Cocos Island National Park

Between the Galapagos and Costa Rica lies an isolated island lush with flora and fauna.
UNESCO World Heritage Site: Cocos Island National Park
Earthy Inhabitants: Galapagos shark and rainbow runners in Cocos Islands National Park (PhotoDisc)
Cocos Island at a Glance
Name: Cocos Island National Park
Location: Costa Rica
Date of Inscription: 1997
Why Go: The species-packed island is like a mini-Galapagos, before Darwin's discovery.
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Darwin should have kept sailing. Less than 475 miles northeast of the Galapagos Islands sits another living laboratory, Cocos Island National Park. Like the archipelago that inspired the theory of evolution, the Costa Rican isle and its surrounding waters offer room and board to a vast number of endemic species, including a cousin of Darwin's finches. And while Cocos does not have a mascot like Lonesome George, it is the only island in the eastern Pacific to have a tropical forest—a claim its southern neighbor can't make.

Although the Galapagos' species count clearly outnumbers Cocos', the 9.3-square-mile island still boasts an impressive eco-life list: 70 endemic species of vascular plants, 25 types of moss, 27 liverworts, 87 bird species, 64 endemic insects, and more. Cocos' waters flourish with marine life, including bottlenose dolphins, California sea lions, and turtles flaunting various shades of green. In addition, those who feel safe in the water can shadow such pelagic species as hammerheads, whale sharks, and white-tipped sharks. Indeed, these sharks could swallow George the Tortoise in a second.

The island sits 345 miles off Costa Rica and is the only section of the Cocos Ridge to exist above sea level (the tectonic plate runs southwest, from Costa Rica almost to the Galapagos Archipelago). Borne out of a volcano and built of basaltic rock, Cocos rises from the ocean like a geologic Aphrodite. And what a beauty she is. Cliffs seemingly cut by a master sculptor soar 1,640 feet up from ribbons of sand. Inland rivers and streams rush through the lush mountains, then plunge down as spectacular waterfalls. A rainforest climbs up the island's slopes, its ferns, palms, and bromeliads providing perches for cuckoos, flycatchers, and other birds. Sadly, the land is mammal-less, except for the pigs, goats, cats, and deer that explorers and settlers brought over. A cloudforest crowns the highest point, the 2,080-foot Cerro Iglesias.

An equally valued and vibrant environment thrives beneath Cocos Island's waters, and in 2001, the marine buffer zone was extended from 8.33 nautical miles to 12. The new borders keep out fishermen—divers are welcome—and protect the manta rays, tuna, and 300-plus other finned specimens from the taxidermist. Migratory sharks vacation in these waters, which boast the most extensive and vital coral reef in the southeast Pacific. Besides the good eatin', the sharks come to Cocos to be cleaned by parasite-picking barberfish.

Currently, one species not residing on Cocos is Homo sapiens, though man has certainly tried. In the 16th century, the island was a faint pencil-point on the map that only experienced navigators could locate. Those who did—including fishermen and sailors—came for drinking-water or shelter, then skedaddled. Pirates may have stayed a little longer. According to lore, from the 17th to mid-19th centuries, such bandits as William Davis, William Thompson, and Benito "Bloody Sword" Bonito buried treasures on Cocos. Anyone who unearths Thompson's Lima Booty will have to make space in their safety deposit box for the gold and silver bars, church artifacts, and solid-gold Virgin Mary statue.

Over the years, the island has had only one (somewhat) lasting community, an island prison from 1872 to 1864. Two attempts at colonization failed, and while the people couldn't seem to hack it, their domesticated animals and cultivated plants settled in quite well. Perhaps too well. Pigs and coffee plants are now threatening the ecosystem, and efforts are being made to eradicate the main offenders. In addition, El Nino in 1982-83 seriously damaged the reefs, killing a substantial chunk of coral. Unfortunately, the sea urchins and coral-eating fish survived, adding injury to the injured.

Despite these setbacks, Cocos still lives in a fairly well-protected bubble. Only 1,100 people set foot on the island per year, often between March and May, when the rains subside. But unlike the easy-cruising Galapagos, Cocos is hardly a Carnival vacation: It takes up to 36 hours to reach the island by boat from Puntarenas, Costa Rica. If only Darwin had more time.


A globetrotter and travel writer, Andrea Sachs contributes frequently to the Washington Post.

Published: 21 Aug 2006 | Last Updated: 15 Sep 2010
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication

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