La Amistad, meaning “friendship,” with its 193,000 hectares, is Costa Rica’s largest nature preserve and, at the same time, is an international park. Another 440,000 hectares lie on Panamanian soil on the other side of the border. When the Costa Rican protected areas of Chirrip, Hitoy Cerere, Tapanti, Wilson Botanical Garden, Las Tablas and Barbilla are added, there are another 340,000 hectares, making this entire area one gigantic biosphere preserve.
In 1982, UNESCO granted La Amistad the status of World Heritage Site. The park has really earned both the title and the added protection that it accords. Seven Indian reservations are found within its borders. Eight different zones of plant and animal life (following Holdridge’s classic definitions) are represented. The park contains 60 percent of all species known to exist in Costa Rica, including 10,000 tropical plant species, 1,000 orchid families, cloud forest and the sub-alpine landscape known as paramo. The park covers an area that ranges in altitude from 150 to 3,549 meters above sea level. The highest mountain in the preserve is Cerro Kamuk near the Panamanian border.
The animals native to the park are also varied. Half of Costa Rica’s wild animals live in La Amistad, one third of which are endemic to the area. Hikers who love isolation and untouched wilderness (no one should attempt this without an experienced guide) can set off in search of the tapirs, giant anteaters, jaguars, jaguarundis, tiger cats, pumas and ocelots, all of which live in La Amistad.
If you look upwards from the thick underbrush to the treetops, you can see up to 500 different kinds of birds, of which 50 are native species. Whoever has not had the opportunity to see the fabulous quetzal bird in other national parks or game preserves, has a good chance of seeing the bird in La Amistad, because the park has the largest number in the country. Quetzals have been coveted since Aztec and Mayan times for their long, brightly-colored tail feathers. The harpy eagle, another endangered species, is also found in the park.
The infrastructure of the park is still largely undeveloped. Most of the visitors are scientists who hope to find new species of animals or plants. Until now they have discovered 120 kinds of fish, and 220 species of reptiles and amphibians. Zoologists also conduct research into the behavioral practices of animals in La Amistad.
Visitors to La Amistad have the choice of four entrances, marked by ranger stations: the main administration center in Progreso, 30 kilometers northeast of San Vito; La Escuadra, 14 kilometers northeast of Agua Caliente; Estacion Tres Colinas, 12 kilometers northeast of Portrero Grande; and, finally, Station La Amistad, 27 kilometers northeast of Guacimo. Before entering the park, hikers should ask the rangers about conditions of the hiking trails and a weather forecast – although the weather here is usually hard to predict.