The National Parks of Costa Rica
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Destination content © Christopher P. Baker, used from Moon Handbooks Costa Rica, 5th edition.
Costa Rican beaches don't come more beautiful than Playa Grande, a seemingly endless curve of coral-white sand with water as blue as the summer sky. Alas, no palms or shade trees grow down by the beach itself. A beach trail to the north leads along the cape through dry forest--good for birdlife--and deposits you at Playa Ventanas, a pristine scalloped swath of white sand you will want to claim as your own. You'll see a few tide pools for snorkeling and bathing. Superb surf pumps ashore at high tide--year-round. Playa Grande is renowned among surfers for its consistency and good mix of lefts and rights. Surfing expert Mark Kelly rates it as "maybe the best overall spot in the country."

The entire shoreline is protected within the 445-hectare Playa Grande Marine Turtle National Park (Parque Nacional Marino Las Baulas), which protects the prime nesting site of the leatherback turtle on the Pacific coast, including 22,000 hectares out to sea. The beach was incorporated into the national park system in May 1990 after a 15-year battle between developers and conservationists. At issue is the fate of the leatherback turtle--and the amazing fact that humankind stands on the brink of terminating forever a miracle that has played itself out annually at Playa Grande for the past several million years.

The park is the result of efforts of Louis Wilson and Marianel Pastor, owners of Hotel Las Tortugas. In the 1970s, a cookie company was harvesting the turtles' eggs. The beach was subdivided among 30 or so egg poachers, who sold Louis and Marianel "rights" to take tourists on to their sections of sand. Once the tourists left, the hueveros would steal the eggs. In the 1980s, Asian fleets began harvesting eggs here. The government agreed to support the couple's conservation efforts only if they could show that the site was economically viable as a tourist destination. Much of the land backing the beach was owned by developers, who had until recently been prevented from constructing homes and hotels. Things have come full circle. The locals have taken over all guiding (each guide is certified through an accredited course), and Las Baulas is now a model for similar experiments worldwide. However, in a typically Costa Rican compromise, developers won their battle, too. The Rancho Las Colinas Golf and Country Club project was launched to include 220 residential sites plus an 18-hole golf course designed by internationally renowned golf course architect Ron Garl. Locals were soon complaining that their water pressure had dropped because of all the irrigation for the course. The area has water woes in dry season and the course's $1 million irrigation system taps the aquifer that supplies the local area, but still hasn't been able to quench the huge thirst of its 7,000-hectare greens. Although the course was completed, as were some of the condos, the project was a flop. It is now under new management (see Tours and Activities, below).

Playa Grande is backed by dry forest. The beach sweeps south to the mouth of the Río Matapalo, which forms a 400-hectare mangrove estuary behind the beach. The ecosystem is protected within Tamarindo National Wildlife Refuge (Refugio Nacional de Vida Silvestre Tamarindo) and features crocodiles, anteaters, and monkeys. Large flocks of waterbirds (and raptors) gather, especially in the midst of dry season. And with hunting by locals a thing of the past, the wildlife population is increasing; deer and even ocelots and other cats are seen with greater frequency.

Hiking is allowed on the north side of the estuary and along the beach. Trails are not marked.

The hamlet of Comunidad Playa Grande is on the main approach road, 600 meters inland from the beach. Visiting the Turtles of Playa Grande
Turtles call at Playa Grande year-round. The nesting season for the giant leatherback is October-March, when females come ashore every night at high tide. Sometimes as many as 100 turtles might be seen in a single night. (Olive ridley turtles can sometimes also be seen here, as may the more rarely seen, smaller Pacific green turtles, May-August.) Mid-October through mid-November is best for avoiding hordes of tourists.

A visit here is a humbling, reverential experience. One turtle, having patiently withstood the intrusive gawking eyes through her labor, halted and turned to face me as I walked by her side down to the sea. Who knows what sentiment she may have tried to express? Watching her lumbering exertions as the mother-to-be hauled herself back to sea was like saying a final, tearful farewell to a loved one. The experience was so sublime, so profound, that tears welled in my eyes as I typed in my notes the next day.

Each female leatherback will nest as many as 12 times a season, every 10 days or so (usually at night to avoid dehydration). Most turtles prefer the center of the beach, just above the high-tide mark.

The beach is open to visitors at night (6 p.m.-6 a.m.) October 15 through February 15, and off-limits the rest of the year (there are no restrictions on daytime visits); it is open at night February 15 through March 15 solely for environmental education. Guides from the local community roam the beach and lead groups to nesting turtles, guided by other guides who spot for turtles and call in the location via walkie-talkies. Visitors are no longer allowed to walk the beach after dusk unescorted. Groups cannot exceed 15 people, and only 60 people are allowed onto the beach at night at each entry point (four groups per gate; eight groups maximum nightly).

There are two entrance gates to the beach: one where the road meets the beach by the Hotel Las Tortugas; and the second at the southern end, by Villas Baulas. Reservations are mandatory, although entry without a reservation is possible if there's space in a group (don't count on it, as demand usually exceeds supply). You can make reservations up to eight days in advance. At certain times the waiting time can be two hours before you are permitted onto the beach.

Resist the temptation to follow the example of the many thoughtless visitors who get too close to the turtles, try to touch them, ride their backs, or otherwise display a lack of common sense and respect. Flashlights and camera flashes are not permitted (professional photographers can apply in advance for permission to use a flash; contact the ranger station or SINAC in San José). And watch your step. Newborn turtles are difficult to see at night as they scurry down to the sea. Many are inadvertently crushed by tourists' feet.

The park headquarters (Centro Operaciones Parque Nacional Marina las Baulas), is 100 meters east of Hotel Las Tortugas (the owner, Louis Wilson, is still the best source of information on the area). The office, which was under construction at last visit, will be open 24 hours. It will feature an auditorium showing pertinent information on turtle ecology and what is expected of visitors: viewing the film will be obligatory for all people intending to witness the turtles nesting.

Warning: Car burglaries are a problem at the informal parking lot at the entrance gates. There are now police hereabouts, but still you need to ensure that you don't leave any valuables in your car. Consider buying a meal at the Hotel Las Tortugas and using their parking lot. @4:El Mundo de la Tortuga @$:The World of the Turtle museum, is 200 meters from the main entrance gate and a must-visit before watching the turtles. Self-guided audio tours (20 minutes) are offered in four languages. The displays are splendid and highly educational. Did you know that the brain of a 1,000-pound leatherback weighs only one-quarter ounce? Or that the turtles eat mostly jellyfish? Or that they're found in all of the world's oceans as far north as the Arctic? The museum is open by night and you can sit in the outside patio and await your turn to visit the turtles (the park wardens radio in when the action begins). It has a splendid gift shop. Fantastic! Free educational programs are given to locals. It's open October-February, when the turtles are present. Hours: 4 p.m.-6 a.m.

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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