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Barra Honda National Park
This 2,295-hectare park, 13 km west of the Río Tempisque, is distinct in the Costa Rican park system. Parque Nacional Barra Honda is known for its limestone caverns dating back some 70 million years (42 have been discovered to date). Remarkably, the caverns have been known to modern man for only two decades, but skeletons, utensils, and ornaments dating back to 300 b.c. have been discovered inside the Nicoya Cave.
The deepest cavern thus far explored is the Santa Ana Cave, which is thought to be at least 240 meters deep (descents have been made to 180 meters). One of its features is the handsome Hall of Pearls, full of stalactites and stalagmites. Another cavern with decorative formations is Terciopelo Cave, named for the eponymous snake found dead at the bottom of the cave during the first exploration, and reached via an exciting 30-meter vertical descent to a sloping plane that leads to the bottom, 63 meters down.

Mushroom Hall is named for the shape of its calcareous formations. The Hall of the Caverns has large Medusa-like formations, including a figure resembling a lion's head. And columns in Hall Number Five, and "The Organ" in Terciopelo, produce musical tones when struck. Beyond the Hall, at a point called the Summit, you can sign your name in a book placed there by speleologists of the University of Costa Rica. Some of the caverns are frequented by bats, including the Pozo Hediondo (Fetid Pit) Cave, which is named for the quantity of excrement accumulated by its abundant bat population. Blind salamanders and endemic fish species have also evolved in the caves.

The caves are not easily accessible and are risky for those not duly equipped. Groups will need to call the National Parks office in San José (see National Parks, in the Introduction chapter), or the regional headquarters in Bagaces, tel. 671-1062, fax 671-1290, or in Nicoya, tel./fax 686-6760, several days in advance for authorization to enter the caves. Descents are allowed during dry season only (although, reportedly, not during Holy Week).

Above ground, the hilly dry forest terrain is a refuge for howler monkeys, deer, macaws, agoutis, peccaries, kinkajous, anteaters, and many bird species, including scarlet macaws. The park tops out at Mount Barra Honda (442 meters), which has intriguing rock formations and provides an excellent view of the Gulf of Nicoya. While here, check out Las Cascadas, strange limestone formations formed by calcareous sedimentation along a riverbed. Hire a guide; the pathways leading throughout the park are convoluted. Two German tourists got lost and died of dehydration in 1993 after setting off for a short hike without a guide.