By Peter Majerle Photo by Andrés Madrigal
With over 1.2 million visitors in 2006 (the latest statistics available), Costa Rica’s diverse national parks system is the main reason many people travel here. Whether you’re looking for mountain landscapes, active volcanoes, virgin rainforests or white-sand beaches, you’ll find something in the country’s protected lands. Here are the five national parks that received the most visitors.
1 Poás Volcano
Costa Rica’s most visited national park owes part of its popularity to its proximity to the urban centers of the Central Valley. But closeness itself is not reason enough to draw so many visitors. Poás Volcano, which sits at around 9,000 feet above sea level, boasts one of the largest craters on Earth. When the clouds lift, as happens often, the crater reveals a myriad of colors and delicate landscapes. Several safe trails snake throughout the park, leading to the emerald-colored Botos lagoon, which is an old crater. Poás has a new visitor’s center complete with museum, parking area, picnic area, and a small café.
Public buses leave Alajuela on Saturday and Sunday, and one bus leaves San José on Sundays. Many tours provide frequent trips. Or, if you want to drive yourself, take the Pan-American Highway to Alajuela, passing the Central Park. Follow the same road until you meet with San Pedro de Poás, which leads directly to the volcano.
Park telephone: 2482-2165
2 Manuel Antonio National Park
Foreigners flock here for a chance to live a day in a postcard-like setting. Manuel Antonio National Park’s beaches are the epitome of tropical perfection, the kind of place where the only distractions from the crashing surf come from monkeys swinging in the palm trees.
Morning is the best time, for sunny skies and to avoid crowds (only 600 people are admitted during weekdays; 800 on weekends). Hike to the third beach within the park; it may be the most spectacular beach in Costa Rica, with verdant, coconut palm-lined white-sand shores. Check out the tombolo, which is a deposit of sand built up by millenniums of crashing waves, connecting an island with the mainland. A trail will take you to the top of Cathedral Point, offering spectacular vistas of surrounding beaches and cliffs. The trail is steep and muddy; take care and go with a partner.
Snorkeling is excellent, as is observation of sea life. Sponges, corals, various crustaceans, algae and fish all share the coast. Dolphins and whales sometimes frolic off the islands, and at low tide you can see ancient turtle traps set by the local indigenous population over a thousand years ago.
How to get there: From Quepos, it's seven miles down the coast, with frequent buses and inexpensive taxis between the two spots. San José to Quepos runs morning and afternoon buses; Nature Air has daily flights. If you're driving, head towards Jacó and follow the Costanera Highway, arriving in between three and a half and four hours.
3 Irazú Volcano
If you can beat the buses, which usually start to arrive around 8:00 a.m., you'll have the entire park to yourself. After you park, head back towards the bus parking area to the observation point. If it’s early and the day is clear, you may be able to see the Caribbean and Pacific at the same time. The view is astounding.
Then head down and observe the craters. You'll feel like you're on another planet. The huge, ashy crater upon which you stand stands in stark contrast the Costa Rica's green reputation, and the awesome potential power of the volcano makes anyone's heart race. Check out the various craters: the main crater is a kilometer across and over a thousand feet deep.
Most people make this trip from Cartago or San José. There are no camping facilities within the park. It gets cold, so pack a sweater and a lunch for a great day trip. Head down through Cartago to the incredibly beautiful Orosi Valley in the afternoon for a complete day tour.
How to get there: Take the Pan-American Highway east to the Taras intersection just outside Cartago. Keep going straight, and follow the road signs all the way to the volcano. Buses leave from San José.
4 Tortuguero National Park
Giant sea turtles nest on these beaches every year from March to mid-October. Of the world’s eight species of sea turtles, six nest in Costa Rica, four of which you can find in this park. But even if you don’t come for the turtles, there is still plenty to do. You can travel the main highways: canals lined with rainforest, teeming with wildlife. You’ll glide along on a placid waterway, the Caribbean just 100 meters away on one side, the rainforest on the other, where three species of monkeys (howler, spider and white-faced) dwell, as well as some 60 species of amphibians and 400 species of birds (including toucans and great green macaws).
If you do come for the turtles, the best time to see green turtles is from July to October, when the arribada brings in thousands of the reptiles en masse.
Regardless of when you come, you need to know one thing: It’s wet. Some parts of the park receive up to 6,000mm (nearly 20 feet) of rain yearly. If you don’t have rain gear, many local hotels can help supply you with some.
Getting there: Package tours will arrange all transportation, which generally means taking a bus or shuttle to Moín and then taking a boat up the canals. There is a landing strip in town for those who wish to fly. There are no roads in Tortuguero; all travel is done on foot or by boat.
5 Cahuita National Park
Awalk along this park’s easy-to-hike trails will almost certainly afford glimpses of local wildlife, including tropical birds, countless insects and, if you have a sharp eye, sloths and monkeys. Even if you don’t see the monkeys, you’ll probably hear them: that loud, bellowing call is from the howler monkey. The howler’s call can be heard more than a kilometer away – even through dense rainforest.
Not only does Cahuita have some of the country’s best swimming beaches, but it also boasts Costa Rica’s greatest living coral reef. Just off the shore (200 to 500 meters) is a living underwater habitat full of colorful tropical fish (over 120 species) and 35 species of coral. Snorkeling is good, especially during the dry season, but the clarity and quality has diminished in recent years due to runoff from banana plantations and silt caused by logging.
Camping is allowed near the Puerto Vargas station, where you can station your tent amid the shoreline rainforest. If you’re ambitious, you can get up to watch the sun rise over the Caribbean. Sublime.
How to get there: You can walk there from the village of Cahuita. Alternately, the Puerto Vargas entrance (where the camping facilities are) is a few kilometers south, towards Puerto Viejo.
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