Juan Castro Blanco National Park
Cloud forest is simply magical. Gnarled, old trees are drenched and overflowing with mosses, orchids, epiphytes and bromeliads. The happy songs of Wood-wrens and solemn notes of Black-faced Solitaires float through cool, misty air that weaves through the branches. Hummingbirds are the fairies of this forest, mostly unseen except at feeders where they constantly buzz and bicker unafraid of people standing within arms reach. Water is ever-present; dripping from the trees, laughing in streams and roaring off the mountainside in the form of rushing cataracts. Juan Castro Blanco National Park protects 14,000 plus hectares of cloud forest to ensure that the water keeps flowing to power a hydroelectric plant and protect an important watershed.
Location and how to get there
Juan Castro Blanco National Park is located on the Caribbean slope of the Cordillera Central just north and west of Poas Volcano, near Ciudad Quesada. The park is a 2 hour drive from San Jose; follow the Pan-American Highway past Alajuela and take the exit for Naranjo and Ciudad Quesada. Follow the signs to Ciudad Quesada. The national park is east of this town. Another point of access is along the Bajos del Toro road; a rough mountain road that leaves from Naranjo (once again, follow the signs).
The 14,000 plus hectare Juan Castro Blanco National Park is mostly composed of middle-elevation cloud forest; a habitat rich in orchids, bird species and amphibians in particular. As this sizeable park has been little explored, it likely harbors undiscovered plant and insect species and who knows what else. It protects populations of 3 monkey species, cats, Resplendent Quetzal, at least 15 species of hummingbirds and 1,000s of butterfly and other insect species. Dozens of frog species are found in Juan Castro Blanco; in the humid night listen for the rain frogs, their calls sounding like “tink” and “tuk tuk tuk”.
A spectacular waterfall
At the edge of the park, 7 kilometers north of Bajos del Toro is one of the most spectacular and least known waterfalls in Costa Rica; the 200 meter high Catarata del Toro. Trails through the cloud forest and a restaurant are found near the waterfall while a long staircase gets you up close to the impressive cascade. Watch for interesting orchids and other plants adapted to the microclimate produced by the waterfall as well as the yellow Heliconia flowers typical of this area.
Hot springs in the rain forest
Some of the best hot springs in Costa Rica are found near Juan Castro Blanco. Like most mountains in Costa Rica, those of Juan Castro Blanco National Park are actually volcanoes. Platanar Volcano is mildly active and heats up the springs in the area. Some of the best hot springs are located east of Ciudad Quesada and Aguas Zarcas at Termales del Bosque and El Tucan (signed along the roadside). The experience is enchanting and memorable; at the end of a trail through rain forest are hot springs of varying degrees in a forest stream. Parrots, Toucans and sometimes Great Green Macaws screech through the forest that towers overhead.
Bosque de Paz is an expensive hotel with trails through excellent forest near the park. It also has amazing hummingbird feeders. Termales del Bosque and El Tucan also provide comfortable lodging and good restaurants. There are also smaller hotels in Ciudad Quesada.