The flight south from steamy Miami to theCosta Rican capital city of San José takes lessthan 2 1/2 hours. That's enough time to consumea modest airline lunch, watch a couplein-cabin TV shows, and read a feature story about howCosta Rica has become the hot new destination for familieswho want to vacation with Mother Nature.
This remarkable Central American country, which isabout the size of West Virginia, is sandwiched between 2other countries: Nicaragua to the north and Panama tothe south. Costa Rica's highly intelligent population isobsessed with preserving their nation's fragile ecology,and have turned 28% of the entire country into highlyprotected national parks, national forests, and other preservedpieces of beach and jungle.
Mother Nature's Country
Costa Rica's attractive Pacific coast has bays, islands,inlets, and rivers. Tour operators like Wilderness Travel(800-368-2794; www.wildernesstravel.com) offer manyways to explore the area, including hiking, horsebackriding, snorkeling, scuba diving, and white water rafting.Getting from national park to national park usuallyinvolves a bus ride over the mountains and volcanoes,which run through the center of Costa Rica.
White-face and ti-ti monkeys scamper around theHotel El Parador's (506-290-7931) dozen acres. TheLapa Rios Inn (506-735-5130), situated 350 feet abovesea level, has trails that climb 3 mountain ridges. LaMansion Inn (506-777-3489; www.lamansioninn.com)boasts Costa Rica's only underground cave bar. The Innis run by Harry Bodaan, former general manager of theWashington, DC, National Press Club.
Every resort in Costa Rica supplies guests with anexperienced guide. The best guides can turn a casual hikeor walk through the rain forest into an exciting adventure.Top guides usually carry a telescope and tripod, sothat when they spot something interesting, everyone onthe trek can get a good, close-up look at it. These guidesknow that when you're exploring Costa Rica, you'rebound to spot something interesting.
Creatures Big and Small
Costa Rica boasts 10,000 kinds of plants, 850 differentbirds, and 500 species of mammals, reptiles, andamphibians. There's plenty to see, but you have to lookclosely. The biggest local animal is the jaguar.Fortunately, this sleek animal moves mostly at night andtends to steer clear of humans. One of Costa Rica's mostfascinating creatures is the green turtle, which crawlsup onto the beaches to lay eggs.
With so much to see, there's little time to blink. Oneminute the guide is pointing toward the sky and we'relooking up at the rain forest canopy, more than 100 feetoverhead. The next minute we're looking down towardthe ground at an army of ants that stretches at least 1mile long. Each ant held a bit of a leaf that was twice itssize. Upon closer inspection, the army of ants looked likea parade of sailboats.
Of course, there's another good reason to look downwhile you're walking around Costa Rica: the fer-delance.The fer-de-lance is a 3-foot viper that has a deadlybite. "If he nips you," our guide warned, "I haveabout a dozen hours to get you to a doctor before you'redead." Everyone spent more time looking down at theirshoes after the warning.
Rain Forest Adventures
Much of the wildlife in Costa Rica is more than 100feet up in the rain forest canopy. Costa Rica's tourism entrepreneurs have invented anunusual way to see the huge-billed toucans, crimson parrots,and howler monkeys up-close and personal.Canopy Tours (506-257-5149; www.canopytour.com)has constructed a national network of devices to hoisttravelers up into the treetops.
After deciding to sample the device, we hiked to thetop of a cliff and slipped into a harness. Each harness isattached to wheels that roll along hundreds of yards ofcable. The cable, which starts at the cliff and connectstreetop to treetop, extends along the roof of the rain forest10 floors above the ground. Each harness is equippedwith a hand brake that gliders can use if they want toslow down or stop and checkout the wildlife.
Our favorite Costa Rican wildlife moment occurredwhen we were getting ready to climb aboard a tiny zodiacmotorboat. A brazen and curious brown pelicandecided that riding with us would be less strenuous thanflying. As we nosed out into the surf, it fluttered onto thebow, made itself comfortable, and rode with us acrossthe bay. When we finally reached our destination, itwaddled ashore without even getting its feet wet.
For free tourism information on Costa Rica, contactthe Ministry of Tourism at 800-343-6322. To makereservations, call TravelWeb Costa Rica at 800-788-7857, or visit www.crica.com.