Barra Honda National Park was created in September 3rd, 1974, in order to protect tropical lowland dry forest, pastureland and, of course, its famous limestone cave systems, under the Barra Honda Peak which was formed when islets from the Miocene Era, were raised above the plains of the Tempisque River. Through time, the rain deposited on rocks mixed with carbonic acid, which filtered through the limestone, thus forming waterways and caves. Barra Honda is a national park in the western part of Costa Rica that forms part of the Tempisque Conservation Area in the Nicoya Peninsula.
The Barra Honda National Park is a unique area in a country such as Costa Rica. It mainly consists of coral reef aging over 70 million years that has uplifted the area from the seabed because of tectonic faulting, and rains created underground waterways. The constant dropping of rainwater on calcium carbonate has then created these underground art galleries which grown over millenniums of years, and now is its best known feature and the main visitor attraction. Besides, caves are scarce in Costa Rica, which is another reason why this national park is so significant. They were only explored in the late 60′s and until now only 19 of the 42 caves have been surveyed.
People before believed that Barra Honda was a volcano because they misinterpreted the whirring of bat wings for volcanic activity, and the aroma of guano for sulfur. The bat’s cave, Pozo Hediondo (Fetid Cave), was named for the aroma of the guano deposited by its thousands of residents, is home to thousands of these flying mammals. Half an hour after sunset clouds of bats surge from their underground dwellings to fly out into the night.
Most visitors enjoy the Barra Honda caves and all of the things that they imply, specially speleologists and spelunkers who come from around the world drawn to it. The abundant varieties of cave formations are in pristine condition, as their vertical entrances are difficult to negotiate. This is also why tours must be accompanied by two local guides, have the permission from the Parks service in advance to enter them and climbing gear. At the entrance to the cave you will be fit with a rappelling harness and helmet. The harness is only a security for the 17-meter descent on an aluminum ladder.
In these impressive caves, visitors witness deep art chambers with numerous ranges of limestone’s features such as pillars, flow structures, stalagmites that grow from the floor and stalactites that hang from the ceiling. Often, these stalactites and stalagmites unite and form columns that look like molten candlesticks. The caves range from a few feet to over 250m (780 ft) deep. The deepest of the Barra Honda caves is the amazing Santa Ana Cave which sinks to 249 meters and is unusual for its unique and numerous stalactites and columns. La Trampa Cave (the trap) is 110 meters deep, but has the deepest precipice with a vertical entrance of 30m length. One of the largest and most beautiful caves is Terciopelo (60 meters deep), named after the dead snake found there when it was first explore, which has an extremely vertical descent and along with la Cuevita, is the only one accessible for the public. This one have one of the best features in the park, including the Organ, which flutes produce musical sounds when gently tapped. Besides, burial sites have been found with human skeletons, ancient pre-Columbian artifacts and jewelry believed to be over 2000 years old (dated approximately 300 B.C.), in the 30m deep Nicoa Cave. Children beyond the age of 12 are only allowed to the Cuevita cave.
However, the park also has well maintained hiking trails, through its protected tropical dry forest (mostly secondary), which is one of the last in the world, besides being very different from the rain and cloud forests that attract many ecological tourists to Costa Rica. So it’s important for local and foreign visitors to take a look at it, since it contains several species of animals and plants that are only present in this life zone. The network of hiking trails used to access the caverns are great for exploring this tropical dry forest, one of the rarest habitats on earth. The combination of monkeys and cactus seems odd, and also, some of the trees flower only after they’ve dropped all their leaves. Any time of year you can hope to see howler and capuchin monkeys, White-tailed Deer, raccoons, peccaries, coatis, agoutis, kinkajous and anteaters, as well as birds, especially such as the White-throated Magpie-Jay (Calocitta formosa), the Band-tailed Pigeon (Patagioenas fasciata) and the White-tipped Dove (Leptotila verreauxi).
The main trail is an undriveable continuation of the entrance road that leads to Barra Honda Peak (442m or 1,450 ft) where you are rewarded with spectacular views of the Tempisque valley. The hike to the caves takes approx 1 hour and is slightly steep and moderately difficult, depending on your physical fitness, so it is highly recommended to bring enough drinking water and sun block.
The caves are not open in the wet season because of the danger of flooding by the torrential rains that carved them from the stone. This is why the dry season is your best bet, when the weather is hot and dry, from December through April. Besides, the dry season is the best time for nature exploring because most trees and shrubs are leafless which makes it easier to spot animals.
The park has a Ranger Station; open for visitor attention with potable water, restrooms and climbing gear. The Barra Honda National Park also has a camping area and four rustic cabins with bunks for six or eight each. This is highly recommended because it’s one of the few places you can get a bed and a roof inside a National Park. Advance reservations are required for spelunking.
So, if you’re into a surrealist underground setting characterized by the constant sound of echoing drops and by twisted and monstrous shapes formed by hardened calcium, then this is the place to go. Other nearby national parks includes Palo Verde National Park, Lomas de Barbudal Biological Reserve, Dr. Rafael Lucas Rodríguez Caballero National Wildlife Refuge and the Corral de Piedra Palustrine Wetland.
Getting to Barra Honda National Park:
From San José, take the Pan-American Highway north, just past the turn for Las Juntas de Abangares, turn to the left and follow the signs for the road to the new Tempisque Bridge. After crossing the bridge, continue about 12 km (7 miles) towards Nicoya, then turn right towards the villages of Barra Honda and Nacaome (aka Santa Ana). Follow the signs for the park entrance. The ranger station is through the gate (closed at dusk) one-half mile up a good gravel road (4WD not required). Now you can also take the new Caldera Highway to Puntarenas and then follow the Pan-American Highway.
From Daniel Oduber Quiros International Airport (LIR), drive south from the main road of Nicoya, drive 1.5 km towards the Tempisque Bridge and then turn to the left. The road is in fairly good condition, only the last kilometer can be tricky in rainy season.
Unfortunately there is not a direct way to reach Barra Honda by bus. You can get a bus San José – Nicoya through Tempisque, which takes about 4 hours (Empresa Alfaro-Tracopa, 2222-2666 / 2685-5032). From Nicoya, busses leave to Santa Ana and from there is a 1 km hike, about a 30 minute walk from the entrance, or can take taxi to Barra Honda National Park, which is about 15 minutes.
You can also take a flight from the Juan Santamaria Airport to Daniel Oduber Airport, either with Sansa Airlines or Nature Air every day. From here you can rent a car and drive, or take a bus or taxi to Barra Honda National Park, which is about 35 minutes.
Location: 12 km (7 miles) from La Amistad Bridge in Guanacaste Province, Costa Rica.
Quebrada Honda GPS Coordinates: 10.18565,-85.297892 (10°11’8.34″N, 85°17’52.41″ W)
Size: 2297 ha (5,675 acres)
Elevations: from just above sea level to 442m (1,450 ft)
Schedule: from 8:00 a.m. to 4:00 p.m. If you are staying in the park, the rangers leave the station door open until they go to bed around 8:30 p.m.
Barra Honda National Park Telephone: +(506) 2659-1551
Tempisque Conservation Area (ACT) Telephone: +(506) 2686-4967 / 2686-4968
INFOTUR Tourist Information: 1192