Costa Rica

It’s been said Costa Rica is the Canada of Central America. And it could just be one of the nicest compliments we’ve had of late.

This little paradise, wedged between Nicaragua and Panama, is known for its peaceful relations with man and nature. In fact, Costa Rica is so committed to peace that the government disbanded its military back in 1948 and dedicated the money instead to improving the quality of life for its citizens. This has meant extra funding for education and healthcare (what a concept!) as well as preserving its abundant natural resources.

As a result, nearly 25 per cent of Costa Rica’s land has been designated as national parkland or reserves. With rain forests, cloud forests, volcanoes and hot springs, Costa Rica is a haven for wildlife — and for those who revel in the wonders of nature.

The Costa Rican natives, the Ticos as they’re called, are wonderfully warm people who welcome tourists graciously, recognizing that they are both their salvation and their potential ruination. The more tourists come to Costa Rica, the more land is likely to be torn up for resorts and restaurant chains. Costa Rica now has two international airports. Sunquest, Siature and Alba Tours recently started flying into Liberia in the north, offering quick access to beaches and some nearby adventure tours. The other, more traditional landing point is the capital, San Jose — not the prettiest of cities, but no matter as the goal is to get out of the city as quickly as possible.

I rented a car from the airport, but if I were to do it again I’d pay the extra dollars to get a four-wheel drive vehicle. Everything you’ve ever heard about Costa Rica’s terrible roads is true — and once off the highways, the pot-holed, rocky roads were pretty tough on the low-slung Nissan Sentra I rented.

First stop was Jaco (pronounced “hawko”), popular because it’s the closest beach to San Jose (about a two-hour drive, mostly on good highways). The beach is populated by numerous hotels which, while not mammoth, were a little too civilized for my liking. Instead, I was fortunate enough to be able to stay in a friend’s cabin just off the beaches. (Throughout my visit, we met Canadians and Americans who’d gone to Costa Rica for a vacation and decided to stay.)

It wasn’t long before I got my first glimpse of wildlife. The first morning there, I noticed what I thought was a “log” in the creek behind the cabins, but later realized it had actually been the cayman (small alligator) the landlady had spoken of. He was quite harmless — unless you were bite-sized. There were also a variety of lizards, including my favourite, the so-called “Jesus lizard,” which earns its name from its uncanny ability to run across the surface of the water on its hind legs.

Having heard Costa Rica was a bird-watchers paradise, I arranged a horseback-riding tour up into the hills above Jaco, with the promise of seeing hundreds of toucans, and perhaps even the slow-moving sloth. Well, I certainly heard the toucans calling, but other than a sensational view of Jaco Beach, it was a somewhat disappointing excursion.

After two days at Jaco, it was time to head south to Manuel Antonio, one of the country’s most famous national parks, and also the most beautiful. Even though my visit coincided with some of the driest weather the island’s ever had, Manuel Antonio was lush and green, and the wide, white beach and warm waters lived up to reputation.

The highlight of this part of the trip was watching the monkeys. Every evening at close to 5 p.m., they’d migrate toward the beach for feeding. My favourite lookout was the terrace bar of a hotel, where a troop of monkeys put on a delightful show of acrobatics and comic antics.

The nearby town of Quepos offered some interesting shopping opportunities and there’s no shortage of restaurants on or overlooking the beach. I met a couple who had flown in a “puddle-jumper” from San Jose to Quepos and were using the bus system, rather than renting a car. It was cheap, and apparently quite reliable.

As for food, rice is a staple, and most menus include arroz con pollo or arroz con gambas (rice with chicken or shrimps). And the pineapples were the sweetest I’ve ever tasted.

The last arm of the trip was the most exotic — and also the most challenging: Monteverde. Despite the threat of even worse roads than those already experienced, the five-kilometre drive to this mountain community — taking about two-and-a-half hours — was well worth it.

Not only was there an incredible array of natural wonders, including a butterfly sanctuary, my visit coincided with Monteverde’s annual music festival. Every year, from early January to mid-February, the Instituto de Monteverde devotes its lovely, airy buildings — normally home to environmental studies — to concerts of jazz, Latin or classical music. It certainly makes one feel pretty special, sitting with 50 or 60 others, enjoying a concert under the stars –played by musicians who had also made that remarkable trek up the mountain.

The night sky in Monteverde was so clear that on the walk back to the hotel all that lit my path was a sliver of moon and a sky full of brilliant stars — yet it was possible to see your shadows.

The next morning involved a walk to the Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve, where I arrived just in time to get in. By law, only 100 people are permitted in any national park at one time, one of the ways the country protects the environment. Also, the path through the park is very well defined, preventing wanderers from destroying flora with every misplaced step.

I pooled resources with another group of visitors and hired a guide, which was money well invested. Sergio was passionate about the environment and showed us how integral even the tiniest organism was to the success of the ancient, lush forests.

Along the way, I met another group whose guide had set up a high-powered telescope to focus on a quetzal, one of Costa Rica’s most resplendent birds. We all had a look and responded with the appropriate “oohs” and “aaahs”.

We later stopped near a waterfall, only to discover we were at the Continental Divide, where water on one side flows toward the Atlantic, and on the other flows to the Pacific.

The two-hour trek through the cloud forest ended at the hummingbird garden, where hummingbirds flitted around feeder to feeder. To my surprise, these delicate birds ranged in size from that of a dragonfly to a wren.

In fact, the larger ones were about the same size as the grasshoppers we saw in Manuel Antonio. Yes, bird-sized grasshoppers. I tell my slightly squeamish friends about those grasshoppers, because I firmly believe anyone who abhors large insects and lizards — and anything else that crawls where we might not want them to — should not go to Costa Rica. If you just want to lie by a pool, waiting for your bartender to wade over with your next rum swizzle, there are better places to go.

But if you’re in search of a little bit of heaven, where animal, bird and insect life is regarded as highly as tourist life, then Costa Rica’s a glorious land to explore.

Here are some useful travel tips if you are planning a trip to Costa Rica.

Currency: The local currency is the “colon” but U.S. dollars are widely accepted. In fact, all land-based tours are priced in U.S. dollars. If you need local currency, exchange U.S. dollars at your hotel where you’ll generally get the best deal. You can also exchange Canadian funds at most hotels, but the rate is better for U.S. dollars.

Climate: The Pacific Coast area resorts are sub-tropical. Further inland, in the mountain areas, the weather is more temperate. Rain is rare on the coast. Language: While Spanish is the country’s official language, Costa Ricans involved in tourism are fluent in English. And don’t be surprised if locals stop for a chat — they love an excuse to practise their English.

Health: As noted, the country’s healthcare system is very good. Not as good as Canada’s, mind, but close. There are also a large number of good private hospitals and clinics.

Water is safe for drinking at the major hotels and is tested regularly. Sunburn is probably the most common medical problem suffered by visitors — Costa Rica is close to the Equator, and that sun can get mighty strong in early afternoon. Take it easy and use lots of sunscreen.

Safety: There’s little in the way of violent crime in Costa Rica but the growing numbers of tourists make for rich pickings for petty thieves. Watch out for pickpockets, particularly in crowded markets, and use personal safe deposit boxes provided at all hotels.

Cost: A recent trip booked through Sunquest Vacations — staying at the all-inclusive Costa Smeralda resort — cost $1,299 in early February (prices range from $1,099 in November to a high of $1,499 in mid-March) for a week’s stay, including air travel and all meals.

More information: Call CARPTravel, your own travel agent or contact Sunquest or Signature directly to answer questions. Personally, I’ve never had much luck getting information from the Costa Rican embassy, but you’re welcome to give it a try. Write to: 135 York St., Ottawa, Ontario K1N 5T4; phone (613) 562-2855.

About Costa Rica Costa Rica is tucked into the narrow southern end of Central America. The area of the country is smaller than Nova Scotia.

Costa Ricans disbanded their military in 1948. The country’s borders are protected by international treaty and military support from the United States and Britain. This provides all the incentive needed for warring neighbours to keep out.

Costa Rica has one of the finest healthcare systems in Central and South America and boasts the highest literacy rate on the continent, at 93 per cent. One chic spot for Canadians is the recently developed Pacific northwest, where dozens of resorts have opened in the province of Guanacaste, with its 200 miles of coastline.

One of the best excursions takes visitors to the Palo Verde national park. It’s a relaxing, two-hour boat ride down a placid river to the sea, offering numerous opportunities to photograph the wildlife — including crocodiles. There’s also the chance to do a bit of birdwatching along the way. I saw many blue herons and kingfishers — two of the more than 200 species of birds that make the area their home.

If you plan to take a nature trip, choose wisely and set aside a full day for the experience. Although they’re easy to book from the comfort of your hotel, watch out — they can be expensive.