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Wilderness Reborn at Cabo Blanco Forest Stream
story and photos by
Michael L. Smith

Cabo Blanco Strict Nature Reserve in Costa Rica is a young forest--1,250 hectares (3,089 acres) of 32-year-old lush, secondary growth--and a monument to what man and nature can accomplish.

You need to get there early. The walk from the grassy parking area to the entrance can easily take you an hour . . . when you get involved with the surroundings.

The trail is another good reason for being there when Cabo Blanco opens. It is only a four-kilometer hike to the beach, but you may feel like you've trekked forty. It winds through the broken terrain, across permanent streams and seasonal rivers, and over rocky outcroppings, rising more than 700 feet before dropping back down to the secluded beach.

After the first few yards along the trail, the tranquillity of complete seclusion begins to embrace you. A slight breeze rustles the canopy overhead, birds call to their mates, and in the distance water faintly babbles over a stony bed. This trail begs one to dawdle--watching, smelling, listening to the surroundings.

In the fifties the Costa Rican government tried to motivate farmers to diversify from coffee and bananas. It made a sweet offer: develop a sector of land (i.e. clear it) and it's yours. Thousands of hectares of primary forest were quickly leveled in this way and many people became owners of barren land where there had been dense woodland.

About this time, a European couple, Nicholas Oloff Wessberg and his wife Karen Mogensen, came to Costa Rica searching for Paradise. They bought a small farm near Montezuma at the southern tip of the Nicoya Peninsula. As neighboring deforested property became available they increased their holdings. Soon this conservation-minded couple began a monumental project to reforest their denuded land.

A 100-hectare section of old forest remained on the highest peak in the area. They diligently collected seeds and began the painstaking work of distributing them over hundreds of hectares of cleared land. They solicited help from local and foreign organizations, then petitioned the Costa Rican government to protect the area.

Support came from friends in the United States who helped pressure government officials here. In 1963, after three years of direct talks between Nicholas and Costa Rica’s president, Cabo Blanco Strict Nature Reserve was born--the first protected area in Costa Rica.

It is possible to make the hike to Cabo Blanco Beach in about two hours, but the pace required for that will cause you to miss much of the park's intrigue. The forest beckons its visitors to stop and share its treasures. The difficulty of the trail becomes aid against the urge to forge ahead to the beach, passing by all the wilderness around you.

A slow, measured pace will almost guarantee the sighting of several different animals. Pacas, squirrels, white-tailed deer, snakes and lizards, howler, spider and white-faced monkeys, armadillos, raccoons, and families of coatis are not uncommon sights. Ocelot tracks have been identified. Birds are constantly singing. The variety of animal life is hard to imagine.

Along the trail's final half kilometer sounds of surf penetrate the forest. The approach to the beach is through palms and stands of bamboo, a genuine tropical setting. Along the white sand, patches of shells, pebbles and water-smoothed stones form a perfect base for the sun-bleached driftwood.


This point, jutting out into the warm Pacific, is an important nesting site for several species of sea birds--including the largest colony in the country (over 500 pairs) of the endangered brown booby. There are also three major roosting sites for brown pelicans along the reserve’s shoreline.

The park also provides absolute protection to the marine environment to one kilometer off shore. Within these 1,790 hectares (4,423 acres) everything is prohibited except boat traffic crossing the zone. Boats are not even allowed to anchor.

There were many problems protecting Cabo Blanco in the early days. The rural inhabitants had been used to hunting where they wanted and cutting trees when they wanted. It was hard for them to understand that the area where total destruction had been sanctioned by the government was now off-limits to hunting, trapping and chopping. Many of the first guards were sympathetic to the hunters, their neighbors. It was easy to turn their backs or maybe even take a bribe to allow the poachers access. One young man landed his first job working for Nicholas and Karen with his reply to the question of what he would do if someone offered him money to let them go hunting or cut down some trees. Carlos Castrillo said that he could not take anything from those people because his job was to care for the place.

Twenty-three years later Don Carlos, one of the first group of guards in the National Parks Service, is still caring for Cabo Blanco Reserve. Posted to the far, nearly inaccessible side of the park, he says he likes it fine over there. He knows every hectare of this park like no one else and takes his job very seriously. "I love this place. If something happens to the reserve, I feel like it happens to me, too."

Visitors to Cabo Blanco will find the name "Strict Reserve" to carry a lot of power. There is only one trail leading from the guard shack to the beach. Trekkers are warned not to stray from the trail. Walking anywhere but on the trail or the beach is severely frowned upon.

When leaving the park, expect to have your belongings searched. It is strictly forbidden to carry anything out of the park, "not even a bird's feather," reminded Lara Anderson, the resident ranger in charge of tourist services. She explained, "We are very strict about this. There are many things that appear superficial to our visitors, but in nature everything has its importance. For example, a sea shell. Nobody thinks a shell on the beach is important; everyone collects them. Mollusks (the animals that lived in those shells) make their shells from calcium bicarbonate dissolved in the sea water. The shells on the beach are part of an important cycle. They are often borrowed by crustaceans (the familiar hermit crabs) for protection before being dissolved and recycled by wave action to provide building materials for future generations of mollusks. When we remove shells from the beach, we are depriving those crabs of homes and making it harder for the mollusks to build strong shells, their only defense against predators."

Fungi on LogAn afternoon of wandering this idyllic beach like a carefree castaway is a great escape. Too soon it is time to head back to reality. But there are still a couple of hours of fantastic trail ahead and you are sure to see something extraordinary along the way.

Story and photos copyright © 1996 by Michael L. Smith. All rights reserved.

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Updated on April 1, 1997 by M.L. Smith