When you first think of Guanacaste province, endless beach days come to mind, with thoughts of lounging at the pristine waters with breathtaking views and sunsets. Within this gorgeous province, many hidden gems can be discovered and enjoyed such as Barra Honda National Park, a park perfect for one seeking a little adventure and adrenaline.
Located in the northwestern region of Costa Rica on the Nicoya Peninsula, Barra Honda National Park’s special feature is a bit different than the country’s other parks. This park’s intrigue lies underground within its complex caverns that began to be formed millions of years ago when, laying beneath the sea, they slowly emerged upwards as the earth continued to shift.
It is the only one of its kind in Costa Rica that is specific to the formations found within. If traveling from Liberia’s airport it is approximately an hour and a half drive; however, if you are venturing from San Jose you can expect at least 3 hours to reach the park. There are no direct buses to this national park.
In the beginning…
Barra Honda National Park was created in 1974 to protect its network of unique calcareous caves and limestone caverns. There are 42 limestone caves throughout; however, only 19 of them have been explored.
Terciopelo cavern is the one that is open for exploration because of its best descent conditions, even for the most inexperienced visitor. It received this name after finding a snake of that species when the cave was first being explored.
Through the passing of years, water and nature have carved out beautiful underground masterpieces of many different calciferous rock formations and independent caves. More than 5,000 bats call these intricate and fascinating caverns home.
The caves were unknown to modern society for many years. It wasn’t until the 1960s when they became better identified and understood. Ancient artifacts have been discovered and findings of life reaching back to 300 BC have been presented, reinforcing the need for the park’s continued protection of these important cave systems.
The amazing underground world
In order to explore Barra Honda National Park’s fascinating underground world, you will need to accompany a guide on a tour; you can not explore them on your own. Your guide will lead you through the forest trail as you listen for the wildlife hidden with the trees. Upon arrival, you will be geared up appropriately in your safety harness and helmet suited with a headlamp to ensure you don’t miss any of the magic which lies beneath.
As you begin to make your vertical descent into the one-of-a-kind cavern by climbing down the ladder, guided by experts, you will feel the transformation in the air as the darkness and stillness takes over. The stalactites hang down from the cavern’s cathedral-like ceilings in the truest form of nature’s art, leaving you stunned at the power and immensity of it all. Stalagmites emerge from the floors, each so different from one another with their sculpture-like characteristics.
All fear is gone from the nerves of climbing down into the unknown, now appreciating what has evolved from years of nature’s history. The emptiness yet the comfort of it all overwhelms your senses from the grandeur and the pureness. When you emerge from the cavern’s belly returning to land you will need time to adjust and realize what an amazing yet exhilarating adventure you were just a part of.
Spend time exploring the grounds above to appreciate what else lies in this special park aside from the stunning cavern. The hiking terrain is tropical lowland dry forest allowing you to explore something a bit different from the country’s cloud forests and vast rainforests. There is abundant greenery with many types of trees and bromeliads and of course the Guanacaste, the national tree.
Wildlife at Barra Honda
Generally, you imagine monkeys living in the thick, green rainforests, swinging high up in the trees from vines and branches, but you may be surprised they do call this park home too; it is Costa Rica after all. Although a different type of habitat than you would expect, there is still wildlife living within Barra Honda National Park. White-tailed deer, raccoons, coyotes, and coatis run through the grounds.
Armadillos, anteaters, skunks, and opossums rummage through the earth as snakes such as boas, rattlesnakes, and the cavern’s namesake terciopelo glide throughout. Wildlife flourishes above ground with capuchin and howler monkeys and the colorful parrots and parakeets inhabit the trees. It is never a dull moment in a Costa Rican national park. You never know what you will see, so be open to new and unexpected sightings of all the different animals using this park as a refuge.
The trail is overall quite flat, without many obstacles to maneuver over and around, and well maintained so you are clear in which direction you are going. However, there are maps available at the ranger station if you desire. Remember that although you are within nature and the trees you are in a hot and dry climate. It becomes quite warm especially, when hiking for an extended time, so bring adequate hydration and be prepared for the elements.
There is a stunning mirador (lookout) to rest and appreciate all that surrounds — the dry forest, the Tempisque river valley, the islands out in the Gulf of Nicoya. Much of the plant life and greenery that flourishes amongst you were used by indigenous people for medicinal benefits.
Visiting Barra Honda National Park
Barra Honda National Park’s visiting hours are from 8:00 a.m. until 4:00 p.m. However, the park has different operating hours if you are wanting to descend into the caverns. To join one of their cave tours entrance is from 8:00 a.m. until 1:00 p.m. and you can expect to spend 3 to 4 hours exploring the cavern and grounds.
You will want to ensure you bring insect repellant and closed-toed shoes with traction. During Costa Rica’s rainy season, the caverns can become quite dangerous due to flooding and as a result, they are closed.
Barra Honda National Park is a unique experience when in Guanacaste that gives you a break from the tropical beaches. Exploring Barra Honda National Park is a one-of-a-kind adventure experiencing the beauty of nature above and taking you into the wonders below, opening your eyes to the tremendous world that surrounds us.
First Posted in 2021