La Cangreja, Costa Rica’s newest national park, recently celebrated its fifth birthday. A trip to this park and the surrounding area will not take you to casinos, glitzy nightlife, luxury resorts or even a beach, but it will take you to a part of the country often neglected by guidebooks, into a laidback mixture of past, present and dreams for the future.
Located in the canton of Puriscal, in the western part of the province of San José, La Cangreja is less than three hours from the capital by car and about one hour from the central Pacific coast. A four-wheel-drive vehicle is helpful but not essential. There are no rivers to ford. The park and other area destinations are also accessible by bus.
Traveling from San José to Santiago de Puriscal, then south and west in the direction of Parrita, on the central Pacific coast, one penetrates deep into the rural heart of Costa Rica, past small farms raising coffee, cattle, pigs, sugarcane and pineapples. The road becomes gravel, the housing more basic and the way of life more traditionally campesino.
The route is well marked with signs.
The park itself, 2,240 hectares (about 5,500 acres), is home to primary forest, rivers, waterfalls, many species of animals and thousands of species of plants, two of which exist only in the park. Activities include hiking through tropical rain forest, swimming in the clean water of Río Negro, picnicking and camping. Most of the trails are easy to walk but wet during the rainy months. The highest peak at 1,305 meters (4,277 feet) requires a more strenuous climb, but reveals a 360-degree view encompassing the ocean to the west.
The camping area is very basic – no electricity. Small buildings at the entrance/ reception area are often staffed Thursdays through Sundays. Most days the park offers solitude, with the sights and sounds of nature and the company of only the people who came with you.
The shape of the mountain forming the park resembles a crab, hence the name La Cangreja, “female crab” in Spanish. The park’s Web site, www.lacangreja.com, tells the following story about the origin of the name. A giant crab placed itself on top of the mountain during an earthquake and blocked passage for the indigenous people wishing to travel to other villages.A brave warrior stood up to the crab and cut off one of its claws.
The crab became furious but finally surrendered and changed itself into a rock.
Some folks also tell of the belief that La Cangreja was once a volcano. Local stories, handed down by grandparents, tell of seeing eruptions and red lights pulsing like stars beneath cracks deep inside the mountain.
Around La Cangreja
The surrounding area can reveal interesting facets of Costa Rican life to the traveler who has the time and inclination to explore.
Some points of interest, described below, are ready for visitors; some are becoming what they might someday be, and others are still dreams. At this time, many people may find the area a bit sleepy for their tastes and prefer the already developed attractions of the coast. Several years from now, who knows?
Continuing nine kilometers beyond the park up into the mountains of the nearby Zapatón Indigenous Reserve, home to the Huetar people, today’s traveler may get a glimpse of a distant past.
Geraldo Pérez is a Huetar basket maker with a broad, handsome face and an engaging smile. He has a collection of pre-Columbian artifacts from the area, which he hopes to display for tourists along with baskets, a boa constrictor and other non-venomous snakes. On a hilltop overlooking the distant ocean, he has built an aldea, a round, open-sided, ancestral-type dwelling in which he plans to show his collection.
He speaks of his artifacts with reverence for the indigenous spirituality they represent. He describes a large, standing stone figure with a serene facial expression as thinking only of God. A seated stone figure about to dine is grateful to God for the food. He wants the artifacts to stay in the place where they were created and not be sent to a museum. He also plans to build cabins to accommodate future tourists.
Not far from La Cangreja National Park is Rancho Mastatal (www.ranchomastatal.com), a sustainable living and learning center. Created by North Americans Tim O’Hara and Robin Nunes, it is a lodge catering to foreign visitors, who come for prearranged stays, with hands-on workshops on earth-friendly topics such as permaculture, wilderness first aid and bamboo construction. One interesting feature of the lodge is the toilets, which turn human waste into compost used to fertilize trees.
Between the villages of Mastatal and San Miguel lies La Iguana Chocolate, an organic cocoa farm where visitors can stop for lunch or arrange inexpensive overnight stays in one of the cabins. Owned and operated by the Tico family of Juan Luis Salazar, it is a working farm in the process of developing more amenities for tourists. It has electricity and running water but is otherwise very rustic.
At a lower altitude than La Cangreja, it is warmer and more humid here. Open windows and open-sided sleeping areas facilitate breezes. The beds have mosquito netting. Bamboo and palm-leaf construction materials, an outdoor earth oven and low-slung hammocks add to the ecofriendly ambience.
The Salazars also raise pigs for meat. The animals live in pens where their waste is collected into a biodigester that turns it into methane gas for cooking.
Cocoa powder for baking and cooking is the main product of the farm. Sometimes the pungent smell of the cocoa beans fermenting and drying on tarps in the sun will greet the arriving visitor. Tours can be arranged to see the processes of growing and preparing cocoa and taste the final product in hot chocolate and chocolate-iced brownies. Cocoa powder is for sale, as is soap made from cocoa and other ingredients. Spanish classes are available, and Pérez comes from Zapatón to teach classes in basket weaving. There is no phone yet, so to obtain more information or arrange a visit, e-mail email@example.com.
In addition to employing local Ticos, the Salazar family hosts volunteers through World-Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms, with visitors coming from North America, Europe and Australia for stays of one week to three months. With the aims of promoting organic, sustainable agriculture and responsible consumer behavior, this organization provides information to volunteers about host farms where they can receive room, board and learning experiences in exchange for helping with the chores. For info, see www.wwoofcostarica.com.
Cabañas Siempre Verde (www.cabanassiempreverde.com), between Rancho Mastatal and La Iguana Chocolate, has cabins ready for guests and plans to construct a building for Spanish classes.An artistic wooden sign at the road and a newly built, bamboo-lined trail beckon visitors down earthen steps into the thick forest. The way is long and not designed for carrying heavy luggage. The cabins have dirt floors, open sides and four mosquito-netted beds on an upper-level platform under a tin roof. Accommodations include drinking water, cold showers, candlelight and compost toilets.
Guests eat their meals in the home of the family of Marcos García, the Tico owner and developer. The family also provides horseback tours. García is a college-educated teacher who pays attention to detail and takes great care to disturb the forest as little as possible as he creates this tourist destination.
He, too, has WWOOF volunteers, practices organic farming and will soon have a garden of medicinal plants and herbs. Each of his volunteers donates five hours of work to the community per week.
About five kilometers down the road is the town of San Miguel, where, for a small fee, tourists can walk or ride horseback through trails on a private farm and come to a river with a waterfall in one direction and tubing and hot springs in the other. Tours can be arranged through Cabañas Siempre Verde or La Iguana Chocolate.
For adventurers who get their fill of mud, wet leaves and outdoor toilets by afternoon, a treasure awaits them that is neither mythical nor under construction. Hotel Paraíso Carlisa, about 23 kilometers toward the coast from Mastatal, for a modest price, provides indoor plumbing with hot showers and clean, spacious, air-conditioned rooms and suites without the need for mosquito netting.
Telephones and Internet access are available. The bar and restaurant offer a range of well-prepared drinks and meals.
Guests can relax in the tranquility of a beautiful pool and manicured landscaping or take a guided horseback tour to a river swimming area and waterfall. This hotel is a gem on a lightly traveled road. For more information, call 778-1112 or 778-1190, or visit www.hotelparaisocarlisa.com.
Whether planning a day trip or a longer adventure, it’s best to contact establishments for current information regarding activities, hours and costs. Dreams of starting or expanding a business often take more time than expected to become reality. The development of tourist infrastructure around La Cangreja is happening faster than some area residents may wish, but the area continues to be rural. Some business owners go to an Internet café to check their e-mail only once a week. Yet the people – mostly Ticos, with some foreigners – creating businesses here seem to be focused on sustainability and community, far more so than developers in other parts of the country.
There is a saying in Costa Rica:When Ticos run into a friend they have not seen for a long time, they may ask, “Where have you been – Zapatón?” as if the friend had been to the other end of the earth. “Where the devil lost his sweater” is another Tico-ism applied to locations like La Cangreja, Mastatal or Zapatón to express how remote they are.
A trip to the La Cangreja area is not a far distance from the capital. But after you return laden with rich memories – the sounds of the forest at night from your open-sided cabin; the taste of chocolate when you were stretched out in a hammock; listening to the story of a grandfather’s encounter with a local witch; the soothing feel of hot springs on overexerted muscles; or a lunchtime conversation with a biology student from somewhere up north – you will know that you really were away.
Travelers to La Cangreja with Spanish conversational skills may be lucky enough to meet area residents who can relate local stories.
Luis Paulino Mesén grew up on a farm that is now part of La Cangreja National Park. He tells about an experience from boyhood, hunting with his uncle and finding indigenous grave sites in holes in the mountain. He wanted to stay and see more, but his uncle thought it too dangerous because of the red lights glowing deep inside.
In another story, Mesén described cutting vegetation and burning a field in preparation for planting corn. The earth then made a choking sound and belched out rocks and dirt. He looked down into the holes created by the eruption and saw two large pots filled with gold treasure. Red lights shot up from the holes, then white smoke. He said he was very scared. He never said what happened to the treasure.
And what local lore would be complete without a witch? Mamita Sarate was a tiny woman who wore a rough woolen dress and lived deep inside a mountain cave filled with gold. When people entered her cave, they became so enchanted by the gold that they were never seen again.
One morning when Mesén was a boy, he went hunting with his grandfather and encountered Mamita Sarate. The dogs trembled in fear. Knowing she was a witch, they raced for home but became very lost. Finally, near midnight, they found their way back. Mesén insists she is real.
Where to Eat around La Cangreja
Near La Cangreja National Park, a bar in Mastatal serves snacks, and the towns of Santa Rosa and San Miguel have sodas (small restaurants serving inexpensive, simple meals). Meals at La Iguana Chocolate are good, inexpensive, family-style Tico fare. Food at Rancho Mastatal is generally only for registered guests.
On the way to the coast, 23 kilometers from the park, Hotel Paraíso Carlisa has a restaurant with a larger selection of well-prepared meals. The road back toward Puriscal passes a new, just-opened restaurant as you approach the town of San Martín. The open-sided building and valley view promise an enjoyable dining experience. The owner, Alex Chávez, also has cabins and horseback tours in his plans for the future.
The road passes two bar-restaurants in the town of Salitrales and another in Santa Marta. Closer to Puriscal in the town of La Legua, a sign points the way to Montezumo, an organic farm with a restaurant and bar in a comfortable, open-sided, thatch-roofed building with a great view. Open only on weekends or by prior arrangement (416-3035, firstname.lastname@example.org), it is worth the one-kilometer drive from the main road to reach it. Luis Zúñiga and his family produce coffee, milk, cheese and some fruit, but tilapia from their organic ponds is their specialty.
At the eastern edge of Santiago de Puriscal, on the main road to the Central Valley, is a very good restaurant with a large selection. It was formerly known as the Tobacco Station, but was renamed D’Raul upon its recent move to a new location.
For those who travel by bus, Soda Fabiola next to the Puriscal bus depot is a good choice for simple, traditional meals and snacks. The owner and cook, Hugo, is a friendly, helpful guy who speaks English.
From San José, take the highway west through Escazú and Santa Ana and continue on to Santiago de Puriscal, a distance of about 42 km. Signs point the way to La Cangreja on a road that goes west and south, winding through the mountains. Be careful not to turn onto the road that goes to Orotina.
The road to Parrita, on the Pacific coast, will take you toward the park through the towns of La Legua, Santa Marta, La Palma, Salitrales, San Martín and Santa Rosa. A clearly marked intersection will direct you to turn onto the road to Mastatal and the park. This second part of the journey is another 42 km.
Recently, serious mudslides near La Palma have closed the road. These are usually removed by the municipality within hours, but travel in the late afternoon or evening is especially hazardous when there is heavy rainfall. This problem should clear up in a month or so along with the weather.
From the coast, travelers from Puntarenas and Jacó can reach La Cangreja by driving south along the coast to Parrita, then turning inland (east) on a good gravel road. The intersection at Santa Rosa is well marked and points the way to Mastatal and the park, another 10 km to the northeast. Likewise, travelers from Dominical, Manuel Antonio and Quepos can drive north along the coast to Parrita, then take the road inland from there.