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Costa Rica Travel >>natural areas>>Carara

Carara National Park
A Transition Zone

National Park Costa Rica
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This is the northernmost region of Pacific rainforest remaining in Costa Rica, and is the beginning of the transition zone into the tropical dry forests of the northwest. Carara is one of Costa Rica's most popular National Parks, in large part due to its proximity to San José. This is also where many cruise ship's passengers are bused for a day trip when the liners dock just up the coast at Puerto Caldera, and a common destination for field trips by school children.

keel-billed toucan (photo © Sue Krueger-Koplin)Attractions
Carara is a favorite with bird watchers for several reasons besides its ease of access. First, its position in a transition zone means that residents of both habitats are likely to appear. Second, the Río Grande de Tárcoles has free flowing sections and its waters seep into seasonal marshlands and a shallow oxbow lake covered with hyacinths further expanding number of local habitats. Finally, because it is slightly dryer, and not all of the trees are evergreen, Carara is more open than the rainforests further south making wildlife spotting easier.

Anhinga sunning (G. Stotz, USFW)
Anhinga sunning (G. Stotz, USFW)

One advantage of the relatively large numbers of people that visit Carara is that if you just stop by, you are likely have several quite competent amateur guides at your disposal. Birders are a friendly lot, and they generally like interest from novices (as long as you don't interfere with their spotting. Walk quietly and slowly) Ray staring up to the canopy (photo © Sue Krueger-Koplin)

We made a spontaneous stop here, and found that one of the best ways to see wildlife was to look for people with their necks craned, peering into the brush or canopy. We would then stop at a respectful distance, and look where they were looking. More often than not the guide, or one of the birders would invite us over to look through their binoculars or telescope while they described the habits of the bird or animal we were seeing.

About 150 scarlet macaws nest and feed throughout the reserve and can usually be seen around dusk flying west down the Río Tárcoles towards the coastal mangroves where they roost for the night.

In the region
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In the region:
The coastal highway crosses the Río Tárcoles at the northern edge of the park. If you stop you can nearly always spot crocodiles basking on the banks of the river from a safe vantage point 50 feet above them on the bridge.

Jacó Beach, 13 miles (21 km) south on highway 34 is a "surf party" town running in a strip along a two mile (3 km) beach that is not highly recommended for swimming because of rip tides and the pollution from dumping in the estuaries at either end of the beach. Can't really recommend Jacó.

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When to visit:
It is always hot and humid in the forests of Carara, even during the drier season from late December through April.

Carara is a great place to stop off for a quick hike on a trip up or down the pacific coast any time of the year. If you are headed to or from slothful beach bumming, take a few hours to explore a trail. The rewards will be well worth the effort, and you will feel better after a little exercise.

Be somewhat cautious parking at the trail heads, and even the ranger station before sunrise or after sunset. The parking is just off the highway, and if you leave any valuables in your car, odds are pretty good that a opportunistic petty thief will grab them and be miles down the road before you return.

Books and other resources
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Toucan Ratings Explained | Lowest Available Price
Why Buy from Us?

A Guide to the Birds of Costa RicaA Guide to the Birds of Costa Rica
by F. Gary Stiles, Alexander F. Skutch (Contributor), Dana Gardner (Illustrator), Paperback, Publisher: Cornell Univ. Pr, (1990), ISBN: 0801496004

Birders the world over agree it's a classic in its field. An excellent guide to one of the most diverse bird populations anywhere with 52 beautiful color plates, detailed species accounts, descriptions of birding localities. If you're already hooked on birding you know from your friends that this is the book you need for the avifauna of Costa Rica, and if you're a novice, this is a perfect place to start.
rated 5 toucans by
$US 27.97 from Amazon -or-
Barnes&Noble member price $US 30.36


Field Guide to the Wildlife of Costa RicaField Guide to the Wildlife of Costa Rica
by Carrol L. Henderson (Author), Steve Adams (Illustrator), Paperback, 559 pages, Publisher: Univ. of Texas Press; 1st edition, (2002), ISBN: 029273459X

Color photos, species accounts, and distribution maps, for almost three hundred species of birds, mammals, reptiles, amphibians, butterflies, moths, and other invertebrates are complimented by general introductions to each group, the ecology of Costa Rica, and how to travel to see wildlife.
rated five out of five toucans by
$US 27.97 from Amazon -or-
Barnes&Noble member price $US 30.36


Travel & Site Guide to Birds of Costa Rica With Side Trips to PanamaTravel & Site Guide to Birds of Costa Rica With Side Trips to Panama
by Aaron D. Sekerak, Aaron D. Sekerak, Eussa Ginger, Elissa Conger (Illustrator), Paperback, 256 pages, Publisher: Lone Pine Publishing, (1996), ISBN: 1551050846

This book is exactly what it says, a guide to birding sites. It is not a field guide with color illustrations etc. That said, it's a useful tool for planning a trip or getting more information about regions you are seeing on an organized tour. Includes some interesting back doors, and info on who to talk to in specific areas about seeing birds. If someone said "I would give $1000 to see a Calliphlox bryantae" you would have to look the common name up in a bird book first, then use the Travel and Site guide to locate a likely locale.
rated four out of five toucans by
$US 11.87 from Amazon -or-
Barnes&Noble member price $US 16.10

Information on the web
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Information on the Web

Bird list for Costa Rica

Hundreds of excellent Costa Rican Bird Photographs


Map showing the location of natural area in Costa Rica
Location: 52 km west of San José on the southern bank of the Río Tárcoles.

Getting There:

Driving Directions
From San José follow Avenida 10 to Parque La Sabana where it becomes highway 27 which you will follow west for 34 miles (56 km) to the town of Orotina. 3 miles (5 km) past Orotina, turn left (south) on 34, the coastal highway which takes you 11 miles (18 km) to the bridge over the Tárcoles River and the park boundary. The Quebrada Bonita ranger station & park headquarters is 1.8 miles (3 km) further south.
Detailed roadmaps are available in acrobat pdf format or printed on waterproof tear proof plastic.
Buses to Jacó or Quepos will drop you at the ranger station, but you better have a plan for getting to someplace to sleep, camping is not allowed in the park and there are no accommodations. You can flag down the bus in either direction, but it's less likely they'll stop after dark. Plan ahead.
655 Jacó Beach and Carara Biological Station Daily express departures from San José, Terminal Coca Cola, 7:30, 10:30, 15:30; returning at 5:00, 11:00, 15:00, 102 km, 2 1/2 hours, $US 2.11 Transportes Morales S.A., Telephone (506) 223-5567
613 Quepos Daily express departures from San José, Terminal Coca Cola, 6:00, 12:00, 18:00; returning at 6:00, 12:00, 17:00, 145 km, 3 1/2 hours, $US 4.72, Transportes Morales S.A., Telephone (506) 223-5567

Entrance fees:
$US 7

8:00 a.m. to 4:00 p.m.

Hiking trails
There are two hiking trails in Carara. 0.6 miles (1 km) south of the bridge on your left as you head towards the rangers station there is parking for a 2.7 mile (4.5 km) trail that parallels the Río Grande de Tárcoles and has short branches to the laguna and marshes. The short (0.6 mile, 1 km) Araceas Nature trail is a loop that starts and ends at the Quebrada Bonita station.
Camping is not allowed at Carara National Park.
Tours and lodging:
Most tour companies in San José, Alajuela, and Heredia have day trips to Carara National Park starting from $US 40.

Quick Facts

It is always hot and humid in the forests of Carara. Even during the drier season from late December through April when there is significantly less rain, transpiration keeps the humidity under the canopy near saturation. The wettest months are August to October when the trails near the river may at times be impassable because of flooding.

11,600 acres (4,700 hectares, 18 square miles, 14 times the size of central park NYC)

330 feet (100 meters) to 1,640 feet (500 meters)

The land protected by Carara was donated to the parks service in 1979 by another branch of the government, the Instituto de Tierras y Colonización who's primary function was to redistribute large ranches obtained by the government to family farmers. Except along the river, the area was mostly old growth forest when El Coyolar ranch became Carara Biological Reserve. Carara takes its name from the Huetar Indian word for crocodile.

Primary and secondary tropical wet and moist forests, lagoon, river, and marshlands.


Animals- Opossum, two-toed sloth, agouti, armadillo, pacas, great anteater, kinkajou, tayra, margay cat, collared peccary, white-tailed deer, poison-arrow frogs, and the omnipresent monkeys.
Birds- Collared Aracari, Fiery-billed Aracari, American Egret, Great Tinamou, Turkey vulture, Long-billed Gnatwren, Chestnut-backed Antbird, Black-hooded Antshrike, Keel-billed Toucans, Anhinga, Jacanas, Pied-billed Grebes, Mexican Tiger-bitterns and Boat-billed Herons.

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