Twenty kilometers northeast from San José , the Guápiles Highway (Hwy. 32) climbs up the saddle between Barva and Irazú Volcanoes and enters Braulio Carrillo National Park before descending to the Caribbean lowlands . Rugged mountains, dormant volcanoes, deep canyons, swollen rivers, and seemingly interminable clouds, torrential rains, and persistent drizzle characterize the park.
The 47,699-hectare park (84 percent of which is primary forest) was established in 1978 and named in honor of the president who promoted the cultivation of coffee. It extends from 2,906 meters above sea level atop Volcán Barva down to 36 meters elevation at La Selva, in Sarapiquí in the Caribbean lowlands.
This represents the greatest altitudinal range of any Costa Rican park. Temperature and rainfall vary greatly and are extremely unpredictable. Annual rainfall is between 400 and 800 centimeters. Rains tend to diminish in March and April.
Encompassing five life zones ranging from tropical wet to cloud forest, Braulio Carrillo provides a home for 600 identified species of trees, more than 500 species of birds, and 135 species of mammals, including howler and capuchin monkeys, tapirs, jaguars, pumas, ocelots, peccaries, and the tepezcuintle, the park’s mascot.
The park provides excellent birding. Quetzals are common at higher elevations, and toucans, parrots, and hummingbirds are ubiquitous. Those elephant ear–size leaves common in Braulio Carrillo are sombrilla del pobre (poor man’s umbrella).
Note: There have been armed robberies in the park. Hike with a park ranger if possible. Theft from cars parked near trailheads has also been a problem.
The main entrance ($10) is the Puesto Quebrada González (tel. 506/2233-4533, ext. 125, or 506/2257-0922, 8 a.m.–5 p.m. daily) ranger station, on Highway 32 approximately 42 kilometers northeast of San José on the lower northern slopes, 15 kilometers north of the Zurquí tunnel; ironically you pass through the park to get there! Northbound from San José, you first enter the park at Zurquí just west of the tunnel; there’s a tollbooth ($0.50). Zurquí (tel. 506/2268-1039) is the administrative headquarters, but the trails here are closed to the public.
You can also enter the park at Puesto Barva ranger station (tel. 506/2266-1883, 8 a.m.–4 p.m. Tues.–Sun.), three kilometers northeast of Sacramento and just three kilometers from the summit of Volcán Barva (2,906 meters); access is via a very steep, deeply rutted rock road; four-wheel drive is essential (and you’ll be in first gear).
Two other stations—Puesto El Ceibo and Puesto Magsasay (both 8 a.m.–5 p.m. daily)—lie on the remote western fringes of the park, reached by rough trails from just south of La Virgen, on the main road to Puerto Viejo de Sarapiquí .
Three short and moderately easy trails lead from Quebrada González: Sendero El Ceibo is one kilometer; Sendero Las Palmas is two kilometers; and Sendero Los Botarramas is approximately three kilometers. South of the ranger station is a parking area on the left (when heading north) with a lookout point and a trail to the Río Patria, where you can camp (no facilities). Another parking area beside the bridge over the Río Sucio (Dirty River) has picnic tables and a short loop trail.
Four trails are accessed from Puesto Barva. A loop trail leads to the summit from Porrosatí (the trail is marked as BCNP Sector Barva) and circles back to the ranger station (four or five hours of hiking, round-trip). The trail leads up through cloud forest—good for spotting resplendent quetzals—to the crater and a lookout point. Fog, however, is usually the order of the day. From the summit, you can continue all the way downhill to La Selva in the northern lowlands. It’s a lengthy and arduous hike that may take several days and is recommended only for experienced hikers with suitable equipment. Take an Instituto Geográfica map and a compass, plus high-quality waterproof gear and warm clothing, and—of course—sufficient food and water. You can camp beside the crater lake, behind the ranger station, or at two picnic areas with barbecue grills on the trail (no facilities). You can join this trail from Puesto El Ceibo and Puesto Magsasay; you can also drive in a short distance along a 4WD trail from Puesto Magsasay.
Bring sturdy raingear, and preferably hiking boots. The trails will most likely be muddy. Several hikers have gotten lost for days in the fog and torrential rains. If you intend to do serious hiking, let rangers know in advance, and check in with them when you return.
Buses for Guápiles and Puerto Limón depart several times per hour from San José’s Gran Terminal Caribe, at Calle Central, Avenidas 15/17; they drop off and pick up at the Zurquí and Puesto Carrillo ranger stations.
Most tour operators in San José offer tours to Braulio Carrillo.