The National Parks of Costa Rica
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Destination content © Christopher P. Baker, used from Moon Handbooks Costa Rica, 5th edition.
Photo by Steven Hodel
Cahuita's 14 km of beaches are shaded by palm trees, lush forests, marshlands, and mangroves. Together they make up Cahuita National Park (1,067 hectares), created in 1970 to protect the 240 hectares of offshore coral reef that distinguish this park from its siblings. Animal life abounds in the diverse habitats behind the beach--an ideal place to catch a glimpse of tamanduas, pacas, coatis, raccoons, tree-dwelling sloths, agoutis, armadillos, iguanas, and, of course, troops of howler and capuchin monkeys that come down to the shore.

The park is a good place, too, to focus your binoculars on a green ibis, rufous kingfisher, or low swooping Swainson and keel-billed toucans. Other birds include the Central American curassow and large groups of nesting parrots (and even, Dec.-Feb., macaws). Cahuita's freshwater rivers and estuaries are also good places to spot caimans and herons. Snakes--watch your step!--are commonly seen along the trail. And red land crabs and bright blue fiddler crabs--the latter with oversized claws--inhabit the shores.

The reef off Punta Cahuita protects the northern stretch of the beautiful scimitar beach to the south. Smooth water here provides good swimming; it's possible to wade out at knee level. At the southern end of the park, beyond the reef, huge waves lunge onto the beach--a nesting site for three species of turtles--where tide pools form at low tide. Check with rangers about currents and where you can walk or snorkel safely.

The coral reef lies offshore north off Puerto Vargas. Snorkelers can try their luck near Cahuita Point or Punta Vargas (you must enter the water from the beach on the Punta Vargas side and swim out to the reef); you can also hire a local resident to take you out farther by boat. On the sea floor are massive brain corals and delicate, branching sea fans and feathers; nearer the surface are elkhorn corals, frondlike gorgonians spreading their fingers upward toward the light, lacy outcrops of tubipora--like delicately woven Spanish mantillas--and soft flowering corals swaying to the rhythms of the ocean currents.

Up to 500 species of fish gambol among the exquisite reefs. Here, amid sprawling thickets of bright blue staghorn, great rosettes of pale mauve brain coral, and dazzling yellow tubastras almost luminescent in the bright sunlight, a multicolored extravaganza of polka-dotted, piebald-dappled, zebra-striped fish protect their diminutive plots of liquid real estate among the reef's crowded underwater condominiums.

Besides what remains of the beautiful coral, there are two old shipwrecks about seven meters below the surface, both with visible ballast and cannons; one wreck has two cannons, and the second, a more exposed site, has 13. The average depth is six meters. The best time for diving and snorkeling is during the dry season, February-April; water clarity during the rest of year is not good because of silt brought by rivers emptying from the Talamanca mountains.

A footbridge leads into the park from the Kelly Creek Ranger Station (run by a local committee) at the southern end of Cahuita village. Kelly Creek is shallow and easily waded. A shady seven-km nature trail leads from the Kelly Creek Ranger Station to the Puerto Vargas Ranger Station, three km south of Cahuita mid-way along the park. The nature trail walk takes about two hours with time to stop for a swim. You must wade the Perozoso ("Sloth") River--its waters stained dark brown by tannins--just west of Punta Cahuita.

The main park entrance is about 400 meters west Hwy. 36, about three km south of Cahuita (the Sixaola-bound bus will drop you off near the entrance). You can drive to the Puerto Vargas administrative center from here via dirt road. The Puerto Vargas entrance gate is locked after hours.

Don't forget your insect repellent and sunscreen. Don't leave your gear unattended, as theft is a problem. A museum is planned.

This is an small excerpt from Moon Handbooks Costa Rica. CentralAmerica.Com highly recommends that you enhance your vacation by taking a copy of Moon's comprehensive Handbook with you. For more information visit the Moon Handbooks page on this site.

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