Visiting Santa Rosa National Park, Costa Rica

The Santa Rosa National Park protects two Costa Rican treasures that are both as important in Costa Rica as they are for the rest of Central America: the best remaining dry forest habitat and Casona de Santa Rosa.

gorgeous aerial view of Santa Rosa National Park, Costa Rica

Dry Forest Habitat

For nature lovers, this first treasure is of extreme importance. The Santa Rosa National Park encloses the best remaining dry forest habitat in all of Central America and Mexico, protecting endangered and rare plant and animal species. This batch of the forest is so important that, with the entire Guanacaste Conservation Area, it has been declared a Natural World Heritage site by UNESCO, and two of its wetlands have been included in the Ramsar list.

Casona de Santa Rosa

Treasure number two has to do with Costa Rican sovereignty. On March 20th, 1856, the Casona de Santa Rosa (an old mansion inside the park) witnessed a heroic battle that marked the future of Costa Rica and the rest of Central America. A series of battles followed the one in Santa Rosa, ensuring the freedom and sovereignty of Central America and giving Costa Rica its national hero, Juan Santamaría (have you heard that name?)

In 1966 The Casona de Santa Rosa and 1000 hectares of primary forest and pasture lands around it were declared national monument. Today it is a national park divided into two sectors (Santa Rosa and Murciélago) and protects 43 thousand hectares of marine territory and 28 thousand hectares of primary and secondary dry forest.

Driving to Beaches for Short Hikes

The two sectors that compose this special national park have one more characteristic that sets them apart from the rest of national parks in Costa Rica. The typical experience inside a protected area in Costa Rica is walking along trails inside green and thick forests, under the shadow and protection of the canopy. At Santa Rosa, driving around to the different beaches and attractions is the way to go, stopping to hike short trails or enjoy the ocean water.

Where is Santa Rosa National Park?

Santa Rosa National Park is located in the north Pacific coast of Costa Rica covering the entire Santa Elena Península, from the Interamerican highway to the sea. This is the oldest portion of the country from a geological point of view. Formations from 85 million years ago have been found here.

The park is open every day from 8 am to 3:30 pm. Entrance fee applies.

Tropical dry forest at Santa Rosa National Park

At first glance, the tropical dry forest could seem hostile, because the landscape is harsh during any of its two very marked seasons. The dry season (December to April) is characterized by the trees losing their foliage to prevent evaporation that could be deadly. Instead, trees produce flowers and fruit that will be pollinated and dispersed by animals that desperately need food during this season of scarcity. During the rest of the year, the rain falls down hard making the forest green and lush and the rivers flow strong, this is the perfect season for wildlife to reproduce and flora to grow.

But don’t be fooled, while this forest looks inclement, it is actually very fragile. Historically, this kind of forest has been preferred, over the rainforest, by humans for their settlements since they are much easier to handle, and that is why there is so little primary dry forest left in this part of the world.

Santa Rosa Sector, Santa Rosa National Park

The Santa Rosa sector is all about culture and walking inside the dry tropical forest.

From the entrance of the sector, you will follow a paved road that will take you to La Casona. There, you can explore the building and its cultural museum, where you can see weapons from the 1800s, a traditional kitchen, photos, and educational material about the park’s biodiversity. Once outside the Casona, you can hike down a couple of short trails where you can see many of the treasures that this protected land contains.

One of the trails starts behind the Casona, and it’s just a few-dozen steps up a hill until you reach a viewpoint where you can see Rincón de la Vieja Volcano National Park and Guanacaste National Park, and their two dormant volcanoes: Orosí and Cacao.

The other trail is called “Naked Indian,” because of the high population of a tree that has that name. This tree has a green peeling bark that is capable of photosynthesis, an advantage once the tree loses all of its leaves in the dry season.

“Naked Indian” is a universal access loop trail, specially designed to ensure that people with disabilities, like blindness or those in a wheelchair, can enjoy the dry forest as much as everybody else. From this comfortable path, you can be surprised by spider monkeys, white-tailed deer, and a great number of birds…even as big as the Pale-billed Woodpeckers or the Crested Guans!

Naranjo Beach in Santa Rosa National Park

If you have a sturdy four-wheel-drive vehicle, you can make it to some amazing beaches during the dry season. Naranjo Beach is known for its great surfing, most people know it as Roca Bruja, which is the name of a rock formation right in front of the beach. Playa Nancite is an Olive-Ridley sea turtles nesting ground, therefore it is not open to the general public, and special permits must be obtained to visit it.

Murciélago Sector, Santa Rosa National Park

Murciélago means bat. Naming one of the sectors “bat” is not strange when you know that more than half of the one hundred and fifty species of mammals that can be found inside the park are bats.

You can spend a whole day driving around the Murciélago sector, all the way to Playa Blanca, the last frontier of the national park located 17 km (10.5 miles) from the entrance. The drive inside the park is an exciting and lonely adventure since very few people take the time to visit this remote part of the park.

This sector is mostly composed of secondary forest, which consists of pastures that are reviving from the times of cattle. Most of this territory used to be wealthy cattle farms and the area’s last owner was Luis Somoza Debayle, the Nicaraguan dictator.

As you drive around you will be stopped by bird songs of the many bird species that live here, like the White-throated Magpie-Jays, a funny looking blue-and-white bird that has many different songs, several species of Trogons and hawks on the side of the road. Also, from a viewpoint over Santa Elena bay, you can see hundreds of pelicans and frigatebirds fishing. Definitely an outstanding sight. It’s also common to spot animals like white-tailed deer.

Reaching Playa Blanca is like getting to paradise: white sand beach, turquoise-colored water, and nobody around.

aerial view of white sand beach in Santa Rosa National Park

La Casona at Santa Rosa National Park

On March 20th, 1856 at 4 pm the La Casona de Santa Rosa (the Mansion of Santa Rosa) witnessed and suffered what could be the shortest battle in history.

It took 14 minutes for the Costa Rican forces, armed with bayonets, rifles, and sabers, to expel from Costa Rican soil, a filibuster army that dreamed of turning Central America into a slavery territory for the United States of America.

William Walker, a very well-educated US citizen from Nashville Tennessee, was their intellectual leader. He came to Central America a year earlier, under the naive invitation of the Nicaraguan government, with the intention of taking the “Manifest Destiny” (the historical belief that the United States is destined, even divinely ordained, to expand across the North American continent, from the Atlantic seaboard to the Pacific Ocean) to the next level.

It took him six months to take control over the Nicaraguan government, and on the same day of the Battle of Santa Rosa, he was recognized by the U.S. government as the legitimate governor of Nicaragua. He became then the 6th president of Nicaragua.

The Costa Rican government knew about Walker’s intentions and actions in Nicaragua. The president, Juan Rafael Mora Porras, declared war to Nicaragua on February 27th, 1856 and called on the Costa Rican people to defend their country. On March 4th, a small army, led by the president himself, started its way north to Liberia, to prevent the filibuster army from entering Costa Rican territory. Sixteen days later, they accomplished their mission.

This hacienda, known since 1663, was strategically placed next to the most important communication route between Nicaraguan territory and Liberia and became an official stop for travelers. Consequently, this is not the only battle the Casona has witnessed.

In 1919, a group of men coming from Nicaragua entered Costa Rica with the intention of overthrowing the president and dictator Federico Tinoco. On May 8th they were defeated by the government forces.

Also, in 1955 a group of followers of ex-president Rafael Ángel Calderón Guardia (who had been exiled a few years earlier for electoral fraud and dictatorial intentions) tried to force Calderón’s way back into the country. They faced the government forces at La Casona and were defeated.

The last battle it faced was on May 9th, 2001, when a fire burned 80% of the structure.

Later investigations led to two poachers that intentionally set the structure on fire as revenge against the park rangers that had found them illegally hunting inside the National Park. Today, these two men face a 20-year jail sentence. The Casona was completely restored 10 months after the fire.

The original Casona was built in 1750, by a Spaniard captain named Juan Santos de San Pedro. In 1890, more than half of the structure was demolished. Five years later the structure that we see today was built over the foundation from 1750. The balcony was added in 1919.

Getting to Santa Rosa National Park

The main entrance to the National Park is 35 Km (22 miles) north from Liberia, on the Inter American Highway.

To get to the Murciélago Sector. After passing the entrance to the Santa Rosa Sector, keep driving 8 km (5 miles) north until you reach the entrance towards the town of Cuajiniquil, located 10 km (6 miles) west from the Inter-American Highway. Once in the town, the entrance to the park is 9 km (5.5 miles) west on a gravel road. You have to pass the center of town. We suggest that you not be shy in asking if you’re on the right path!

Where to stay in Santa Rosa

If you are only visiting the Santa Rosa sector, any hotel in Liberia will be a good choice.

To visit the Murciélago Sector, we highly recommend finding a hotel in Cuajiniquil. This is not a very tourist town, but it has a couple of small hostel-style hotels. However, we will take care of finding the best lodging for your needs when you plan a Costa Rica trip itinerary with us. That’s what we do! We make your life easy and your trip a breeze.

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