The Barra Honda National Park in the heart of the Nicoya Peninsula may appear unassuming at first glance, but beneath the sprawling backdrop of dry tropical forest and chattering monkeys a buried treasure lies waiting to be explored: a network of limestone caves nestled within a mountain top, whose fantastical shapes are patiently carved out of the country’s earliest origins.
Approximately 70 million years ago, during the Miocene era, before the North and South American continents were bridged, Costa Rica (and all of Central America) lay submerged beneath the waves. At that time, the caves of Barra Honda were nothing more than coral reefs.
Underwater volcanoes eventually formed the Central American isthmus, and violent earthquakes fractured and buckled the new land and surrounding ocean floor, finally thrusting the coral reefs out of the sea to their present-day resting place. Rainwater, trickling and dripping across the limestone for millions of years, hollowed out the reefs leaving hundreds of surrealist forms to adorn the network of 42 caves.
Located as they are at higher elevations in a volcanic region, the caves were not discovered in modern times until the 1960s. One of the caves, Pozo Hediondo (Foetid Pit) led locals to believe the subterranean entrances were indeed volcanic in nature, as the guano of large colonies of bats living in the underground chamber created a stench reminiscent of volcanic sulphur. Visitors willing to wait until sunset can witness the thrilling sight of hundreds of the winged mammals emerging from the earth in the waning light.
The caves were well-known to the Peninsula’s earliest inhabitants, who may have believed them to be passageways to the spirit world. Pre-Columbian human remains have been found in all five chambers of the Nicoa cave some 30 metres (100 ft) deep, as well as pottery and adornments dating back to 300 B.C.
Only 19 of the caves have been explored to date, descending hundreds of feet. The deepest of these is the Santa Ana cave, which bottoms out at 249 metres (820 ft), one of whose caverns is known as the “Hall of Pearls”. The largest chambers lie in La Trampa cave, accessible through a narrow, tapering descent that begins in a chamber 50m below, opening onto a series of vast caverns made of dazzling pure white calcite.
The most popular chamber, and one that can be visited by children over the age of 12, is the Terciopelo, so-named for the dead snake found there when it was first explored. With the aid of a guide, visitors can rappel the 17 metre (56 ft) initial drop guided by a ladder bolted to the wall. The entrance chamber – the Papaya room – has fairytale formations of stalactites and stalagmites. In the Fried Egg chamber, a stalagmite is topped with a formation that looks a great deal like breakfast. Others assume the form of human figures huddled together. There is no shortage of fanciful names for the slow artwork of water and minerals: soda straws, popcorn, chalk flowers, curtains, grapes, needles and shark’s teeth. The third chamber – The Organ – is named for a soaring formation that resembles the pipes of a massive church organ, looming into the cathedral dome above; when lightly tapped, two draping folds produce resonant musical notes.
For children under the age of 12, La Cuevita is easily accessible, also adorned with stalactites and stalagmites. Visits to Terciopelo and La Cuevita are accompanied by experienced guides, who provide climbing gear and instruction; visitors need not have any previous caving experience. Be prepared to hike approximately 1.5 hours to the cave entrance. There are hiking trails throughout the park, which houses howler and white-faced monkeys, agoutis, deer, anteaters, kinkajous and armadillos. For a full-day adventure, an 8-kilometre guided hike leads to Las Cascadas, a series of small waterfalls pouring out over contorted mineral formations.
Caves are accessible only in the dry season (December – April), as there is a risk of flooding in the rainy season. Hours of operation are from 7:30am to 4pm. Advance reservations are required only for large groups. The park is situated just past the town of Nicoya; turn left at Hwy 21 leading to San José, Limonal and the Tempisque Bridge. Continue about two kilometres (1.2 miles) and turn left again at the signs for Barra Honda. Follow this rough road 4 kilometres (2.5 miles) toward the town of Nacaome/Barra Honda, and turn left toward Santa Ana, continuing 6 kilometres (3.7 miles) to the park’s entrance and the ranger station. For more information call 2659-1551.