This giant strangler fig tree is just outside of Corcovado National Park, on the Osa Peninsula.
Distinctive Features of Costa Rica
Though the national park system didn’t get started until the 1970s, an impressive 25% of this small Central American republic is currently set aside in parks and reserves. Costa Rica hosts more than 5% of the world’s known plant and animal species on just .03% of the world’s land mass. Mountain ranges that form the country’s interior are studded with dozens of volcanoes, many still boisterously active. It has equally beautiful but very different Atlantic and Pacific Ocean coasts to explore and enjoy. The country rates high in developing world ethical travel reports that measure environmental protection, social development, and human rights record. When Costa Rica abolished the army in 1949, it poured more money into accessible education and its socialized medical system.
The tangle of rivers and canals along Costa Rica’s north Caribbean coast largely serve as that region’s highway system. But instead of traffic-clogged clover leafs and road kill, you’ll find brightly-painted dugout canoes and abundant river life. Herons and egrets lurk at the water’s edge, keeping a sharp eye out for the shrimp that congregate around floating water hyacinth. Iguanas sun themselves on vine-draped branches arching over the water. Crocodiles and caimans glide along half-submerged in murky canals. On the ocean beach side, waves of sea turtles arrive on their annual migrations to lay eggs in the sand.
To access the mostly road-free northern Caribbean coast, visitors either fly or catch a boat upriver from Caño Blanco.
So I bragged to my friend from New York. I’d arranged a holiday itinerary to show her my newly adopted country in ten days. The first leg of our trip was a short flight by light plane from the capital, San José, where I live to an overgrown landing strip outside Tortuguero, a carless hamlet high up the northeast coast and built on a sandy bar between river and sea. From there, we took a small boat across the river to Tortuga Lodge, a rustically lovely place right on the water’s edge.
With healthy populations in rivers and canals along the Caribbean coast, adult caiman average six feet in length.
Like any fresh convert, I was full of amazing facts about Costa Rica, but my friend and I were equally ignorant of how best to explore the riverine wonders just outside our door. Swimming was out of the question — talk of crocodiles quickly dimmed that urge! The lodge had kayaks, but those, we feared, would put us alarmingly close to the water, and therefore to the toothy hello of any large reptiles lurking nearby. One rather embarrassing option remained: rickety paddlewheel boats set high on pontoons, labeling us more suitable for an amusement park than one of Costa Rica’s ecotourism hotspot.
I wondered — what would Columbus have thought? — paddle-boating out to meet the explorer when he arrived with four ships on the Atlantic coast in 1502. Lacking paddleboats, local inhabitants swam out to the ships then with gifts of finely woven cloth and dazzling jewelry. Columbus thought the jewelry was gold but it was actually tumbago, an alloy of copper and gold. Thus the country got its name – Rich Coast or Costa Rica – from an explorer who wildly overestimated its worth. In fact, Costa Rica would become one of Spain’s poorest colonies, a place where even the governor had to work his own fields. This set the stage for Costa Rica’s true source of wealth, forging it into a modern country of equals, a place less plagued with the huge gulf between rich and poor that handicaps surrounding countries to this day.
Like many of Costa Rica’s volcanoes, Volcán Arenal remains dramatically active and an ecotourism magnet for visitors.
With 23 major eruptions in less than 200 years, Volcán Irazu is Costa Rica’s highest volcano. It is accessible by road right to the lip of its spectacular 11,000 foot peak.
I too have encountered misunderstandings of modern Costa Rica’s worth. Some friends and colleagues label it a paradise, compelling me to complicate this dream with a dose of reality. Others declare Costa Rica to be overrated, with skyrocketing prices, North Americans moving there in droves, wildlife retreating further from visibility. Predictably, many with the strongest opinions have never traveled to the country. Instead of chasing dreams of unspoiled paradise, I urge them to consider which countries do right by their people and their environment. Costa Rica is one of them.
A typical farmer’s market on the edge of the capital, San José.
But of course traveling or living abroad is not all about rational pros and cons. What compels us to pack up our lives and try a brand new place is a mysterious thing. One of the biggest draws, for me at least, is surprise. As much as I read in advance, what I’m really looking for is what I couldn’t possibly have anticipated. The surprise of how my daily life plays out in a new country — the unfamiliar fruits and vegetables, the different sense of personal space on city streets and public buses. Saying hello (“adios“) with a word you thought meant goodbye. Welcoming the unfamiliar as it comes at you, breaching the surface even when you’ve got only a flimsy paddleboat for protection.
The black sand beach bordering Cahuita National Park on the southeast Caribbean coast is safe for swimming and snorkeling.
In our Tortuguero jungle, my New York friend and I each paddled our boats upriver, perched high above the water, drawing each other’s attention to this bird, that iguana, or an enormous shadow in the water that– oh my tropical god! — was coming right at us! Or rather, right at me. A very bulky something was just under the water, moving fast. Was it a crocodile? Or a shark swimming upriver from the nearby confluence of river and sea? My flimsy, unstable boat was no match for anything that size.
“Paddle!” shouted my friend. “Paddle out of there!”
I paddled so hard the boat started to rock violently. I tried evasive maneuvers to get out of the shadow’s path, but I discovered that a paddleboat has about as much handling power as a bean bag chair.
At about five feet in front of me, the shadow surfaced. Face to face with a half ton manatee, its whiskers making it look like an enormous flippered cat, I tried to recall that I liked surprises. But when the startled beast swatted my boat with its tail, the surprise just about sent me into the river. I watched the lovely (now that it was leaving) creature swim away, and vowed never to assume I knew what my new home would serve up next.
Erin’s Rare Privilege: Few People in Costa Rica Will Ever See a Manatee!
Tortuguero’s fragile manatee population was thought to be extinct until a population was found in some remote lagoons. Traditionally they have been hunted for their flesh, reputedly tender and delicious, and for their very tough hides, but the greatest threat of late has been chemicals and sediments washing into the waterways from banana plantations.
A decade ago a scientific study indicated that about 100 manatees inhabited the area. The population seems to be growing. They are rarely seen, although in 2003 one appeared in Tortuguero’s main canal for the first time.
Excerpted from Moon Handbooks Costa Rica, 9th edition by Christopher P. Baker.
One of Costa Rica’s few remaining native crafts is the kaleidoscopic hand-painting of wooden ox cart wheels.
Follow Up Facts
Costa Rican National Parks website, www.centralamerica.com/cr/parks.
Costa Rica Tourism Institute website, www.visitcostarica.com.
Recommended references: Moon Handbooks Costa Rica by Christopher P. Baker, and Erin Van Rheenen’s Living Abroad in Costa Rica.
Costa Rica Expeditions is one of the oldest and most respected tour companies and lodge accommodators in Costa Rica. They run Tortuga Lodge.
We also recommend two other richly-illustrated feature articles in our Travel Article Library: one about Costa Rica’s Community-Based Eco-Lodges and another about Costa Rica’s Five Best National Parks.
The author of Living Abroad in Costa Rica, Erin Van Rheenen began her career as a serial relocater at age three, when her parents moved the family from Portland, Oregon, to Lagos, Nigeria. Most of her adopted locales, however, turned out to be in Latin America, including Ecuador, Guatemala, Mexico, and of course Costa Rica. She now divides her time between San Francisco, California, and San Jose, Costa Rica. For information about Erin’s relocation seminars, tours, and private consultations, visit www.LivingAbroadinCostaRica.com.