Santa Rosa 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
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) 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 park is a mosaic of 10 distinct habitats, including mangrove swamp, savanna, and oak forest, which attract more than 250 bird species and 115 mammal species (half of them bats, including two vampire species), among them relatively easily seen animals such as white-tailed deer; coatimundis; howler, spider, and white-faced monkeys; and anteaters.
In the wet season the land is as green as emeralds, and wildlife disperses. In dry season, however, wildlife congregates at watering holes and is easily spotted. Jaguars, margays, ocelots, pumas, and jaguarundis are here but are seldom seen. Santa Rosa is a vitally important nesting site for ridley turtles and other turtle species.
The park is divided into two sections: the more important and accessible Santa Rosa Sector to the south (the entrance is at Km 269 on Hwy. 1, about 37 km north of Liberia) and the Murciélago Sector (the turnoff from Hwy. 1 is 10 kilometers farther north, via Cuajiniquil), separated by a swath of privately owned land.
Santa Rosa Sector
On the right, one kilometer 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 kilometers farther on the paved road is La Casona (8–11:30 A.M. and 1–4 P.M. daily), a magnificent colonial homestead (actually, it’s a replica, rebuilt in 2001 after arsonists burned down the original) overlooking a stone corral where the battle with William Walker was fought. Alas, the fire destroyed the antique furnishings and collection of photos, illustrations, carbines, and other military paraphernalia commemorating the battle of March 20, 1856. Battles were also fought here during the 1919 Sapoá Revolution and in 1955. The garden contains rocks with petroglyphs.
The Naked Indian loop trail (1.5 km) begins just before La Casona and leads through dry forest with streams and waterfalls and gumbo-limbo trees whose peeling red bark earned them the nickname “naked Indian trees.” Los Patos trail has watering holes and is one of the best trails for spotting mammals.
The paved road ends just beyond the administration area. From here, a rugged dirt road drops steeply to Playa Naranjo, 13 kilometers from La Casona. A 4WD vehicle with high ground clearance is essential, but passage is never guaranteed, not least because the Río Nisperal can be impassable in wet season (the beach is usually off-limits Aug.–Nov.). Park officials sometimes close the road and will charge you a fee if you have to be hauled out.
Playa Naranjo is a beautiful kilometers-long pale-gray-sand beach that is legendary in surfing lore for its steep, powerful tubular waves and for Witch’s Rock rising like a sentinel out of the water. The beach is bounded by craggy headlands and frequently visited by monkeys, iguanas, and other wildlife.
Crocodiles lurk in 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.
The deserted white-sand Playa Nancite (about a one-hour hike over a headland from Estero Real) is renowned as a site for arribadas, the mass nestings of olive ridley turtles. More than 75,000 turtles will gather out at 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. You can usually see solitary turtles at other times August through December.
Playa Nancite is a research site; access is restricted and permits are needed, though anyone can get one from the ranger station, or at the Dry Tropical Forest Investigation Center (Centro de los Investigaciones, tel. 506/2666-5051, ext. 233), next to the administrative center, which undertakes biological research. It is not open to visitors.
Playa Potrero Grande, north of Nancite, and other beaches on the central Santa Elena peninsula offer some of the best surf in the country. The makers of Endless Summer II, the sequel to the classic surfing movie, caught the Potrero Grande break perfectly. You can hire a boat at any of the fishing villages in the Golfo Santa Elena to take you to Potrero Grande or Islas Murciélagos (Bat Islands), off Cabo Santa Elena, the westernmost point of the peninsula. The islands are a renowned scuba site for advanced divers.
The entrance to the Murciélago Sector of Santa Rosa National Park is 15 kilometers west of Highway 1, and 10 kilometers 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 the hamlet of Cuajiniquil, tucked half a kilometer south of the road, which continues to Bahía Cuajiniquil.
You arrive at a Y-fork in Cuajiniquil: the road to Murciélago (8 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—Hacienda Murciélago—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 police force. 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 built to supply the Contras. The park entrance is 0.5 kilometer beyond.
It’s another 16 kilometers to Playa Blanca, a beautiful horseshoe-shaped white-sand beach about five kilometers wide and enjoyed only by pelicans and frigate birds. The road ends here.
The 505-hectare Bahía Junquillal Wildlife Refuge (tel. 506/2679-1088), north of Murciélago, is a refuge for pelicans, frigate birds, and other seabirds, as well as marine turtles, which come ashore to lay their eggs on the two-kilometer-wide gray-sand beach. The beach is popular with Ticos, who descend on weekends and holidays, but it is hardly worth a visit.
Hotels and Restaurants
The Santa Rosa Sector has two public campsites. La Casona campsite, 400 meters west of the administrative center, is shaded by guanacaste trees and has barbecue pits, picnic tables, and bathrooms ($2 pp). It can get muddy here in the wet season. The shady Argelia campsite at Playa Naranjo has sites with fire pits and picnic tables and benches. It has showers, sinks, and outhouse toilets, but no water. The campsite at the north end of Playa Nancite is for use by permit only, obtained at the ranger station or through the Dry Tropical Forest Investigation Center (tel. 506/2666-5051, ext. 233), which accommodates guests on a space-available basis ($15 adults, $10 scientists, $6 students and assistants). Reservations are recommended.
In the Murciélago Sector, you can camp at the ranger station, where there’s a bathroom, showers, water, and picnic tables ($2 pp). Raccoons abound and scavenge food; do not feed them!
Santa Elena Lodge (tel. 506/2679-1038, $04 s, $55 d), at Cuajiniquil, is a rustic lodge with 14 cozy rooms with private hot water bathrooms.
The park administration area serves meals by reservation (two hours in advance minimum) only 6–7 A.M., 11:30 A.M.–12:30 P.M., and 5–6 P.M. daily.
The park entrance station (8 A.M.–4 P.M. daily, $10, $15 surfers, $1 children) at the Santa Rosa Sector sells maps showing trails and campgrounds. The park administration office (tel. 506/2666-5051, fax 506/2666-5020) can provide additional information.
Getting to Santa Rosa National Park
Transportes Deldú buses (tel. 506/2256-9072) depart San José for La Cruz and Peñas Blancas from Calle 20, Avenidas 1/3, hourly 3 A.M.–7 P.M. daily, passing the park entrance—35 kilometers north of Liberia—en route to the Nicaraguan border (6 hours, $5).
Local buses linking Liberia with Peñas Blancas and La Cruz pass the park every 45 minutes, 5:30 A.M.–6:30 P.M. daily.
Buses to Murciélago Sector depart Liberia (tel. 506/8357-6769) for Cuajiniquil at 5:30 A.M. and 3:30 P.M. (returning at 7 A.M. and 4:30 P.M.); you catch it from the Santa Rosa entrance. From Cuajiniquil you may have to walk the eight kilometers to the park entrance.
© Christopher P. Baker from Moon Costa Rica, 8th Edition