Here was a country at peace with nature, even having done away with its army. With a dozen ecosystems packed in just 50,000 sq. km., Costa Rica is an eco-traveller's delight.
"What is that animal?" cried the daughter across the table from me. I started up with the rustle of bushes, only to come face to face with a pleading coati scouring for afternoon orts.
This could only happen in Costa Rica
Just the afternoon before, our airplane had droned 20,000 feet above the sandy sprawl of the Mexican beaches and the angry volcanoes of Guatemala. Cutting in from the Caribbean Sea, we hushed down palm trees and sudden mountain crags before landing at San Jose's Santa Marina airport.
The appellations here couldn't be more appropriate. For a country that is mostly Roman Catholic, it is little surprise that most streets and towns begin with a "San" something. Chances are your name is "Jose" or "Jesus" - the same reason why the basilisk lizard which straddles on water is locally christened the "Jesus Christ" lizard!
Unlike the South American stereotype of banana republics and ruthless dictators, here was a country at peace with nature, even having done away with its army. Sandwiched between Nicaragua of Sandinistas notoriety and Panama of the canal fame, Costa Rica is a peaceful nation of four million, living largely off eco-tourism, coffee and bananas. Recently, the microchip culture and call-centres have made their foray into those looming, six-storied structures of San Jose.
A dozen ecosystems ranging from rainforests and mangroves to coastlines and coral reefs are squeezed within 50,000 square kilometres of exotic biodiversity. Hikes get you close to active volcanoes grumbling along the highlands, where rocky lava trundles down the slopes. You walk on swaying bridges suspended high above the canopies of the tropical jungles, taking in the shrieks of howler monkeys and the flutter of startled toucans. My alert guide would point out a raucous urracas magpie or a rainbow tree boa waiting for an unsuspecting agouti. Over 800 species of birds, 200 types of mammals and 35,000 types of insects have made tropical Costa Rica their exotic home.
As we drove from San Jose towards the fiery volcano of Arenal, past endless coffee plantations and banana groves, our car would be lost high in the mists, passing those charming cloud forests. Throughout this mountainous terrain, canopy tour operators ply their fare along steel cables suspended as high as a thousand feet above the ground. I shuddered at the thought of this not-to-be-missed experience, as I harnessed myself to swing from one platform to another at about 40 miles per hour, helped only by grit and gravity.
Elsewhere, the calm waters of the Pacific Ocean lap the golden sands of the west coast, some seeping through impenetrable mangroves where crocodilians thrive. The tranquil Caribbean beaches to the east add to that magic charm of a tropical paradise of coves and coconut groves. Sea-turtle nesting and birthing is a great event in the beaches of Tortuguero or Playa Tamarindo where the freshly-hatched ones scurry towards the sea during the arribada season.
A refreshing fresco or fruit juice seemed de rigueur before a meal. Just as in any tropical country, a variety of colourful fruits fills the lunch platter. Steamed vegetables and a dash of "gallo pinto" - rice and beans - inevitably made up my sumptuous meal. Interestingly, much like the traditional Palakkad ambience I grew up in, this was served with sugar-soaked, fried plantain served on a banana leaf!
Costa Ricans speak a distinguishable Spanish and are mainly of European descent. The Caribbean coast has a significant black Jamaican population with a few Chinese immigrants scattered along the Puntarenas Coast. Popularly called Ticos, Costa Ricans have a way of being informal. The ubiquitous catchphrase Pura Vida - "pure life" or "leisurely life" - after a Mexican movie, has stuck to be the national slogan used as a greeting, goodbye or even a conversation starter.
A different past
Columbus opened up this exotic nation to the Western world in 1502. Ruled by Spain, eventually Costa Rica gained its freedom in 1821, proclaiming itself a democratic government. Unlike the hoary Mayan cities of Guatemala or Mexico, there was wasn't much of a pre-Columbian culture prevalent in Costa Rica. Natives unwilling to surrender to slavery coupled with disease and pirate attacks made life uncomfortable for the Spanish rulers.
We saw an interesting turtle-trap near the beach of Manuel Antonio National Park where ancient peoples ensnared turtles in a stony basin during the high-tide, leaving them trapped when the waters receded. Costa Rica is also known for its mysterious stone spheres left by an ancient Mesoamerican culture scattered throughout the southern tip of the country. Given such a blasé history, souvenir shopping in Costa Rica isn't a thrilling experience. Coffee always makes a great gift. Alternatively, you can buy the customary T-shirt embossed with iguanas or macaws - but ignore the label that proclaims "Made in China".
Pura Vida - In this case, "doesn't matter"!
Getting there: Costa Rica has two international airports, the more popular one in the capital city of San Jose and the other in Liberia. Plenty of flights leave from Houston and Denver to the San Jose airport on an approximately four-hour flight to these cities. There are plenty of domestic flights within Costa Rica, operated through Sansa or Nature Air that make it easy to get to places. Of course, tourist vans with drivers are equally good options.
Best time to visit: Costa Rica has a pleasant climate year round, though many prefer the 'green' rainy season between May and November.
Places to see: For the first timer, I would suggest four days in Arenal, three in Manuel Antonia and probably another two days in Jaco for the beach-lover or Corcovado National Park for the die-hard wildlife lover. Not to be missed in any of these locations are zip-line or canopy tours, coffee plantation tours, safari rides, volcano hikes and an exploration into the parks with a tourist guide. Plenty of tour operators do the mass tours, but I would recommend planning yourself rather than going with a large tour.
Places to stay: Being a very popular eco-tourist destination, plenty of accommodations are available everywhere in Costa Rica. English is spoken in major tourist spots, but a Spanish phrasebook will do wonders.