Tapanti National Park - Salto and Palmitos Falls
Little-known Tapanti National Park, an hour's drive southeast of Cartago, is a dream come true for lovers of small,"intimate" waterfalls. As you make your way up any of the creeks that branch off from the Rio Orosi Canyon, you expect to spy hobbits and leprechauns ducking behind trees. The mighty Rio Orosi forms the heart and soul of Tapanti. A half- dozen shredded yellow rubber rafts in the gorge bear mute testimony to the power in those frothing waters. Still, it's amazingly easy to enjoy an unforgettable day hike into the canyon, at least in the dry season. You can explore a dozen or more small cascades in one day, but two fallsSalto and Palmitosare the crown jewels of the canyon.
Salto Falls are those you see in the picture whenever Tapanti is written up in a guidebook or tourist publication. From a distance, they appear to spring from a hole in the mountainside, crash and tumble over a sheer rock wall some 300 feet high (91.4 meters), and then disappear again into the belly of the forest. Ninety percent of those who see Salto Falls do so from the overlook at the"mirador" a couple of miles from the park entrance. It is a pretty view, but the true explorer will want to get up close and personal.
Unfortunately, that's easier said than done. The path upstream over a half-dozen lower falls has been conquered by precious fewand I must admit I'm not a member of that exclusive club. I somehow managed to scramble up three of the lower falls, and I could see and hear the main falls some 328 yards (300 meters) upstream, but falls number four were my "Waterfall Waterloo." It would take ropes and pulleys to reach the topso I headed for easier quarry: Palmitos Falls, an hour's walk up the river gorge.
While not spectacular in and of themselves, Palmitos Falls rate high on my list due to their setting deep in the Orosi River Gorge. As you continue your hike upstream from Salto Creek, the canyon walls get steeper, and the river gets narrower and swifter. Creeks have only one way to enter the river now: straight down. A half-dozen falls plummet into the gorge in less than a mile (1.6 kilometers).
As the jungle-covered rock walls close in (making trekking a bit tricky, but not impossible), the "queen waterfall" of the canyonPalmitosgushes out of the left bank to drop 50 feet (15 meters) directly into the river. Just beyond is yet another waterfall and a chilly swimming hole, then the gorge is entirely sealed by a jumble of massive boulders. Sitting on one of the picnic boulders nearby, enjoying the haunting scenery (most often cloaked in brooding clouds), you half-expect to see a dinosaur stick its head out from behind a boulder.
If someone in your group wants a more relaxed way to enjoy the splendors of Tapanti, check out Sendero Oropendula (Bellbird Trail) just inside the park gates on your right. An excellent all-weather trail leads to a lovely swimming hole with diving rocks, as well as several picnic shelters with tables and grills. It's a great place for the kids, the softer-of-body, and the plain exhausted.
No camping is allowed in the park (ridiculous, considering the setup at Oropendula!), but there is a primitive "campsite" at the Orosi River Bridge a couple of miles (3.2 kilometers) before you get to the park gates.
For dinner, check out the fresh trout (trucha) at Restaurante Rio Macho, a few miles farther down the road toward Cartago at the next bridge.
Seeing the Falls:
For a beautiful view of Salto Falls, follow the road just beyond the Sendero La Pava trailhead, and walk up the short trail behind the picnic tables on your left. If you continue up this road for another 12 miles [19.2 kilometers] or so, you will arrive at a beautiful 75-foot [22.8-meter] cascade with icy swimming hole right beside the roadan excellent Tapanti waterfall alternative for those not wishing to hike into the Orosi gorge.
To reach both Salto and Palmitos Falls, park at the Sendero La Pava trailhead. The trail leads downhill to the river via an easy ten-minute walk with switchbacks. (Caution: place some sort of marker where the trail opens onto the gravel bar alongside the river so you can recognize it on your return trip.)
Once in the gorge, head upstream the best you can. There is no real trail, but the walk is quite easy at first. Try to begin your walk the best you can along the right bank of the river so you do not miss Quebrada Salto (Salt Creek) coming in from the right.
The best way I can think to describe this spot is where a good-sized stream enters from the right in a small waterfall that spills into the main river among some huge boulders that look like they would make a good run in a whitewater kayak (that's the best I can do. . .)
To reachmake that attempt to reach Salto Fallsbattle your way upstream the best you can. The falls get increasingly rough to negotiate. I went along the right bank for the first two falls, then groped along on my belly on an extremely steep and slippery trail along the left bank of the third falls. I finally called it quits at the fourth set of falls, although I could see signs that some real idiots had continued along to the huge falls about 328 yards (300 meters) upstream. I am not recommending you follow in their muddy footprints.
Instead, I recommend heading back to the main river gorge and continuing upstream another hour or so to Palmitos Falls. As you get deeper into the gorge and the walls steepen, the going gets a little trickier. You'll pass a half-dozen pretty falls formed by streams entering the canyon from both sides.
The scenery is nothing short of enchanting by the time you spy Palmitos Falls pouring in from the left. Naturally, the last few meters are extremely rough going, but the huge picnic rocks and swimming hole in this magic spot will make your huffing and puffing worth it.
Corcovado National Park - San Pedrillo Falls
Corcovado National Park, covering 110,000 acres (45,000 hectares) of the Osa Peninsula in extreme southwest Costa Rica, is, in my opinion, the crown jewel of the country's park system. When a winter-weary gringo fantasizes about a tropical paradise, Corcovado is what he or she fantasizes about: mile after mile of deserted beaches, luxuriant rain forest, crystalline warm waters, flocks of giant scarlet macaws winging overhead. . . Well, you get the picture.
The south end of the park between Carate and Sirena is the most popular with tourists, and I certainly encourage you to find out why. One of the greatest weeks of my life was spent camping deep in the jungle along the banks of the pristine Rio Claro.
But no aficionado of tropical waterfalls can call his or her visit to Costa Rica complete without a visit to San Pedrillo at the north end of the park. One can reach San Pedrillo via a beautiful (but blisteringly hot) 11-hour trek from Sirena; I prefer the wet and wild (but pricey) boat ride from Sierpe, southwest of Palma Norte. However you arrive, you will find at the remote outpost rustic cabanas, beach camping, kitchen, and showers.
A half-hour's walk upriver from the ranger station is San Pedrillo Falls, your gateway to Corcovado. The falls are, once again, classic Costa Rican jungle cataracts. The main falls explode from the forest and spread out over a 60-foot (20-meter) rock wall, to crash down on the rocks and logs below. You can get an unbelievable back massage in the warm pounding water, but a quieter bathing area awaits you at the bottom of the smaller set of lower falls.
San Pedrillo Falls are a pleasant and relaxing preview to the real attraction of north Corcovado Playa Llorona Falls. Read on.
To reach San Pedrillo Falls from the ranger station, head south to a little building. The trail leads along the left bank of the river. In 54 yards (50 meters) or so, bear right, where the trail continues to lead you along the left river bank. The trail cuts across a steep ravine, which can get a little slippery. The trail soon arrives at the river. You need to work your way upstream the best you can from this point; there are occasional vestiges of a trail along the right bank, or you can slog straight up the middle. You should be at the falls in less than 30 minutes.
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