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National Parks

National Parks of Costa Rica

More than 25 percent of Costa Rica's territory has been designated either as national park land or some kind of biological reserve, wildlife refuge, or wildlife corridor. You will find National Park information about Arenal National Park, Poas Volcano National Park, Tortuguero National Park, Manuel Antonio National Park, Corcovado and Piedras Blancas National Park.

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.

Poas Volcano National Park

Like the other volcanoes in the Central Volcanic Cordillera, the silhouette of Poas 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 Poas 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.

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).

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.

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).

Piedras Blancas National Park

The Piedras Blancas National Park, formerly called Esquinas National Park or Corcovado Section II, was established in 1992 as an extension of the Corcovado National Park. The park borders the Golfito Forest Reserve in the East. In the West the park is connected with the Corcovado National Park by a forest corridor (Rincon) that unfortunately is highly threatened by illegal logging.

The Piedras Blancas National Park covers 30'000 acres of undisturbed humid tropical primary rainforest and 5'000 acres of secondary forests, pasture land and rivers consisting primarily of hills of varied steepness, over one hundred stream valleys, a river plateau and coastal cliffs and beaches. A study by Austrian biologists recently revealed that the diversification of tree species counted on different areas of 10'000 sq.m each exceeds the variety of trees found in the Corcovado National Park that makes this area even more important to conserve. The scientific study will be publicated in 2001.

Geologically the area consists mainly of a base of pillow basalts, 50 to 60 million years old, covered by different types of conglomerates dated an average of 1 to 2 million years old. The streams carry auriferous sands, fortunately with relatively low yields, thus gold mining has been only artisanal, in consequence it has not inflicted serious damage to either the streams or the surrounding forest. A common feature of the area is the abundance of ground water, sometimes found as shallow as 5 or 6 feet.

The seasons are not clearly defined, although most of the rain (100" to 150") falls during the rainy season (April to November). The average yearly temperature is around 80F (29º), with minima and maxima oscillating between 70F and 90F. The air humidity remains at relatively high levels, permitting the growth of a large variety of ferns.

Different private scientific projects have chosen the remote area of the Piedras Blancas National Park for the reintroduction of the highly endangered scarlet macaw to establish a third self-sustaining population and the release of confiscated wild cats (ocelots and margays) formerly held as pets in private households.

Scientific researches revealed that the flora at Piedras Blancas National Park is among the richest on the planet, encompassing several thousand different species of plants and hundreds species of trees and some very rare and in danger of extinction. The trees are very similar to the Corcovado area and include: ceiba, nazareno, manú, fruta dorada, cristóbal, cedro macho, higuerón, mayo colorado, cerillo, maria, níspero, panamá, tostao, botarrama, camíbar, guabo, lechoso, guayabón, espavel, pochote, etc.

The fauna is composed by approximately 140 species of mammals, 350 species of birds, over 100 species of amphibians and reptiles and several thousands species of insects: Among them all 5 species of felines that live in Costa Rica: puma, ocelot, margay, jaguaroundi and jaguar and all 4 species of monkeys: howler monkey, spider monkey, white-faced capuchin monkey and squirrel monkey. Further the common raccoon, coati, kinkajou, skunk, anteater, four-eyed opossum, collared and white-lippped peccary, paca, agouti, red-brocket deer, tayra and long-nosed armadillo, etc. More than 330 species of birds have also been identified in the different ecosystems of the area - including chestnut-mandibled toucans, fiery-billed aracari, several species of parrots, hummingbirds and trogons, crested guan, great curassow, king vulture, crested eagle, osprey, laughing falcon, black-cheeked ant-tanager, tiger-bittern, golden-hooded tanager, roseate spoonbill, boat-billed heron, northern jacana, spectacled owl, etc. Reptiles include the cayman, the American crocodile, fer-de-lance snake, bushmaster snake, several coral snakes, various species of poisonous frogs, glass frog, several kinds of basilisks, ctenosaurus, common iguana, etc.

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