Costa Rica stands out as a beacon of light in a region historically rife with civil wars, revolutions, political uprisings and natural disasters. The country is often described as the Switzerland of Central America. But not only is Costa Rica the safest and most developed of the Central American countries, its natural beauty is unrivalled by any other – so much so that it attracts more than one million visitors each year while being itself home to less than four million people.
Costa Rica’s reputation as an ecological wonderland and one of the world’s greatest eco-tourist destinations is certainly fitting. The country simply overwhelms the beholder with its stunning landscapes, rare and exotic flora and fauna, and extensive system of national parks and reserves. The terrains in Costa Rica are gorgeously diverse and include mystical cloud forests, active smoke-emitting volcanoes, pristine azure crater lakes, cool mountain valleys streamed by rushing rivers, hilly coffee plantations amid flat banana groves, and tropical stretches of palm and even rainforest-fringed beaches that are scattered with fallen coconuts and pineapples.
Most impressive, however, is the fact that some five percent of the world’s total biodiversity is found in this diminutive country; its national parks are home to more than 850 different species of birds, over 200 mammals, at least 375 different reptiles and amphibians, and more than 9,000 different flower species, including 1,200 varieties of orchids. Costa Rica’s beaches are also superb, offering coasts that are fit for world-class surfing and whitewater rafting. And whether it is in the country’s natural reserves or by its coasts, there are numerous eco-lodges, hotels and resorts for the comfort-desiring traveler.
There is much to do in Costa Rica, although most of it involves the great outdoors since the country has few cultural, historical, or man-made sites. Costa Rica’s streaming rivers that wind down the country’s valleys are perfect for whitewater rafting. The jungle waterways that float through the rainforests are great for canoeing, kayaking, and observing the endemic wildlife and birds. The stretches of beaches along the Caribbean and Pacific coasts with its coral formations, rugged islands, and thunderous waves are great for swimming, sunbathing, fishing, sea kayaking, sailing, diving, snorkeling, and surfing.
Some of the country’s main attractions in the north include Parque Nacional Tortuguero, Reserva Santa Elena, Rara Avis Nature Reserve, and Volcán Arenal. Parque Nacional Tortuguero is a national beach park teeming with wildlife, birds, and green turtles. Reserva Santa Elena is a virgin cloud rainforest with bright colored birds and flowers. Rara Avis is a remote private rainforest reserve offering excellent trails through forests and waterfalls inhabited by an abundance of rare palm species, orchids, and toucans. And Volcán Arenal is an active volcano that still spews molten red lava at nights, offering not only spectacular pyrotechnic displays but also great hiking trails around the volcano’s lava fields.
In the central Orosí river valley, you should find a more peaceful setting that is less visited by tourists. The region consists of steep forested hills and trails that take you through waterfalls, small villages, and natural swimming pools as well as natural hot springs.
In the southeast Caribbean coast, the main attraction is Puerto Viejo, a fishing village with the liveliest beachside nightlife and some of the best surfing and snorkeling spots.
In the southwest, the Osa Peninsula while obscure and not as oft-visited is a real treat for those who somehow find this hidden treasure of a region. The peninsula is mainly occupied by the Corcovado National Park, which is difficult to get to. The park, though, is one of Costa Rica’s most beautiful, consisting of rainforest-fringed beaches and natural marine habitats at Bahía Drake teeming with diverse underwater life.
Culturally, Costa Ricans are more mainstream “western” than their Latin American brothers. The only cultural diversity you will experience in this country is in the Caribbean coast around Puerto Limon where there is a Jamaican and mestizo population.
Costa Ricans speak a fair bit of English, largely due to the hundreds of thousands of English-speaking tourists who visit the country each year.
Costa Rica is one of the safest countries in Central America. Crime still exists in the large cities and at night, but is much less infrequent or dangerous compared to the northern countries of El Salvador, Nicaragua, Guatemala, and Honduras.