Established in 1971 to protect a stretch of increasingly rare dry tropical forest, PARQUE NACIONAL SANTA ROSA, 35km north of Liberia, is Costa Rica’s oldest national park. Today it’s one of the most popular in the country, thanks to its good trails, great surfing (though poor swimming) and prolific turtle-spotting opportunities. It’s also, given a few official restrictions, a great destination for campers, with a couple of sites on the beach.
Santa Rosa has an amazingly diverse topography for its size of 387 square kilometres, ranging from mangrove swamp to deciduous forest and savannah. Home to 115 species of mammals (half of them bats), 250 species of birds and 100 of amphibians and reptiles (not to mention 3800 species of moths), Santa Rosa is a rich biological repository, attracting researchers from all over the world. Jaguars and pumas prowl the park, though you’re unlikely to see them; what you may spot – at least in the dry season – are coati, coyotes and peccaries, often snuffling around watering holes.
The appearance of the park changes drastically between the dry season, when the many streams and small lakes dry up, trees lose their leaves, and thirsty animals can be seen at known waterholes, and the wet months, which are greener, but afford fewer animal-viewing opportunities. From July to November however, you may be able to witness hundreds of olive ridley turtles (lloras) dragging themselves out of the surf and nesting on Playa Nancite by moonlight; September and October are the months on which you are most likely to see them. Turtles arrive singly or occasionally in arribadas, a phenomenon unique to this species where thousands of females arrive en masse to lay their eggs. In an attempt to avoid the disturbances caused by big tour groups which have been a problem at places like Tortuguero, a maximum of twenty visitors are allowed access to the nesting area each day; reserve your place on t 2666-5051 or ask at the administration centre when you arrive. Though too rough for swimming, the picturesque beaches of Naranjo and Nancite, about 12km down a bad road from the administration centre, are popular with serious surfers. They’re also great places to hang out for a while, or do a little camping and walking on the nearby trails.