Most visitors would never consider intentionally taking a tresspassing tour to areas closed for safety and wildlife conservation but according to officials Costa Rica’s National Parks, Reserves and Wildlife Refuges are experiencing a crisis of trespassing and more serious illegal activity.
Most tourists that enter Costa Rica’s national parks illegally are doing it on organized tours with guides as part of a thriving underground business sector. The operations are often so polished that the foreigners aren’t aware that they’re trespassing and breaking conservation laws.
There’s very little enforcement so low risk for the operators in a lucrative black market at $40 to $75 a head.
Although article 58 law 7575 calls for up to 3 years imprisonment for entering closed/restricted conservation areas it’s highly unlikely a country that relies on tourism for the majority of its foreign income will toss any international visitors in jail.
However there are other risks entering areas that have been closed due to dangerous conditions with untrained guides. We hope if you’re coming as a tourist you go the legal route to avoid dangerous locations and situations.
Visitors can stay out of trouble and support the parks and ecological preservation by using a legitimate registered travel planner, checking to be sure individual tours are registered with ICT (the Costa Rican Tourism Institute) and/or CANTUR (the tourism chamber of commerce). Also take note of clues to illegal operations like “cash only”, no insurance, no taxes, no uniforms, unmarked vans, untrained or uncertified guides.
We’ve also compiled a list of the most popular counterfeit experiences and illegal entry points.
Arenal Volcano & Cerro Chato
Climbing Arenal has been prohibited since the national park was established and for decades it was obviously impossible because there was glowing orange lava pouring down the sides. About ten years ago the lava stopped flowing and although poison gas and cinder, ash and rock slides continued it wasn’t long before the potential profits led local guides to ignore the “Danger! entry prohibited” signs.
In 2018 a rash of accidents and expensive Red Cross rescues of people illegally on the slopes of Arenal volcano led to a crackdown. The east side trail to Cerro Chato was often used as a jumping off point for Arenal summit attempts and was also officially closed to the public.
Despite the efforts we commonly see selfies at the crater and shady businesses advertising on social media.
The hiking trails at Turrialba volcano used to be some of our favorites but when activity increased in 2014 the park was closed to visitors.
Not all Illegal Tours are Obvious
Sometimes it’s pretty obvious when an operation is not completely legit but not always.
For decades an ecolodge on the east side of Arenal volcano collected a $10 entry fee for a trail that led across their pasture to the Arenal national park boundary where it joined a path leading to the crater lake at the top of Cerro Chato inside the park. None of the money collected was going to the park system and none of the users were paying the separate national park entrance fee but until recently the trespassing was ignored. Billboards promoted the trail and legitimate tour operators and travel services sold the hiking tour unaware that it was technically illegal.
More recently the Cerro Chato trail started to serve as an entry point for climbs to the crater of Arenal volcano. This caught the attention of authorities who shut down the whole trail as a back door into Arenal national park without paying the entrance fee. There is another trail to the lagoon atop Cerro Chato that starts from the west side at Arenal Observatory Lodge which is also officially closed.
The area is completely off limits to the public.
- Amistad National Park – it’s highly unlikely anyone would try to sneak into La Amistad through the Caribbean side back door since it takes days of walking to reach it, but if you’re headed there make sure to pay the entry fee ahead of time.
- Arenal Crater Hike – as noted above any attempt to reach the summit of Arenal is foolhardy and illegal
- Cerro Chato now has its own law – “El Reglamento de uso público 27389-MINAE y el Plan de Manejo del Área Silvestre Protegida, catalogan esta zona El sector de Cerro Chato parte del Parque Nacional Volcán Arenal, de protección absoluta por los ecosistemas frágiles y vulnerables que ampara.”
- Chirripó national park announced a plan early in 2019 to begin issuing wrist bands because so many people are entering the park illegally
- Celeste Waterfall – An old trail from the east side of the river near Celeste Hideaway Lodge leads to the waterfall inside Tenorio national park. The local community association used to collect $5 (the park costs $12) but since 2016 the national park administration declared the trail off limits and entry to the park from that side unlawful. There is also a back door into Lago Danta in Tenorio national park from Heliconias lodge near Bijagua but to the best of our knowledge it’s legit.
- Marino las Baulas – No one is permitted on Playa Grande after dark during the Leatherback turtle nesting season unless accompanied by a national park ranger. Illegal tour operators try to take advantage of the miles of unguarded coast.
- Ostional – Staffing has gotten better at Ostional national wildlife refuge and pirate tours to experience an arribada of nesting Olive Ridley sea turtles have been nearly eliminated. Get a reservation with a legit operator.
- Poás Volcano is the most popular park for visitors from San José and although it only costs a dollar for Costa Ricans to enter, many are turning to smugglers to sneak them in the other side. Unfortunately the new required online prepaid ticket system is so badly designed and maintained that it can be nearly impossible to get legitimate reservations and it’s just easier to break in.
- Rincon de la Vieja – there’s a trail leading through the private property of RDLV Lodge that joins with the Santa Maria to Las Pailas trail inside the national park where we once entered illegally many years ago. We hiked in without realizing it was Monday when the park is closed to visitors. The rangers were watching a futbol match and couldn’t be bothered to chastise us and we ended up climbing over the main gate to leave the park.
- Tortuguero national park is closed to visitors at night to protect the nesting Atlantic Green sea turtles. However since the beach is miles long and part of it is up against the village of Tortuguero it’s nearly impossible to enforce.
- Tenorio Hot Springs – the hot springs in Tenorio national park used to be one of our favorite spots but crowding and abuse (leaving beer bottles and other trash and destruction of the rocks to enlarge the pools) led to official closure.
Costa Rica’s natural areas are struggling with rapidly escalating dangers and the rangers are increasingly taking on the role of the overstretched police and the military that does not exist. The parks and reserves have hundreds of miles of coastline and international borders. Guns are now standard issue and the U.S. is donating body armor that will come into service by 2020.
For years the U.S. Coast Guard has been patrolling Costa Rica’s shores using boat and planes.
Three U.S. government anti drug surveillance helicopters that arrived in 2019 will be maintained operated by U.S. personnel until at least 2021 when it’s planned that Costa Rican staff from the Air Surveillance Service (SVA) of the Ministerio de Seguridad Pública will be trained to take over.
Costa Rica passed a law in 2012 banning all hunting except indigenous populations’ subsistence hunts on tribal lands. Unfortunately the law was mostly symbolic and did not include any funding or mechanism for enforcement.
Some argue that the law has actually increased hunting in national parks – since hunting is illegal everywhere, poachers now focus on protected areas where animal populations are higher. Dog packs and rifles are used to harvest peccaries, deer and other more exotic meat like monkey and jungle turkey.
We haven’t heard much about logging in Costa Rica’s parks and forest reserves recently.
In the early nineties on the Osa Peninsula we often saw logging trucks carrying sections of trees so huge that a single log was all that would fit on a semi trailer. Locals told us the wood was from Corcovado national park and the Golfo Dulce forest reserve but bribes and huge profits kept the government from interfering with the illegal cutting.
It’s not clear whether Costa Rica’s growing reputation as an ecological haven or the possibility that the most valuable trees have already been removed put a halt to illegal logging for lumber but that doesn’t mean the trees are safe.
Most controversial tree cutting these days is about real estate instead of lumber and hardwoods. In 2009 a mangrove forest miraculously disappeared from Matapalo beach adjacent to the construction at the Ríu Guanacaste mega-resort. Ten years later the municipality’s lawsuit alleging illegal logging of endangered tree species in a conservation zone has had little impact and the forest can never be replaced.
Collecting sea turtle eggs to sell as aphrodisiacs in bars and restaurants is not just a problem in national parks and protected areas. The species are protected wherever they come ashore but most nests are raided. Poachers have a very easy time finding freshly laid eggs by walking or riding a motorcycle along the beach looking for the telltale tracks leading directly to the nest.
We’ve spent many hours on our early morning walks scuffling back and forth over turtle tracks to obscure the location of nest and we know many other residents who help hide as well. Half a dozen turtle conservation organizations patrol for poachers and collect the eggs to transfer them to guarded incubators.
It’s not advisable to confront poachers. Even armed park rangers and local police have been wounded or killed by machetes or guns while intercepting vehicles leaving the beach with trunks full of eggs or more gruesomely butchered turtles.
Gold mining is probably the most damaging illegal activity in Costa Rica’s national parks. The miners set up makeshift camps and work for months at a time. They trespass, hunt and log for firewood, cause erosion, pollution, contamination of the ground water with human waste and poisoning the streams and rivers with mercury compounds used in refining the ore.
The sole motivation for illegal mining is economic and every minero we met had a similar story of not being able to find legitimate work in an economy where unemployment and underemployment are extreme.