The Santa Rosa National Park occupies a unique place among Costa Rica’s protected areas. In addition to being one of the last, nearly complete representations of Guanacaste’s natural heritage, it is also the site of historical drama that took place in the country’s infancy. From surfing landmarks to battlegrounds, glimpses of elusive species within one of the world’s rarest ecosystems, the Santa Rosa National Park is a must-see on every Guanacaste visitor’s list.
Situated just below the border with Nicaragua, north of the Hotel Sugar Beach, the Santa Rosa park is bounded to the west by the Pacific ocean and to the east by the PanAmerican highway. It is composed entirely of dry tropical forest, which dominates Guanacaste’s landscape, representing one of the most intact swaths of this rare ecosystem in the world. Equally rare mangrove thickets line the beaches. Rare animals live within its bounds, such as the king vulture, whose snowy white feathers offset the bright, multi-coloured wattles that adorn its face. It’s not uncommon to see jaguar prints along the beaches at dawn, though one has to be very lucky indeed to catch a glimpse of this stealthiest of hunters. All of Costa Rica’s big wildcats prowl the park’s territory, as do tapirs, armadillos, peccaries and agoutis, among the more than 100 mammal species that call the park home. White-faced capuchins. howler and spider monkeys claim the canopy, along with loudly chattering flocks of bright green parakeets.
But it is the marine inhabitants that provide one of nature’s grandest spectacles: the arribada. Playa Nancite, a beach along the park’s northern edge, is one of only two sites in the country (along with Playa Ostional, to the south) to receive the mass arrival of nesting sea turtles. During the winter months, Olive Ridley and leatherback turtles climb onto the sandy shores by the thousands at night to lay their clutches of eggs, synchronizing the event to overwhelm the predators that would feed on this buried treasure. By dawn, no square inch of sand is undisturbed. Within weeks, tiny turtles will emerge to scramble down to the water under cover of night; years from now, the females among them will return to this very beach in their turn.
Visitors interested in Costa Rica’s history have year-round access to one of the country’s proudest monuments, around which the park itself was formed: La Casona. This old hacienda marks the site of a battle which routed William Walker, a filibuster bent on conquering Central America. He entered Costa Rica from the north in 1856, and the opposing army met the rag-tag group of would-be invaders at La Casona. Fourteen minutes were all that was needed: Costa Rica’s victory was swift and decisive. The old farmhouse would see at least two more battles successfully fought in the coming decades, and was finally enshrined as a monument in 1971, creating Costa Rica’s first national park. Sadly, in 2001, one of the many forest fires that ravage the park in the dry summer months destroyed the original building, which was later rebuilt.
The park is quite large, spanning nearly 50,000 hectares (122,000 acres), and is divided into three sectors: Santa Elena, to the northeast; Santa Rosa, to the southeast; and Murcielago, along the western end to the water. Several ranger stations are found within the park, some of which have camping grounds, restrooms and showers, and others with rustic accommodations for researchers. Camping in the park is popular in the summer months from January to April, when the roads are passable and the weather clear. The road is usually impassable during the peak of the rainy season, but many visitors continue to arrive by boat to surf the famed breaks at Witch’s Rock and Ollie’s point, immortalized in the classic surf film Endless Summer. Just offshore lie the Bat Islands, or Islas Murcielago, which offer incredible snorkeling and scuba diving. Access by boat is quite limited and must be reserved in advance.
When coming from the Sugar Beach Hotel, follow directions to Liberia. From Liberia, take the PanAmerican Highway north toward Peñas Blancas. The entrance to the Santa Rosa station is located approximately 40 kilometers, or 25 miles, from Liberia, along the left-hand side. A ranger is available from 8am to 4pm to provide directions to the various sectors, and updates on road conditions. For reservations and inquiries, call 2666-5051.