Barra Honda National Park
Barra Honda is unique among the National Parks of Costa Rica: its main attraction is a large, intricate system of limestone caverns, decorated with a multitude of capricious forms and figures.
The nearly flat mesa of the Barra Honda hill looms 300 m above the Tempisque valley and has its highest peak at 450 m altitude. Its base consists of a former coral reef dating back over 60 million years. Tectonic faulting uplifted it from its former seabed and rains created underground waterways. The constant dropping of rainwater on calcium carbonate has then created these underground art galleries – fancies of nature slowly grown over millenniums of years.
Until now only 19 of Barra Honda’s 42 caves have been explored. The cave system was only discovered in the late 60ies. Before that people believed that Barra Honda was a volcano. They took the whirring of bat wings for volcanic activity and the smell of guano for sulfur fumes.
In fact, the bat’s cave, called Pozo Hediondo (Fetid Cave), is home to a colony of around 5000 bats. Soon after sunset these flying mammals surge from their underground dwelling to swoop into the night.
The caves of Barra Honda are well preserved because their vertical entrances are difficult to negotiate. Nevertheless have human skeletons and pre-Columbian artefacts been found in the 30 m deep Nicoa Cave.
The deepest of the Barra Honda caves is Santa Ana which drops to 249 meters below surface, while La Trampa (the trap) has the deepest precipice – a 30 m vertical entrance. Speleologists and spelunkers from around the world are drawn to Barra Honda.
One of the largest and most beautiful caves is Terciopelo which along with la Cuevita, is the only one open to the public. Tours must be accompanied by a local guide. At the entrance to the cave you are fit with a rappelling harness and helmet. The harness is only a security for the initial 17-meter descent on an aluminium ladder.
Caving Tours in Barra Honda:
The caves of Barra Honda can be visited year-through. For a caving tour you should be at the ranger station between 8 am and 1 pm. Bring drinking water and sun cream for your hike up on the mountain.
The 3 – 4 hours hiking and caving tour costs around $40 pp and includes the admission fee for the national park, caving equipment and a professional guide. Children must have a minimum age of 10 years. A prior reservation is required to make a caving tour in Barra Honda. To reserve your tour call the ranger station: 8539-1010 or 8721-2444
You should wear long pants and sturdy shoes with good grip as the ground in the caves is very slippery and you have to climb over broken stalagtites and rocks. Visitors shouldn’t have fear of enclosed places and some openings to caverns are narrow, so it might be difficult or impossible for big people to pass through.
Caving tours are made in the Terciopelo cave which has its name from the fer-de-lance snake (span. terciopelo) which was found dead on the bottom of the entrance at the time when the cave was discovered. In general however there is no animal life in this cave.
To enter the Terciopelo cave you will climb down a 17 m high ladder, to arrive in the entrance hall. From here you continue your descent through this first hall until you reach its bottom – 30 m below the surface.
Another descent on a ladder brings you to the next cavern: the Sala de Huevos Fritos (fried eggs cave) which among other curious formations features stalagtites that resemble fried eggs.
To get to the third chamber you have to pass through a narrow opening. The bizarre limestone formations found here are compared to popcorn, roses, grapes and shark teeth.
Unfortunately, since the 2012 earthquake the following two chambers have been closed to the public due to security reasons. The fourth cavern, the Sala Organos features an enormous formation of hollow stalagmites. By tapping lightly on the hanging formation clear musical notes can be heard. Still further down, passing through a very narrow opening and climbing down another ladder, you arrive to the fifth and last chamber: a high-ceilinged hall, 60 m below surface.
The 4 km hike up the hill and to the caves takes approx 1 hour. With a 4WD vehicle you can drive uphill on the first 3 km on a steep, rough road. From here the walk on the flat mesa is easy. The trail winds through the forest and the guides explain medicinal plants, birds and other wildlife. A short detour from the main trail leads to a lookout point from where you have a panoramic view to the Tempisque valley and Gulf of Nicoya beyond.
Even without visiting the caves a hike through the Barra Honda National Park is a great nature experience. The national park covers 2,295 hectars and a network of trails leads through the dry tropical forest, one of the world’s rarest habitats. You can see deers, coatis, agutis, anteaters, monkeys and many birds. The best time for seing wildlife is from Jan – April as in dry season many trees and shrubs shed their leaves which makes it easier to spot animals.
Admission to the national park costs $12 pp (without guide and caving tour).
Getting there by Car:
The Barra Honda National Park is only 12 km away from the Tempisque Road (Hwy 21) and the drive is fairly easy. After you have crossed the Tempisque Bridge continue for 15 km until you see a sign to your right to Barra Honda. You will pass through the village of Barra Honda (old maps call it Nacaome) from where it’s another 4 km to the park.
If coming from Samara or Nicoya drive straight on, crossing the Hwy 21 and watch out for the signs to Barra Honda.
From Nicoya there is a bus twice per day (except sundays) to Santa Ana, which is 1 km from the park entrance. The bus ride takes around 40 min.
From Samara it’s an easy day-jaunt to Barra Honda. The drive takes less than 2 hours. Tour operators and hotels in Samara can also arrange a tour to Barra Honda.