Costa Rica: The gem of Central America

By Jerry Vaughn, Travel Talk

Known for its spectacular natural beauty and biodiversity, Costa Rica boasts more than 15 different ecosystems with dramatic changes in landscapes, climate and nature.

Magnificent beaches stretch for miles along an unspoiled coastline. High on the mountains, cool and pristine cloud forests are alive with mysterious sounds, and below, splendid tropical rain forests are packed with life.

The country is famous for its progressive approach to conservation and is the prime ecotourism destination in Central America due to its wealth of protected areas. More than 25 percent of the country is protected, spread between 75 different national parks, wildlife refuges and biological reserves.

In such a small geographical area, it is surprising how much there is to see and do. There are activities to suit all visitors and any mood, from action to relaxation. These include surfing, snorkeling and sunbathing, horse riding, hiking and wildlife-spotting, deep-sea fishing or river cruises.

Visitors are also drawn to the country because of the special Tico hospitality. Costa Ricans are known for their incredible gregariousness and ability to pamper guests — whether pointing out the right direction or cooking a typical authentic meal, they’ll be full of smiles and warmth. All this together with easy accessibility and an efficient infrastructure makes Costa Rica the jewel of Central America.

Central Pacific Coast

The Pacific is more developed for tourism than the Caribbean, but it still holds a good mixture of luxury resorts and deserted beaches. Some of the country’s best-known beaches are in this region. Costa Ricans use the perfectly suited phrase “pura vida” (meaning “pure life”) to describe the country. Strung along the coast are scores of seaside villages and picturesque towns, exotic beaches and several protected reserves or national parks.

Visitors will find an abundance of accommodations, seafood and local souvenirs. Puntarenas is the largest town and was the main port, but is now mainly used for a base to catch ferries to the Nicoya Peninsula. Further south, the Tarcoles Bridge is a renowned spot for watching the crocodiles in the river below. Tourists stream to the beach resort town of Jacó, one of the best places to surf with a reputation for being a party town. There are many activities in the area including surfing, kayaking and swimming in the azure waters of the Pacific.

Beautiful parks like Parque Nacional Manuel Antonio and Reserva Natural Absoluta Cabo Blanco have pristine white beaches as well as birds and animal life. The tiny fishing hamlet of Montezuma near the entrance to Cabo Blanco is surrounded by pretty coves and is a relaxing place to hang out for a few days.

Northwestern Region

Characteristic of this area is the dramatic contrast in topography. Mountain ranges, volcanoes, lakes, rivers and fertile plains support numerous varieties of bird and wildlife, each offering different types of activities.

The two Cordilleras, or mountain ranges, are very different from each other. The Cordillera Tilarán has rolling mountains that used to be covered in cloud forests; those remaining are protected reserves of which the Monteverde Cloud Forest Biological Reserve is the most popular with visitors, offering nature trails, horse riding and canopy tours. The Cordillera de Guanacaste is an impressive string of volcanoes, some protected in national parks.

Between the ranges are Lake Arenal and the nearby active Arenal Volcano and surrounding hot springs. Further north, in the tropical humidity of the lowland plains, rests the remote wildlife refuge of Caño Negro, a vast wetlands area that is one of the best places to see river wildlife, including birds, mammals and reptiles. The fertile plains are dotted with a mixture of agricultural fields, cattle ranches and expanses of protected areas serviced by a maze of streams and rivers.

The Caribbean Lowlands

The Caribbean has a cultural diversity that is different from the rest of the country. With its beautiful beaches, great surfing conditions and pristine national parks, it is becoming one of the top attractions for the adventurous traveler.

It is less developed than the Pacific side with fewer roads and smaller settlements, and about half the area is set apart and protected in parks and wildlife refuges. The capital of the region is the seedy port of Limón, which is generally avoided by tourists and used only as a transport hub. Cahuita is a relaxed village neighboring the Cahuita National Park, the Creole culture particularly evident in the food and music.

Further south is the even more tranquil hamlet of Puerto Viejo de Talamanca, popular for its surfing and incredible coastline. In the north, the coastal National Park of Tortuguero is one of the most important breeding and nesting sites of the green sea turtle. The villages are laid back with an unhurried atmosphere common throughout the region. The majority of the people are extremely friendly, live close to the coast and speak a lively form of English.

The people of the Caribbean delight in showing visitors the natural beauty of the area and are eager to share their culture with anyone willing to “hang out” for a while.

Jerry Vaughn is president of World Voyager Vacations in Federal Way:

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