A little ways past Puente de la Amistad Bridge en route to the Nicoya Peninsula, in the northwestern province of Guanacaste, lies the spelunker’s playground of Barra Honda National Park, a big hill full of caves 423 meters (1,388 feet) above sea level, with a valley of communities and farmland at its base.
Only two of the 42 caves are open to the public (the others are too dangerous for general access): Terciopelo, for adults and children over 11, and La Cuevita, for kids and those too chicken for Terciopelo.
I didn’t think I fell into the latter category as our guide, Oscar Rosales, warned that people who experience claustrophobia, vertigo and fear of heights should not enter. I would be proven wrong before the end of the day, however.
Barra Honda measures 2,297 hectares, including the caves, a mostly second-growth dry tropical forest, aquifers that supply water to the surrounding communities and, up high on a hill, a lookout point called El Mirador, which offers an expansive view of the valley below.
According to Rosales, people began exploring the caves in 1966, when the property belonged to Santos Enríquez and his brothers, who inherited the land from their father. But pre-Columbian people had discovered the caves long ago, evidenced by earthenware pots and axes found in a cave called Nicoa, named after an indigenous chief. As Rosales explained that human remains were also found in the cave and that it is theorized it was used for religious ceremonies and sacrifice, I began to suspect that perhaps I might be a little afraid of caves.
Barra Honda’s caves were formed roughly 60 million years ago, according to Rosales.
The theory is that earthquakes caused the plates under the ocean floor to shift, pushing the area that is now Barra Honda up from below the ocean.
“This is the oldest area in the country –the first land that emerged from beneath the ocean,” Rosales said.
He went on to explain that the rock in Barra Honda is limestone, which consists of mainly calcium carbonate. When the rock was exposed to rain, a chemical reaction took place, dissolving the rock over millions of years and creating the caves.
Barra Honda National Park was established in 1974, after the government purchased the land from the Enríquez brothers.
“The government purchased the land to protect the forest and the animals, the caves and the springs,” Rosales said, explaining that he and other cave guides escort visitors into the caves daily, while park rangers protect the animals from poaching.
According to Rosales, 79 species of birds can be seen here, including scarlet macaws, collared aracaris (toucans), woodpeckers and long-tailed manakins, along with approximately 45 species of mammals, such as white-faced monkeys, white-tailed deer, armadillos, collared anteaters, pacas, peccaries and coatis.
Rosales escorted us through the park trails, pointing out wildlife, including large groups of howler monkeys in the trees overhead, so small and cute for the fierce howl they make.
We moved on to El Mirador, a lookout spot on the side of the Barra Honda hill that offers a sweeping view of the flat valley below, east to the Gulf of Nicoya and west to the Nicoya Mountains. It’s a covered wooden structure with a railing and bench, set on the edge of a cliff. Unlike any tourist viewpoint I’d seen, there is free access to the scrabbly edge of the cliff, and it seemed like it would be pretty easy to fall over the edge.
No Caver, I
After enjoying the view, we backed up and headed to Terciopelo cave, named erroneously for a snake skeleton found in the cave by early explorers that was thought to be that of a terciopelo (the venomous fer-delance snake). Though it has since been proven that it wasn’t a terciopelo skeleton, it’s still unknown what kind of snake it was, and the name stuck.
Terciopelo has three different chambers with different formations of stalactites and stalagmites bearing friendly sounding names such as “Room of Mangoes,” “The Family,” “The Papayas” and “Fried Eggs.” To get into the cave, visitors gear up with a helmet, headlamp and climbing harness. The guide descends first, and then visitors, one at a time, attach the carabiner to their harness and descend 17 meters (56 feet) down an aluminum ladder attached to the cave wall.
This is where I turned chicken. After descending eight rungs on the ladder, I looked down and realized I was scared of descending, of having to climb back up the ladder afterwards and of getting scared inside the cave and not being able to bolt because the ladder is the exit. So I mustered up my courage to tell Rosales and the rest of the eager visitors that I was too scared to go down into the cave. And then I climbed the eight rungs back up and out.
Three visitors descended after me, and after an hour emerged exhilarated from the investigation and the 17-meter climb back up the ladder.
They spoke excitedly of the formations, the darkness and the different chambers, describing large, triangular stalactites, some that look like hands coming out of the ceiling; small, popcorn-like formations; “giant mangoes” like huge honeycombs hanging down; and “fried eggs,” orange-colored circles in the rock.
“There are rocks everywhere; you have to arch and undulate to get by them,” one spelunker said. “It’s amazing that nature creates such things.”
End of the Day
We hiked back to the ranger station, pooped. Basic dorm-style rooms with bunk beds are available for people who’d like to stay the night right in the park, at a cost of ¢2,000 ($4) per night. Four hundred meters from the park entrance is the more comfortable Las Cavernas Tourist Lodge, offering a pool, rooms with double beds, private bathrooms (cold water), a cozy ranch-style restaurant and an a old-time Tico cowboy style bar. Rates here are ¢6,180 ($12.36) per person, per night.
Las Cavernas is owned by Manuel Angel Angulo, Santos Enríquez’s grandson – a good source of stories, as his great grandfather, grandfather and father all owned and worked land in the area.
Barra Honda National Park is open daily until 4 p.m.; start time for an excursion into the caves is between 7:30 a.m. and 1 p.m. (until 2 p.m. December to April). Exploring the caves takes three to four hours, including the easy hike there and back. Advice from the ranger station is to start as early as possible to avoid the midday heat. The park entrance fee is $6 for foreigners and ¢600 ($1.20) for nationals and residents. To access Terciopelo, a guide, helmet and harness are required and can be arranged for an additional cost of $14.Maximum group size is eight.
For information, call 659-1551. To contact Las Cavernas Tourist Lodge, call 659-1574.
By Car: Take the Inter-American Highway north toward Liberia; shortly after seeing signs for Puntarenas, turn left at the intersection marked with signs for Puente de la Amistad and the Nicoya Peninsula. The park turnoff is approximately 15 kilometers past the bridge, and is marked with signs for Parque Nacional Barra Honda and Albergue Turístico Las Cavernas. Follow the road for eight kilometers to the ranger station.
By Bus: Tracopa-Alfaro (222-2666) offers service from San José to Nicoya and will drop off passengers on the highway at the turnoff to the park. The park is eight kilometers in, past the towns of Barra Honda and Santa Ana.
There are no taxis, but if you call Las Cavernas lodge in advance, pickup can be arranged. To head back to either Nicoya or San José, the best place to wait (possibly hours) for the bus is at the intersection two kilometers toward Nicoya from the turnoff to the park. Here you will find shade, snacks and ripe mangoes falling from two trees if you’re there during mango season.