It’s amazing to contemplate that over 25% of Costa Rica is set aside as national parks, reserves, wetlands, other protected natural areas. That’s the highest percentage of any country in the world!
Parque Nacional Cahuita is one of the lesser known national parks in Costa Rica. Established in 1970 to protect the coral reef just offshore, its 2,635 acres protect five different habitats: beach, mangrove, margin/edge, marine and tropical rainforest-lowland. And most of those habitats can be experienced by hiking 8.2 km trail between the two park entrances.
We start at the Puerto Vargas entrance, just a 10 minute walk from the house where we’re staying. We arrive right when the gates open at 8:00 am. We see some new birds – Black-Chested Jays and a Band-Backed Wren – and a large Golden Orb spider on its web before we ever enter the park.
Entrance is $5 per person. We tell the park ranger about our plan to walk the entire trail through the park to the other entrance in the town of Cahuita; she suggests that we start with the 2.1 km boardwalk.
We’re completely enchanted with the experience of being immersed in the rain forest as we walk slowly along the boardwalk. We see more birds (including a Purple-throated Fruitcrow and a Keel-billed Toucan), a huge variety of plant life & fungi, more Golden Orb spiders, frogs, and an Emerald Basilisk.
We watch a small lizard hunting and then catching & eating a little white worm. The background sounds are the ubiquitous Howler monkeys and the crashing of the waves on the offshore reef, reminding us that we’re not that far from the ocean. We take our time – there’s so much to see! – so it takes us about two hours to cover the entire boardwalk.
The rain holds off until we reach the end of the boardwalk. We take a short break and watch a Crab-Eating Raccoon saunter across the parking lot. Then we start the second part of our hike on the trail along the shore.
At first, the rain isn’t too bad and actually cools us off. Mike dons his rain poncho and we put the camera away in his backpack (protected by the poncho) so it doesn’t get too wet. All the photos along the shoreline part of the trail are taken with our phones. The birds largely disappear when it starts raining but we do see a group of Magnificent Frigatebirds perched on old pilings to wait out the rain, and a couple of Royal Terns.
We also see several Hermit Crabs, one large one and one much smaller one, and two very venomous snakes: the small yellow Eyelash Viper and the larger brown Rainforest Hognosed Pit Viper. Neither of these snakes are bothering anybody, just hanging out in their tree. We make sure to keep a safe distance while we observe them.
The trail is largely hard-packed sand and the views of the beach are very pretty with the waves crashing on the coral reef about 150-200 yards offshore.
We pass Punta Vargas and then we have a water crossing through the tanin-stained Rio Perezoso (Sloth River) – the water is surprisingly warm and where we cross, just over our ankles – before we get to Punta Cahuita (about two-thirds of the way to the Cahuita park entrance).
At this point, the trail deteriorates into a muddy mess. We have to slog with ankle deep mud in some places where there’s no way around it. I’m wearing hiking sandals so my feet get covered in mud; Mike just does his best to get as little mud on his shoes as possible. There’s another, deeper water crossing through the Rio Suarez that washes our feet clean but we’re soon muddy again as we continue hiking. We’re not sure if the trail is so muddy because it’s been raining or if it’s always this way, but I’m already tired from the hike so far and it’s a struggle. It’s such a relief when we reach another boardwalk (more dilapidated than the first one) and can make better time. When the boardwalk ends, we decide to walk along the beach rather than the trail because of the mud. There are lots of people enjoying a day at the beach – picnicking, sitting in one of the many shelters, or playing in the water – in spite of the rain. Howler and Capuchin monkeys make their ways through the trees around us.
Finally, we take the trail again to reach the national park entrance in the town of Cahuita at about 2:00 pm, six hours after we started hiking. We all agree that we enjoyed the first two-thirds of the hike much more than the last third! But it was an adventure that I wouldn’t have missed for the world.