Cocos Island National Park Costa Rica

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Cocos Island National Park Costa Rica was declared National Park on June 11th, 1978 because of its unique ecological diversity and the habitats the site provides for marine wildlife, including large pelagic species, especially sharks. In 1997, the Cocos Island National Park, located approximately 500 km off the pacific coast of Costa Rica, was designated a World Heritage Site by UNESCO, and in 2002, the World Heritage Site designation was extended to include an expanded marine zone of 1,997 km². In addition, it is included in the list of “Wetlands of International Importance”.  This rugged and incredibly beautiful island is the crown jewel of Costa Rica’s many National Parks.

The island was discovered by the Spanish Joan Cabezas in 1526. Thanks to its palm trees and plentiful drinking water, this oceanic island became very well know, and today is famous because during the 17th and 18th centuries, it was a heaven and served as an excellent hide-away for pirates and corsairs, who thrived along the Pacific coast. Stories tell of buccaneers burying treasures here, like Edward Davis in 1685, Benito Bonito in 1820, and William Thompson in 1821. It is said that over 300 expeditions have gone in search of treasure, because some incidents of small caches have been discovered, leading many to believe the stories of vast pirate treasures to be true, of what some say that it was the inspiration for “The Treasure Island” by Robert Louis Stevenson.

Cocos Island is an area that emerged from an underwater mountain range (the Cocos ridge) which has an irregular coastline. Its landmass is punctuated by four mountain peaks, the highest of which is Cerro Yglesisas, at 634m (2080ft). It is a terrain of volcanic origin with a vast number of rivers and streams which plunge over the spectacular cliffs that line its coasts. The largest rivers are the Genio and the Pittier, which drain their water into Wafer Bay. The mountainous landscape and the tropical climate combine to create over 200 waterfalls throughout the island. With four bays with safe anchorages and sandy beaches, three of them in the north side, Wafer, Chatham and Weston.

The climate of the island is humid and tropical with an average annual temperature of 24ºC (75ºF) and an average annual rainfall of over 7,000mm (275 in), resulting in a covering of lush green foliage. Rainfall is high throughout the year, although lower from January through March and slightly lower during late September and October. Numerous oceanic currents from the central Pacific Ocean that converge on the island also have an important influence.  This extremely wet climate and oceanic character give Cocos Island an ecological character that is not shared with either the Galapagos Archipelago or any of the other islands (e.g., Malpelo or Coiba) in this region of the world, being home to dense and exuberant tropical moist forests; thus is a place of great scenic beauty and an ideal laboratory for nature studies. Everywhere there are ferns, bromeliads, rivers, streams, waterfalls, valleys, cliffs and islets.

The island was never linked to a continent, so the flora and fauna arrived via long distance dispersal from the Americas. The island has therefore a high proportion of endemic species. In fact, the Cocos Island National Park has 235 known species of flowering plants, of which 70 (nearly 30%) are endemic; also 74 species of ferns and fern allies (lycopodiophytes and pteridophytes), as well as 128 species of mosses and liverworts (bryophytes), 90 species of fungi and 41 species of slime molds. The coastal forests extend from the seacoast up to 50m elevation. Purple Coral Tree (Erythrina fusca), Coconut Palm (Cocos nucifera), and Pond-apple (Annona glabra) are the predominant trees, as well as the endemic trees such as the Cupey (Clusia Rosea) and the Huriki (Sacoglottis holdridgei), all this with an understory of ferns, spermatophytes or phanerogams, shrubs of the Rubiaceae and Solanaceae families, sedges and grasses, mosses, herbaceous plants of the Leguminosae and Malvaceae families and the endemic Rooseveltia frankliniana palm.

The island has over 400 known species of insects, of which 65 (16%) are endemic. The greatest diversity is found among the Lepidoptera and Formicidae, as well as over 50 species of other arthropods have been described such as spiders, centipedes, millipedes and isopods. Besides, two species of lizard are found on the island, an anole or lizard (Norops townsendii) and a salamander or gecko (Sphaerodactylus pacificus); both are endemic.

Nearly 90 bird species have been reported. The island and neighboring rocks are home to large nesting colonies of migratory seabirds, including the Brown Booby (Sula leucogaster), Red-footed Booby (Sula sula), Great Frigatebird (Fregata minor), White Tern or the Holy Ghost dove (Gygis Alba) and Brown Noddy (Anous stolidus), as well as even species of land birds inhabit the island – including three endemics – the Cocos Cuckoo (Coccyzus ferrugineus), the Cocos Flycatcher (Nesotriccus ridgwayi) and the Cocos Finch (Pinaroloxias inornata). In the other hand, the island has five land mammal species, including pigs, deers, cats and rats. All these land mammals were introduced by humans, which is why the Costa Rican government has vowed to control the populations of these animals, as they are harmful to the local ecosystems.

The underwater world of the national park has become famous due to the attraction it holds for divers, who rate it as one of the best places in the world to view large pelagic species. The most important scuba reefs are located in Punta María, Punta Presidio, Punta Pacheco and some areas of the Iglesias, Chatham and Wafer Bays.

The rich coral reef, the volcanic tunnels, underwater caves, massifs and deeper waters surrounding Cocos Island are home to more than 30 species of corals, 60 species of crustaceans, 600 species of mollusks and over 300 species of fish. These include large populations of yellowfin tuna (Thunnus albacares), Giant Manta Rays (Manta birostris), Sailfish (Istiophorus platypterus), Parrotfishes, Catfishes, Giant Moray Eels, Marbled Rays, Marlins, Octopus, the exotic Red-lipped Batfish (Ogcocephalus darwini), as well as dozens if not hundreds of sharks, such as White-tip reef shark (Triaenodon obesus) and Scalloped Hammerhead shark (Sphyrna lewini), the Silky sharks (Carcharhinus falciformis), the Silvertip sharks (Carcharhinus albimarginatus), the whale shark (Rhincodon typus), besides  other large marine animals like the Humpback whales (Megaptera novaeangliae), Pilot whales (Globicephala macrorhynchus), Bottlenose dolphins (Tursiops truncatus), Sea Lions (Zalophus californianus), Hawksbill turtles (Eretmochelys imbricata), Green turtles (Chelonia mydas) and Olive Ridley turtles (Lepidochelys olivacea). In fact, thanks to the breathtaking marine life in its waters, Cocos Island was named one of the best 10 scuba diving spots in the world by PADI (Professional Association of Diving Instructors).

Unfortunately it takes more than a decree to protect an ecosystem. One of the biggest problems on Cocos Island is the loss of native species to species introduced by man (pigs, goats and rats). These numerous accolades highlight the urgent need to protect Cocos Island and surrounding waters from illegal large-scale fishing, poaching and other problems. Cocos Island was short-listed as a candidate to be one of the New7Wonders of Nature by the New Seven Wonders of the World Foundation.

This is why the only persons allowed to live on Cocos Island are Costa Rican Park Rangers, who have established two encampments, including one at one in Wafer Bay and other in Chatham Bay. Tourists and ship crew members are allowed ashore only with permission of island rangers and are not permitted to camp, stay overnight or collect any flora, fauna or minerals from the island.  It has been estimated that Cocos Island Costa Rica receives an annual visitation of about 1,100 people, mainly concentrated in the period between March and May. Easy anchorage can be found in Wafer and Chatham Bays, where there are also dining huts and rest areas, with sanitary services and showers.

Cocos Island in fiction
The book “Desert Island” proposed the highly detailed theory that Daniel Defoe used the Isla dell Cocoze as an accurate model for his descriptions of the island inhabited by the marooned Robinson Crusoe. However Defoe placed Crusoe’s island not in the Pacific, but rather off the coast of Venezuela in the Atlantic Ocean.

The Michael Crichton novel Jurassic Park, centers on the fictitious Isla Nublar that is off of the west coast of Costa Rica. Supporting this argument is the Dreamworks Interactive game Jurassic Park: Trespasser (1998), which used Cocos Island’s topography as a substitute for the fictional island on which it takes place. Also, “Isla Nublar” is intended to mean “Cloudy Island”, and Cocos Island is the only island with cloud forests in the eastern Pacific. (Source:

Getting to Cocos Island National Park:

From San Jose take the Pan-American Highway to Puntarenas, passing through San Ramon and Barranca. From the port of Puntarenas Isla del Coco can be reached by boat, a journey that takes approximately 36 hours. For more updated information regarding the tours and how to get to the Cocos Island, communicate directly with the offices of the island (see telephone number below). Now you can also take the new Caldera Highway, until you get to Puntarenas. The Caldera trip takes about 1 hour from San Jose while the other takes about 2 hours.

From Daniel Oduber Quiros International Airport (LIR), drive south to Puntarenas. From the port of Puntarenas Isla del Coco can be reached by boat, a journey that takes approximately 36 hours. For more updated information regarding the tours and how to get to the Cocos Island, communicate directly with the offices of the island (see telephone number below).

By bus

Take a local bus from San Jose – Puntarenas, which takes about 3 hours (Empresarios Unidos, 2222-0064).

Location: 330 miles (523 km) southwest of Cabo Blanco in the eastern Pacific Ocean, in Puntarenas province.
GPS coordinates: 5.527958,-87.057419 (5°31’40.65″N, 87°03’26.71″W)
Size: 4660 hectares (11,500 acres)
Altitude: from sea level to 634m (2,100ft)
Satellite Telephone: 0087-468712-0010
Cocos Island Marine Conservation Area (ACMIC) Telephone: +(506) 2291-1215 / 2291-1216
INFOTUR Tourist Information: 1192

Address map: Click here to view directions from Juan Santamaria International Airport (SJO), Alajuela, Costa Rica TO Puntarenas port, Costa Rica at Google Maps

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