Costa Rica is full of surprises, and La Marina Wildlife Rescue Center zoological park, tucked in the hills around Ciudad Quesada in north-central Costa Rica, is a delightful one. Close to Central Valley cities and on the way to nearby La Fortuna and Arenal Volcano, this center dedicated to breeding and conserving area wildlife is a definite stop for anyone who likes animals.
The 27-acre park was not designed as a tourist attraction but welcomes tourists, residents, visitors and school groups to see animals up close and learn about the need to conserve species.
Red, yellow and green parrots flash by as you walk the well-trimmed trails, where you can observe crocodiles wallowing in their watery yard, families of wild pigs, deer,monkeys and more unusual native animals such as tepezcuintles (pacas), pizotes (coatis), jaguars, smaller wild cats such as margays and ocelots, snakes and more.
La Marina made the news recently with the February birth of Julieta, a new addition to the park’s tapir family. Tapirs, or dantas in Spanish, are large, docile animals that sort of resemble elephants and reach up to 600 pounds, and that spend a lot of time lying in the shade or wading ear and nose deep in water. Once plentiful in the area, tapirs have become endangered as a result of habitat loss and hunting.
The La Marina family consists of six good-sized tapirs and little Julieta, who represents the third generation and the 14th tapir born here.While the full-size tapirs are deep gray, Julieta is brown with white stripes and spots, which will change when she reaches 5 months. At La Marina, the tapirs enjoy big enclosures that include a lily-padded pond.
Toño, now retired, has his own separate shelter where he lazes away the days and where he won’t be bothered by dominant young males. The first tapirs came to La Marina from the neighborhood. Clarisa came from Boca Tapada in 1992. Chepa came from Bijagua the following year, and Toño came from Vara Blanca. The first baby, Marino, was born in 1996 to Clarisa and Toño. Two tapirs have been released in the area, and because of its breeding success the tapir has become the symbol for the zoo.
The program is now strong enough to interchange with other animal reserve projects, which is necessary to prevent inbreeding within the herd here, says zoo administrator Juan José Rojas. Romeo will soon be emigrating to the United States to add his Tico blood to a breeding program in Tennessee, and the herd here may soon receive a tapir from a similar program in Panama.
La Marina was once a hacienda dedicated to agriculture, like many other large farms in the canton of San Carlos. But when workers found an abandoned albino coati on the farm, they took it to Alva María Alfaro, the hacienda’s owner and mother of Rojas. Soon, other people arrived with wounded and abandoned animals, knowing that Doña Alva María would take them all. That’s how the zoo and breeding program began 50 years ago. Rojas, 49, grew up with the animals.
In 1989, the government found out about La Marina and brought more animals, and that same year the zoo opened to the public. La Marina now has 350 animals of 80 different species.
La Marina has also been successful in breeding macaws, a program taken over from the nearby La Lupita Macaw Center after its owner, Thomas Armstrong, died in 2004. The area offers native habitat for the species, and released birds tend to stay nearby, close to food sources. San Carlos, which extends all the way to the northern border, is known for its agricultural abundance and fruit trees, which keep the birds content.
According to Louisa Fisher, who came from England as a volunteer and stayed on, neighbors in the area keep watch over nests.
The walk around the park with stops at all the animal enclosures takes at least 50 minutes, double that if you dawdle – and why not? Stock up on fish food and peanuts at the gift shop entrance so you can feed the tilapia and koi. The peanuts are for the monkeys. At La Marina, it’s OK to feed them.
Though the zoo has four jaguars, they have not had success in breeding. They need more room, and a large house and enclosure is under construction for them. Even so, there are no plans for reproducing. The only male, Silvestre, at 24 is too old to father kittens. The jaguars all came from the San Carlos region.
Also present are smaller cats, including margays, ocelots and jaguarundis, all considered endangered and protected by Costa Rican Law 7317 and the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES). There is even, though definitely not native to the region or country, a lion named Rosie that had been offered for sale in a pet shop in England and was confiscated by authorities who had to find a suitable home for her. Thus, Rosie came to La Marina.
This year the zoo celebrates its 50th birthday and has commissioned a beautifully colored poster depicting some of the animals in its care. The poster was designed by students at the National Training Institute in Ciudad Quesada, and copies will be on sale at the gift shop. Other anniversary details will be announced at a later date.
Getting There, Info
La Marina is about four kilometers east of Ciudad Quesada, just east of the El Tucano hotel and hot springs resort. From San José, take the
to Naranjo and follow the wellmarked roads north through Zarcero (a pleasant stop to walk around the church plaza among the famous sculpted cypress trees and to pick up a ball of palmito cheese, a specialty of the area) to Ciudad Quesada.
Or go through Heredia north to San Miguel and west through Aguas Zarcas to the zoo. Buses offer service from Naranjo to Ciudad Quesada, and local buses to Aguas Zarcas, Venecia or Pital can take you to the zoo.
La Marina is open every day, 8:30 a.m. to 4 p.m. The entrance fee for foreigners is $8 for adults, $5 for children; for residents and nationals it’s ¢1,500 for adults and ¢800 for kids. For more information, visit www.zoocostarica.com or call 474-2100.