By Victor Block
I knew before traveling to Costa Rica that it’s famous for preserving its magnificent environment. I was aware of the diversity of landscapes and animal life. But only after visiting did I fully appreciate the fact that so much variety is compressed into an area about one-half the size of Maine.
The setting changes quickly and frequently in the compact Central American country. An uphill climb can transport you from an Amazon-like jungle to an alpine woodland. Dry stretches of forest and pockets of verdant wetlands lie in the shadow of volcanoes.
An astounding array of animal, bird and plant life is always close at hand. Because so much of the miniscule country is preserved in its natural state, you’re never far from Mother Nature.
In order to experience as much as possible of what Costa Rica has to offer, my wife Fyllis and I traveled there with a tour operator. We chose Overseas Adventure Travel (OAT), and the inviting itinerary allowed us to pack as many experiences as possible into every hour of every day.
One typical day included a visit to an OAT-sponsored school, a traditional lunch with a local family and a guided horseback ride through a dense forest. Another began with a hands-on tortilla-making lesson followed by opportunities to view giant crocodiles at close range, and ended with a visit to one of Costa Rica’s most beautiful beaches.
Most time was spent animal watching and exploring vast stretches of the unspoiled environment. Those two activities are closely intertwined, for the major emphasis put upon preservation provides the diverse landscapes that sustain the even greater variety of wildlife.
About 28 percent of Costa Rica is set aside in national parks, wildlife refuges and reserves. Fyllis and I hiked in Manuel Antonio National Park, which is one of the most bio-diverse areas in the world. Its varied terrain includes a luxuriant rain forest, bird sanctuaries and four inviting beaches.
Even more dramatic is the Monteverde Cloud Forest, a 26,000-acre preserve that spills down the Caribbean and Pacific slopes of the Tilaran mountain range. The setting lives up to its name. Warm air rising from the tropical coast condenses into a persistent fog and mist. Because sunlight has trouble breaking through the constant thick veil of clouds and dense tree canopy, plant life reaches upward, covering every tree trunk and branch with a proliferation of velvet-like green accented by colorful flowers. More than 3,000 kinds of plants call Monteverde their home, including over 500 types of orchids, the largest diversity of that flowering plant in the world.
We explored the dream-like setting by means of six suspension bridges, one almost 1,000 feet long, that wind their way through the high tree canopy about 425 feet above the ground. They provide both a bird’s-eye outlook over the forest below, and close-up views of plant, bird and animal life that thrive in the mysterious treetop world.
A sign at the entrance to the Cloud Forest notes that 126 species of mammals and 448 types of birds live there. Mammals include jaguars, pumas, ocelots, sloths and tapir. We heard the roar-like sounds of accurately named howler monkeys screaming from treetops, but had trouble spotting those noisy but elusive critters.
The incredibly rich diversity of trees, plants and flowers is the major appeal of the Monteverde Cloud Forest. Elsewhere in Costa Rica, on the other hand, wildlife is the main attraction. More than 1,000 species of butterflies dot the landscape with a myriad of colors, and some 850 types of birds have been identified.
When Christopher Columbus arrived in 1502 he chose the name Costa Rica, or “rich coast,” because he believed the land would yield a vast treasure of gold. However, Spanish conquistadors soon realized they would not discover the mineral wealth they had hoped to find.
Visitors today discover wealth of a different kind. They’re sure to leave Costa Rica with memories of a magnificent natural setting, extraordinary assortment of wildlife and people who value and protect the riches that Mother Nature has bestowed upon them.
If you go …
Overseas Adventure Travel offers trips to nearly six dozen countries from Albania to Zimbabwe, and limits land excursions to a maximum of 16 people. It will offer a choice of three 13-day itineraries to Costa Rica during 2013, with prices beginning at $2,395. For more information visit oattravel.com or call 800-955-1925.