Santa Rosa National Park

The 50,000 hectare Santa Rosa National Park consists primarily of dry tropical forest. It covers a large portion of the Santa Elena Peninsula. Established in 1971, it is one of the oldest and largest of Costa Rica’s national parks. It got its name from the Hacienda Santa Rosa. The country’s most famous battle took place in this area on March 20, 1856, when an army of hastily assembled volunteers defended Costa Rica against the invading rag-tag army of U.S. adventurer William Walker. The Costa Rican victory against the hardened soldiers of fortune was hailed as a miracle and is celebrated to this day.

The primary concern of environmentalists and scientists at Santa Rosa is the protection of the fragile environment of the tropical deciduous forest. The Santa Rosa National Park contains the largest forest with this sort of vegetation in all of Central America. The park is also responsible for the long-term protection of beaches where various species of sea turtle come to lay their eggs. During the rainy season between August and December, especially during the months of September and October, the giant turtles can be observed laboriously crawling ashore to lay their eggs. Because of the crowds that gather to witness this sight, biologists have tried for several years to limit the number of tourists at Playa Nancite, the most famous of the turtle nesting beaches. For this reason only 25 people with special permits are allowed to witness this natural spectacle per night. It is not only the human visitors who threaten to overrun the park’s shores, though: olive-green bastard turtles also drag themselves over the sand. More than 7,000 of them have already been observed on the beaches at the same time.

The park has 10 distinct habitats, including mangrove swamps, oak forests, deciduous forests, evergreen forests, dry savannas and coastal and mixed forests. Small wonder that the fauna is also so varied. Scientists have recorded more than 4,000 various kinds of moths and butterflies in the park. This is the largest group, followed by 250 species of birds and more than 60 types of bats (murcielagos). There are also coatis, armadillos, coyotes, monkeys, raccoons, red deer, tree ocelots, pumas, jaguarundis and even the occasional jaguar among the animals that gather at watering holes or stalk the thick undergrowth. The forest floor of the national park crawls with snakes, iguanas, lizards and turtles.

The Museo La Casona, in the main building of the Hacienda Santa Rosa (built in 1895), is easily reachable via a paved road from the Panamericana. On the way you pass the park administration building, a monument to the heroes of Santa Rosa, and camping grounds. The museum exhibits photos, sketches, documents and maps, plus old weapons and uniforms from the battle of 1856. Santa Rosa was also the site of battles in 1919 (the Sapoa Revolution) and 1955. Other exhibits show agricultural implements and common objects in use at the turn of the century. There is also a small chapel and a typical country house kitchen from those “good of days.”

Visitors to the museum are often accompanied by swarms of small bats which dash through the doors, for they nest inside the museum. The tree in front of La Casona is the national tree of Costa Rica, the Guanacaste (Enterolobium cyclocarpum), which gives the region its name.

A few meters north of La Casona a small hiking trail with the unusual name of El Sendero Indio Desnudo (Path of the Naked Indians) begins. The appellation recalls the popular name of the gumbo-limbo tree, which is commonly seen in this region. In the dry season, when it has dropped its leaves, its bright red bark takes over the process of photosynthesis and hangs in strips from its trunk. The Indians regret this misnomer and wish it were called the “naked tourist tree,” because its bark resembles the sunburned skin of vacationing palefaces more than Indians.

Hundreds of Ticos visit the national park, especially during the dry season (from December to April). Entire families come, stopping first at the historic memorial, then observing the animals around the few remaining watering holes before settling down for a lively. picnic under the shade of the gnarled oak trees. They round off their visit with a romp on the Pacific coast beaches, which also belong to the park. At the Playa Nancite, not far from the Witches Cliff, young Ticos bob up and down in the surf while surfers rides the waves.

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