Exclusive for Vagobond by Melissa Ruttanai
In recent years, Costa Rica has emerged as a premiere destination for wildlife lovers and ecotourism. People pull their kids out of school early to vacation here. Celebrities hoard beachfront property like marbles in a shooting out. Though some places may have become “gringo-cized”, Costa Rica maintains its mission to preserve the biodiversity on which its reputation is built. No matter where travelers disembark, a wildlife retreat is never far.
Monteverde Cloud Forest
Called bosque nuboso, Monteverde Cloud Forest stretches over 35,000 acres in northern Costa Rica and is home to over 1200 species of wildlife, including all 6 cat species: jaguars, ocelots, pumas, oncillas, margays, and jaguarundis. In all the woodlands of the world, only 1% hold the cloud forests designation. Existing in Panama, Pakistan, Cambodia, and Costa Rica, these ecosystems sit above the regular rainforest. Mist and fog roll through the vegetation, settling on leaves, and hydro-fueling the biosphere. The coating of fog prevents the sun from drying the forest and the entire area blooms in emerald hues.
Visitors to Monteverde come for nature and adrenaline. Birding is a leading activity. Tours can be arranged from any hotel. Nature hikes range from well-marked easy trails no longer than .2 miles (.3 km) to challenging trails over a mile long that traverse several elevations of the cloud forest. For the lionhearted, zip lining and repelling are also available.
Tortuguero National Park
Meaning Turtle Catcher, Tortuguero National Park is dedicated to the preservation of its various turtle-residents. Sitting on the northern Caribbean coast, Tortuguero is serviced by a village of the same name, where tours and boats help travelers access the park. The admission fee at the gate is $7. But it’s advised to hire a guide or join a tour group. At 8am, visitors cross the narrow waterways and enter Tortuguero. No camping is allowed in the park. However, you can set up camp by the administration offices and the ranger station for $2 per day.
While fishing and kayaking are big draws here, turtle nesting is the main attraction. Between July and October, Green Sea and Hawksbill turtles come ashore during the waning moon while Leatherbacks prefer the February to April season. Called arribados or the great arrival, the mother turtles come ashore, lay their eggs, and slip back into the sea to the sighs of international tourists. Admission at night is prohibited without a guide. Make arrangements well beforehand and please remember that you are a guest. Shield your camera’s flash, and do not touch or interfere with the arribados.
Rincon de la Vieja National Park
The largest of 5 volcanoes, the Rincon de la Vieja sits on the northern Pacific side of Costa Rica. Still active but deemed calm, the Rincon reaches a height of 1895 meters. The national park surrounding the volcano encompasses over 14,000 hectares. Hikers who’ve a penchant for heights can climb the Pacific flank of the cordillera between February and April when the weather is drier. At the summit, you’ll be able to see the Guanacaste Plain, Nicoya Peninsula, and Lake Nicaragua on a clear day.
Nature seekers can walk the moderate trails surrounding the park headquarters. These trails intersect with more difficult trails to Las Pailas. In the 50 hectares surrounding this area, hikers can find thermal springs, waterfalls, vapor geysers, and coldwater pools. Along the paths, wildlife burgeons with quetzals, toucanets, eagles, howler monkeys, and sloths. Guides are recommended since cloud coverage often obscures trail blazes and markers.
Manuel Antonio National Park
One of the smaller national parks, Manuel Antonio National Park ranks among the most popular in Costa Rica. The park contains 1700 acres of land and over 135,000 acres of marine reserve. Before Christopher Columbus, ancient societies lived here. Along the shore, you can still see the remains of their turtle traps. Now, the primary and secondary forest is home to species ranging from squirrel monkeys and capuchin to sloths, hawks, and kingfishers.
Whitewater rafting and sport fishing are core activities in the park as well as snorkeling and kayaking. Besides hiking, visitors can arrange for canopy, horseback, and bicycling tours. Many head to the mangroves for day-long explorations. But keep in mind that only 600 visitors are allowed admission during the week, 800 on weekends and holidays. On Mondays, Manuel Antonio is closed. Park rangers often state that if the quota is met at 9:15am. They close the gates at 9:15.
Marino Ballena National Park
Nestled on the southern Pacific coastline, Marino Bellena is a small national park, teeming with wildlife that often roam free from the flood of tourists that other ecosystems must endure. South of San Jose, Marino Bellena boasts 9 miles of white-gold sands, quiet mangroves and the largest coral reef on Costa Rica’s Pacific coast. Officially, a $7 admission fee is required upon entering but the gate is often unmanned, reflecting the relaxed and more remote feel of the park.
From December to April, lucky visitors may glimpse humpback whales tossing in the tide as they make their way to traditional mating waters just off the shore. During low tide, the marine life is abuzz, unconcerned about human faces in the waters. Nocturnal visitors in May through August can view mother turtles nesting and laying eggs in the moonlight. Unlike other parks, authorities do not monitor these activities closely. Please be aware of your surroundings, keep your voices down, and shield your camera’s flash.
Since the 1980s, traveling options to these wildlife retreats have exponentially multiplied. Visitors from around the world converge on Costa Rica’s national parks to see animals unique to these biospheres. Accordingly, the travel industry has grown. But, whether you’re flying into Liberia to visit Monteverde or into San Jose for a long stay in Manuel Antonio, please remember to respect the ecosystem and leave the grounds as you found them.
Thanks to its compact size and well developed transport infrastructure, all of these national parks can be accessed with ease. Contact a Costa Rica tours operator for suggestions on itineraries.