Costa Rica’s Guanacaste region no doubt hosts some great beach destinations. But for those looking to do some hiking, the terrain, which consists of rolling farm fields and patchwork forests, can seem well, a little flat. To find good hiking, many travelers go to the popular Rincon de la Vieja National Park, northeast of Liberia. Rincon is a great choice, but there is another, lesser known park a bit closer to the coast. Diria National Park is located near the town of Santa Cruz and is less than an hour’s drive from many of the popular beach towns like Tamarindo, Playa Grande, Playa Flamingo, Playa Avellanas, and Playas del Coco. Diria hosts an array of interesting plants and wildlife that you probably won’t see from your beach chair. This post will help get you out of your flip-flops and into your hiking boots.
The closest major town to the park is the small city of Santa Cruz, which is located just to the north. Most roads leading to Santa Cruz are nicely paved; however, once you get outside of town, the road turns to dirt and has some steep hills, sharp curves, and stream crossings, depending on the season. We highly recommend a 4×4 vehicle at all times of the year. For detailed directions to the park, check out the bottom of this post.
The park has three main trails. The first is a short loop which can be hiked in 30-45 minutes. This trail is fairly flat and easy at first but then makes a short accent to a lookout point before turning back toward the ranger station. The second trail continues off the first and is a longer loop (about 1-1.5 hours). This trail follows a ridge along slightly steeper terrain which eventually connects with a dirt road before descending steeply back to the ranger station. From the second trail, you will have nice views of the surrounding mountains. The third trail goes to a seasonal waterfall. At the time of our visit during the dry season (April), the river and waterfall were almost completely dry so we opted not to make the trek. Here’s a trail map to help you get your bearings.
What You’ll See
When hiking the park, you’ll notice a difference in the plant and animal life compared to that found along the coast. All of you science buffs will appreciate that this is because you will have left the tropical dry forest of the coastal plain and entered the beginning of the premontane forest. That all sounds a little boring but it basically means that Diria is greener and cooler than the beach, especially in the dry season, because it’s at a higher elevation (150-1,050 meters) and the hills capture more moisture. This makes it an important transition zone for plants, birds, and other animals. When the surrounding lowlands are dry and desolate, birds, mammals, and other animals are able to find food and water here. What that means for you is that more animals live there, making it easier for you to spot wildlife.
Animals: We spotted families of mantled howler and white-faced capuchin monkeys, a few white-nosed coati, several spiny-tailed iguana, and a giant blue morpho butterfly or two. Ironically, we saw the most wildlife once we got off the trail. Troops of monkeys were devouring the ripe mangoes in the trees right next to the ranger station.
Birds: Diria is a birding paradise. We aren’t experts but, with all the species around, have gotten into birding since living in Costa Rica. We were delighted to spot many different types of birds along the trail, including Collared (red bellied) Trogons, Turquoise-browed Motmots, Long-tailed Manikins, a Barred Antshrike, a Great Kiskadee, a Squirrel Cuckoo, a Yellow-throated Euphonia, and a Lineated Woodpecker. For tips on improving your bird photography, check out these hints we got from a pro.
Plants: Along the trails, you’ll notice some plaques labeling a selection of the tree species found within Diria. Some of them have a wide range like the Guanacaste tree while others, like the laurel, grow here specifically because of that extra moisture. Others we saw included the pochote, ceiba, gumbo limbo, mango, and many more that we could not identify.
What to Wear/Bring
On your way to Diria, stock up on snacks and refreshments in Santa Cruz. Although the ranger station does have basic facilities (they are very basic), there isn’t anything else in the immediate area. Santa Cruz is also a great place to sit down for a meal. There are plenty of sodas (local mom and pop restaurants) just off the main avenue. For the trail, a pair of sneakers will suffice in the dry season but we recommend hiking boots for the rainier months. A hat and sunscreen are also a good idea for the dry season when the canopy is thin and many of the trees have lost their leaves.
*Note: Costa Rica is known for having poor signage but it is especially bad getting to Diria. There are almost no signs until you’re right outside of the park. If you get lost, your best bet is to ask a local. Costa Ricans are very friendly people and almost always willing to help.
Coming from the north on Highway 21, enter Santa Cruz. Take a right onto Calle Central in Santa Cruz (at the Banco National). Continue on Calle Central until you see a large church on your left and a public park on your right. Take your next right. Go through five intersections and take a left at the sixth one to get onto Calle 12 (Note: Like everywhere else in Costa Rica, most roads in Santa Cruz are not marked or named. We use them here because Google maps does). Calle 12 will lead you out of Santa Cruz to the south. In about six kilometers, you will come to the small village of Arado, marked by a soccer field. Stay straight and the road will turn to dirt. Follow this dirt road until a major fork, stay left and follow signs for Diria National Park (about six kilometers more). When you reach the next fork, pat yourself on the back because you made it! Take a right and a quick left at the bottom of the hill. The ranger station is across the river (river bed in the dry season).
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If you’re visiting Costa Rica’s Gold Coast, consider heading inland for a day trip to Diria National Park. Diria is a wonderful off-the-beaten path park that sees little foot traffic and offers the chance to see plants and wildlife that you wouldn’t otherwise see at the beach. So turn in your towel and hit the trail.
Post by: Jennifer Turnbull-Houde & Matthew Houde