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Cocos Island National Park

Last Updated: Jun 18, 2014

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Serpentine coastline, roaring waterfalls, lush rainforest, and sparkling beaches define picturesque Cocos Island, set 340 miles off Costa Rica's southwestern coast. The island's accolades read like a list of superlatives: it is a UNESCO World Heritage Sight, nominated as one of the New Seven Wonders of the World, and designated a Wetland of International Importance under the Ramsar Convention. The beauty of Cocos Island has inspired man for centuries. It has been called "the most beautiful island in the world" by Jacques Cousteau and served as inspiration for Robert Louis Stevenson's Treasure Island and Michael Crichton's Jurassic Park.

Quick Facts

Location : Pacific Ocean, 340 miles from Puntarenas
Altitude : 2,080 feet above sea level
Area : 5,706 acres and 240,171 maritime acres
Telephone : 2233-4533 or 2283-0022
Entrance Fee : $25.00

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Today the island is known as a rich, natural resource, but it was once considered rich for another reason: pirate booty. Cocos Island was an important base for sailors and cartographers since the early 1500’s, and legendary pirate kings like William Davis (1684) and Benito Bonito (1819) are rumored to have buried their treasure here.

Costa Rica acquired Cocos Island in 1869. Between 1872 and 1874, the Costa Rican government ran a prison on the island; it also funded its own treasure-hunting expedition, but no golden doubloons were uncovered. In 1898, naturalists Anastasio Alfaro and Henri Pittier visited the island and suggested it be treated as a protected area.

In 1978, it was designated a Costa Rican national park, part of the nation’s heritage and an important natural resource. Cocos Island is the only point above sea level in Cocos Ridge, a geological line of submerged volcanoes that runs from Costa Rica to just north of the Galapagos Islands. Of volcanic origin, the island’s mineral-rich soil supports tropical lowland ecosystems and a high-montane cloud forest.

Just off the island’s shores, the Pacific Ocean teems with reefs and marine life. It is home to what is probably the largest scalloped hammerhead cleaning station in the world, which attracts these prehistoric creatures by the hundreds. Cocos Island is a crucial habitat for other large pelagic species like dolphins, giant manta rays and at least eight types of sharks.

Cocos Island National Park encompasses the entire island, protecting its lands and waters. It is Costa Rica’s most secluded and least visited national park and can only be reached by a 36-hour boat ride. Home to some of the country’s most stunning scenery and rare wildlife, Cocos Island is well worth the lengthy trek.

Weather:

Cocos Island is almost entirely covered in rainforest and sees rain most days. There is a short “drier” season from January through March.

Annual Rainfall: 250 inches
Temperature: 75º F to 85º F average
Ocean Temperature: 84º F to 86º F average

Activities:

Snorkeling and Scuba Diving: Brimming with vast seascapes and copious amounts of wildlife, Cocos Island National Park is considered one of the world's top ten scuba diving destinations. The quality and quantity of marine animal sightings is unprecedented, creating a diver’s paradise – particularly for shark divers. The undisturbed waters and rocky pinnacles surrounding these shores attract scores of hammerheads, white tip reef sharks, jacks, and rays as well as at least 32 types of corals, 57 crustaceans, 118 mollusks and 250 fish species.

Ten-day scuba safaris with private tour companies are available for experienced divers. Divers live on cruise ships that anchor offshore, and the diving takes place off smaller speedboats that hold up to ten divers each. Trips usually include three dives per day, but night dives are available for those who seek extreme underwater adventures. The best time to see large groups of hammerhead sharks is during the rainy season, from May through late November. Visibility is better and currents tamer during the dry season months of January-April.

Volunteer Work: Volunteers are invited to the island to complete tasks from cooking and cleaning to clearing brush and trailblazing. Stays range from one to two months. Meals, lodging and transport from Puntarenas are completely free of charge in exchange for about 40 hours of work per week. 

Flora & Fauna:

Cocos Island is the only Pacific Island to receive enough rainfall to support a tropical rainforest. Though the forest is dense, the island is home to relatively few plant and animal species – isolation from other forests creates a closed ecosystem. Plant life includes approximately 235 species of vascular plants, 75 species of fern, 55 species of moss, 85 species of fungi, 106 species of liverwort, and 99 species of lichen. Most species are neotropical and at least 11% are endemic.

The terrestrial fauna of Cocos is also less diverse that that of the Central American mainland. One hundred bird species have been recorded; 13 are resident, seven of which are land birds, and one – the yellow warbler (Dendroica petechia) – is endemic to Cocos Island and the Galapagos. The region is also home to five reptile species, including two endemic – no amphibians reportedly inhabit the island. Additionally, 362 insect species have been recorded, with 18% endemic. There are only five terrestrial mammals present on Cocos Island, and all were introduced: pigs, white-tailed deer, goats, cats, and rats.

Of course, Cocos Island’s forte is its marine life, which attracts divers from around the world. Though there are many varieties of coral, there is not a large quantity at Cocos Island, so divers will not see as many colorful reef fish. Other species include: white tip reef shark, black tip shark, silky shark, hammerhead shark, Galapagos shark, bull shark, whale shark, dolphin, bigeye jack, spotted eagle ray, manta ray, marble ray, green sea turtle, giant moray eel, Commerson’s frogfish, rosy-lipped batfish, yellowfin tuna, wahoo, marlin, and sailfish.

Fees:

There is a $25 fee per person and a $10 diving fee, making it $35 per day for divers and $25 for non-divers. Children under ten are free. Professional filming of the national park carries a $500 fee. Visiting cruise ships are also charged an admission, depending on the size and number of occupants.

Facilities:

Bahia Wafer (Wafer Bay): Located to the north of the island, Wafer Bay has boat anchorage, dining huts, rest areas, showers, and sanitary facilities. An ICE telephone tower is located here, offering wireless Internet and a payphone. Dormitory style cabins as well as double and triple cabins with electricity are offered for volunteers, normally separated by sex but sometimes co-ed. There is also a greenhouse, cafeteria and outdoor gym. There are no overnight facilities for the general public. Contact by satellite phone on the island: 0087-468712-0010

Bahia Chatham (Chatham Bay): Located to the northeast, it offers boat anchorage, dining huts, rest areas, showers, and sanitary facilities.

Trails:

The island is home to virgin rainforest, spectacular views, and more than 200 waterfalls that beckon adventurous hikers. There is one public trail that connects Chatham Bay to Wafer Bay, and the national park provides guides free of charge. It takes an hour roundtrip, and leads to a gorgeous waterfall. A WWII B24 airplane wreck was discovered north of Cerro Iglesias, but hiking there is prohibited without special permission. Always check with park rangers before setting out on any Cocos Island hike.

Getting There:

Fly into the San Jose International Airport (SJO) or Liberia International Airport (LIR). You may either arrange transportation to Puntarenas, where most dive expeditions to Cocos Island begin, or request that the dive company do so for you. The boat trip from Puntarenas to Cocos Island takes approximately 32-36 hours each way. Some small cruise ships also pass by the island, offering day trips out to its shores.

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