Costa Rica

Winter 2007 CSANews Issue 65  |  Posted date : May 22, 2008.Back to list

When the very first set of European adventurers laid eyes upon this area off Central America, they wrote that this is indeed a very "rich coast." They were right. The entire region beyond those wonderful Caribbean shores is lush with flora and fauna, a veritable jungle that today welcomes visitors in increasing numbers. Settled largely by Spanish pioneers, Costa Rica has gained a modern-day reputation as an ecological giant among nations, large or small. Much credit can be given to a government that had the political will to abandon their armed forces, then to invest the resulting savings in education, culture and the establishment of national parks. That happened in 1949.

Well over 25 per cent of the land area and some of the waters at each side of the country have been designated as parkland. Going from coast to coast on this slim strip of the Americas takes just a few hours. Or longer, if you stop from time to time to enjoy the breathtaking scenery along the way. Three mountain ranges, Tilaran, Central and Talamanca, rise in tree-covered beauty, housing a spectacular abundance of birdlife while providing a home for the most interesting assortment of animals. Costa Rica's highest point is Cerro Chirripo, 3,820 metres above sea level. It is just one of several volcanoes within easy driving distance from the capital, San Jose. Home to nearly one-third of the country's four million people, the city's site was chosen because of the temperate climate of the country's Central Valley.

Our guide, Eduardo Quesada, told us that there are only two seasons in his homeland – dry and rainy. They now refer to the wet season as 'green' because it is more inviting to visitors. Besides, being a tropical country (it is just 10 degrees north of the equator), it has tropical rainfall, i.e. the mornings will be sunny, then the downpour (and it can often be heavy) arrives at around two in the afternoon and lasts for about an hour, and then the sun re-emerges to close out a fine day. And the surroundings remain lush, the air fresh.

San Jose's downtown core has much of the same facilities that you would expect to find in most capitals: stately older buildings, museums, parks, hotels, and a variety of restaurants. We enjoyed a fine meal in an upstairs bistro that featured a surprisingly good jazz quartet. Just a short walk from Parque Central (the main square), you will find the Plaza of Culture, the National Theatre, the National Museum and, of particular interest to the ladies, a Jade Museum. Because the country is so small (200 kilometres north to south; 72 km at its narrowest), one can get to its outstanding natural beauties with relative ease. In less than 40 minutes, Eduardo took us to the edge of the Arenal volcano where we peered into the steaming caldera, a couple of hundred metres below.

Did you ever wonder where that coffee you enjoy so much came from and how it was processed? This is your chance to experience the entire life cycle of one of the world's most popular drinks. Take a trip to Heredia, just a few kilometres from the capital and you will find Cafe Britt. For a couple of hours, you will be entertained by costumed performers who tell the story of coffee from planting the seed to the maturing of the bush, harvesting the beans, roasting them and packaging the final product. You will follow the actors through the plantation, ending up in a theatre at which the final act is performed. Of course, you will be able to sample the coffee and purchase some, too. Or even arrange to have an order delivered to your home.

We also enjoyed a visit to the factory that produces decorative oxcarts. If you see one being pulled by real oxen, you will be lucky. The most likely place to find them in use is in San Antonio de Escazu, about seven kilometres from San Jose. Today, they are made primarily for use as garden fixtures, festooned with exotic flowers and painted in dazzling colours. Those possessed of a green thumb would likely wonder how one could be taken home. At Sarchi, about 40 kilometres northwest of the capital, an artisan shop has a wide variety of oxcarts that can be disassembled, packed and shipped home. Even if your gardening efforts fail, the unit would be a great conversation piece.

Flowers take centre stage at Casa Orquideas, where you may meet owners Ron and Trudy McAllister, transplanted Americans with an interest in botany. Over a 25 year period, they have transformed their seaside property into a beautifully landscaped botanical garden. A naturalist accompanied us on a walk through plots of palms, bromeliads, ornamental plants, fruit trees, and a hundred varieties of orchids, hence the name Orquideas.

Corcovado, one of the country's national parks, is where you will find Osa Peninsula's Caletas Beach. Here we enjoyed a three-hour nature observation hike. Later, following a beach picnic, we moved a few miles up the coast where a series of zodiac tours were operated as Jungle River cruises. Once again, our naturalist spotted birds and wildlife for us. Included this time were sightings of two- and three-toed sloths, capuchin and howler monkeys. At our turnaround spot, several of us cooled off in the inviting waters of the river.

Manuel Antonio was a Costa Rican politician who worked diligently to convince his government to establish national parks. As a result of his efforts and in his honour, one of the most beautiful areas bears his name. Very popular with locals are three magnificent beaches, behind which jungle trails offer more opportunities to view birds and other wildlife. Several activities are offered from this location. You might want to choose the "Rainmaker Canopy Tour," a chance to look at the jungle from swinging walkways suspended along the treetops, or you may opt for an hour or two of sea kayaking. If you are less adventurous, stroll through Quepos, a small community ideally situated to take advantage of the tourism growth potential of the Pacific coast, just a couple of hours out of San Jose.

The people of Costa Rica must be very proud of their accomplishments in what has become known as 'ecotourism'. They did it on their own, years before 'saving green' became a popular public passion. Wouldn't it be wonderful if the rest of the world would disarm its forces and create a stable economy through the conservation of God-given wonders?

Viva Costa Rica! Muchas gracias for leading the way. Let us pray that the rest of our planet's peoples will someday soon follow in your far-sighted footsteps.

Side bar:
  • Spanish is the official language, but English is widely spoken - especially in tourist areas and most shops.
  • Canadians do not need a visa for entry into Costa Rica, but your passport should be current for at least 30 days hence in order to enter the country.
  • There is a wide range of accommodation including the usual major hotel chains, plus modern resort facilities on both shores and in the mountains. Major credit cards are widely accepted.
  • The currency is the Costa Rica colon. Banks will readily do the exchange for you.
  • Electricity is 110 volts, as it is at home. But take an adapter, as not all places use a three-pronged plug.
  • The Cafe Britt tour is priced in U.S. dollars at $19.00 for adults, $14.00 for children 6 to 11, ages five and under are free. For 2008, the prices will increase slightly.
  • Cafe Britt will provide transportation from San Jose if required, for an additional fee.
  • Air Canada flies to San Jose on a regular schedule.
  • Air Transat and Skyservice both fly seasonal schedules to Liberia on Costa Rica's Pacific coast. There is a U.S. $26.00 airport departure tax.