Visitors to Costa Rica range from luxury travelers to bargain backpackers, but they all have one thing in common: they’ve come to Costa Rica for the stunning nature. This small country is considered one of the most ecologically important countries in the world, and modern estimates report that Costa Rica, no larger than the US state of West Virginia, hosts over 4% of the entire world’s biodiversity.
With 12 microclimates, there truly is something for everyone. The beach bums find a sunny spot on the white sand beaches of the Pacific or the colorful beach towns of the Caribbean. Wildlife enthusiasts find themselves hiking the rainforests and splashing through swamps. And those looking for the eco-friendly life settle in cabins in the mountainous cloud forests. From scaling volcanoes to supporting turtle hatcheries, tourists to this tropical country have found their way to make the most of Costa Rica’s natural beauty.
One part of the local ecosystem, however, has been largely hidden from travelers to the area. Costa Rica offers beautiful views from every angle, but one of the most surprising natural phenomenon lies below the surface. Costa Rica is home to numerous underground caves. These caves can be either dry or filled with water, and host some of the most incredible stalactite and stalagmite rock formations known to man. These caves are estimated to have begun forming around 20 million years ago, but only recently are they becoming available for exploration.
If you’re looking to experience a part of Costa Rica that is off the beaten path, look no further. You may be an experienced return visitor to the area, but a cave exploration promises to show you a whole new side of this tropical paradise.
They say it takes 100 years for just 1.5 inches of cave rock to form, which makes the Venado Caves in the Arenal area so incredible. This massive cave formation now rests at 985 feet above sea level, but its history as an under-water cave is still very apparent. Just five minutes into your exploration, you’ll notice seashells embedded in the walls and cavernous ceilings, very noticeable fossils at every step, and a huge brain-coral fossil preserved in plain sight. While some parts of this 12-part cavern seem as large and spacious as an under-ground cathedral, other parts will require wading through water, crouching, and single-file lines through claustrophobia-inducing hallways. This may not be a recommendable tour for the faint of heart, but it will be the trip of a lifetime for an explorer.
The Venado Caves are recommended for beginner spelunkers. Your guide will let you decide if you want to take a simpler route or a more adventurous trail, but the entire trip should take from 2 to 3 hours. You will be surrounded the entire time by calcium carbonate buildup, forming stalactites hanging from the ceiling and pointing sharply toward the ground, as well as stalagmites starting ground level and reaching even up to the cathedral-like ceilings. But rocks won’t be the only habitants of these caves. You will be the respectful visitor to the home of 4 bat species, monochrome frogs, spiders, and cave-dwelling crickets.
A Venado Cavern visitor should be prepared with water-proof clothing, as the river running through the cavern can even demand chest-high wading during the wet season. Your headlamp and gear will be provided by the tour operator.
The Damas Caves outside of the Manuel Antonio Park are suitable for only the bravest and most experienced of explorers. While many caves in Costa Rica are being maintained for tourists with handrails and leveled pathways, the Damas Caves are totally untouched by man. Regardless of the route your guide chooses to take, this will be a difficult and physical hike. Not everyone will be able to make this hike, but those who do will have access to a natural formation seen by very few people in the world.
You will be hiking through complicated rock structures, and while the walls may become narrow, you will have up to 100-foot ceilings. Your flashlight may not be able to illuminate the ceilings of this cave, but that’s for the best, because pointing your light straight up will cause hundreds of bats to fly into action. You’ll need to be ready for insects, spiders, and cockroaches as well.
The Damas Caves hike may only be for experienced and tough adventurers, but the entire family will enjoy the trip. Those who choose not to lower into the caves will have access to the natural river pools located just outside the caves. From these pools, you’ll witness the most amazing display of wildlife and bird life, and the views will be unbeatable.
Ballena National Marine Park Caves
Just south of Dominical, you’ll enter the Ballena National Marine Park for only $6 a head. This park is named after the humpback whale, so visitors will be in for an afternoon of pristine beaches, mangroves, islands, and coral reefs. This is a great destination for the whole family. The beach bums will have endless relaxation and sea life observation from the beaches, and the adventurers will set off for a day of cave explorations.
Dropping into the Ballena Caves is not as easy as it seems. To get to the access point, you’ll need to paddle your kayak to the rocky islands. This part of the trip is almost as fun as the caves themselves. You’ll see multiple coral species as well as dolphins, tropical birds, sea turtles, and possibly a humpback whale in the distance. The trip through the cave will be a shorter hike, maybe even taking less than an hour for the fast-paced hikers, but the flora and fauna you experience through the day will be enough to last a lifetime.
Santa Ana Cave
In the Barra Honda National Park, you will find one of the most extreme caves on the American continents. Over 70 million years in the making, the Santa Ana Caves have not been maintained for tourism, so you’ll have an entirely natural experience. These caves dip to around 790 feet below sea level, so before you can start your journey you’ll need to use a pully system to rappel into a dark, seemingly bottomless pit. From there, your guide will lead you through a damp, eerily quiet maze of tunnels created by intricate limestone formations. These caves are incredibly well-preserved, and only credentialed guides will be allowed to host tours.
Spelunkers headed to the Santa Ana caves should be experienced and above all else, prepared. You’ll need heavy duty hiking boots. You’ll need to follow your guides’ instructions at every turn, and pay attention as they point out stalagmite, stalactite, popcorn, soda straw, and curtain formations. This may be one of the most educational adventures you’ll ever have the opportunity to attend.