A love story with strings attached: Costa Rica’s National Parks

The coast of Nicaragua got the short end of the stick, geographically speaking. The moment we sailed across the border into Costa Rica, “AHHHH…!”   was the collective sigh of relief. The flat windy coastline subsided; the land of endless sheltered bays began. But there are some surprising restrictions the government is trying to enact.

Panorama of Bahia Santa Elena

Panorama of Bahia Santa Elena

The first bay in Costa Rica is famous in sailboat cruising lore: Bahia Santa Elena. No wonder!  After hundreds of miles of struggle, the last stretch is a downwind sail into turquoise waters, with dramatic rocky pinnacles sprouting from the water. The bay itself is like a lake with a small access to the ocean; it is deliciously placid, surrounded by imposing mountains and howler monkeys. Mind you, there’s a catch – in the dry season the Papagayo winds can blow with debilitating strength.

Dry season in Bahia Santa Elena with green mangroves

Dry season in Bahia Santa Elena with green mangroves

This spot also marks the beginning of the magnificent Santa Rosa National Park. Since California’s Channel Islands, we haven’t seen such a collection of “5 stars” in our favorite activities: the diving is outrageous, the surfing is world-class, the sailing is idyllic, and the fishing (where allowed) kept our bellies happy.

Cruising Mangroves in Bahia Santa Elena

Cruising Mangroves in Bahia Santa Elena

Strangely unmentioned in the cruising books is the second stop on our way south along the park: Bahia Blanca. This gorgeous beach has smooth water and worthwhile secrets for the adventurous. We managed to snap a block as we sailed into the bay with a resounding CRACK! so the gusty offshore winds can be formidable, but the water and wind settle down near the shoreline. Family fun can then be had by all.

Adam, Kendra, Asher were aboard our leg from San Juan del Sur (Nicaragua) to Playas del Coco (Costa Rica)

Adam, Kendra, Asher were aboard our leg from San Juan del Sur (Nicaragua) to Playas del Coco (Costa Rica)

The journey down the coast next lead us to the majestic 4 story Cabo Santa Elena, which creates ‘almost a U-turn’ in the coastline. The genoa headsail, which up until now was pushing us downwind in a broad reach, gets tightened dramatically, and grits its teeth. It powers us upwind into the bay. Aldebaran zooms at 7 knots despite the 15-20 knots of wind on her nose. The water is smooth, the boat is fast, and we’re in sailing nirvana.

Murcielagos dive sites

Murcielagos dive sites

To our right is a long string of islands called the “Murcielagos” or Bat Islands. We sail into the ranger station, which is nestled between two islands and separated by a shallow channel. Our friend Adam, who was our visiting crew for this leg along with wife Kendra and 8yr old son Asher, had been looking forward to this moment. He wanted to take a photo with his family in the crystal clear lagoon.  He had actually seen our photo taken from the mast of this lagoon from last season, kept it as his screen saver, and thought: “that’s where I want to go!”

8Murcielagos

Murcielagos lagoon

Murcielagos lagoon

As a sailor suffering through the wacky conditions of Central America — with its share of squalls, calms, and a lack of protected bays — it is hard not to fall in love with the Santa Rosa National Park. All the romantic dreams are there; it is like we reached a mini-version of the South Seas. We know that people have worked hard to keep it wild, and we feel unabashed gratitude.

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Sabrina and cousins Marc (joining us for 2 weeks) and Sophie (2 months)

Sabrina and cousins Marc (joining us for 2 weeks) and Sophie (2 months)

There are challenges to this preserved beauty, however, and costs for cruisers like ourselves — who are “outside the norm”.

We hike to the top of the hill above the Murcielagos Ranger Station. From this vantage point the islands look like a sea dragon — a curling tail and serpentine body rising and dipping into the water. Appropriately so, because this is the fiery epicenter of the park’s anti-fishing, anti-poaching, and tourism-controlling efforts.  On this hilltop, rangers “look out” for boats and try to enforce the Park’s rules. These regulations can range from reasonable to downright bizarre.

Turtle Biologist at Murcielagos

Ronny the Turtle Biologist at Murcielagos

The waters north of the big four storey Cape are open to fishing, but the waters to the south are designated as a marine protected area. However, the temptation is too strong for commercial boats. In particular, sport fishermen benefiting from the lucrative tourism business take advantage of their superior boats. Nearly every day we saw lines being trolled behind boats flagrantly. They recognize the park ranger boat coming in their direction; lines are quickly reeled in, and the abusing vessel speeds away quicker than the rangers can catch up.

The park gets windy conditions tough for small vessels but the seas remain smooth

The park gets windy conditions tough for small vessels but the seas remain smooth

We spoke to Marcos, a ranger at the station. “Our pangas only have single 100 horsepower engines. They’re much slower than other boats. The limited park budget also restricts our range for surveillance. Don’t forget, we also need to keep track of poachers in the forest, so we can’t focus on fishing only.” Marcos explained that poachers will camp in the forest to cut down hardwood trees and try to hunt one of the four species of wild cats in the park for sale in the black market; then escape by boat. Drug smugglers also use wild lands as drop off and pick up points.

Asher conducting legal fishing in the northern waters of the park

Asher conducting legal fishing in the northern waters of the park

Along side the ranger, living at the station was Ronny, a sea turtle conservation biologist. He collects eggs laid by green and carey turtles at night and secures them in a hatchery. The presence of sea turtle conservation camps in Costa Rica — run by non profit organizations in partnership with national parks or tourism businesses  — is another positive checkmark in this country’s effort for natural protection.

All this must be paid for, though. The entry cost for foreigners into Costa Rican national parks is $15/day (much less for locals) which one might consider reasonable for a day visit. Unfortunately, the system doesn’t accommodate multi-day visits; self-guided trips like wilderness backpacking and sailboat cruising are heavily discouraged by their parks’ model. Instead, it caters to the mainstream, middle-upper class tourist spending a few hundred dollars per day on a short vacation. One can imagine an economic advisory team figuring out that this would be the best way to raise funds through the parks; other user groups are summarily dismissed.

The funds go back to the central government, which uses eco-tourism as a significant income source. This cash influx creates a double edged sword. Costa Rica’s national parks have become “cash cows” — and this raises questions about the use of funds, and the purpose of these parks.

Ollie's point

Ollie’s point

The system is designed to funnel people into the “machine” of mainstream tourism. At Ollie’s Point and Witches Rock for example, both world class surf breaks in the park, dozens of surfers pay daily fees for visits by boat. The $15 daily fee is trivial compared to the $150 per day paid for the privilege of going by boat to these remote wilderness breaks. However, for sailors visiting the park for 2 weeks, the daily fee becomes untenable.

Less known spots in the park, still gems to be had.

Less known spots in the park, still gems to be had.

Byzantine restrictions are put into place to ensure the cash cow keeps earning dollars and things are kept in line. For example, park regulations mandate that boaters are not allowed to anchor at either Ollie’s Point and Witches Rock overnight — apparently to ensure that the park fees are paid everyday. Ironically Ollie’s Point is in one of the best anchorages in the park, Portrero Grande. The result? Boats are constantly ‘breaking the rules’, but from what we saw, the Coast Guard turns a blind eye because they know the regulation is ludicrous.

The Coast Guard "pulled over" the ladies at 5:30am as they swam to shore with camera gear... surely thinking they were drug smugglers! We joked they were swimming too fast

The Coast Guard “pulled over” the ladies at 5:30am as they swam to shore with camera gear… surely thinking they were drug smugglers! We joked they were swimming too fast

Many sailboat cruisers that went to the Murcielago islands were turned away because they didn’t come armed with a day permit — which is really unfortunate. Not for lack of trying to pay!  It is extremely inconvenient to purchase this permit, possible only in Playas de Cocos, which is not one of the region’s two marinas. It even requires a exact date of entry so pre-purchasing isn’t always possible.  Online payments? Forget it.

The Ranger Station - don't try to pay when you get there!

The Ranger Station – don’t try to pay when you get there! Payment can only be made at the office… wait, where is that again?

True, the protection of nature has been accelerated by the funds from these parks. Costa Rica has been heralded a leader in this regard. Yet, restrictions don’t allow different people to experience the park in different ways.  One feels increasingly boxed in by the packaged approach to enjoying the park.  So our love for the park is met with moments of hesitation.

Capitan gets some rides at Ollie's

Capitan gets some rides at Ollie’s

Are these limitations simply because the fledgling national park system still needs to find its legs? Or are they intentional attempts to restrict corral visitors into the ‘approved’ ways to visit the parks?

We’ll be sailing down the coast of Costa Rica, hoping to find out answers to our questions. We’ll always love Santa Rosa National Park… but what of the parks system as a whole? We’ll be visiting the Osa Peninsula next, with the famous Corcovado Park and Isla Caño, and report back on what we find.

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