As you fly over the Central American isthmus, Costa Rica spreads out beneath you like a whale basking in the sea, its narrow, mountain-ridged back clad with the barnacle-like forms of volcanos. To the north lies the broad bulk of Nicaragua, while to the south the crooked finger of Panam reaches out to South America. On the Pacific coast, two peninsulas, the Nicoya and the Osa, clutch at the sea like crab's claws; by comparison the Caribbean coast - just 280km away at the country's widest point - is dead straight and raked by waves.
Despite its small size, Costa Rica possesses five percent of the world's total biodiversity, in part due to its position as a transition zone between North and South America, and also to a complex terracing of micro-climates created by differences in altitude. With one of the most enlightened and dedicated approaches to conservation in the world, the country has made an impressive effort to preserve its wildlands, and in the Americas is second only to Ecuador for the proportion (about 25 percent) of land it protects. Somewhat ironically, deforestation assails much of the remaining tropical forests to the extent that by the year 2000 there may be no significant patches of forest left outside the boundaries of protected areas.
In sharp contrast to the brutal internal conflicts in Guatemala or the grinding poverty of Nicaragua, Costa Rica has become synonymous with stability and prosperity, with a long democratic tradition, free and open elections, no standing army (it was abolished in 1948) and a Nobel Peace Prize to its name, won by former president, Oscar Arias. It has also become the prime eco-tourism destination in Central America, if not in all the Americas, due in no small part to its efficient self-promotion. The main draw is its complex system of national parks and wildlife refuges. In the last few years, hundreds of thousands of visitors - mainly from the United States and Canada - have come to walk trails through million-year-old rainforests, raft foaming whitewater rapids, surf on the Pacific beaches and climb the volcanos that punctuate the country's mountainous spine. More than anything it is the enduring natural beauty that impresses. Milk-thick twilight and dawn mists gather in the clefts and ridges divided by high mountain passes; on the Pacific coast, carmine and mauve sunsets go down into the sea like meteors; vaulting canopy trees and thick deciduous understories carpet large areas of undisturbed rainforest, and vestiges of high-altitude cloudforest offer glimpses into a misty, primeval universe, home to the jaguar, the lumbering Jurassic tapir and the truly resplendent quetzal.
So much is said about Costa Rica's rich plant and animal life that its human population often gets forgotten in all the hype. Costa Ricans enjoy the highest rate of literacy, health care, education and life expectancy in the isthmus. That said, it is certainly not the middle-class country that it's often portrayed to be, with a significant percentage of people living below the poverty line. While it is modernizing fast, and almost half the populace is concentrated in urban areas, the country still has the highest rural population density in Latin America and society still revolves around the twin axes of campo (countryside) and family. In part drawn by these "traditional" values, in recent years an estimated 35,000 North American citizens have come to settle here, most of them retirees, along with a sizeable European population, prompting some foreign enclaves to be named "gringolandia". However, in the past few years, as tourism and foreign investment have grown, Costa Rica has had to come to terms with the darker side of the industry. Sex tourism, real-estate scams and local conflicts between foreign property-owners and (usually) poorer locals have all increased. Tourism has made Costa Rica less of an "authentic" experience than some travellers would like; it's hard to go anywhere in the country without bumping into whitewater rafters or surfers, and more and more previously remote spots are being bought up by foreign entrepreneurs who erect cabinas, rainforest lodges and New Age-type retreats. Still, few Costa Ricans have anything bad to say about their country's popularity with visitors - perhaps simply because they know which side their bread's buttered - but as more hotels open, malls go up, and foreigners flock to the country, there's no doubt the country is experiencing a significant societal change.
One glib accusation you're almost certain to hear lobbed at the tiny nation is that it has no culture or history. It's certainly true that there are no ancient Mesoamerican monuments on the scale of Chichn Itz or Tikal, and just one percent of the population is of indigenous extraction, so you will see little native Amerindian culture. Costa Rica's indigenous peoples experienced a rapid decline in the years immediately following the Spanish settlement of the country in 1560, largely due to New World diseases such as smallpox and influenza. However, anyone who has time to spend, and whose Spanish is good enough, will find Costa Rica's character rooted in distinct local cultures, from the Afro-Caribbean province of Limn, with its Creole cuisine, games and patois, to the traditional ladino values embodied by the sabanero (cowboy) of Guanacaste. Above all, however long you spend in the country, and wherever you go, you're sure to be left with mental snapshots of la vida campesina, or rural life - whether it be aloof horsemen trotting by on dirt roads, coffee-plantation day-labourers setting off to work in the dawn mists of the Highlands, or avocado-pickers cycling home at sunset.