This great protected area, consisting of Tapantí National park, Chirripó National park, Hitoy-Cerere biological Reserve and La Amistad International Park, as well as some forest and native reserves, is the region with the greatest biological diversity in the country, and constitutes the largest natural forest in Costa Rica. It was declared a Biosphere Reserve by UNESCO in 1982 and a World Heritage Site in 1983.
The whole area covers a large part of the Talamanca Cordillera, the most extensive mountain system in Central America. One of the most striking geomorphological features of the Chirripó hill - the most prominent peak in Costa Rica at 3,819 m - is the evidence of glaciations, dating from 35,000 years ago, in the form of U-shaped valleys, terminal moraines and glacial cirques, which are the result of moving ice masses.
Within this reserve there is an extraordinary number of habitats resulting from the diversity of altitudinal storeys, soils and climates as well as topography and orientation, amongst other more local factors. The upland plains that extend above 2,900 m are very similar to upland areas in the Andes, consisting of stunted forest in which one of the most common plants is a species of bamboo called batamba (chusquea subtessellata). The swampland is limited to small areas at great altitude where communities of herbaceous plants and bushes grow on acid soil.
The main species in stands of madroño is the dwarf madroño (Comarostaphylis arbutoides), occupying wide areas of the upper parts. The oak forest mainly comprises enormous oaks (quercus costaricensis). The stands of ferns mainly consit of 1 - 2 m-high (Lomaria spp.), and of moss (Sphangnum spp.) which form very dense mixed associations.
The mixed forests or high an very moist cloud forests cover most of this extensive protected area, and contain very complex plant life. Some of the biggest trees - the forest giants - reach 40 to 60 m high and can live 1,500 years. Apart from black oak they include white oak (Quercus copeyensis), small pine (Prumnoptys standleyi), white cypress (Podocarpus macrostachyus), magnolia (Magnolia sororum) and arrayan (Weinmannia wecklei). In the open areas, edges and river banks, the two species of poor man's umbrella (Gunnera insignis) and (Gunnera talamancana) grow in abundance.
The dense evergreen moist forests, especially in Hitoy-Cerere, are made up of several strata and are very rich in species. Among the most conspicuous trees are silk cotton tree (Ceiba pentandra), which grow up to 50 m high, black manwood (Minquartia guianensis) and banak (Virola koschnyi). The Talamanca Cordillera has one of the highest levels of plant endemisms in the country. One example of this is the Puya dasylirioides, the genus of which is of Andean origin.
The fauna is extraordinarily diverse. The 6 cat species of Costa Rica are found here, as well as the biggest population of Baird's tapir (Tapirus bairdii) in the country. Around 400 species of birds, including the quetzal (Pharomachrus mocinno) and 263 species of amphibians and reptiles, some as extraordinary as the salamander (Bolitoglossa subpalmata), have been recorded here. It is estimated that this megapark includes over 60% of all vertebrates and invertebrates in Costa Rica.
The regions climate depends on altitude and orientation although, in general, it is very moist with at least 3,200 mm of annual rainfall and, in some places, such as Tapantí, estimated precipitation is as much as 8,000 mm. the highest parts experience frequent frosts, specially from November to March, and sudden changes in temperature by as much as 24 degree Celsius between daytime and night time.
La Amistad Biosphere Reserve covers most of the Talamanca Cordillera, and is an international park with the Republic of Panama. Given its size, and to facilitate administration, there are two Amistad conservation areas: the Caribbean and the Pacific. The administrative headquarters of the former are in Limón Tel. (506) 758-3996 and 798-3170, and those of the latter in San Isidro de El General Tel. (506) 771-4836.
The La Amistad Park administration is located in the town of Altamira. Access is vía San José - Buenos Aires - Colorado - Altamira (270 km).There are paths from Altamira, Tres Colinas, Pittier, Potrero Grande and Colorado, and they go to sites of biological, geological and scenic interest - one of them has the suggestive name of 'the giants of the forest' - and some go right across the mountain range. In Altamira there are camping sites with tables, toilets and drinking water. Bus services operate between San José and San Vito, stopping in Guácimo and Guácimo - Altamira.
The Chirripó Park offices are near San Gerardo de Rivas 18 km from San Isidro de El General. There are two paths that go to the top of the hill: San Gerardo - Crestones and the Herradura Crestones (called El Cementerio de la Máquina). In Crestones, there is a refuge where visitors can spend the night. In San Gerado, guides can be hired and it is possible to hire horses. Before visiting the park, visitors need to make prior reservations and coordinate their visit with the office.
There are bus services between San José and San Isidro and San Isidro and San Gerardo. Hotels, restaurants and markets can be found in San Isidro, and guest houses and grocery stores in San Gerardo.
The Hitoy-Cerere offices are located on the edge of the reserve. Access is from Limón via Penshurt - Valle de La Estrella (67 km). Permission needs to be obtained from the offices before visiting the reserve. The Tepezcuitle and Espavel paths lead into primary forest. There are bus services between San José and Limón and Limón - Valle de La Estrella. In the latter town, you can hire taxis and there are boarding houses and grocery stores.