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
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.
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.
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).
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
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
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.
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
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
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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