The South Central region is essentially characterized by its craggy, mountainous landscape - an environment and topography that has produced a history of few settlements in the area. Instead, small, agricultural communities occupied the gorges and valleys surrounding the daunting Cordillera de Talamanca range, taking advantage of the high-nutrient alluvial soil.
Today, however, this rugged territory is a delight to hikers, white-water rafters, inland anglers, and overall nature buffs. Visitors to La Amistad National Park, the largest reserve in the nation, can hike its miles of trails, climb to the highest peak in Central America at Cerro Chirripó, and stay at one of the charming and rustic lodges that surround the park. Flowing with great momentum, the streams that run off the Talamanca mountain range produce a white-water playground for rafters, with plenty of Class I to Class V runs. On the other hand, calmer oxbow lakes and lagoons offer a plentiful supply of fish for stream anglers.
Major Cities of the South Central Region
A convenient launch-pad to Parque Nacional Chirripó, Dominical and the rest of the Central Pacific, San Isidro is the best place in the area to gas up and stock up on supplies. A mediocre plaza in the center of town is more of crossroads for buses than a tourist attraction. To the north of the park you'll find service to San José, and just south there are buses to Dominical. One block east of the park is a pleasant cathedral featuring exquisite stained-glass work. Nearby, the Museo Regional del Sur is a small, modest museum which exhibits art and artifacts of both the local peasant culture and the indigenous people of the area.
Roughly 6 miles from the Panamanian border, this small, quaint hillside town, known for its relatively high proportion of Italian immigrants, is the provincial capital of the South Central Region. It's not surprising then that San Vito is the home of superb Italian cuisine in Costa Rica, featuring fresh bread, produce and cheese. The nearby Las Cruces Biological Station is said to have the most elaborate and well-maintained tropical gardens in the world.
About 45 miles southeast of San Isidro, Buenos Aires is the epicenter of the surrounding piña, or pineapple, industry. Little of this small village is tourist-attractive, but the sweet smell of pineapples is the best in the country.
Parks and Reserves
Parque Internacional La Amistad
Existing almost totally in the absence of human presence, La Amistad National Park is Costa Rica's largest wilderness preserve, covering nearly 500,000 acres of biological reserves, indigenous peoples' reservations, and, the nation's highest region, Parque Nacional Chirripó. The park actually crosses into Panama, where an equal area of land is set aside for wilderness preservation. A large majority of the territory consists of both montane rain forests and upper-elevation grasslands, or páramo, of the Cordillera de Talamanca, a massive mountain range that dominates the southwestern quadrant of the country.
Starting at just above sea level near the southern Caribbean coastline, and gradually ascending the slopes of the Talamanca range to the summit of Cerro Chirripó at 12,500 feet, La Amistad covers an expansive area of varying climate, topography and soil substrate. Its no wonder that the park possesses seven of Costa Rica's twelve distinct life zones, and, subsequently, an enormous abundance of flora and fauna.
On the eastern slopes of the Talamancas range, thriving within the refuge of the expansive montane rain forests, large mammals such as jaguars, ocelots, pumas, and the greatest concentration of tapirs are observable with a keen eye. Higher up, the nation's largest population of the legendary, yet illusive quetzal occupies a misty patch of cloud forest.
Hiking into the heart of the park is the best way to observe its natural beauty, but prior planning is necessary before you embark. The facilities in this rugged park are limited, and the only overnight accommodations are offered by a handful of lodges the surround La Amistad. These lodges will provide opportunities for day-trips into the park, but, for the most intrepid hikers, a trans-Talamancas trek from Ujarras to Hitoy-Cerere Biological Reserve is the way to go. In addition, the two-day hike up to Cerro Chirripó is challenging, yet non-technical, and offers outstanding panoramic views of the mountains (see our Special Activities section below). For more information on La Amistad Nacional Park's trails, facilities and accommodations, contact the Amistad Biosphere Reserve Office in San Isidro (771-3155).
Las Cruces Biological Station
Located on the ridge of the Fila Zapote range, this 585-acre plot of montane rain forest is one of the last stands of old-growth in the area. Operated by the Organization for Tropical Studies (OTS), this institute offers tourists guided tours and more-extensive educational programs. From its well-groomed hiking trails, visitors will likely see monkeys, kinkajous, ocelots, armadillos and over 300 species of birds.
Wilson Botanical Gardens
The true gem of Las Cruces Biological Station is a 25-acre botanical gardens, exhibiting the nation's most treasured and extensive collection tropical flora. Hailed as the best garden display in the tropical world, this botanical wonderland features over 5 miles of trails through beds of ferns, lilies, heliconias, and the world's largest stand of palms.
Avalon Nature Reserve
On the drive from San José to San Isidro, Avalon Nature Reserve makes a great side trip. Guided hikes and horseback rides are common modes of exploration through the park's 370 acres. Birding is fabulous, and the inconspicuous quetzal may make its way into your sights.
Centro Biológico Las Quebradas
Just south of Avalon Nature Reserve is Las Quebradas, an almost 6,000-acre preserve of primary montane rain forest with higher-elevation patches of mist-swathed cloud forest. The community-operated park offers rugged trails, periodic quetzal-sightings, and optional camping.
Reserva de Aves Neotropicales Los Cusingos
Just east of San Isidro, in the foothills of the Talamancas, Reserva de Aves Neotropicales Los Cusingos is one of the country's premier bird-watching reserves.
Festival de los Diablitos -
December 30 - Boruca
Three days of innocuous debauchery in which party participants revel with a plentiful supply of alcohol, and people dress up as devils, ghouls and animals.
Día del Boyeros -
May 15 - San Isidro de El General
Featuring rodeos and colorful oxcart displays
Summitting Cerro Chirripó
The two- or three-day hike to Central America's highest summit, Cerro Chirripó, offers visitors a thrilling adventure into the Cordillera de Talamanca mountain range, featuring spectacular panoramic views. As three-day hiking permits are limited, the park headquarters in Canaan should be contacted in advance. Your trek should start in Canaan, where you can pick up a visitor's guide and map. For those who require a little assistance, inquire at the headquarters about the service of a porter.
Many of the rivers that drain down from the Talamanca massif make superlative white-water rafting destinations. Two of the most notable are the Río General and Río Chirripó. Tour companies in San José and San Isidro offer guided rafting trips, complete with prior instruction, safety equipment, food, and accommodations. Each of these companies follows a strict standard of safety, designed from the white-water rafting experts in the United States.
How to Get There
San Isidro is accessed from San José by way of the Inter-American Highway (Highway 2). This narrow road is very convoluted, riddled with switch-backs, and descends almost 10,000 feet before arriving to the Valle de El General. While this stretch of highway is very challenging, on clear days, the views are stunning.