the Cousteau Society, at the invitation of former Costa Rican President, Rodrigo Carazo, has shown great interest in helping to protect the island's marine inhabitants and hopefully adequate protection will be achieved in the future.
Chirripó National Park: Known as the home of Costa Rica's highest peak, Mount Chirripó, images of stunted alpine vegetation and bare rock are most often associated with this park. Nonetheless, the 50,150 hectares that comprise the park actually contain a variety of other fascinating ecosystems and on the 10-hour hike to the shelters on top of the mountain one passes through lower montane rain forest and montane rain forest, before finally emerging into subalpine rain paramo. The high humidity and abundant precipitation foster the luxuriant growth of mosses, bromeliads, and other epiphytes on the trunks and branches of the forest trees, of which the predominant species are several types of truly majestic live oaks (Quercus spp.).
As the tree line is neared, the vegetation becomes more and more stunted until at an elevation of about 3,300 meters the paramo begins. This is a conglomeration of low-growing plants that have evolved various adaptations for dealing with the harsh climate at the summit which is characterized by intense ultraviolet radiation, abrupt temperature change, high rainfall, and frequent frosts.
But don't despair, the weather could be worse! Ample geologic evidence is present on the summit of the Chirripó massif to indicate that some 25,000 years ago the area was covered by glacial ice. This glacier formed during the last of the Great Ice Ages when much of the northern hemisphere was also beneath ice, although the Chirripó glacier was not connected to those glaciers. A dozen or more small glacial lakes, piles of rounded rocks (moraines), and U-shaped valleys are all mute testimony to the existence of the former ice cover.
Admission policy: Due to the limited space at the shelters, advance reservations are necessary before making the climb up Mount Chirripó. To make reservations you must go to the National Park Service offices in San José on calle 25, between avenidas 8 and 10 (Phone: 192). If there is space for the dates you are interested in, you must prepay the entrance fee as well as the shelter use fee (per person per day).
Getting there: A vehicle will get you as far as the town of San Gerardo de Rivas (about 18 km. northeast of San Isidro del General), from there it is a 16 km. hike to the shelters near the geological formation known as Los Crestones. Using the shelter as a base camp, it is another 6 km. to the actual summit of Mt. Chirripó. Since the hike to the shelters takes about 10 hours, it is a good idea to get an early start and it is possible to overnight in San Gerardo as there are a couple of places with rather basic accommodations available. In the dry season, January to March, pack horses can be rented in San Gerardo for taking gear up to the base camp.
Climate: Given the 3,500 meter elevation at the shelters, it can get quite cold. Overnight lows near the freezing point are the norm, and temperatures of -8 degrees Celsius have been recorded. Wind and rain can combine to make for very uncomfortable conditions on the summit, so those hearty souls that attempt this climb ought to go well-prepared. On the other hand, clear sunny days can produce temperatures as balmy as 24 degrees Celsius and provide an unsurpassed view of Costa Rica from coast to coast.
History: Being as isolated as it is and not on the route to anywhere else, little human history is associated with Mt. Chirripó, in fact, the earliest record of a non-indigenous person reaching the summit was only in 1904, when a priest named Agustín Blessing made the ascent. National park status was given to the area in 1975 to protect both the paramo habitat (the largest extent of this vegetation type found in Costa Rica) and the oak forests below.
Home | Geological History and Climate | Pre-Columbian History | National Parks | Colonial Costa Rica
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Richard GarriguesÓ 1996