It’s one of the first facts people tell you about Costa Rica: A full quarter of the national territory, more than 1 million hectares, is protected land.
The country has 28 national parks, plus dozens of protected zones; wildlife refuges; forest, swampland and biological reserves; and one national monument. National parks are the largest group, making up three-fifths of protected areas, or 15 percent of the national terrain, according to Alvaro Soto of the National System of Conservation Areas (SINAC).
But these are not pack-up-the-van-for the-family-vacation-type destination parks. Sure, there are the well-known ones, such as Arenal Volcano and Manuel Antonio national parks, but most of Costa Rica’s parks were not created to cater to throngs of camera-toting parents and their sunscreen-slathered children.
“The guiding principle behind the creation of (the national park system) was conservation and protection,” Soto says.
Tourism is a secondary priority, an activity provided more out of appeasement than anything. “(People) discovered these parks are the best places to experience nature, which created a demand for tourist activities, so we had to provide these types of resources for (tourism).”
“This park is more rustic … than luxurious,” says Ronald Guido, a park ranger at Quebrada González, one of two sectors of the sprawling 47,000-hectare-plus Braulio Carrillo National Park, north of San José, which ranges in altitude from barely above sea level to nearly 2,900 meters high, and boasts more than 6,000 tree, 500 bird and 135 mammal species.
Besides some minor improvements, no plans are on the table to expand the Quebrada González sector’s three trails, because expansion would mean “more contamination, more interaction with nature,” says Guido, a 17-year veteran of the national park system. “We want to keep the park less affected (by development).”
“Obviously, we want to enjoy using the parks, but we have to do so responsibly,” Soto says. Guido says they prefer “qualified” tourists, who pack out their trash, for example.
Excursions through the sector’s high-altitude rain forests become exercises in racking your brain for synonyms for “verdant.”
At first, the Palmas Trail’s sign reading “1.3 km, 1.5 hours” seems exceedingly generous in its allotted time. Once on the trail, however, the viscous air slows your pace, and it’s easy to become absorbed in the simple yet intricate lattices of leaf-cutter ant pathways or veins on meter-wide palms.
The kilometer-long Ceibo Trail has a lookout spot for the Río Sucio – named for its bright orange color resulting from surrounding volcanic minerals, such as sulfur – and features its famous namesake, a ceibo tree with an impressive silvery base at least three meters wide and tall. The sector also boasts a new 1.5-hour hiking trail down to the BotarramasRiver.
The park’s more secluded Barva Volcano sector has four trails, including one that climbs the dormant 2,800-meter-high volcano and another that goes by BarvaLake.
During dry season, Guido says, there is more fauna out and about, while in the wet season the flora is more vibrant. (Note: Spiders abound throughout the year, and it’s a good idea to have your hiking group leader swat away webs crossing the trail.) Guido is quick to list the various toucan and motmot species that live in the park, and even pull out his field book if necessary.
Despite the park ranger’s enthusiasm, many trips may not result in a sighting of a peccary, much less a jaguar, and sometimes not even an animal bigger than a frog or blue morpho butterfly. But neither will you see any trash, buses or concertina wire. If nothing else, the ubiquitous national parks such as Braulio Carrillo offer, as Keats put it, pleasant lairs for us pent-up city-dwellers.
Park entry fees for Costa Ricans and residents are ¢1,000 ($1.80) for adults and children over 12, and ¢400 ($0.70) for children ages 6 to 11. For tourists, the fees are $8 for adults and $1 for kids 6 to 11. Children under 5 years old may enter for free.
The park recommends visitors bring appropriate clothing and walking shoes, a rain poncho, water and insect repellent.
There are restrooms and large covered picnic areas at both trailheads, but no food services nearby. Secure parking is free at both sector entrances.
Group lectures on the park’s plants, insects, birds and animals can be arranged in advance. Most of the park’s guides speak English.
Both sectors are open from 8 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. every day of the year, including holidays. For more information, including how to arrange a lecture, contact the park’s main offices in Zurquí at 2268-1039 or 2268-1038.
Quebrada González sector: This more easily accessible sector is right off the Guápiles highway (Highway 32), about 42 km from San José. By bus, take the Guapilenõs buses from the Caribbean bus terminal at Calle 13 and Avenida Central. There is no set bus schedule and buses leave as they fill up, but generally, to arrive at the ranger station – about an hour’s ride from San José – by 8 a.m., when the park opens, park staff recommend arriving at the terminal by 6:30 a.m.
Barva Volcano sector: This sector’s entrance is set much farther back from the Heredia road that passes Vara Blanca on the way to La Virgen de Sarapiquí, about 35 km north of San José. Visitors can either take a bus to the town of Paso Llano and walk or pay a taxi driver (for about ¢8,000, Guido estimates) to take them the remaining 9 km to the entrance, or travel by car up to Sacramento and walk the remaining 3.5 km. (Though it is possible, it is not recommended to drive all the way to the entrance, as the road is unreliable even in the dry season.)