Costa Rica protects a quarter of its total territory under the aegis of a carefully structured system of national parks, wildlife refuges and biological reserves – in all, there are currently more than 185 designated protected areas. Gradually established over the last 35 years, the role of these parks in conserving the country’s rich fauna and flora is generally lauded.
In total, the parks and reserves harbour approximately five percent of the world’s total wildlife species and life zones, among them rainforests, cloudforests, paramo (high-altitude moorlands), swamps, lagoons, marshes and mangroves, and the last remaining patches of tropical dry forest in the isthmus. Also protected are areas of historical significance, including a very few pre-Columbian settlements, and places considered to be of immense scenic beauty – valleys, waterfalls, dry lowlands and beaches. Costa Rica has also taken measures to safeguard beaches where marine turtles lay their eggs, as well as a number of active volcanoes.
A national park (parque nacional) is typically a large chunk of relatively untouched wilderness – usually more than 2500 acres – dedicated to preserving features of outstanding ecological, environmental or scenic interest. These are generally the most established of the protected areas, typically offering walking, hiking or snorkelling opportunities. Though habitation, construction of hotels and hunting of animals is prohibited in all national parks, “buffer zones” are increasingly being designated around them, where people are permitted to engage in a limited amount of agriculture and hunting. In most cases, park boundaries are surveyed but not demarcated – rangers and locals know what land is within the park and what is not – so don’t expect fences or signs to tell you where you are.
Although it also protects valuable ecosystems and conserves areas for scientific research, a biological reserve (reserva biológica) generally has less of scenic or recreational interest than a national park, though hunting and fishing are usually still prohibited. A national wildlife refuge (refugio nacional de vida silvestre or refugio nacional de fauna silvestre) is designated to protect the habitat of wildlife species. It will not be at all obviously demarcated, with few, if any, services, rangers or trails, and, the Refugio Nacional de Vida Silvestre Caño Negro notwithstanding, is generally little visited by tourists. An “absolute” reserve (reserva absoluta) is purely dedicated to scientific research, with no public entry permitted – the one exception being the Reserva Natural Absoluta Cabo Blanco, on the tip of the southern Nicoya Peninsula, which was Costa Rica’s first piece of nationally protected land and grants visitors similar access to a national wildlife refuge or national park.
There are also a number of privately owned reserves, chief among them community-initiated projects such as the now famous reserves at Monteverde and nearby Santa Elena. While the money you pay to enter these does not go directly to the government, they are almost always not-for-profit places; the vast majority are conscientiously managed and have links with national and international conservation organizations. For more on how national parks and protected areas link up in Costa Rica’s conservation strategy.
Visiting the parks
Despite their role in attracting tourists to the country, national parks – and the national park system in general – are underfunded, and facilities at some of the more remote and less visited parks (such as Juan Castro Blanco, Volcán Turrialba and La Cangreja) can be surprisingly threadbare or even non-existent. Most parks, however, have an entrance puesto, or ranger station, often little more than a small hut where you pay your fee (usually around $10) and pick up a general map. Typically, the main ranger stations – from where the internal administration of the park is carried out, and where the rangers (or guardaparques) sleep, eat and hang out – are some way from the entrance puesto; it’s a good idea to pay these a visit, as you can talk to the guardaparques (if your Spanish is good) about local terrain and conditions, enquire about drinking water and use the bathroom. In some parks, such as Corcovado, you can sleep in or camp near the main stations, which usually provide basic but adequate accommodation, be it on a campsite or a bunk, in a friendly atmosphere.
In general, the guardaparques are extremely knowledgeable and informative and are happy to tell you about their encounters with fearsome bushmasters or placid tapirs. Independent travellers and hikers might want to ask about the possibility of joining them on patrol during the day (you’ll probably have to speak some Spanish), while the more adventurous can volunteer to help out at remote ranger stations; you have to be pretty brave to do this, as you are expected to do everything that a ranger does, which includes patrolling the park (often at night) against poachers.
Outside the most visited parks – Volcán Poás, Volcán Irazú, Santa Rosa and Manuel Antonio – opening hours are erratic. Many places are open daily, from around 8am to 4pm, though there are exceptions, while other parks may open a little earlier in the morning. Unless you’re planning on camping or staying overnight, there’s almost no point in arriving at a national park in the afternoon. In all cases, especially the volcanoes, you should aim to arrive as early in the morning as possible to make the most of the day and, in particular, the weather (especially in the wet season); early morning is also the best time to spot the wildlife that the parks protect. You’ll usually find a guardaparque somewhere, even if he or she is not at the ranger station – if you hang around for a while and call “¡Upe!” (what people say when entering houses and farms in the countryside), someone will usually appear.
Costa Rica’s protected areas are overseen by the Sistema Nacional de Areas de Conservación (National System of Conservation Areas), or SINAC (t 2256-0917, w http://www.sinac.go.cr), which operates within MINAE and can provide information on individual parks, transport and camping facilities. The only central office where you can make reservations and buy permits, where required, is the Fundación de Parques Nacionales (Av 15, C 25, Barrio Escalante, San José, t 2257-2239, e [email protected]), who will contact those parks for which you sometimes need reservations, chiefly Santa Rosa, Corcovado and Chirripó; other parks can be visited on spec.