Palo Verde National Park
- The Best of Costa Rica
- Costa Rica’s Top Spots for WIldlife
- Costa Rica’s Most Beautiful Beaches
- Costa Rica’s Best Beaches for Wildlife
- Best Surfing Beaches in Costa Rica
- Costa Rica’s Unique Retreats & Resorts
- Surf’s Up in Costa Rica
- Off-The-Beaten-Path Eco-Adventures
- Costa Rica Family-Friendly Adventures
- Adrenaline Rush
Parque Nacional Palo Verde ($10), 28 kilometers south of Bagaces, protects 13,058 hectares of floodplain, marshes, and seasonal pools in the heart of the driest region of Costa Rica—the Tempisque Basin, at the mouth of the Río Tempisque in the Gulf of Nicoya. The park derives its name from the palo verde (green stick) shrub that retains a bright green coloration year-round.
For half the year, from November to March, no rain relieves the heat of the Tempisque Basin, leaving plants and trees parched and withered. Rolling, rocky terrain spared Lomas Barbudal, in particular, from the changes wrought on the rest of Guanacaste Province by plows and cows.
Here, the dry forest that once extended along the entire Pacific coast of Mesoamerica remains largely intact, and several endangered tree species thrive: Panamá redwood, rosewood, sandbox, and the cannonball tree (balas de cañón). A relative of the Brazil nut tree, the cannonball tree produces a pungent, non-edible fruit that grows to the size of a bowling ball and dangles from a long stem. Several evergreen tree species also line the banks of the waterways, creating riparian corridors inhabited by species not usually found in dry forests.
In all, there are 15 different habitats and a corresponding diversity of fauna. Plump crocodiles wallow on the muddy riverbanks, salivating, no doubt, at the sight of coatis, white-tailed deer, and other mammals that come down to the water to drink.
Palo Verde National Park is best known as a bird-watchers’ paradise. More than 300 bird species have been recorded, not least great curassows and the only permanent colony of scarlet macaws in the dry tropics. At least a quarter of a million wading birds and waterfowl flock here in fall and winter, when much of the arid alluvial plain swells into a lake. Isla de Pájaros, in the middle of the Río Tempisque, is replete with white ibis, roseate spoonbills, anhingas, wood storks, jabiru storks, and the nation’s largest colony of black-crowned night herons.
Three well-maintained trails lead to lookout points over the lagoons; to limestone caves; and to water holes such as Laguna Bocana, gathering places for a diversity of birds and animals. Limestone cliffs rise behind the old Hacienda Palo Verde, now the park headquarters (tel./fax 506/2200-0125, www.acarenaltempisque.org), eight kilometers south of the park entrance.
Dry season (Nov.–Apr.) is by far the best time to visit, although the Tempisque Basin can get dizzyingly hot. At this time of year access is easier, and deciduous trees lose their leaves, making bird-watching easier. Wildlife gathers by the water holes. And there are far fewer mosquitoes and bugs. When the rains come, mosquitoes burst into action.
The park is contiguous to the north with the remote 7,354-hectare Dr. Rafael Lucas Rodríguez Caballero Wildlife Refuge and, beyond that, the 2,279-hectare Lomas Barbudal Biological Reserve (Reserva Biológica Lomas Barbudal, no tel., entrance by donation). The three have a similar variety of habitats. The Lomas Barbudal park office (Casa de Patrimonio) is on the banks of the Río Cabuyo. Trails span the park from here. It’s open on a 10-days-on/4-days-off schedule.
To the south, Palo Verde National Park is contiguous with Cipancí National Wildlife Refuge (tel. 506/2651-8115), which protects mangroves along 3,500 square kilometers of riverside bordering the Tempisque and Bebedero Rivers. The banks of the Tempisque, which is tidal, are lined with archaeological sites.
The Organization of Tropical Studies (OTS, tel. 506/2661-4717, www.ots.ac.cr) offers natural-history visits by advance reservation (guided walks cost $25–70 depending on the number of people); it also has mountain bikes. The park rangers will take you out on their boat. Or you can hire boats in Bebedero, or Puerto Humo on the Nicoya Peninsula. OTS also offers horseback tours ($6 per hour).
The Palo Verde National Park administration building has a run-down campsite ($2) beside the old Hacienda Palo Verde. Water, showers, and barbecue pits are available. There is also a campsite seven kilometers east near Laguna Coralillo (no facilities). It is periodically closed, so call ahead to check. You may be able to stay with rangers ($12) in basic accommodations with advance notice; for information call the Tempisque Conservation Area office (tel. 506/2695-5908, 8 A.M.–4 P.M. daily), in Tilarán. Spanish-speakers might try the ranger station radio telephone (tel. 506/2233-4160).
Visitors can also stay in a dormitory at the Organization of Tropical Studies’ Palo Verde Biological Research Station (tel. 506/2661-4717, www.ots.ac.cr, for reservations, tel. 506/2524-0607, reservas [at] ots [dot] ac [dot] cr, $65 pp adults, $34 children, including meals and guided walk) on a space-available basis. Eight rooms have shared bathrooms; five rooms have private bathrooms.
Lomas Barbudal has basic accommodations ($6 pp) and meals at the ranger station.
Getting to Palo Verde National Park
The main entrance to Palo Verde National Park is 28 kilometers south of Bagaces, along a dirt road that begins opposite the gas station and Tempisque Conservation Area office on Highway 1. The route is signed; a 4WD vehicle is required, and high ground clearance is essential in wet season. No buses travel this route. A Jeep-taxi from Bagaces costs about $30 one-way.
Coming from the Nicoya Peninsula, a bus operates from the town of Nicoya to Puerto Humo, where you can hire a boat to take you three kilometers upriver to the Chamorro dock, the trailhead to park headquarters (it’s a two-kilometer walk); it’s muddy and swampy in wet season. Alternatively, you can drive from Filadelfia or Santa Cruz (on the Nicoya Peninsula) to Hacienda El Viejo; the park is four kilometers east from El Viejo, and the Río Tempisque two kilometers farther. A local boatman will ferry you downriver to the Chamorro dock.
The unpaved access road for Lomas Barbudal Biological Reserve is off Highway 1, at the Kilometer 221 marker near Pijijes, about 10 kilometers north of Bagaces. A dirt road—4WD recommended—leads six kilometers to a lookout point then descends steeply from here to the park entrance. If conditions are particularly muddy you may park at the lookout point and hike to the ranger station rather than face not being able to return via the dauntingly steep ascent from the ranger station in your car. A Jeep-taxi from Bagaces will cost about $50 round-trip.
Palo Verde and Lomas Barbudal are also linked by a rough dirt road that is tough going in wet season.
Tour companies in San José and throughout Guanacaste offer river tours in Palo Verde, as do Palo Verde Boat Tours (tel. 506/2651-8001, www.paloverdeboattours.com), departing Filadelfia, in the Nicoya Peninsula. CATA Tours (tel. 506/2231-1073, www.catours.net) and Aventuras Arenal (tel. 506/2479-9133, www.arenaladventures.com) offer boat trips from Bebedero.
You can also explore Palo Verde from the Nicoya side of the Río Tempisque. Tempisque Safari Ecological Adventure (tel. 506/2698-1069, www.tempisquesafari.com), near Puerto Humo, and Hacienda El Viejo (tel. 506/2665-7759, www.elviejowetlands.com), 17 kilometers southeast of Filadelfia, offer tours.
© Christopher P. Baker from Moon Costa Rica, 8th Edition