** For a nice map of Costa Rica and the national parks/protected areas, see the Costa Rica Naturally website at www.costarica.tourism.co.cr/mapindex.htm **
Costa Rica is about the same size as West Virginia with just over 51,000 km2 of land area (www.crica.com). It is located in Central America, between 8° and 11° N of the equator. The Pacific Ocean forms the western coast boundary, the Atlantic Ocean (Caribbean) forms the eastern coast boundary; Costa Rica's northern neighbor is Nicaragua and it's southern neighbor is Panama. There are four major mountain ranges (Guanacaste, Tilaran, Central Volcanic Mountains, and the Talamancas) that give Costa Rica the ability to support many unique ecosystems. Additionally, there are two peninsulas on the Pacific Coast: the Nicoya Peninsula to the north and the Osa Peninsula to the south.
Costa Rica exhibits some unique geological and geophysical features: volcanoes (both active and dormant), hot springs, caves, mountains created by tectonic movements, islands, jungles, beaches, rivers and waterfalls. The Continental Divide also traverses the country. There are several archeological sites and pre-Columbian settlements. Most important to the fauna and flora, and to the Ticos themselves, are the habitats that afford shelter from the tropical heat and rain. Deciduous forests, mangrove swamps, rainforests (lowland, dry montane, pre-montane), herbaceous swamps, cloud forests, holillo (palm) forests, coral reefs, riparian forests and swamp forests are some of the more common habitats found throughout the country.
In 1970, the National Parks system was established to prevent destruction of wilderness areas (www.centralamerica.com) and to preserve areas of particular beauty and ecological significance. The total protected land area account for 25-28% of Costa Rica. This figure does not reflect the thousands of hectares of marine area that are also protected. That makes Costa Rica the country with the highest percentage of protected terrestrial area of all countries worldwide.
There is good reasoning for such overwhelming protection: Costa Rica supports merely .04% of the world's human population (~3.25 million people) and at least 4% of the world's biodiversity! In Costa Rica alone, there are 208 species of mammals (including 6 species of cats), 160 species of amphibians, 220 species of reptiles, 850 species of birds, 130 species of freshwater fish, 1000 species of butterflies, 1200 varieties of orchids, more than 10,000 species of higher (vascular) plants, and at least 34,000 species of insects (www.westnet.com/costarica/info/facts.html and http://secure.catalog.com/cocori/library/crinfo/nutshel.htm).
Different sources give different numbers, but there are 20 national parks, 8 wildlife refuges, one national archeological monument, 26 protected forest areas, 9 forest reserves and 7 wildlife sanctuaries. This information was taken from the www.bosque-u.com website. These areas represent over a million hectares of protected areas!
Parks have important recreational, scientific and educational uses. Thousands of people visit the parks annually to visit, to recreate, to study and to appreciate the scenic beauty of the country. Fishing is permitted, but hunting is not (www.incostarica.net). Additionally, collection of seashells may be prohibited in certain areas. It is best to check with officials before leaving with those popular souvenirs.
The Costa Rica Tourist Board (ICT) sees that tourism directly contributes to the conservation of the country's natural resources, primarily through admission fees to parks. The Ministry of Natural Resources, Energy and Mines is in charge of managing the national parks, the biological reserves and the national monument (often listed as the 29 National Parks). The Forestry Service is responsible for protected forest areas and reserves, and the Wildlife Office oversees the wildlife refuges and sanctuaries (www.tuanis.com/costarica/parks/parks.html).
Since there are so many unique parks and protected areas, I have selected some that were most interesting to me. They are arranged in alphabetical order, and the volcano national parks are listed at the end under that heading. Please check out any of the websites I have listed to get more information on any of the parks or protected areas. The following "summaries" should hopefully whet your appetite for exploring the amazing country of Costa Rica! Enjoy!
Barra Honda National Park
· Located in the Guanacaste Province in the Tempisque Conservation Area (Nicoya Peninsula)
· Upheaval of ancient coral reefs, dating 60-75 million years old
· Diverse cave system: of the 42 caves that have been discovered, only 19 have been explored
· Must have a guide to visit this scenic national park
Braulio Carrillo National Park
· Large protected area (45,899 Ha) in the Central Volcanic Range Conservation Area (CVRCA), northeast of San Jose
· It is located between the Poas and Irazu Volcanoes
· Named after the third president of Costa Rica
· Very rugged landscape - mountains, volcanoes (three extinct), evergreen forests, steep cliffs and beautiful waterfalls
· An important research station, La Selva Biological Station, is located in nearby Sarapiqui
Cabo Blanco Nature Reserve
· Located on the southwestern tip of the Nicoya Peninsula
· Costa Rica's oldest official biological reserve, protecting both terrestrial and marine areas
· Marine bird sanctuary and refuge for dry Pacific region fauna and flora
· Many animals can be found there: tree squirrels, tiger cat, Mexican tree porcupine, common long-nosed armadillo, howler and spider monkeys and white-faced capuchins
Cocos Island National Park
· Located in the Pacific Ocean, more than 500 kilometers from Cabo Blanco National Park
· Protects 2,400 terrestrial Ha and almost 100,000 marine Ha
· A scuba diver's paradise, there are many abundant forms of marine life, especially sharks like hammerheads and white-tipped sharks
· Drawback: can only be reached by ocean-going boats; by launch from Puntarenas, it is a mere 36 hour boat ride!
· Interesting history: was discovered in 1526 by a Spanish pilot and has wonderful pirate legends associated with it
* Three famous pirates, William Davis, William Thompson and Benito Bonito are thought to have buried treasures there between 1684 and 1821
* William Thompson's "Lima Booty" is considered the most valuable; none of the treasures have been recovered
* You may know Benito Bonito better as Benito "Bloody Sword" Bonito!
Corcovado National Park
· Located in the Osa Conservation Area, on the western "half" of the Osa Peninsula
· Large park established to protect 54,039 terrestrial Ha and 2,400 marine Ha
· Receives the heaviest rainfall in the area, around 5,500 mm per year
· Sanctuary to the largest population of scarlet macaws in the country
· Protects the endangered species of large cats (puma, ocelot, jaguaroundi, margay cat, tiger cat and the jaguar) as well as several endangered reptiles
· Beautiful primary forests (500 different species of trees here - one-quarter of all the tree species found in Costa Rica!) and wonderful waterfalls
Guayabo National Monument
· Located in the Cartago Province southeast of San Jose, this is one of the smallest protected areas in the country
· Very important archeological site - human occupation dates back to 1000 years before Christ
· Over 50 major architectural structures have been uncovered, including cabble-paved causeways and streets, terraced stairways, bridges, aqueducts and cisterns
· Considered by many to be an important New Age spiritual center
La Amistad International Park
· The largest protected area in the country, encompassing three different national parks (totaling 193,929 Ha)
· Forms almost one third of the Panamanian border; the Panamanian government also protects another 207,000 Ha on its side of the border
· Declared a Biosphere Reserve by UNESCO in 1982 and a World Heritage Site in 1983
· Chirripo National Park (western portion of the La Amistad) has almost intact glacial forms, and the Chirripo Peak is the highest mountain in Costa Rica at 3,819 m
· Hitoy-Cerere Biological Reserve is located to the east of La Amistad and protects the indigenous Bri-Bri reserve
· Due to changes in elevation throughout the Park, the mountain peaks are capable of freezing and temperatures can vary as much as 24 degrees Celsius
· Tapanti National Park is also part of La Amistad though it is located further north of the main park. Tapanti was converted from a national wildlife refuge in 1992 and remains a popular mountain biking area
Monteverde Cloud Forest Biological Reserve
· Located in northwestern Costa Rica, south of Lake Arenal
· Really wonderful place to visit - the Cloud Forest is unlike any place you may have ever been!
· Founded by United States Quakers in 1952 to begin a dairy ranching business on its 1,500 Ha
· Park size is now around 10,500 Ha (personal communication, Dr. Bob Carlson, Director of Monteverde Cloud Forest Preserve, 5/20/99)
· There are two reserves: the Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve and the new Santa Elena Rainforest (which was opened in 1995 by Canadian students)
· Located within the Reserve are a hummingbird factory, the Quaker cheese factory, a serpentarium, a butterfly garden, the Finca de Aves (an eco-farm) and Bajo del Tigre Trail (a countryside hiking trail)
Volcano National Parks
1. Arenal National Park
· Located in the northern end of the Tilaran Mountain Range
· Largely cloud forest and pre-montane tropical forest
· Arenal Reservoir is important for electricity production and fish farming
· The most active volcano in Costa Rica
· Was dormant for 400 years before it erupted in 1968, clearing a four-square mile area to waste, destroying the town of Tabacon and affecting 14 others
· While our class was visiting Arenal (May 23, 1999), we could hear several boulders falling down the northeast flank of the volcano! It sounded like distant thunder or someone's growling stomach, and we could see the dirt/dust kicked up by the boulders as they hit the side of the volcano! Neat!!
2. Irazu Volcano National Park
· Located in the CVRCA, due east of San Jose
· Called "the deadly powder keg of Nature"
· It is an active volcano rising 3,432 m above sea level with four craters at the summit
· On a clear day, you can see both the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans from its peak - it is the tallest volcano in the country
· It last erupted in 1963, showering five inches of muddy ash, steam and cinders on San Jose. It has remained dormant since 1965
· It is known that the volcano has never been inactive for periods over 30 years: best beware! The time may be approaching!
3. Poas Volcano National Park
· Located in the CVRCA, northwest of San Jose
· Considered one of the most spectacular volcanoes in the country because of its scenic view and its large crater
· Was active throughout most of 1994; environmental damage was extensive, and the vegetative growth remains stunted
4. Rincon de la Vieja National Park
· Located in the Guanacaste Conservation Area in the Guanacaste Volcanic Mountain Range
· Reaches a height of almost 2000 m above sea level
· Experienced volcanic activity in early 1998
· Park may contain the largest existing growth of the national flower, the guaria morada (the purple orchid)
· Called by many "Costa Rica's Yellowstone" because of its many hot springs, geysers and sulfur mud pots
· A very important preservation area for large cats
Boza, M. A. 1992. Parques Nacionales Costa Rica. Heredia, Costa Rica: Editorial Incafo, Costa Rica S. A.
Carlson, Robert, Director of Monteverde Cloud Forest Preserve. Personal communication. May 20, 1999. Monteverde Cloud Forest Preserve, Costa Rica
Costa Rica!!! Naturally. 1999. Geo Expediciones, S.A.
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