Carara National Park Costa Rica

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Carara National Park Costa Rica protects the river basin of the Tarcoles River, near Orotina, on the Pacific Coast of Costa Rica. This exuberant park has Primary and Secondary tropical forest, lakes, rivers and waterfalls.

Carara National Park is well worth a visit. In fact, in terms of visitor numbers it is one of the most popular reserves in the country. There are a number of reasons for this. The first is accessibility, as Carara is a mere 45 minutes from San Jose and right on the main road leading to the coast. Secondly, Carara has a vast range of wildlife because it occupies a transition zone between tropical moist forest and tropical dry forest and has species from both habitats. The word “Carara” is an indigenous term, reputedly meaning “river of crocodiles”. Pre-Columbian archaeological sites are scattered throughout the area. The area in which the reserve is located was occupied by an indigenous culture that is thought to have been allied with groups located in the Central Valley from 300 B.C. to 1500 A.D. Extensive tomb sites have been excavated here and the burial places of people of high status are remarkably complex.

Carara National Park is almost a must for anyone interested in tropical biology, specially birds. The trees, therefore, are mixture of evergreen and deciduous varieties. The park also includes stretches of the Tárcoles River, with its marshy flood plain and particularly attractive oxbow lake covered with water hyacinths.

Carara National Park was established on April 27th 1978 as a biological reserve, but its growing popularity after 1990 forced the government to upgrade its category to national park due to the massive numbers of tourists that visited it. Thus on November 1998 Carara was upgraded to national park category. In fact, Carara was once part of a huge cattle ranch known as El Coyolar. The ranch was taken over by the Costa Rican Land Reform Agency in 1970, and divided into small farms for landless peasants, but fortunately the Agency had the foresight to pass the forested area on to the National Park Service, thus creating the biological reserve.

The park is located between the dry forests of the north and the humid ones of the south, which results in an “ecotone” or melding area that gives Carara its diversity. It is the beginning of the transition zone into the tropical dry forests of the northwest zone. There are two hiking trails in Carara National Park: the Quebrada Bonita, one-half mile south of the Tárcoles River Bridge, as you head towards the rangers station; and the 2.7 mile Araceas Nature Trail, that begins parallels to the Tárcoles River and has short branches to the Meandrica Lagoon and marshes (this trail is ideal for bird watching, as well as some mammals and crocodiles).

Carara is considered a sanctuary of the extraordinary and beautiful Scarlet Macaw, the park’s symbol, which is on the endangered species list. In the park there are approx 200 couples which live and breed in absolute freedom, being the second highest concentration of birds in the country.

Carara has a surprising number of mammal species, including anteaters, agouties or pacas, tayras, three and two-toed sloths, kinkajous, collared peccaries, coaties, raccoons, armadillos, white-tailed deers, opossums, monkeys – howler, capuchin and spider monkeys – margays, jaguarondi and ocelots. Carara National Park is also a stronghold of a number of Costa Rica’s seven species of poison dart frogs and it has also recorded 19 out of Costa Rica’s 22 poisonous snakes. However, it’s the birds what most people come to see, particularly the Scarlet Macaw, which breeds in the park. Other bird attractions include various toucans, trogons and guans, while along the riverside stretch a variety of egrets and herons can be spotted, including the strange Boat-billed Heron, the Anhinga, the Collared Aracari, Fiery-billed Aracari, American Egret, Great Tinamou, Turkey vulture, Long-billed Gnatwren, Chestnut-backed Antbird, Black-hooded Antshrike, Jacanas, Pied-billed Grebe and Mexican Tiger-bitterns.

This is also where many cruise ship’s passengers are bused for a day trip when the liners dock just up the coast at Puerto Caldera, and a common destination for field trips by school children. It is always hot and humid in the forests of Carara. Even during the drier season from late December through April when there is significantly less rain, transpiration keeps the humidity under the canopy near saturation, so it is VERY important to bring mosquito repellent. The wettest months are from August to October when the trails near the river may at times be impassable because of flooding. Camping is not allowed at Carara National Park.

The best time to visit Carara is during the dry season, from December to April, early in the morning, so you can see a higher amount of birds. The ranger station is at the side of the coastal highway, 3km (1.8 mile) south of the bridge. The trails start from there, so guides are available and are highly recommended.

Before entering the reserve, take some time to stop at the nearby Tárcoles River Bridge, which is possibly the best place in the country to see crocodiles – the endangered American Crocodile and the Caiman. Large numbers of these fearsome reptiles can be seen lounging on the tidal mud.

Getting to Carara National Park:

From San Jose take the Pan-American Highway north passing through Atenas up to Orotina. Take the Tárcoles and Jaco exit. Continue for about 14 km (8 miles), passing the bridge over the Tarcoles River, until the Carara National Park. Now you can also take the new Caldera Highway (route 27), taking the same exit to Tárcoles and Jaco and following the same directions until you get to the Carara National Park. The Caldera trip takes about 45 minutes from San Jose while the other takes about 1:30 hours.

From Daniel Oduber International Airport (LIR), drive south on the Interamerican Highway to Puntarenas. From there, take the new Caldera Highway and then the exit to Tarcoles and Jaco. Continue for about 14 km (8 miles), passing the bridge over the Tarcoles River, continue for about 1 mile and Carara should be on your left.

By bus

Take a local bus from the route San Jose – Jacó or Quepos, which takes about 1.5 hours (Transportes Morales, +506 2223-5567). This buses has daily express departures from San José, at the Coca Cola Terminal and are a great option as they will drop you at the ranger station.

By plane:

You can also take a flight from the Daniel Oduber Airport to the Quepos Airport, either with Sansa Airlines or Nature Air every day. From here you can rent a car and drive, or take a bus or taxi to Carara National Park, which is about 1.5 hours.

Location: 2.5 km (1.5 miles) south from the Tarcoles River bridge, district: Tarcoles, canton: Garabito, in the province of Puntarenas, Costa Rica. Zone postal code: 61102
GPS Coordinates: 9.780475,-84.60685 (9°46’49.71″N, 84°36’24.66″ W)
Size: 4500ha (11112 acres)
Altitude: 10m (32ft) to 150m (492ft)
Schedule: from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m.
Carara National Park Phone: +506 2637-1054
Central Pacific Conservation Area (ACOPAC) Telephone: +506 2416-7878
INFOTUR Tourist Information: 1192
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