COSTA RICA

Visitors can fly through the rain-forest canopy on a zipline, go white-water rafting, climb a volcano, relax on a white-sand beach, check out colorful marine life while snorkeling, or try to hook a big one on a deep-sea fishing excursion. That's why so many people choose to go there.  Tourism has become the leading sector of the nation's economy.

Costa Rica is practically synonymous with ecotourism—travel that incorporates education about the environment and promotes preservation of natural resources. The country has a large number of national parks and nature preserves that boast a rich array of birds, mammals, reptiles and rain-forest plants. The variety of birds, in particular, is astounding: Some 850 species are packed into a relatively small area.

The country also excels in adventure sports, including surfing, mountain biking, river rafting, hiking and scuba diving. Those who prefer a less strenuous vacation can view several active volcanoes, take boat trips down jungle rivers and float through the treetops in a rain-forest aerial tram or speed through the forest canopy on any of several dozen thrilling zipline systems.

Snapshot

The main attractions of Costa Rica are amazingly diverse natural beauty, wildlife, bird-watching, black- and white-sand beaches, deep-sea and river fishing, scuba diving, snorkeling, casinos, surfing, white-water rafting, volcanoes, horseback riding, good restaurants, world-class resorts and spas, and its friendly, well-educated people (often known simply as Ticos).

Those who enjoy exotic plants and animals and those who participate in outdoor activities will get the most out of Costa Rica. To observe the country's varied forests, visitors need to be moderately fit and comfortable with the claustrophobic, often damp jungle environment, or with the hot, dry conditions of the forests in the province of Guanacaste to as far south as northern Nicoya Peninsula.

 
 

Sightseeing

Costa Rica is one of the most biologically diverse areas in the world. It's tucked into a small geographic area, and visitors have huge opportunities to experience nature in its many forms. With flights available throughout the country as well as fast and efficient shuttle services, it's possible to visit Tortuguero National Park on the Caribbean one day and Corcovado National Park in the Osa Peninsula the next.

Costa Rica is also home to a variety of historical sites. Many of these can be visited in one day from San Jose, including a historic tour of Cartago, former capital of Costa Rica and home to one of the country's most important religious sites; Orosi, where you can visit the 18thcentury Iglesia San Jose de Orosi and its adjacent museum; and Turrialba, whose foothills shelter one of the country's most important archaeological sites, Guayabo. Be sure to also make a stop at the Lankester Botanical Garden, as well.

 

 

Dining

Good Costa Rican cuisine is available in many venues throughout the country, from fine-dining establishments to small restaurants that carry a mixed menu to modern-mall food courts to small local, family-run places called sodas.

San Jose has some excellent restaurants, and many of them are found in the small hotels that have been created from old coffee-baron mansions. The Amon District has any number of these great small-hotel restaurants.

A casado (which means "married") is a set-price meal, often eaten for lunch. It typically consists of black beans, rice, picadillo (diced vegetables and sometimes meat), meat and either yucca or maduro (fried banana). Gallo pinto (black beans and rice alone) becomes addictive and is the national dish, especially popular at breakfast. Salsa lizano is a typical breakfast condiment and common ingredient in gallo pinto. On the Caribbean, gallo pinto is flavored with coconut.

Other local specialties are palmitos (hearts of palm, usually served in a salad) and cajeta (a thick dessert made of milk and sugar). Bocas are appetizers—ranging from fried potatoes and yucca to broiled steak and fish—that are served with beer or cocktails. The tamales and corvina (sea bass) are especially good. Don't order mondongo unless you like tripe.

Meals in Costa Rica are even nicer when accompanied by fresh juice, and there are all kinds of wonderful tropical fruits, including mangoes, papayas, pineapples that rival Hawaiian fruit, sweet ripe melons and zapotes (a fruit with an orangelike pulp that resembles an avocado). These fruits find their way into delicious and refreshing batidos (shakes) made with milk or water.

A nice way to savor Costa Rica's coffee is to take a tour of the Cafe Britt Coffee plantation in Heredia, where you can sample blends from local beans. It has a large gift shop and restaurant, as well. There are Britt gift shops throughout Costa Rica in airport terminals, resorts, hotels and tourist attractions, where they freely dispense samples of coffee, chocolate and chocolate-covered nuts and fruits.

Potpourri

You're likely to notice that plastic-surgery and medical vacations are advertised heavily as a tourism option in Costa Rica. If people you know return from a trip to Costa Rica looking younger, healthier and particularly refreshed, it may be that they went under the knife.

Costa Rica has a rich mix of races and ethnicities. Two of the nation's heroes are NASA astronaut Franklin Chang, a Costa Rican of Chinese ancestry, and Olympic swimmer Claudia Poll, whose parents emigrated from Germany. Poll won the first gold medal in the country's history at the 1996 Summer Olympics in Atlanta.

Ticos take a little bit of nature into their homes with pets (a lot of birds) and flowers and plants. Even the simplest home will have pots of flowers and plants in the yard.

In the 1850s, Costa Rica was invaded by an army led by American William Walker, who had earlier taken over Nicaragua and hoped to rule all of Central America. A hastily convened and poorly equipped Costa Rican army defeated Walker's forces, spoiling his plans of empire and leading to his eventual demise.

Hotel Capitan Suizo in Tamarindo has a program to rescue orphaned howler monkeys, nurse them back to health and protect them from predators in special open-topped cages at night. Two troupes of howlers visit the hotel regularly, and during those visits, the orphans play with the other babies from the troupe and then retire to their cages when the others leave. Once the orphans regain their strength, they should be adopted by one of the groups.

Costa Rica was the first country in Central America to grow coffee (in 1808) and bananas (in the 1870s). Coffee is often referred to in Costa Rica as grano de oro, or grain of gold.

The most mysterious relics of pre-Columbian culture are the perfectly round stone spheres—up to 6 ft/2 m in diameter—that are scattered throughout southern Costa Rica in the Diquis Delta archaeological zone. Archaeologists can explain almost nothing about them. The spheres are under consideration as a UNESCO World Heritage site.

The seed from a guanacaste tree is unusually large, round and hard and has a glossy sheen. Costa Ricans believe that to give someone one of these seeds brings good luck to the recipient of the gift. The recipient in turn gives the seed to another person to bring good luck to that person.

Travel 42

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Courtesy of: Darla Logsdon

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