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Santa Rosa National Park
Santa Rosa was founded in 1972 as the country's first national park. The 49,515-hectare park, which covers much of the Santa Elena peninsula, is part of a mosaic of ecologically interdependent parks and reserves--the 110,000-hectare Guanacaste Conservation Area (GCA)--that incorporates Santa Rosa National Park, Rincón de la Vieja National Park, Bolaños Island Wildlife Refuge, the Junquillal Bay National Wildlife Refuge, and the Horizontes Experimental Station, abutting Santa Rosa to the south. See the Information section, below, for contact information.
Parque Nacional Santa Rosa is most famous for Hacienda Santa Rosa--better known as La Casona--the nation's most cherished historic monument. It was here in 1856 that the mercenary army of American adventurer William Walker was defeated by a ragamuffin army of Costa Rican volunteers. The old hacienda-turned-museum alone is well worth the visit. Santa Rosa National Park has other treasures, too.

The park is a mosaic of 10 distinct habitats, including mangrove swamp, savanna, and oak forest, which attract a wide range of animals: more than 250 bird species and 115 mammal species (half of them bats, including two vampire species), among them relatively easily seen mammals such as white-tailed deer, coatimundis, howler, spider, and white-faced monkeys, and anteaters. Jaguars still roam Santa Rosa, as do margays, ocelots, pumas, and jaguarundis; they're all shy and seldom seen. Santa Rosa is a vitally important nesting site for ridleys and other turtle species. In the wet season the land is as green as emeralds, and wildlife disperses. In dry season, however, when the parched scrubby landscapes give an impression of the East African plains, wildlife congregates at watering holes--such as those on the Naked Indian Trail--and is easily seen. Be patient. Sit still for long enough and some interesting creatures are sure to appear. Keep an eye out for snakes.

The park is divided into two sections: the Santa Rosa Sector to the south (the entrance is at Km 269 on Hwy. 1, 37 km north of Liberia) and the Murciélago Sector (the turnoff from Hwy. 1 is 10 km farther north, via Cuajiniquil), separated by a swathe of privately owned land.

Santa Rosa Sector
The Santa Rosa Sector is the more important and accessible of the two sectors. On the right, one km past the entrance gate, a rough dirt road leads to a rusting armored personnel carrier beside a memorial cross commemorating the Battle of 1955, when Somoza, the Nicaraguan strongman, made an ill-fated foray into Costa Rica.

Six km farther on the paved road is La Casona, a magnificent colonial homestead with a beautiful setting atop a slight rise overlooking a stone corral where the battle with William Walker was fought. Inside the house are photos, illustrations, carbines, and other military paraphernalia commemorating the battle of 20 March 1856. Battles were also fought here during the 1919 Sapoá Revolution and in 1955. One room is furnished in period style. Another is a small chapel. Large wooden mortars and pestles are on display, along with decrepit chaps and centenary riding gear. There's also a good nature exhibit. Harmless bats fly in and out. There's a large guanacaste tree outside.

Trails: Trails are marked in detail on the map sold at the park entrance. The Naked Indian loop trail (1.5 km) begins just before the house and leads through dry-forest woodlands with streams and waterfalls and gumbo-limbo trees whose peeling red bark earned them the nickname "naked Indian trees." The Los Patos trail, which has several watering holes during dry season, is one of the best trails for spotting mammals. The Laguna Escondida and Caujiniquil River Trail (14 km round-trip) also takes you to a pond that is a magnet for thirsty wildlife. Other good spots for wildlife are Platanar Lake, Laguna Escondida, and La Penca, reached by trails north from the park administrative area.

The paved road ends just beyond the administration area. From here, an appalling dirt road drops steeply to the beaches--Playa Naranjo and Playa Nancite, 13 km from La Casona. It's a good road to break your springs. A 4WD with high ground clearance is essential. Park officials sometimes close the road because they get tired of towing vehicles out.

Beaches: The deserted white-sand Playa Nancite is renowned as the site for the annual arribadas, the mass nestings of olive ridley turtles which occur only here and at Ostional, farther south. More than 75,000 turtles will gather out to sea and come ashore over the space of a few days, with the possibility of up to 10,000 reptiles on the beach at any one time in September and October. Although the exact trigger is unknown, arribadas seem to coincide with falling barometric pressure in autumn and are apparently associated with a waxing three-quarter moon. You can usually see solitary turtles at other times August through December. Stephen E. Cornelius's illustrated book, The Sea Turtles of Santa Rosa National Park (Costa Rica: National Park Foundation, 1986), provides an insight into the life of the ridley turtle. Cornelius initiated studies here in 1972.

Latest data suggests that the turtle population at Nancite is declining. Playa Nancite (about a one-hour hike over a headland from Estero Real, at the end of the dirt road) is a research site. Access is restricted and permits are needed; anyone can get one from the ranger station, or at Programa de Ecoturismo, c/o Centro de los Investigaciones, tel. 666-5051, ext. 219). There's a limit of 30 people per day.

Playa Naranjo is a popular, beautiful, kilometers-long, pale gray sand beach that is legendary in surfing lore. Steep, thick, powerful tubular waves and "killer beautiful Witches Rock rising like a sentinel out of the water make this a must stop in the world for top-rated surfers," says surf expert Mark Kelly. The beach is bounded by craggy headlands and frequently visited by monkeys, iguanas, and other wildlife. Crocodiles lurk in the mangrove swamps at the southern end of the beach. At night, plankton light up with a brilliant phosphorescence as you walk the drying sand in the wake of high tide. Witches Rock is a gigantic crag split in two and jutting up straight from the ocean bottom.

In addition to Playa Naranjo, Playa Portrero Grande, north of Nancite, and other beaches on the central Santa Elena peninsula offer some of the best "machine-like" surf in the country, with double overhead waves rolling in one after the other. The makers of Endless Summer II, the sequel to the classic surfing movie, caught the Portrero Grande break perfectly. The beaches are inaccessible by road. You can hire a boat at Jobo or any of the fishing villages in the Golfo Santa Elena to take you to Portrero Grande or Islas Murciélagos (Bat Islands), slung in a chain beneath Cabo Santa Elena, the westernmost point of the peninsula. The Bat Islands are a renowned scuba diving site for advanced divers; sharks (bull, tiger, and black-tip) are there in numbers, along with whale sharks.

Murciélago Sector
The entrance to the Murciélago Sector of Santa Rosa National Park is 15 km west of Hwy. 1, 10 km north of the Santa Rosa Sector park entrance (there's a police checkpoint at the turnoff; have your passport ready for inspection). The road winds downhill to a coastal valley through spectacularly hilly countryside to the hamlet of Cuajiniquil, tucked half a kilometer south of the road, which continues northwest to Bahía Cuajiniquil.

You arrive at a Y-fork in Cuajiniquil: the road to Murciélago (eight km) is to the left. There are three rivers to ford en route. You'll pass the old CIA training camp for the Nicaraguan contras on your right. The place--Murciélago Hacienda--was owned by the Nicaraguan dictator Somoza's family before being expropriated in 1979, when the Murciélago Sector was incorporated into Santa Rosa National Park. It's now a training camp for the Costa Rican Rural Guard. Armed guards may stop you for an ID check as you pass. A few hundred meters farther, the road runs alongside the secret airstrip (hidden behind tall grass to your left) that Oliver North had built to supply the contras. The park entrance is 0.5 km beyond the airstrip.

It's another 16 km to Playa Blanca, a beautiful horseshoe-shaped white-sand beach--one of the most isolated in the country--about five km wide and enjoyed only by pelicans and frigate birds. The road ends here. Waterfalls are surrounded by ferns and palms in Cuajiniquil Canyon, which has its own moist microclimate. The Poza El General watering hole attracts waterfowl and other animals year-round and is reached along a rough trail.