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National Parks
by Richard Garrulies

More than 25 percent of Costa Rica has been designated either as national park land or some kind of biological reserve, wildlife refuge, or wildlife corridor. Richard Garrulies, a Costa Rican native, has spent much of his life travelling around the country. Below, you'll find information about the parks he deems the nation's highlights.

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, which was 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 1,000 meters (3,000 feet) to its 1,633-meter (5,000 foot) summit, and although the peak is still three 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 that escaped direct damage and provide better wildlife viewing in the forested sections.

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.

Being under the influence of Caribbean slope weather patterns, Arenal Volcano receives anywhere from three and a half to five 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.

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.
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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.

It can get cool at this 2,500 plus 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.

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 to 1954. 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 1960s, 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.
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Palo Verde National Park

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 hectares (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, which 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.

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.

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 disturbances, 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.
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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-kilometer 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 plus kilogram (220 lb.) 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 seven 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 Carribean 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 that 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.

The species and conditions are essentially the same as at Barra del Colorado -- 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. 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.

This coastal region receives four to five meters of rain per year (sometimes more), so expect very warm and humid conditions.

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 aphrodisiac 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 Carribean 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.
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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. Animals 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 Pan American 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 seven kilometers 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.

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.

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 four meters of rainfall is the average accumulation during the remaining months of the year.

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 government expropriated the land. 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-1980s, 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.
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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 those are 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.

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.

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.

In the mid-1930s, 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.

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