Created in 1982 as a biosphere reserve, the PARQUE INTERNACIONAL LA AMISTAD is a joint venture by the governments of Panamá and Costa Rica to protect the Talamancan mountain areas on both sides of their shared border. Amistad also encompasses several indigenous reserves, the most geographically isolated in the country, where Bribrí and Cabécar peoples are able to live with minimal interference from the Valle Central. It is the largest park in the country, covering 2070 square kilometres of Costa Rican territory.
In 1983 Amistad was designated a World Heritage Site, thanks to its immense scientific resources. The Central American isthmus is often described as being a crossroads or filter for the meeting of the North and South American eco-communities; the Amistad area is itself a “biological bridge” within the isthmus, where an extraordinary number of habitats, life zones, topographical features, soils, terrains and types of animal and plant life can be found. Its terrain, while mainly mountainous, is extremely varied on account of shifting altitudes, and ranges from wet tropical forest to high peaks where the temperature can drop below freezing at night. According to the classification system devised by L.R. Holdridge (see Contexts), Amistad has at least seven (some say eight or nine) life zones, along with six transition zones. Even more important is Amistad’s function as the last bastion of some of the species most in danger of extinction in both Costa Rica and the isthmus. Within its boundaries roam the jaguar and the puma, the ocelot and the tapir. Along with Corcovado on the Península de Osa, Amistad may also be the last holdout of the harpy eagle, feared extinct in Costa Rica.
Its rugged terrain limits access to much of the park, but there are two trails that depart from the Altamira ranger station. If you’re hiking solo, your only option is the Gigantes del Bosque trail, a 3km-long round-route that meanders through mostly primary rainforest. There are two towers along the way, the first of which is ideal for birdwatching, particularly just after daybreak which is the best time to see some of the 400 species that live in the park. The path is reasonably well marked, but not always maintained, and tall grass often grows over parts of the latter half of the trail: allow between 2–3hr to make the loop.
Much longer and far more exhausting is the Valle del Silencio trail, which is 20km long and provides an excellent introduction to the varied habitats found in La Amistad. The trail climbs steadily to a campsite on a flat ridge near the base of Cerro Kamuk, offering stunning vistas of the park and further afield en route. There’s a good chance of spotting wildlife along the way, possibly including quetzals and Baird’s tapirs, which are thought to have larger populations here than anywhere else in the country. The trail takes about eight to ten-hour round-trip and you cannot hike it without a guide; the park ranger at the Altamira station can make arrangements.