Magazine article Sunset

Costa Rica Is a Nature Lover's Playground

Magazine article Sunset

Costa Rica Is a Nature Lover's Playground

Article excerpt

Imagine a place of 8,000-foot volcanoes, accessible rain forests with 200-foot trees (each covered with its own jungle of ferns, lichens, orchids, and bromeliads), and unspoiled beaches lapped by two seas, their waters brimming with brilliant fish and giant turtles. Imagine more species of mammals, reptiles, amphibians, birds, moths, butterflies, and plants than in all of North America-all in a country about the size of California's San Bernardino County. This is Costa Rica, both laboratory and playground for nature lovers.

More operators now offer more ways to sample this country and its amazing biological diversity. This new interest makes sense: Costa Rica is only 6 hours nonstop by air from Los Angeles; it's a stable democracy in a region of political tumult; and, though Spanish is the official language, many residents also speak English.

We review the organized touring opportunities on page 57; you can also go on your own by rental car. Here, we suggest some of our favorite areas.

The capital: San Jose

This cosmopolitan city of more than a million can serve as a base for day trips or longer forays into the areas we describe here. The city itself also offers much to see, including the Jade Museum (pre-Columbian artifacts), the Gold Museum (pre-Columbian gold figures), the National Theater, and the National Museum (in an old fortress, with archeological and historical as well as nature displays).

Poas Volcano and Puntarenas

A 1 1/2-hour drive from San Jose is the Pacific port of Puntarenas, on a spit in the Gulf of Nicoya. A 28-mile side trip, Poas Volcano National Park offers a chance to explore an 8,000-foot active volcano surrounded by unusual dwarf mountain forest. Here live several species of birds that are unique in the world, such as the fiery-throated hummingbird. You'll also see many kinds of bromeliads, ferns, and mosses.

Puntarenas is a traditional vacation spot for many Costa Ricans (or "Ticos"). It's an old-time beach resort, with hotels, restaurants, and fast-food stalls, but no one actually uses the beaches anymore. You can snack on bocas-small servings of ceviche, clams, or sea snails. Or try the local specialty, a churchill: shaved ice with syrup, something alcoholic, milk, and cinnamon.

At the harbor, you can board a charter yacht (make reservations in San Jose) for a short cruise among the islands of the Gulf of Nicoya. In about 2 hours, you reach Tortuga Island, a fantasy complete with coconut palms, white coral sand, and buoyant 72[deg] water that's ideal for swimming and snorkeling.

On to Arenal Volcano

Heading northwest into Guanacaste province, the Inter-American Highway passes the small town of Tilaran, center of plantings of coffee, macadamia nuts, and peanuts. Coffee is the country's main export, and you can buy samples here to bring home. And at Lake Arenal, you can water-ski, windsurf, or fish. A 31/2-hour drive from the volcano to the northwest coast brings you to the white sand beaches of Playa Flamingo, in the Guanacaste resort area. You can overnight here. It's a 3 1/2- to 4 1/2-hour direct trip back to San Jose.

East to jungly Limon

Gudpiles Highway runs the 100 miles from San Jose to Limon, taking you through Braulio Carrillo National Park and Zurqui Tunnel from the drier central highlands to the cloud-forest jungles of the Caribbean. Just north of the tunnel, look for hillsides cloaked in the unmistakable 7-foot-diameter leaves of the poor-man's umbrella (Gunnera insignis).

You can also reach Limon by one of Costa Rica's favorite tourist attractions, the Jungle Train. The first part of the trip, through dense jungle, is especially beautiful. …

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