When it was decided to construct a new highway from San José to Puerto Limón on the Caribbean coast via Guápiles, environmentalists were concerned that the virgin rain- and cloud-forest on the eastern watershed of the Central Valley would be under threat. It would be easy to imagine ribbon development of motels, sodas (similar like American diners), filling stations and settlement lining the road and running the environment. In 1978 it was therefore decided to set up the Braulio Carrillo National Park, named after one of the country’s 19th-century presidents.
The park includes a range of five altitudinal life zones and holds a tremendous variety of fauna and flora. The new highway effectively cuts the park in two, but gives an excellent opportunity to get a flavor of the area, with luxuriant vegetation draped with epiphytes and lianas visible through the mist, along with foaming waterfalls and vast tracts of Gunnera, which, with its massive leaves, is known as “the poor man’s umbrella.” As the road nears the Caribbean coastal plain, look out for the Rio Sucio Bridge (Dirty River Bridge). The view upstream shows the confluence of the Rio Sucio and the Rio Hondura, which is a crystal clear mountain stream. The Sucio, on the other hand, has its headwaters on the ash-covered slopes of the Irazú Volcano, turning the water a reddish brown.
Braulio Carrillo National Park contains 84% of primary forest and altitude-wise it ranges from 36m (118ft) at La Selva to 2906m (9535ft) at the summit of the Barva Volcano, the greatest altitudinal range of any Costa Rican national park. Rainfall and temperature correspondingly vary greatly. The range of wildlife is staggering. It is estimated that the forest contains around 6000 species of plants, with 600 trees, providing a habitat for more than 500 species of birds, including rarities such as the Resplendent Quetzal, King Vulture, most of the toucan family, the Bare-necked Umbrellabird, Flame-throated Warbler, Black-crowned Antpitta, Long-tailed Silky-flycatcher, (Ptilogonys caudatus), Golden-browed Chlorophonia (Chlorophonia callophrys) and a vast range of hummingbirds, trogons, eagles and parrots. Among the common mammals there are numerous felines such as Jaguar, Ocelot and Puma, and there are also Baird’s Tapir, Pacas, Raccoons, Peccaries and three types of monkeys. Butterflies abound inside the park and you would be unlucky not to see a Blue Morpho, a Magnificent Owl, a Zebra Longwings (Heliconius charithonia) and the Swallowtails. Hikers should beware of snakes because the park contains two of the most venomous: the Bushmaster or “Matabuey” (Lachesis) and the feared Fer-de-lance or Terciopelo snake (Bothrops asper).
For administrative purpose and because of its size, the Braulio Carrillo National Park is divided into two sections: the Quebrada González Sector and the Barva Volcano Sector (explaining that while many think that the Barva Volcano is an independent National Park, this belongs to the Braulio Carrillo National Park).
The Quebrada González sector is the part of the park that is bisected by the Guápiles Highway. There are two ranger stations, the Zurquí station – just past the road tunnel of the same name – with an information center and three short trails, varying from 1 to 3km (0.6 to 1.9 miles) in length; and the Carrillo ranger station that is further 22km (14 miles) along the road, close to the toll booth in the center of the road. Here there are two further trails. One, named La Botella (the bottle) leads to waterfalls and a view down the Patria Canyon.
In the other hand, the Barva Volcano sector has to be approached from a different direction. The road from San José winds through coffee plantations and dairy farms to the village of Sacramento, where paved roads ends. From here there is a rough track to the station. A 3km (1.9 mile) trail leads up through deciduous forest and cloud forest to the summit of the Barva Volcano, which is extinct, but there is an impressive crater filled with a blue-green lake. Unlike the Poás and the Irazú volcanoes, the crater rim has epiphyte-laden cloud forest trees, with a range of highland forest birds, including those named above. For the really intrepid hiker there is a 30km (19 miles) trail from the top of the Barva Volcano to La Selva Biological Station, involving a descent of some 3000m (9843ft). This could take about four days and hiring a guide is strongly recommended.
Last but not least, if you’re already in the Braulio Carrillo National Park, it’s definitely worth visiting the Aerial Tram, located at the end of the protected area (towards Guápiles). This unique tram lets visitors travel in one of its twenty cable cars and to go through the forests’ canopy in order to spot flora and fauna that would otherwise be hidden from view. Visitors must realize that it isn’t a zoo, where animals will be spotted at all times, but even if tourists don’t see many creatures, the visit is still worth it. The Aerial Tram also offers a restaurant and a visitor’s center. (Tel. 2257-59-61 or fax 2257-60-53).
The Braulio Carrillo is one of the easiest parks to access from San José, but its tropical splendor and magnificence set it apart from the rest of the country. After only a thirty or forty minute drive from San José, you will encounter this amazing place, which reminds people of what ¾ of the country used to be like, only fifty years ago. Whenever you go to this park you will find that the vast majority of people are just passing through. Weather is not a major consideration (March and April are slightly drier). You can expect afternoon shower year round and should always be ready for a downpour.
Getting to the Quebrada González Sector:
To the Quebrada González sector take the Guápiles Highway toward Limón from San José. This highway winds through the Park, and passes by two ranger stations; the Zurquí sector and the Carrillo (Quebrada Gonzalez).
Take a bus from the route San Jose – Guápiles – Parque Nacional Braulio Carrillo, which takes about 1.5 hours (Empresarios Guapileños, 2222-2727 /2222-0610). It is important to note that you must warn the driver that you are going to the park, because otherwise it will not stop. Visitors who don’t want to travel by bus, might take a cab (the approximate cost from San José is $40)
Getting to the Barva Volcano Sector:
To the Barva Volcano sector, drive through Heredia, then turn north and drive through Barva, San José de la Montaña, and Sacramento. The last 4 km to the ranger station is generally only accessible by hiking. The station is two miles (3 km) northeast of Sacramento on a jeep trail.
Take a bus from the route San Jose – Heredia, which takes about 45 minutes (Rapiditos Heredianos, 2233-8392 / Busetas Heredianas, 2261-7171 / Transportes Unidos La 400, 2222-8986) and then take another bus Heredia – Sacramento – Volcán Barva , which takes about 2 hours.
Quebrada Gonzalez Sector Location: 20km (12 miles) northeast of San José, going through the San José-Guápiles Highway.
Barva Volcano Sector Location: 21 km (13 miles) Northeast of San Jose, between Irazu and Poas Volcanoes in Heredia, Costa Rica.
Quebrada Gonzalez Sector GPS Coordinates: 10.066692,-84.005939 (10°04’00.09″N, 84°00’21.38″W)
Barva Volcano Sector GPS Coordinates: 10.119942,-84.122278 (10°07’11.79″N, 84°07’20.20″W)
Size: 46,000ha (113,666 acres)
Altitude: 36m (118ft) to 2906m (9535ft) at the summit of the Barva Volcano
Schedule: from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m.
Braulio Carrillo National Park Ranger station telephone: +(506) 2268-1038 / 2268-1039
Central Volcanic Cordillera Conservation Area (ACCVC) Telephone: +(506) 2268-1587 / 2268-8091
INFOTUR Tourist Information: 1192