Read an Excerpt
Costa Rica Is
Travel to Costa Rica and you are offered the extremes, from cosseted guided tours and comfortable
luxury hotels to treks through the wilds and beds in basic huts. Over 800,000 visitors crossed the
borders in 1998 to visit the birthplace of the term ecotourism, ready to bird-watch, wrestle with
sailfish, snorkel around coral reefs, surf, trek up the cold slopes of Chirripo, pump adrenalin
while whitewater rafting, watch a nesting turtle, or slap mosquitoes in the jungles of the south. One
thing these diverse activities all have in common, which is essential to appreciate if you visit Costa
Rica, is nature.
This farsighted nation first took formal measures to protect its natural assets in 1955, when a
1.2 mile-band around every volcanic crater was declared a national park. Today, Costa Rica's network
of national parks and biological reserves covers 1.3 million acres, just over 10 percent of the entire
country, making an enticing proposition for ecologically motivated visitors.
Not all Costa Rica's delights lie within the boundaries of its protected areas. Oceans, beaches of
white sand, bucolic valleys, open pastures, torrential rivers, tropical vegetation, wildlife, and, not
least, charming people, are the norm. Roads may be appalling but small planes can be used. Add to
these attractions a high consciousness of ecotourism issues reflected in carefully planned,
small-scale lodges, private nature reserves, and biological research stations, and you have a
Where to go
Costa Rica's small size allows you to zigzag between beach, jungle, and mountains, all in one day.
Although it is targeted for increasing beach development, Guanacaste still offers the best in beach
facilities as well as extensive parks and reserves. In contrast, the Caribbean coast has a low-key,
laid-back atmosphere, boosted by an intriguing local culture -- and frequent downpours. Head north to
witness Volcan Arenal spitting fire, experience cloud forests, or take a boat trip along the
Sarapiqui, then veer east to Tortuguero's Amazon-style waterways or fish at Barra del Colorado.
Don't miss Costa Rica's most beautiful beaches at Manuel Antonio; to escape the crowds, go south as
well to where Costa Rica's highest peaks loom and densest rain forests flourish.
Few Central or South American countries can rival Costa Rica for the sheer quantity and range of
plants and animals found within its boundaries. For the visitor who is interested in wildlife, the
relative ease with which many habitats can be explored is a wonderful bonus.
Sandwiched between Nicaragua to the north and Panama to the south, Costa Rica forms part of the
land bridge between the Americas, and contains flora and fauna from both continents. By American
standards, it is a tiny country, an isthmus barely more than 90 miles wide in places and only 180
miles long. What it lacks in size, however, it more than makes up for in altitudinal range. Between
the Pacific west coast and the Caribbean east coast, the land rises to a central spine more than
10,000 feet high. This continental divide runs the length of the country.
Paradise for Naturalists
The climatic variation ensures that almost all types of tropical habitat exist within the
country's borders, with the added advantage that many can be visited in a single day. From the coasts,
with their mixture of sandy beaches, coral reefs, mangrove forests, and dry tropical forests, the land
rises through rain forests and cleared agricultural land to cloud forests, cloaked in mist for much of
the day. At the highest altitudes there are even small areas of paramo, a kind of bleak plateau
landscape associated with South America.
Wealth of Wildlife
The diversity of Costa Rica's habitats is reflected in the wealth and range of its wildlife.
Around 9,000 plant species (just under 5 percent of the total world plant list) have been found here,
and a staggering 1,200 of these are orchids. Insect life abounds, ranging from army and leaf-cutter
ants, mantids, and katydids to stunning blue morpho butterflies and giant hawk moths. Tropical mammals
such as sloths and monkeys are common and birdlife is prolific, with more than 800 species. Of these,
600 or so are resident, the rest migrating visitors. Like its neighbors, Costa Rica is very important
for migrant breeding birds from North America.
Rice and Beans
Tico cuisine follows the contours and elevations of the country's varied terrain. From Pacific
lobster to Monteverde cheese, Guanacaste tamales and Caribbean "rundown," the menu changes radically.
Apart from an enticing range of tropical fruit, vegetables, and ultra-fresh seafood, Costa Rica
offers endless variants on the rice-and-beans theme, the staple diet of Latin America. The classic
casado (literally meaning "married man") offers a perfect nutritional balance of rice, black beans,
meat or fish, and carrot and cabbage salad, all topped by a fried plantain.
A distinctive, flavorful cuisine has been developed by the Afro-Caribbeans who, over the centuries,
have combined typical Caribbean ingredients with elements reminiscent of their days of enslavement to
the English. The main ingredient here is the coconut, its milk used to bind any number of ingredients, whether
rice and beans or the popular rondon literally "rundown," consisting of fish or meat with yams,
plantains, breadfruit, peppers, and spices. Grated coconut's flaky goodness is used in countless
desserts and cakes. Patti (similar to the Tico empanada), a spicy meat pie, resembles a large
Ticos are renowned for their love of sugary drinks and dishes, a taste shared by the
Afro-Caribbeans, who acquired numerous cake recipes from the English. Sugar is poured into refrescos,
natural or bottled fruit drinks, while sugarcane is distilled into guaro, the national, potent liquor,
which will finish off any meal -- and anyone.