A Living Eden
Costa Rica's National Parks preserve the natural wonders of the country for future generations.
Jessa Reid Bolling
Mary Kathryn Carpenter
The low-pitched calls of howler monkeys carry through the trees. Tourists’ heads turn to find the cries as guides tell their groups to pick up the pace in the hopes of catching a glimpse. Cameras click furiously as the monkeys are spotted leaping through the canopy, seemingly oblivious to the mesmerized crowd below.
These sought-after creatures make up part of the protected wildlife that make up the living Eden that is Costa Rica. With 25 percent of the country under government protection, Costa Rica’s national parks house 6 percent of the world’s biodiversity in flora and fauna. Attracting an average of more than 250,000 visitors per year, this reserve near Jacó is one of the most visited parks in the country.
At about 3,000 acres, Manuel Antonio is one the country’s smallest national parks. However, its oceanfront rainforest, scenic beaches and vast wildlife bring in the crowds. The park’s easily accessible trails allow visitors access to a variety of wildlife, including three-toed sloths, howler monkeys and more than 300 species of birds.
The entrance to Manuel Antonio National Park. Vida Magazine | Emma Bissell
Berny Retana, a tour guide in Manuel Antonio, said that part of the park’s appeal is that its geographic location allows for various animals to comfortably inhabit the area, making a show for tourists as hummingbirds zoom around and guides point out lounging sloths in the treetops.
“This is one of the most visited places in the world, but it’s also one of the countries in Latin America that protects more wildlife in natural reserves,” Retana said. “If you are here because you love and like to enjoy nature and you want to learn from it, this is your place.”
While people may enjoy visiting diverse wildlife and flourishing vegetation, Retana also said that Costa Rica’s extensive biodiversity places a responsibility on the Costa Rican people to protect the wildlife and plants that call this country home. He said conserving the forests and animals that inhabit them is a huge undertaking but that he couldn’t see himself doing any other job in the world.
“I love what I do,” Retana said. “We have here more species of birds than all of North America. That is our big responsibility, to protect 6 percent of the entire world’s biodiversity.”
One of Costa Rica's most famous landmarks lies north of Manuel Antonio. The Arenal Volcano is protected within about 30,000 acres of national park, where visitors flock to catch a glimpse of the main attraction.
Still listed as active, the Arenal Volcano was long believed to be merely a mountain until its 1968 eruption that destroyed the small villages of Pueblo Nuevo, San Luís and Tabacón.
Now tourists can walk along the paths of past lava flows and learn the history of the volcano’s activity. Hundreds of visitors travel through the winding trails each day, hoping to get a clear view of the volcano’s peak.
Along the paths, tourists can sometimes encounter various wildlife. Roy Soto Cruz, a guide with Anywhere tourism company, said luck plays a big part in whether visitors will be able to find any interesting animals in the rainforest that has grown back after being wiped out by past eruptions.
“When people visit the area of the eruptions and walk on the lava paths, they can see a lot of vegetation and many different species of birds, some other animals like monkeys, sloths and toucans,” Cruz said. “I’ve actually seen a jaguar in that area when I was leading a tour. It was a very lucky day. It doesn’t happen that often but once and a while you get to see that kind of thing.”
Spotting wildlife there can be difficult for a couple of reasons. Arenal often experiences foggy weather, and the rainforest around the base of the volcano is still in recovering from previous eruptions.
The surrounding forests are now considered to be in regeneration and are called secondary forests. Cruz said he was surprised at how quickly the area has been able to develop vegetation in the recovery process.
“It’s amazing how quickly mother nature can recover,” Cruz said. “The gas and the ashes that went spewing from the eruption obviously killed 90 percent of the vegetation at the base of the volcano. Only about 15 years after the eruption, vegetation started to grow back in the area. I would say about 70 percent of the area where the eruption took place already has secondary rainforest.”
Even with the beautiful views and memorable encounters with animals, there are still some who seek more adventurous excursions. This leads to the illegal practice of trespassing in the areas that are forbidden by the government for people to enter, due to the danger of the volcano still being classified as active, meaning an eruption could happen at any moment.
Top: Berny Retana, a tour guide in Jacó, guides visitors along the trail and gives them information on the various plants and animals within the park. Vida Magazine | Mary Kathryn Carpenter
Bottom: Three white faced capuchin monkeys scurry along a tree branch. Vida Magazine | Sam MacDonald
The Arenal Volcano can be seen from a lookout point. Vida Magazine | Kim Bissell
Cruz said that the dangers that face trespassers are not worth the risk. The numerous venomous snakes and spiders that live in the forests are very difficult to spot. Trying to make the trek up the volcano to reach the top could lead to serious injury. The buildup of volcanic rocks makes for a jagged and unsteady hike, making it easy to slip or cause an avalanche.
“If you visit a country, and you want to enjoy the country, you should always respect their laws,” Cruz said. “Just don’t try to go beyond because that’s going to have bad consequences. Putting yourself at risk is not necessary. If one day the volcano goes totally dormant, I’m pretty sure that they’ll let people climb the mountain, but now it’s forbidden.”
Abiding by the rules doesn’t mean less adventure. The designated lookout point gives visitors a dazzling view of both the Arenal Volcano and Lake Arenal, the experienced guides are able to spot wildlife and tell tourists about the history of one of the most visited sights in all of Costa Rica. Respecting the parameters keeps visitors safe as they make memories that will last a lifetime.
The mantle of responsibility in protecting nature is no small feat, but the people of Costa Rica have proven their willingness to accept this role. Preserving the natural beauty that generations will be able to enjoy is it’s own wealth.