While much of Costa Rica  has been stripped of its forests, the country has managed to protect a larger proportion of its land than any other country in the world in national parks. In 1970 there came a growing acknowledgment that something unique and lovely was vanishing, and a systematic effort was begun to save what was left of the wilderness. That year, the Costa Ricans formed a national park system that has won worldwide admiration. Costa Rican law declared inviolate 10.27 percent of land.
Today, some 27 percent of land is legally set aside as national parks and forest reserves, “buffer zones,” wildlife refuges, and indigenous reserves. Throughout the country representative sections of all the major habitats and ecosystems are protected. The National Conservation Areas System (SINAC) protects more than 190 areas—including 34 national parks, eight biological reserves, 13 forest reserves, 56 wildlife refuges, 32 protected zones, and 14 wetlands—in 11 conservation areas.
However, the National Parks Service remains severely hampered by underfunding. The government has also found it impossible to pay for land set aside as national parks (15 percent of national parks, 46 percent of biological and nature reserves, and 75 percent of forest reserves are private property with payments outstanding). And budgetary constraints have traditionally prevented the severely understaffed parks service from hiring more people. Thus, poaching continues inside national parks, often with the connivance of rangers and corrupt NPS officials.
Much of the praise heaped on the National Parks Service actually belongs to individuals (preponderantly foreigners), private groups, and local communities whose efforts—often in the face of bureaucratic opposition—have resulted in creation of many of the wildlife refuges and parks for which the NPS takes credit. (The creation of the National Parks Service itself was the product of lobbying by a foreigner, Olaf Wessberg, as related in David Rains Wallace’s The Quetzal and the Macaw.)
The current focus is on turning poorly managed forest reserves and wildlife refuges into national parks, and integrating adjacent national parks, reserves, and national forests into Regional Conservation Areas (RCAs) to create corridors where wildlife can move with greater freedom over much larger areas. Each unit is characterized by its unique ecology.
National parks are under the jurisdiction of the Sistema Nacional Areas de Conservación (SINAC, Calle 25, Avenidas 8/10, San José, tel. 506/2248-2451, www.sinac.go.cr , 7 A.M.–3 P.M. Mon.–Fri.), which is responsible to the Ministerio de Ambiente y Energía (Ministry of the Environment and Energy, or MINAE, www.minae.go.cr ).
If you need specialized information on scientific aspects of the parks, contact the Conservation Data Center, Instituto Nacional de Biodiversidad (INBio, tel. 506/2507-8100, www.inbio.ac.cr ).
Entrance for walk-in visitors varies from $6 to $15, valid for 24 hours only; most parks cost $10. You will need permits for a few of the biological reserves; these can be obtained in advance from SINAC. You can buy a “Friends of the National Parks” (Amigos de los Parques) passport good for unlimited park entry at 12 national parks. It’s sold by ProParques (tel./fax 506/2263-4162, www.proparques.org ), a private foundation that works to support and strengthen operation of the national park system. You’re issued a card with an electronic chip that can be swiped at ranger stations. It’s also good for discounts at more than 250 affiliated businesses. The four membership options are: Morfo ($39) for 3 admissions during 14 days; Tortuga ($100): 9 admissions during one year; Lapa ($100) for two cards, 30 admissions, plus special events during one year; and Jaguar ($500) for two cards, 30 admissions to parks, plus special events during one year.
Wildlife doesn’t observe political borders. Birds migrate. Plants grow on each side. “It’s not enough to draw lines on a map and call it a park,” says Alvaro Ugalde, the former National Parks Service director. Park management increasingly requires international cooperation through the creation of transnational park networks, with neighboring countries viewing the rivers and rainforests along their borders not as dividing lines but as rich tropical ecosystems that they share.
The idea fruited in Central America as the Paseo Pantera, dedicated to preserving biodiversity through the creation of a contiguous chain of protected areas from Mexico to Colombia. This cooperative effort has since evolved into the multinational Mesoamerican Biological Corridor project. The intent is for the isthmus to once again be a bridge between continents for migrating species.
The most advanced of the transfrontier parks is the La Amistad International Peace Park, created in 1982 when Costa Rica and Panamá signed a pact to join two adjacent protected areas—one in each country—to create one of the richest ecological biospheres in Central America. UNESCO cemented the union by recognizing the binational zone as a biosphere reserve.