Costa Rica by the Book

Costa Rica's history and culture have been detailed in a number of books.

Tycoon's War, by Stephen Dando-Collins, is a well-told tale of US business tycoon Cornelius Vanderbilt's epic struggle to maintain his economic stranglehold over the Central American isthmus. There are hair-raising battle scenes and intriguing personal sketches of protagonists Vanderbilt and William Walker.

Bananas: How United Fruit Company Shaped the World, by Peter Chapman, tells the story of the meteoric rise and inevitable collapse of the megalith known to locals as 'el pulpo' (the octopus) for its far reach into the echelons of power in Costa Rica and Central America.

Nation Thief, by Robert Houston, is a novelistic telling of William Walker's excursions into Central America, narrated by several of his 'immortals' in the vernacular of the time.

Green Phoenix, by William Allen, details the ultimate victory of a cohort of Costa Rican and US scientists and volunteers in halting deforestation and establishing the 600-plus-square-mile Guanacaste Conservation Area.

Walking with Wolf, by Kay Chornook and Wolf Guindon, recounts the life of one of Monteverde's pioneering Quakers and his decades-long dedication to preserving and sharing his adopted cloud-forest home.

Cocorí, by Joaquín Guitiérrez, is an illustrated tapestry of life lessons gleaned by a young boy in the rainforest. Recounted by Costa Rica's most famous author, this children's book, first published in 1947 and translated worldwide, is required reading for Tico students. Note that some Afro-Caribbean Costa Ricans find the portrayal of the young protagonist offensive and racist.

Guanacaste: Rutas de Viaje (Travel Routes), by Luciano Capelli and Yazmin Ross, is a stunning coffee-table book of the province's festivals, farmers, and frogs, among other things. It's a lovely record of your trip here. You'll find it at the airport.

A New National Stadium & a New Trade Relationship

As in many Latin American nations, fútbol dominates the sports conversation in Costa Rica. So imagine the wonderment when a brand-new, state-of-the-art national stadium was proposed – and at no cost to Costa Rica.

China was the font of this magnanimity, asking in return that Costa Rica establish trade relations with the Asian giant while cutting ties with Taiwan. As recently as 2003, the Costa Rican and Taiwanese governments were the closest of allies, with the Taiwanese funding the construction of the Puente de la Amistad (Friendship Bridge) in Puntarenas. That was a trade, too, for fishing rights. With the new stadium, Taiwan is out and China is in. Ironic commentators have now dubbed the structure Puente de la Apuñalada (Backstabbing Bridge).

The fact that the new stadium was built entirely with Chinese materials and labor (800 workers in all), and violated Costa Rican labor law in the forced overtime of workers, did not sit well with all in the country. One worker died during construction.

Costa Rica is now China’s second-biggest trading partner, right behind the USA. China has used this 'stadium diplomacy' to forge friendships across Latin America, the Caribbean, Asia and Africa, most recently erecting brand-new stadia for the last few African Cups.

For most Costa Ricans, though, the stadium has been a bonus – a nice new place to watch the national team play world-class competition like Argentina, Brazil and Spain. Miley Cyrus, the Red Hot Chili Peppers, Paul McCartney, Shakira and Guns ‘n’ Roses have all played shows there.

The Tico Way of Life

Blessed with natural beauty and a peaceful, army-less society, it’s no wonder Costa Rica has long been known as the Switzerland of Central America. While nowadays the country is certainly challenged by its lofty eco-conscious goals and modern intercontinental maladies (such as drug trafficking and a wealth disparity between the haves and have-nots), the Tico (Costa Rican) attitude remains sunny and family-centered, with a good balance between work and quality of life.

The Pura Vida

Pura vida – pure life – is more than just a slogan that rolls off the tongues of Ticos and emblazons souvenirs. In the laid-back tone in which it is constantly uttered, the phrase is a bona fide mantra for the Costa Rican way of life. Perhaps the essence of the pure life is something better lived than explained, but hearing ‘pura vida’ again and again while traveling across this beautiful country – as a greeting, a stand-in for goodbye, ‘cool,’ and an acknowledgement of thanks – makes it evident that the concept lives deep within the DNA of this country.

The living seems particularly pure when Costa Rica is compared with its Central American neighbors such as Nicaragua and Honduras; there’s little poverty, illiteracy or political tumult, the country is crowded with ecological jewels, and the standard of living is high. What’s more, Costa Rica has flourished without an army for the past 60 years. The sum of the parts is a country that’s an oasis of calm in a corner of the world that has been continuously degraded by warfare. And though the Costa Rican people are justifiably proud hosts, a compliment to the country is likely to be met simply with a warm smile and an enigmatic two-word reply: pura vida.

Daily Life in Costa Rica

With its lack of war, long life expectancy and relatively sturdy economy, Costa Rica enjoys the highest standard of living in Central America. For the most part, Costa Ricans live fairly affluent and comfortable lives, even by North American standards.

As in many places in Latin America, the family unit in Costa Rica remains the nucleus of life. Families socialize together and extended families often live near each other. When it’s time to party it’s also largely a family affair; celebrations, vacations and weddings are a social outlet for rich and poor alike, and those with relatives in positions of power – nominal or otherwise – don’t hesitate to turn to them for support.

Given this mutually cooperative environment, it’s no surprise that life expectancy in Costa Rica is slightly higher than in the US. In fact, most Costa Ricans are more likely to die of heart disease or cancer as opposed to the childhood diseases that plague many developing nations. A comprehensive socialized health-care system and excellent sanitation systems account for these positive statistics, as do a generally stress-free lifestyle, tropical weather and a healthy and varied diet – the pura vida.

Still, the divide between rich and poor is evident. The middle and upper classes largely reside in San José, as well as in the major cities of the Central Valley highlands (Heredia, Alajuela and Cartago), and enjoy a level of comfort similar to their economic brethren in Europe and the US. City dwellers are likely to have a maid and a car or two, and the lucky few have a second home on the beach or in the mountains.

The home of an average Tico is a one-story construction built from concrete blocks, wood or a combination of both. In the poorer lowland areas, people often live in windowless houses made of caña brava (a local cane). For the vast majority of campesinos (farmers) and indígenas (people of indigenous origin), life is harder than in the cities, poverty levels are higher and standards of living are lower than in the rest of the country. This is especially true along the Caribbean coast, where the descendants of Jamaican immigrants have long suffered from lack of attention from the federal government, and in indigenous reservations. However, although poor families have few possessions and little financial security, every member assists with working the land or contributing to the household, which creates a strong safety net.

As in the rest of the world, globalization is having a dramatic effect on Costa Ricans, who are increasingly mobile, international and intertwined in the global economy – for better or for worse. These days, society is increasingly geographically mobile – the Tico who was born in Puntarenas might end up managing a lodge on the Península de Osa. And, with the advent of better-paved roads, cell coverage and the increasing presence of North American and European expats (and the accompanying malls and big box stores), the Tico family unit is subject to the changing tides of a global society.

Women in Costa Rica

By the letter of the law, Costa Rica’s progressive stance on women’s issues makes the country stand out among its Central American neighbors. A 1974 family code stipulated equal duties and rights for men and women. Additionally, women can draw up contracts, assume loans and inherit property. Sexual harassment and sex discrimination are also against the law, and in 1996 Costa Rica passed a landmark law against domestic violence that was one of the most progressive in Latin America. With women holding more and more roles in political, legal, scientific and medical fields, Costa Rica has been home to some historic firsts: in 1998 both vice presidents (Costa Rica has two) were women, and in February 2010 Arias Sánchez’s former vice president, Laura Chinchilla, became the first female president.

Still, the picture of sexual equality is much more complicated than the country’s bragging rights might suggest. Byproducts of the legal prostitution trade include illicit underground activities such as child prostitution and the trafficking of women. Despite the cultural reverence for the matriarch (Mother’s Day is a national holiday), traditional Latin American machismo is hardly a thing of the past and anti-discrimination laws are rarely enforced. Particularly in the countryside, many women maintain traditional societal roles: raising children, cooking and running the home.

Sports

From the scrappy little matches that take over the village pitch to the breathless exclamations of ‘Goal!’ that erupt from San José bars on the day of a big game, no Costa Rican sporting venture can compare with fútbol (soccer). Every town has a soccer field (which usually serves as the most conspicuous landmark) where neighborhood aficionados play in heated matches.

The selección nacional (national selection) team is known affectionately as La Sele. Legions of Tico fans still recall La Sele’s most memorable moments, including an unlikely showing in the quarterfinals at the 1990 World Cup in Italy and a solid (if not long-lasting) performance in the 2002 World Cup. More recently, La Sele’s failure to qualify for the 2010 World Cup led to a top-down change in leadership and the reinstatement of one-time coach Jorge Luis Pinto, a Colombian coach who has had mixed results on the international stage. Pinto seemed to be a good fit for the team’s ferocious young leaders such as record-setting scorer Álvaro Saborío, goalkeeper Keylor Navas and forward Bryan Ruiz. In fact, Pinto led the team to qualify for the 2014 World Cup in Brazil, where the team reached the quarterfinals, making them national heroes. At the time of research Costa Rica's national team was battling it out in the 2018 World Cup qualifiers.

With such perfect waves, surfing has steadily grown in popularity among Ticos, especially those who grow up in surf towns. Costa Rica hosts numerous national and international competitions annually that are widely covered by local media, and holds regular local competitions such as the weekly contest at Playa Hermosa (south of Jacó).

For a nation that values its wildlife, it may be surprising that the controversial sport of bullfighting is still popular, particularly in the Guanacaste region, though the bull isn’t killed in the Costa Rican version of the sport. More aptly described, bullfighting is really a ceremonial opportunity to watch an often tipsy cowboy run around with a bull.

Arts

Literature

Costa Rica has a relatively young literary history and few works of Costa Rican writers or novelists are available in translation. Carlos Luis Fallas (1909–66) is widely known for Mamita Yunai (1940), an influential ‘proletarian’ novel that took the banana companies to task for their labor practices, and he remains very popular among the Latin American left.

Carmen Naranjo (1928–2012) is one of the few contemporary Costa Rican writers to have risen to international acclaim. She was a novelist, poet and short-story writer who also served as ambassador to India in the 1970s, and a few years later as minister of culture. In 1996 she was awarded the prestigious Gabriela Mistral medal by the Chilean government. Her collection of short stories, There Never Was a Once Upon a Time, is widely available in English. Two of her stories can also be found in Costa Rica: A Traveler’s Literary Companion.

José León Sánchez (b 1929) is an internationally renowned memoirist of Huetar descent, hailing from the border of Costa Rica and Nicaragua. After being convicted for stealing from the famous Basílica de Nuestra Señora de Los Ángeles in Cartago, he was sentenced to serve his term at Isla San Lucas, one of Latin America’s most notorious jails. Illiterate when he was incarcerated, Sánchez taught himself how to read and write, and clandestinely authored one of the continent’s most poignant books: La isla de los hombres solos (called God Was Looking the Other Way in the translated version).

Music & Dance

Although there are other Latin American musical hotbeds of more renown, Costa Rica’s central geographical location and colonial history have resulted in a varied musical culture that incorporates elements from North and South America and the Caribbean islands.

San José features a regular lineup of domestic and international rock, folk and hip-hop artists, but you’ll find that the regional sounds also survive, each with their own special rhythms, instruments and styles. For instance, the Península de Nicoya has a rich musical history, most of its sound made with guitars, maracas and marimbas. The common sounds on the Caribbean coast are reggae, reggaetón (a newer version of reggae mixed with hip-hop beats) and calypso, which has roots in Afro-Caribbean slave culture.

Popular dance music includes Latin dances, such as salsa, merengue, bolero and cumbia. Guanacaste is also the birthplace of many traditional dances, most of which depict courtship rituals between country folk. The most famous dance – sometimes considered the national dance – is the punto guanacasteco. What keeps it lively is the bomba, a funny (and usually racy) rhymed verse shouted by the male dancers during the musical interlude.

Visual Arts

The visual arts in Costa Rica first took on a national character in the 1920s, when Teodórico Quirós, Fausto Pacheco and their contemporaries began painting landscapes that differed from traditional European styles, depicting the rolling hills and lush forest of the Costa Rican countryside, often sprinkled with characteristic adobe houses.

The contemporary scene is more varied and it's difficult to define a unique Tico style. The work of several artists has garnered acclaim, including the magical realism of Isidro Con Wong, the surreal paintings and primitive engravings of Francisco Amighetti and the mystical female figures painted by Rafa Fernández. The Museo de Arte y Diseño Contemporáneo in San José is the top place to see this type of work, and its permanent collection is a great primer.

Many galleries are geared toward tourists and specialize in ‘tropical art’ (for lack of an official description): brightly colored, whimsical folk paintings depicting flora and fauna that evoke the work of French artist Henri Rousseau.

Folk art and handicrafts are not as widely produced or readily available here as in other Central American countries. However, the dedicated souvenir hunter will have no problem finding the colorful Sarchí oxcarts that have become a symbol of Costa Rica. Indigenous crafts, which include intricately carved and painted masks made by the Boruca indigenous people, as well as handwoven bags and linens and colorful Chorotega pottery, can also be found in San José and more readily along Costa Rica’s Pacific coast.

Film

Artistically, while film is not a new medium in Costa Rica, young filmmakers have been upping the country’s ante in this arena. Over the last decade or so, a handful of Costa Rican filmmakers have submitted their work for Oscar consideration, and many others have received critical acclaim for their pictures nationally and internationally. These films range from adaptations of Gabriel García Márquez’s magical-realism novel Del amor y otro demonios (Of Love and Other Demons, 2009), directed by Hilda Hidalgo, and a comedic coming-of-age story of young Ticos on the cusp of adulthood in contemporary Costa Rica in El cielo rojo (The Red Sky, 2008), written and directed by Miguel Alejandro Gomez, to the light-hearted story of a Costa Rican farmer who embarks on the journey to Europe to raise money to avoid losing his farm in Maikol Yordan de viaje perdido (Maikol Yordan Traveling Lost, 2014), also directed by Gomez.

A film-festival calendar has also been blossoming in Costa Rica, though dates vary year on year. Sponsored by the Ministerio de Cultura y Juventud, the Costa Rica Festival Internacional de Cine (www.facebook.com/CostaRicaCineFest) takes place in San José (check the website for current dates) and features international films fitting the year’s theme. The longer-running Costa Rica International Film Festival (CRIFF; www.filmfestivallife.com) takes place in early June, with an associated documentary film festival the week afterwards.

Feature: Nica Versus Tico

Ticos have a well-deserved reputation for friendliness, and it’s rare for travelers of any sex, race or creed to experience prejudice in Costa Rica. However, it’s unfortunate and at times upsetting that the mere mention of anything related to Nicaragua is enough to turn the average Tico into a stereotype-spewing anti-Nica (note that though the term ‘Nica’ is used colloquially by Nicaraguans, it is used by some Ticos in a somewhat derogatory manner – when in doubt, err on the side of ‘nicaragüense’ to refer to a Nicaraguan person). Despite commonalities in language, culture, history and tradition, Nicas and Ticos have a fractured relationship, and rhetoric (on both sides) of la frontera (the border) isn’t likely to improve any time soon.

Why is there so much hostility between Nicaraguans and Ticos? The answer is as much a product of history as it is of misunderstanding, though economic disparities between the countries are largely to blame.

Though Nicaragua was wealthier than Costa Rica as recently as 25 years ago, decades of civil war and a US embargo quickly bankrupted it, and today Nicaragua is the second-poorest country in the western hemisphere (after Haiti). The main problem facing Nicaragua is its heavy external debt, although debt-relief programs implemented by the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the free-trade zone created by the Central American Free Trade Agreement (Cafta) are both promising signs.

In the meantime, however, Nicaraguan families are crossing the border in droves, drawn to Costa Rica by its growing economy and impressive education and health systems. However, immigration laws in Costa Rica make it difficult for Nicaraguans to find work, and the majority end up living in shantytowns and doing poorly paid manual labor. Also, crime is on the rise throughout Costa Rica, and though it’s difficult to say what percentage is actually attributable to Nicaraguan immigrants, some Ticos are quick to point the finger in their direction.

Costa Rica has been at loggerheads with Nicaragua over such issues as the Cuban immigrant crisis – when Nicaragua refused to allow Cubans passage to the US after they were granted temporary Costa Rican visas – and the Río San Juan saga, which is a fight over land at the north of Costa Rica. As with all instances of deep-rooted prejudice, the solution is anything but clear.

Feature: Same-Sex Relationships

Since 1998 there have been laws on the books to protect ‘sexual option,’ and discrimination is generally prohibited in most facets of society, including employment. However, though the country is becoming increasingly gay friendly, this traditional culture has not always been quick to adopt equal protection.

Legal recognition of same-sex partnerships has been a hot topic since 2006 and was a major point of contention in the 2010 presidential race. In January 2012 Costa Rica’s primary newspaper, La Nación, conducted a poll in which 55% of the respondents believed that same-sex couples should have the same rights as heterosexual couples. Then in July 2013 the Costa Rican legislature ‘accidentally’ passed a law legalizing gay marriage, due to a small change in the bill’s wording. In 2015 a Costa Rican judge granted a same-sex common-law marriage, making Costa Rica the first country in Central America to recognize gay relationships. The current president, Luis Guillermo Solís, has expressed support for gay rights, and he even flew the rainbow flag at the presidential house.

Sidebar: Costa Rican History

One of the most comprehensive and complete books on Costa Rican history and culture is The Ticos: Culture and Social Change in Costa Rica, by Mavis, Richard and Karen Biesanz.

Sidebar: Killing the Snake

The expression matando la culebra (meaning ‘to be idle’ or 'to waste time' – literally ‘killing the snake’) originates with peones (laborers) from banana plantations. When foremen would ask what they were doing, the response would be ‘¡Matando la culebra!’

Sidebar: Taking Care of Sibö’s Gifts

In conjunction with two indigenous women, Juanita Sánchez and Gloria Mayorga, Paula Palmer wrote Taking Care of Sibö’s Gifts, an inspiring account of the intersection between the spiritual and environmental values of the Bribrí.

Sidebar: Fútbol Statistics

Get player statistics and game schedules and find out everything you ever needed to know about La Sele, the Costa Rican national soccer team, at www.fedefutbol.com.

Sidebar: Alfonso Chase

Little of his work is translated into English, but poet Alfonso Chase is a Fulbright scholar and a contemporary literary hero. In 2000 he won the nation’s highest literary award, the Premio Magón.

Landscapes & Ecology

Despite its diminutive size – at 51,100 sq km, it's slightly smaller than West Virginia in the US – Costa Rica’s land is an astounding collection of habitats. On one coast are the breezy skies and big waves of the Pacific, while only 119km away lie the languid shores of the Caribbean. In between there are active volcanoes, alpine peaks and crisp high-elevation forest. Few places on earth can compare with this little country’s spectacular interaction of natural, geological and climatic forces.

The Land

The Pacific Coast

Two major peninsulas hook out into the ocean along the 1016km-long Pacific coast: Nicoya in the north and Osa in the south. Although they look relatively similar from space, on the ground they could hardly be more different. Nicoya is one of the driest places in the country and holds some of Costa Rica’s most developed tourist infrastructure; Osa is wet and rugged, run through by wild, seasonal rivers and rough dirt roads that are always under threat from the creeping jungle.

Just inland from the coast, the Pacific lowlands are a narrow strip of land backed by mountains. This area is equally dynamic, ranging from dry deciduous forests and open cattle country in the north to misty, mysterious tropical rainforests in the south.

Central Costa Rica

Move a bit inland from the Pacific coast and you immediately ascend the jagged spine of the country: the majestic Cordillera Central in the north and the rugged, largely unexplored Cordillera de Talamanca in the south. Continually being revised by tectonic activity, these mountains are part of the majestic Sierra Madre chain that runs north through Mexico.

Home to active volcanoes, clear trout-filled streams and ethereal cloud forest, these mountain ranges generally follow a northwest to southeast line, with the highest and most dramatic peaks in the south near the Panamanian border. The highest peak in the country is windswept Cerro Chirripó (3820m).

In the midst of this powerful landscape, surrounded on all sides by mountains, are the highlands of the Meseta Central – the Central Valley. This fertile central plain, some 1000m above sea level, is the agricultural heart of the nation and enjoys abundant rainfall and mild temperatures. It includes San José and cradles three more of Costa Rica’s five largest cities, accounting for more than half of the country’s population.

The Caribbean Coast

Cross the mountains and drop down the eastern slope and you’ll reach the elegant line of the Caribbean coastline – a long, straight 212km along low plains, brackish lagoons and waterlogged forests. A lack of strong tides allows plants to grow right over the water’s edge along coastal sloughs. Eventually, these create the walls of vegetation along the narrow, murky waters that characterize much of the region. As if taking cues from the slow-paced, Caribbean-influenced culture, the rivers that rush out of the central mountains take on a languid pace here, curving through broad plains toward the sea.

While there are smoothly paved main roads along the southern Caribbean coast, the northern Caribbean is still largely inaccessible except by boat or plane.

The Geology

If all this wildly diverse beauty makes Costa Rica feel like the crossroads between vastly different worlds, that’s because it is. As it's part of the thin strip of land that separates two continents with hugely divergent wildlife and topographical character, and right in the middle of the world’s two largest oceans, it’s little wonder that Costa Rica boasts such a colorful collision of climates, landscapes and wildlife.

The country’s geological history began when the Cocos Plate, a tectonic plate that lies below the Pacific, crashed headlong into the Caribbean Plate, which is off the isthmus’ east coast. Since the plates travel about 10cm every year, the collision might seem slow by human measure, but it was a violent wreck by geological standards, creating the area’s subduction zone. The plates continue to collide, with the Cocos Plate pushing the Caribbean Plate toward the heavens and making the area prone to earthquakes and ongoing volcanic activity.

Despite all the violence underfoot, these forces have blessed the country with some of the world’s most beautiful and varied tropical landscapes.

Coral Reefs

Compared with the rest of the Caribbean, the coral reefs of Costa Rica are not a banner attraction. Heavy surf and shifting sands along most of the Caribbean coast produce conditions that are unbearable to corals. The exceptions are two beautiful patches of reef in the south that are protected on the rocky headlands of Parque Nacional Cahuita and Refugio Nacional de Vida Silvestre Gandoca-Manzanillo. These diminutive but vibrant reefs are home to more than 100 species of fish and many types of coral and make for decent snorkeling and diving.

Unfortunately, the reefs themselves are in danger due to global warming and increased water temperatures, tourism (divers and snorkelers damaging the reefs), and pollutants, like sediments washing downriver from logging operations and toxic chemicals that wash out of nearby agricultural fields. Although curbed by the government, these factors persist. Along with these threats, a major earthquake in 1991 lifted the reefs as much as 1.5m, stranding and killing large portions of this fragile ecosystem.

Wildlife

Nowhere else are so many types of habitats squeezed into such a tiny area, and species from different continents have been commingling here for millennia. Costa Rica has the world’s largest number of species per 10,000 sq km – a whopping 615. This simple fact alone makes Costa Rica the premier destination for nature-lovers.

The large number of species here is also due to the country’s relatively recent appearance. Roughly three million years ago, Costa Rica rose from the ocean and formed a land bridge between North and South America. As species from these two vast biological provinces started to mingle, the number of species essentially doubled in the area where Costa Rica now sits.

Flora

Simply put, Costa Rica’s floral biodiversity is mind-blowing – there are more than 500,000 species in total, including close to 12,000 species of vascular plant, and the list gets more and more crowded each year. Orchids alone account for about 1400 species. The diversity of habitats created when this many species mix is a wonder to behold.

Rainforest

The humid, vibrant mystery of the tropical rainforest connects acutely with a traveler’s sense of adventure. These forests, far more dense with plant life than any other environment on the planet, are leftover scraps of the prehistoric jungles that once covered the continents. Standing in the midst of it and trying to take it all in can be overwhelming: tropical rainforests contain more than half of the earth’s known living organisms. Naturally, this riotous pile-on of life requires lots of water – the forest typically gets between 5m and 6m of rainfall annually (yes, that’s meters!).

Classic rainforest habitats are well represented in the parks of southwestern Costa Rica or in the mid-elevation portions of the central mountains. Here you will find towering trees that block out the sky, long, looping vines and many overlapping layers of vegetation. Large trees often show buttresses – wing-like ribs that extend from their trunks for added structural support. And plants climb atop other plants, fighting for a bit of sunlight. The most impressive areas of primary forest – a term designating completely untouched land that has never been disturbed by humans – exist on the Península de Osa.

Cloud Forest

Visiting the unearthly terrain of a cloud forest is a highlight for many visitors; there are amazing swaths of it in Monteverde, along the Cerro de la Muerte and below the peaks of Chirripó. In these regions, fog-drenched trees are so thickly coated in mosses, ferns, bromeliads and orchids that you can hardly discern their true shapes. These forests are created when humid trade winds off the Caribbean blow up into the highlands, cool and condense to form thick, low-hanging clouds. With constant exposure to wind, rain and sun, the trees here are crooked and stunted.

Cloud forests are widespread at high elevations throughout Costa Rica and any of them warrant a visit. Be forewarned, however, that in these habitats the term ‘rainy season’ has little meaning because it’s always dripping wet from the fog – humidity in a cloud forest often hovers around 100%.

Tropical Dry Forest

Along Costa Rica’s northwestern coast lies the country’s largest concentration of tropical dry forest – a stunningly different scene to the country’s wet rainforests and cloud forests. During the dry season many trees drop their foliage, creating carpets of crackling, sun-drenched leaves and a sense of openness that is largely absent in other Costa Rican habitats. The large trees here, such as Costa Rica’s national tree, the guanacaste, have broad, umbrella-like canopies, while spiny shrubs and vines or cacti dominate the understory. At times, large numbers of trees erupt into spectacular displays of flowers, and at the beginning of the rainy season everything is transformed with a wonderful flush of new, green foliage.

This type of forest was native to Guanacaste and the Península de Nicoya, though it suffered generations of destruction for its commercially valuable lumber. Most was clear-cut or burned to make space for ranching. Guanacaste and Santa Rosa national parks are good examples of the dry forest and host some of the country’s most accessible nature hiking.

Mangroves

Along brackish stretches of both coasts, mangrove swamps are a world unto themselves. Growing on stilts out of muddy tidal flats, five species of tree crowd together so densely that no boats and few animals can penetrate. Striking in their adaptations for dealing with salt, mangroves thrive where no other land plant dares tread and are among the world’s most relentless colonizers. Mangrove seeds are heavy and fleshy, blooming into flowers in the spring before falling off to give way to fruit. By the time the fruit falls, it is covered with spiky seedlings that anchor in the soft mud of low tides. In only 10 years, a seedling has the potential to mature into an entire new colony.

Mangrove swamps play extremely important roles in the ecosystem. Not only do they buffer coastlines from the erosive power of waves but also they have high levels of productivity because they trap nutrient-rich sediment and serve as spawning and nursery areas for innumerable species of fish and invertebrate. The brown waters of mangrove channels – rich with nutrients and filled with algae, shrimp, crustaceans and caimans – form tight links in the marine food chain and are best explored in a kayak, early in the morning.

There are miles of mangrove channels along the Caribbean coast, and a vast mangrove swamp on the Pacific, near Bahía Drake.

Fauna

Though tropical in nature – with a substantial number of tropical animals such as poison-dart frogs and spider monkeys – Costa Rica is also the winter home for more than 200 species of migrating bird that arrive from as far away as Alaska and Australia. Don’t be surprised to see one of your familiar backyard birds feeding alongside trogons and toucans. Birds are one of the primary attractions for naturalists, who scan endlessly for birds of every color, from strawberry-red scarlet macaws to the iridescent jewels called violet sabrewings (a type of hummingbird). Because many birds in Costa Rica have restricted ranges, you are guaranteed to find different species everywhere you travel.

Visitors will almost certainly see one of Costa Rica’s four types of monkey or two types of sloth, but there are an additional 230 types of mammal awaiting the patient observer. More exotic sightings might include the amazing four-eyed opossum or the silky anteater, while a lucky few might spot the elusive tapir or have a jaguarundi cross their path. The extensive network of national parks, wildlife refuges and other protected areas are prime places to spot wildlife.

If you are serious about observing birds and animals, the value of a knowledgeable guide cannot be underestimated. Their keen eyes are trained to notice the slightest movement in the forest, and they recognize the many exotic sounds. Most professional bird guides are proficient in the dialects of local birds, greatly improving your chances of hearing or seeing these species.

No season is a bad one for exploring Costa Rica’s natural environment, though most visitors arrive during the peak dry season, when trails are less muddy and more accessible. A bonus of visiting between December and February is that many of the wintering migrant birds are still hanging around. A trip after the peak season means fewer birds, but this is a stupendous time to see dry forests transform into vibrant greens and it’s also when resident birds begin nesting.

Endangered Species

As expected in a country with unique habitats and widespread logging, there are numerous species whose populations are declining or in danger of extinction. Currently, the number-one threat to most of Costa Rica’s endangered species is habitat destruction, followed closely by hunting and trapping.

Costa Rica’s four species of sea turtle – olive ridley, leatherback, green and hawksbill – deservedly get a lot of attention. All four species are classified as endangered or critically endangered, meaning they face an imminent threat of extinction. While populations of some species are increasing, thanks to various protection programs along both coasts, the risk for these tortugas (turtles) is still very real.

Destruction of habitat is a huge problem. With the exception of the leatherbacks, all of these species return to their natal beach to nest, which means that the ecological state of the beach directly affects that turtle’s ability to reproduce. All of the species prefer dark, undisturbed beaches, and any sort of development or artificial lighting (including flashlights) will inhibit nesting.

Hunting and harvesting eggs are two major causes of declining populations. Green turtles are hunted for their meat. Leatherbacks and olive ridleys are not killed for meat, but their eggs are considered a delicacy – an aphrodisiac, no less. Hawksbill turtles are hunted for their unusual shells, which are sometimes used to make jewelry and hair ornaments. Of course, any trade in tortoiseshell products and turtle eggs and meat is illegal, but a significant black market exists.

The ultra-rare harpy eagle and the legendary quetzal – the birds at the top of every naturalist’s must-see list – teeter precariously as their home forests are felled at an alarming rate. Seeing a noisy scarlet macaw could be a birdwatching highlight in Costa Rica, but trapping for the pet trade has extirpated these magnificent birds from much of their former range. Although populations are thriving on the Península de Osa, the scarlet macaw is now extinct over most of Central America, including the entire Caribbean coast.

A number of Costa Rica’s mammals are highly endangered, including the elusive jaguar and the squirrel monkey, both due to destruction of habitat. The two survive in the depths of Parque Nacional Corcovado, with the latter also found in some numbers in Parque Nacional Manuel Antonio.

Harassment and intimidation of conservationists in Costa Rica is nothing new, and although the brutal murder of 26-year-old environmentalist Jairo Mora Sandoval in Limón Province in 2013 brought the issue to international attention, those accused of his murder were initially acquitted. In 2015, seven men were accused of Sandoval's murder. Four of the men were not convicted of murder but of assault, kidnapping and aggravated robbery for a crime that took place after Mora's murder. Then in 2016, after an appeal, the not-guilty verdict was overturned. Each of the men is serving 50 years in prison, the maximum sentence in Costa Rica.

National Parks & Protected Areas

The national-park system began in the 1960s, and has since been expanded into the Sistema Nacional de Areas de Conservación (National System of Conservation Areas; Sinac), with an astounding 186 protected areas, including 27 national parks, eight biological reserves, 32 protected zones, 13 forest reserves and 58 wildlife refuges. At least 10% of the land is strictly protected and another 17% is included in various multiple-use preserves. Costa Rican authorities take pride in the statistic that more than 27% of the country has been set aside for conservation, but multiple-use zones still allow farming, logging and other exploitation, so the environment within them is not totally protected. The smallest number might be the most amazing of all: Costa Rica's parks are a safe haven to approximately 5% of the world's wildlife species.

In addition to the system of national preserves, there are hundreds of small, privately owned lodges, reserves and haciendas (estates) that have been set up to protect the land. Many belong to longtime Costa Rican expats who decided that this country was the last stop in their journey along the 'gringo trail' in the 1970s and '80s. The abundance of foreign-owned protected areas is a bit of a contentious issue with Ticos. Although these are largely nonprofit organizations with keen interests in conservation, they are private and often cost money to enter. There's also a number of animal rescue and rehabilitation centers (also largely set up by expats), where injured and orphaned animals and illegal pets are rehabilitated and released into the wild, or looked after for life if they cannot be released.

Although the national-park system appears glamorous on paper, the Sinac authority still sees much work to be done. A report from several years ago amplified the fact that much of the protected area is, in fact, at risk. The government doesn’t own all of this land – almost half of the areas are in private hands – and there isn’t the budget to buy it. Technically, the private lands are protected from development, but there have been reports that many landowners are finding loopholes in the restrictions and selling or developing their properties, or taking bribes from poachers and illegal loggers in exchange for access.

On the plus side is a project by Sinac that links national parks and reserves, private reserves and national forests into 13 conservation areas. This strategy has two major effects. First, these 'megaparks' allow greater numbers of individual plants and animals to exist. Second, the administration of the national parks is delegated to regional offices, allowing a more individualized management approach. Each conservation area has regional and subregional offices charged with providing effective education, enforcement, research and management, although some regional offices play what appear to be only obscure bureaucratic roles.

In general, support for land preservation remains high in Costa Rica because it provides income and jobs to so many people, plus important opportunities for scientific investigation.

Environmental Issues

No other tropical country has made such a concerted effort to protect its environment, and a study published by Yale and Columbia Universities in 2012 ranked Costa Rica in the top five nations for its overall environmental performance. At the same time, as the global leader in the burgeoning ecotourism economy, Costa Rica is proving to be a case study in the pitfalls and benefits of this kind of tourism. The pressures of overpopulation, global climate change and dwindling natural resources have also made it a key illustration of the urgency of environmental protection.

Deforestation

Sometimes, when the traffic jams up around the endless San José sprawl, it is hard to keep in mind that this place was once covered in a lush, unending tropical forest. Tragically, after more than a century of clearing for plantations, agriculture and logging, Costa Rica lost about 80% of its forest cover before the government stepped in with a plan to protect what was left. Through its many programs of forest protection and reforestation, 54% of the country is forested once again – a stunning accomplishment.

Despite protection for two-thirds of the remaining forests, cutting trees is still a major problem for Costa Rica, especially on private lands that are being cleared by wealthy landowners and multinational corporations. Even within national parks, some of the more remote areas are being logged illegally because there is not enough money for law enforcement.

Apart from the loss of tropical forests and the plants and animals that depend on them, deforestation leads directly or indirectly to a number of other severe environmental problems. Forests protect the soil beneath them from the ravages of tropical rainstorms. After deforestation, much of the topsoil is washed away, lowering the productivity of the land and silting up watersheds and downstream coral reefs.

Cleared lands are frequently planted with a variety of crops, including acres of bananas, the production of which entails the use of pesticides as well as blue plastic bags to protect the fruit. Both the pesticides and the plastic end up polluting the environment. Cattle ranching has been another historical motivator for clear-cutting. It intensified during the 1970s, when Costa Rican coffee exports were waning in the global market.

Because deforestation plays a role in global warming, there is much interest in rewarding countries such as Costa Rica for taking the lead in protecting their forests. The US has forgiven millions of dollars of Costa Rica’s debt in exchange for increased efforts to preserve rainforests. The Costa Rican government itself sponsors a program that pays landowners for each hectare of forest they set aside, and has petitioned the UN for a global program that would pay tropical countries for their conservation efforts. Travelers interested in taking part in projects that can help protect Costa Rica’s trees should look to volunteer opportunities in conservation and forestry.

Tourism

The other great environmental issue facing Costa Rica comes from the country being loved to death, directly through the passage of around two million foreign tourists a year, and less directly through the development of extensive infrastructure to support this influx. For years, resort hotels and lodges continued to pop up, most notably on formerly pristine beaches or in the middle of intact rainforest. Too many of these projects were poorly planned, and they necessitate additional support systems, including roads and countless vehicle trips, with much of this activity unregulated and largely unmonitored.

As tourism continues to become a larger piece of the Costa Rican economy, the bonanza invites more and more development. Taking advantage of Costa Rica’s reputation as a green destination, developers promote mass tourism by building large hotels and package tours that, in turn, drive away wildlife, hasten erosion and strain local sewer and water systems. The irony is painful: these businesses threaten to ruin the very environment that they’re selling.

It’s worth noting that many private lodges and reserves are also doing some of the best conservation work in the country, and it’s heartening to run across the ever-increasing homespun efforts to protect Costa Rica’s environment, spearheaded by hardworking families or small organizations tucked away in some quiet corner of the country. These include projects to boost rural economies by raising native medicinal plants, efforts by villagers to document their local biodiversity, and resourceful fundraising campaigns to purchase endangered lands.

Sustainable Travel

Costa Rica’s visitors presently account for the largest sector of the national economy and thus have unprecedented power to protect this country. How? By spending wisely, asking probing questions about sustainability claims and simply avoiding businesses that threaten Costa Rica’s future.

In its purest form, sustainable tourism simply means striking the ideal balance between the traveler and their surrounding environment. This often includes being conscientious about energy and water consumption, and treading lightly on local environments and communities. Sustainable tourism initiatives support their communities by hiring local people for decent wages, furthering women’s and civil rights, and supporting local schools, artists and food producers.

On the road, engage with the local economy as much as possible; for example, if a local artisan’s handiwork catches your eye, make the purchase – every dollar infuses the micro-economy in the most direct (and rewarding) way.

Ecofriendly Credentials

Interpreting the jargon – ‘green,’ ‘sustainable,’ ‘low carbon footprint,’ ‘ecofriendly’ etc – can be confusing when every souvenir stall and tour operator claims to be ecofriendly. Since sustainable travel has no universal guidelines, here are some things to look for:

  • For hotels and restaurants, obvious recycling programs, effective management of waste water and pollutants, and alternative energy systems and natural illumination, at a bare minimum.
  • A high rating from a legitimate sustainability index. In Costa Rica, the government-sanctioned Certificado para la Sostenibilidad Turística (CST; www.turismo-sostenible.co.cr) offers a ‘five-leaf’ rating system. Factors considered by the CST include physical-biological parameters, infrastructure and services, and socioeconomic environment, including interaction with local communities. Its website has a complete directory.
  • Partnership with environmental conservation programs, education initiatives, or regional or local organizations that work on solving environmental problems.
  • Grassroots connections: sourcing a majority of employees from the local population, associating with locally owned businesses, providing places where local handicrafts can be displayed for sale, serving foods that support local markets, and using local materials and products in order to maintain the health of the local economy.

Feature: Don't Disturb the Dolphins

Swimming with dolphins has been illegal since 2006, although shady tour operators out for a quick buck may encourage it. Research indicates that in some heavily touristed areas, dolphins are leaving their natural habitat in search of calmer seas. When your boat comes across these amazing creatures of the sea, avoid the temptation to jump in with them – you can still have an awe-inspiring experience peacefully observing them without disturbing them.

Sidebar: Say No to Beef

The number-one reason for forest clearing in Central America is to graze cattle, mostly for export. Can’t give up eating beef? Consider going for more environmentally friendly domestic (US or Canadian) grass-fed beef.

Sidebar: Desalination Plants

Mangroves can survive in highly saline environments by secreting salt via the surface of their leaves, filtering it at the root level and accumulating it in bark and leaves that eventually fall off.

Sidebar: Organization for Tropical Studies

The world-famous Organization for Tropical Studies (www.ots.ac.cr) runs three field stations and offers numerous classes for students seriously interested in tropical ecology.

Sidebar: Poison-Dart Frogs

The eight species of poison-dart frog in Costa Rica are beautiful but have skin secretions of varying toxicity that cause paralysis and death if they get into your bloodstream.

Sidebar: Two-Toed Sloths

Two-toed sloths descend from the trees once a week to defecate.

Sidebar: A Naturalist in Costa Rica

Excellent, contemplative books on birds by the esteemed Dr Alexander Skutch include A Naturalist in Costa Rica and The Minds of Birds.

Sidebar: The Windward Road

Tales of the green turtle’s resurgence in Tortuguero are told by Archie Carr in The Windward Road: Adventures of a Naturalist on Remote Caribbean Shores.

Sidebar: Guanacaste

Costa Rica’s national tree is the guanacaste, commonly found in the lowlands of the Pacific slope.

Sidebar: Rainforest Alliance

Few organizations are as involved in building sustainable rainforest-based economies as the Rainforest Alliance (www.rainforest-alliance.org); see the website for special initiatives in Costa Rica.

Sidebar: Maps of National Parks

For maps and descriptions of the national parks, visit www.costarica-nationalparks.com.

Sidebar: Silk-Cotton Tree

The tallest tree in the rainforest is usually the ceiba (silk-cotton tree); the most famous example is a 77m elder in Corcovado.

Sidebar: Green Phoenix

Green Phoenix, by science journalist William Allen, is an absorbing account of his efforts, alongside scientists and activists, to conserve and restore the rainforest in Guanacaste.

Sidebar: National Biodiversity Institute

The National Biodiversity Institute (www.inbio.ac.cr) is a clearinghouse of information on both biodiversity and efforts to conserve it.

Sidebar: Tropical Hardwoods

Due to deforestation it is best to avoid products made from tropical hardwoods if you’re uncertain of their origin.

Costa Rican Wildlife Guide

Costa Rica’s reputation as a veritable Eden precedes it – with its iconic blue morpho butterflies, four species each of monkey and sea turtle, scarlet and great green macaws, two- and three-toed sloths, a rainbow of poison-dart frogs, mysterious tapirs and cute coatis.

Birds

  • Toucan Six species of this classic rainforest bird are found in Costa Rica. Huge bills and vibrant plumage make the commonly sighted chestnut-mandibled toucan and keel-billed toucan hard to miss. Listen for the keel-billed’s song: a repetitious ‘carrrick!’
  • Scarlet macaw Of more than a dozen parrot species in Costa Rica, none is as spectacular as the scarlet macaw. Unmistakable for its large size, bright-red body and ear-splitting squawk, it’s common in Parque Nacional Carara and the Península de Osa. Macaws have long, monogamous relationships and can live for 50 years.
  • Resplendent quetzal The most dazzling bird in Central America, the quetzal once held great ceremonial significance for the Aztecs and the Maya. Look for its iridescent-green body, red breast and long green tail at high elevations and near Parque Nacional Los Quetzales.
  • Roseate spoonbill This wading bird has a white head and a distinctive spoon-shaped bill, and feeds by touch. It's common around the Península de Nicoya, Pacific lowlands and on the Caribbean side at the Refugio Nacional de Vida Silvestre Caño Negro.
  • Tanager There are 42 species of tanager in the country – many are brightly colored and all have bodies about the size of an adult fist. Look for them everywhere except at high elevation. Their common name in Costa Rica is viuda (widow).
  • Hummingbird More than 50 species of hummingbird have been recorded – and most live at high elevations. The largest is the violet sabrewing, with a striking violet head and body and dark-green wings.

Feature: Yigüirro: Rainbird in a Plain Brown Coat

Among the more than 900 bird species that have been identified in Costa Rica, there are beauties of every size, shape, and color. They decorate paintings, postcards and all manner of touristic literature. Why, then, did Costa Ricans choose a rather plain brown robin (Turdus grayi) as its national bird in 1977?

The clay-colored thrush, or yigüirro (gee-wee-roh) in local parlance, has been known to Ticos since the nation’s colonial days, as it tends to live near human communities. It also has a range of at least seven lovely songs, and is said to be a harbinger of wet weather – indeed, some call it 'the bird that calls the rain.' Farmers love that sort of info: it tells them when the ideal planting time is, eventually yielding the greatest crop. Thus the bond between the bird and the farmer in what still is a strongly agricultural society.

The idea of naming the songster the national bird came from poet Eliseo Gamboa and is celebrated each December 16. Marco Tulio Castro and J. Daniel Zúñiga even wrote a song dedicated to the bird, which begins:

En las ramas escondido

no se cansa de cantar,

suena alegre junto al nido

campanitas de cristal.

Among the hidden branches

It never tires of singing

Sounding so happy in its nest

Like little glass bells.

Reptiles & Amphibians

  • Green iguana The stocky green iguana is regularly seen draping its 2m-long body along a branch. Despite their enormous bulk, iguanas are vegetarians, and prefer to eat young shoots and leaves. You’ll see them just about everywhere in Costa Rica – in fact, if you’re driving, beware of iguanas sunning themselves on or skittering across the roads.
  • Red-eyed tree frog The unofficial symbol of Costa Rica, the red-eyed tree frog has red eyes, a green body, yellow and blue side stripes, and orange feet. Despite this vibrant coloration, they’re well camouflaged in the rainforest and rather difficult to spot. Their presence is widespread apart from on the Península de Nicoya, which is too dry for them. You have a particularly good chance of seeing them at Estación Biológica La Selva.
  • Poison-dart frog Among the several species found in Costa Rica, the blue-jeans or strawberry poison-dart frog is the most commonly spotted, from Arenal to the Caribbean coast. These colorful, wildly patterned frogs’ toxic excretions were once used to poison indigenous arrowheads. The Golfo Dulce poison-dart frog is endemic to Costa Rica.
  • Crocodile Impressive specimens can be seen from Crocodile Bridge on the central Pacific coast or in a more natural setting on boat trips along the Tortuguero canals. Avoid swimming in these areas.
  • Viper Three serpents you’ll want to avoid are the fer-de-lance pit viper, which lives in agricultural areas of the Pacific and Caribbean slopes, the black-headed bushmaster (endemic to Costa Rica) and the beautiful eyelash pit viper, which lives in low-elevation rainforest. To avoid serious or fatal bites, watch your step and look before you grab onto any vines when hiking.

Marine Animals

  • Olive ridley turtle The smallest of Costa Rica’s sea turtles, the olive ridley is easy to love – it has a heart-shaped shell. Between September and October they arrive to nest at Ostional beach in Guanacaste province and near Ojochal on the Pacific coast.
  • Leatherback turtle The gigantic 360kg leatherback sea turtle is much, much bigger than the olive ridley, and is distinguished by its soft, leathery carapace, which has seven ridges. It nests on the Pacific beaches of the Osa and Nicoya peninsulas.
  • Whale Migrating whales, which arrive from both the northern and southern hemispheres, include orca, blue and sperm whales and several species of relatively unknown beaked whale. Humpback whales are commonly spotted along the Pacific coast and off the Península de Osa.
  • Bottlenose dolphin These charismatic, intelligent cetaceans are commonly sighted, year-round residents of Costa Rica. Keep a lookout for them on the boat ride to Bahía Drake.
  • Whale shark Divers may encounter this gentle giant in the waters off Reserva Biológica Isla del Caño, the Golfo Dulce or Isla del Coco. The world’s biggest fish, whale sharks can reach 6m long and more than 2000kg in weight.
  • Manta ray With wings that can reach 7m, the elegant manta ray is common in warm Pacific waters, especially off the coast of Guanacaste and around the Bat and Catalina islands.
  • Hammerhead shark The intimidating hammerhead has a unique cephalofoil that enables it to maneuver with incredible speed and precision. Divers can see enormous schools of hammerheads around the remote Isla del Coco.

Land Mammals

  • Sloth Costa Rica is home to the brown-throated, three-toed sloth and Hoffman’s two-toed sloth (nocturnal). Both species tend to hang seemingly motionless from branches, their coats growing moss. Look for them in Parque Nacional Manuel Antonio.
  • Howler monkey The loud vocalizations of a male mantled howler monkey can carry for more than 1km even in dense rainforest, and they echo through many of the country's national parks.
  • White-faced capuchin The small and inquisitive white-faced capuchin has a prehensile tail that is typically carried with the tip coiled – one is likely to steal your lunch near Volcán Arenal or Parque Nacional Manuel Antonio.
  • Squirrel monkey The adorable, diminutive squirrel monkey travels in small- to medium-sized groups during the day, in search of insects and fruit. They live only along the Pacific coast and are common in Parque Nacional Manuel Antonio and on the Península de Nicoya.
  • Jaguar The king of Costa Rica’s big cats, the jaguar is extremely rare, shy and well camouflaged, so the chance of seeing one is virtually nil (but the likeliest place is Parque Nacional Corcovado).
  • White-nosed coati A frequently seen member of the raccoon family, with a longer, slimmer and lighter body than your average raccoon. It has a distinctive pointy, whitish snout and a perky striped tail.
  • Baird’s tapir A large browsing mammal related to the rhinoceros, the tapir has a characteristic prehensile snout and lives deep in forests ranging from the Península de Osa to Parque Nacional Santa Rosa.

Insects & Arachnids

  • Blue morpho butterfly The blue morpho butterfly flutters along tropical rivers and through openings in the forests. When it lands, the electric-blue upper wings close, and only the mottled brown underwings become visible, an instantaneous change from outrageous display to modest camouflage.
  • Tarantula Easily identified by its enormous size and hairy appendages, the Costa Rican red tarantula is an intimidating arachnid that can take down a mouse, but although its bite may cause as much pain as a bee sting, its venom is harmless to humans. They are most active at night while foraging and seeking mates.
  • Hercules beetle Turn on your flashlight while visiting one of Costa Rica’s old-growth forests and you might draw out the Hercules beetle, one of the largest bugs in the world, a terrifying-looking but utterly harmless scarab beetle that can be as big as a cake plate. Fun fact: it can carry over 100 times its own body weight.
  • Leaf-cutter ant Long processions of busy leaf-cutter ants traverse the forest floors and trails of Costa Rica, appearing like slow-moving rivulets of green leaf fragments. Leaf-cutter ants are actually fungus farmers – in their underground colonies, the ants chew the harvested leaves into a pulp to precipitate the growth of fungus, which feeds the colonies. Don’t confuse them with the predatory army ants!

Life in the Cloud Forest

To explore the Monteverde cloud forest is to arrive at the pinnacle of Costa Rica’s continental divide. A blast of swirling, misty euphoria surrounds you, where lichen-draped trees soar, exotic birds gossip, and orchids and bromeliads bloom. Life is abundant, throbbing and palpable.

Birds

Playing an important role in the pollination of orchids and other blooming plants, hummingbirds are among the most visible of the cloud-forest creatures. Their unique ability to fly in place, backwards and upside down allows them to drink on the fly, as it were. There are some 30 species buzzing around; check them out at Cafe Colibri, just outside the Monteverde reserve.

You’ll hear the three-wattled bellbird long before you see it, as the male's distinctive song is supposedly one of the loudest bird calls on earth. As you might guess, the male has three long wattles hanging from its beak.

The most famous cloud-forest resident is the resplendent quetzal. This exotic beauty lives up to its name, and males have long plumes of jade green and electric blue. Quetzals move seasonally between elevations, but if you’re in the right place at the right time, a good bird guide should be able to find one.

Flora

The most abundant life form in the cloud forest, epiphytes seem to take over the trees they are growing on, yet they are not parasites and they do not harm their hosts. These clever plants get their nutrients from the floating mist, which explains their exposed roots. Look closely, and you’ll see that one tree might be covered in dozens of epiphytes. This is one of the major reasons that cloud forests can claim such biodiversity: in Monteverde it’s estimated that epiphytes represent almost 30% of the flora species.

The biggest family of epiphytes is the orchids, with nearly 500 species (the greatest diversity of orchids on the planet). Most amazingly, this figure includes some 34 endemic species – those that do not exist anywhere else.

Quaker Connection

The Quakers were the original conservationists here. In the early 1950s, about a dozen pacifist farming families decided to leave the US so that they would not be drafted to fight in the Korean War. They settled in this remote perch and called it Monteverde (literally, ‘Green Mountain’). They have been actively involved in protecting this unique environment ever since. Walking with Wolf, by Kay Chornook, tells the story of one of these pioneers, Wolf Guindon, who helped establish the Cloud Forest Preserve

Two Forests, Two Ecosystems

Warm, humid trade winds from the Caribbean sweep up forested slopes to the Reserva Biológica Bosque Nuboso Monteverde, where they cool and condense into clouds that congregate over the nearby Reserva Santa Elena. The two forests are each rich in diversity and oxygen, but the slight temperature and topographical differences mean that each has its own unique ecosystem.

What’s That Address?

Though some larger cities have streets that have been dutifully named, signage is rare in Costa Rica and finding a Tico who knows what street they are standing on is even rarer. Everybody uses landmarks when providing directions; an address may be given as 200m south and 150m east of a church. A city block is cien metros – literally 100m – so 250 metros al sur means ‘2½ blocks south,' regardless of the distance. Churches, parks, office buildings, fast-food joints and car dealerships are the most common landmarks used – but these are often meaningless to the foreign traveler, who will have no idea where the Subaru dealership is to begin with. Even more confusingly, Ticos frequently refer to landmarks that no longer exist. In San Pedro, outside San José, locals still use the site of an old fig tree (el antiguo higuerón) to provide directions.

Confused? Get used to it…

Costa Rica’s Sex Trade

Exit the baggage claim at the international airport in San José and you’ll be welcomed by a sign that reads ‘In Costa Rica sex with children under 18 is a serious crime. Should you engage in it we will drive you to jail.’ For decades, travelers have arrived in Costa Rica in search of sandy beaches and lush mountainscapes; unfortunately, an unknown percentage of them also come in search of sex – not all of it legal.

Prostitution by men and women over the age of 18 is legal. With the tourist juggernaut of the last few decades has come unwanted illicit activities at its fringes – namely child prostitution and human trafficking. Sex with a minor in Costa Rica is illegal, carrying a penalty of up to 10 years in jail, but child prostitution has nonetheless grown. In fact, a number of aid groups, along with the country’s national child-welfare agency (Patronato Nacional de la Infancia; PANI), estimate that there may be more than 3000 child prostitutes in San José alone. In turn, this has led to women and children being trafficked for the purpose of sexual exploitation, as documented in a 2008 report issued by the US Department of State.

Alarm over the problem has increased steadily since 1999, when the UN Committee on Human Rights issued a statement saying that it was ‘deeply concerned’ about child-sex tourism in Costa Rica. Since then, the government has established national task forces to combat the problem, trained the police force in how to deal with issues of child exploitation and formed a coalition against human trafficking. But enforcement remains weak – largely due to lack of personnel and lack of funding. Meanwhile the US – the principal source of sex tourists to Costa Rica – has made it a prosecutable crime for Americans to have sex with minors anywhere in the world.

Along with Thailand and Cambodia, Costa Rica is one of the most popular sex-tourism destinations in the world, according to Ecpat International, a nonprofit dedicated to ending child prostitution. The phenomenon has been magnified by the internet: entire sex-tourism websites chronicle – in detail – where and how to find sex. In all of these, Costa Rica figures prominently.

Various organizations fight the sexual exploitation of children in Costa Rica. See the websites of Ecpat International (www.ecpat.org) and Cybertipline (www.cybertipline.com) to learn more about the problem or to report any incidents you encounter.