The PARQUE NACIONAL BARRA HONDA, about 40km east of Nicoya and 13km west of the Río Tempisque, is popular with spelunkers for its forty-odd subterranean caves. A visit to Barra Honda is not for claustrophobes, people afraid of heights (some of the caves are more than 200m deep) or anyone with an aversion to creepy-crawlies.
The landscape around here is dominated by the limestone plateau of the Cerro Barra Honda, which rises out of the flat lowlands of the eastern Nicoya Peninsula. About seventy million years ago this whole area – along with Palo Verde, across the Río Tempisque – was under water. Over the millennia, the porous limestone was gradually hollowed out, by rainfall and weathering, to create caves and weird karstic formations.
The caves form a catacomb-like interconnecting network beneath the limestone ridge, but you can’t necessarily pass from one to the other. Kitted out with a rope harness and a helmet with a lamp on it, you descend with a guide, who will normally take you down into just one. The main caves, all within 2km of each other and of the ranger station, are the Terciopelo, the Trampa, Santa Ana, Pozo Hediondo and Nicoa, where the remains of pre-Columbian peoples were recently found, along with burial ornaments and utensils thought to be over two thousand years old. Most people come wanting to view the huge needle-like stalagmites and stalactites at Terciopelo, or to see subterranean wildlife such as bats, blind salamanders, insects and even birds.
Down in the depths, you’re faced with a sight reminiscent of old etchings of Moby Dick’s stomach, with sleek, moist walls, jutting rib-like ridges and strangely smooth protuberances. Some caves are big enough – almost cathedral-like, in fact, with their vaulted ceilings – to allow breathing room for those who don’t like enclosed spaces, but it’s still an eerie experience, like descending into a ruined subterranean Notre Dame inhabited by crawling things you can barely see. There’s even an “organ” of fluted stalagmites in the Terciopelo cave; if knocked, each gives off a slightly different musical note.
Above ground, three short trails, not well marked, lead around the caves. It’s easy to get lost, and you should walk them with your guide or with a ranger if there is one free, and take water with you. Some time ago, two German hikers attempted to walk the trails independently, got lost and, because they were not carrying water, died of dehydration and heat exhaustion.
The endangered scarlet macaw sometimes nests here, and there are a variety of ground mammals about, including anteaters and deer. As usual, you’ll be lucky to see any, though you’ll certainly hear howler monkeys.