November 1, 2014

Nature Calls in Costa Rica

More than a quarter of this lush Central American country
is protected in national parks and preserves

By Elizabeth Armstrong

Vacations Magazine: Nature Calls in Costa Rica
Grabj/Fotolia.com
Howler monkeys screech in the treetops, butterflies flit among sweet-smelling flowers, and iguanas eye you warily as you sit poolside. Welcome to the natural wonders of Costa Rica.

This sliver of a country, squeezed between Nicaragua and Panama and touched by the Caribbean and Pacific oceans, is one of the world's most biodiverse spots. About 26 percent of its territory is designated as a national park or conservation area. It's a world-class ecotourism destination, luring visitors who want to swim and surf at secluded beaches, raft the rivers and explore the rain forests, all while enjoying the famous hospitality of the Ticos, as Costa Ricans are known.

"It appeals to the active traveler, the adventurous person," says Houstonian Kari Lee, who spent nine days in Costa Rica, splitting her time between Arenal Volcano, one of several active volcanoes in the country, and the Guanacaste province.

Red-hot lava flows down the slopes of 5,435-foot-high Arenal on an almost daily basis, and visitors staying in hotels near the site have a good chance of catching the dramatic scene. "At night, if the clouds aren't too bad, you can see the lava," says Lee. "You can also hear it -- it sounds like thunder, but it's the volcano."

All the rooms at Arenal Paraiso, for example, have balconies with views of the volcano. Guests can unwind in about a dozen thermal hot springs pools found throughout the resort, which is located about two and a half hours north of the capital, San Jose. Soothing springs also run through the tropical gardens of Tabacon Grand Spa Thermal Resort, where they range in temperature from 81 to 108 degrees Fahrenheit.

Fans of the all-inclusive concept will find the most options in the Guanacaste province of far northwest Costa Rica. Choices include the five-star Paradisus Playa Conchal, whose 2,400 acres hug the Pacific coast. It features a kids' club for youngsters ages 5 to 12, an 18-hole golf course designed by Robert Trent Jones II, a spa and gym, tennis courts, casino and an array of water sports.

Meanwhile, guests at Allegro Papagayo have three restaurants, four bars and a black-sand beach at their disposal. These and other all-inclusive properties in Guanacaste roll accommodations, meals, drinks and many activities into one price that's paid up front.

It's not uncommon to see giant iguanas roaming a resort's grounds, and to hear the shrieks of howler monkeys. "They're loud," Lee says of the primates, which can be hard to spot. Look up when you hear their calls and scan the tree branches for a glimpse.

Your best chance to learn about the country's wildlife is on an escorted tour, where naturalists and local guides lead daily excursions into national parks and preserves. For example, the eight-day "Costa Rica Eco Adventure" from Brendan Worldwide Vacations highlights some of the most popular conservation areas, starting with Tortuguero National Park on the Caribbean coast. It's a crucial breeding ground for endangered green sea turtles. Tortuguero can only be reached by boat, and guests slowly cruise its canals and lagoons, keeping watch for sloths, lizards, crocodiles, toucans and egrets.

The tour also spends a day in the Monteverde Cloud Forest, where hummingbirds and the colorful, long-tailed quetzal bird can be spotted. You'll explore the park via a series of six suspension bridges wedged in the treetops, giving you a unique point of view that can't compare to what you'd see from the ground.

What's the difference between a rain forest and a cloud forest? It doesn't rain as much in the cloud forest, and species of flora and fauna vary between the two. Cloud forests cover the upper slopes of mountains and volcanoes, and they're the most lush of the tropical forests, with moss and small plants covering tree trunks and branches. Rain forests, found more in the lowlands and southwest parts of the country, feature very high tree canopies and little plant growth on the dimly lighted forest floor.

Costa Rica's pristine beaches draw vacationers pining for sweeping stretches of sand and crystal-clear waters. The low-key "Costa Rica Shipwrecked" package from G.A.P. Adventures spends several languid days in Puerto Viejo on the Caribbean side. It includes accommodations at the Hotel Escape Caribeno, a cluster of 14 bungalows on Salsa Brava Beach. Guests can choose from an array of optional activities available for an extra fee, such as excursions to waterfalls, rafting trips and tours of botanical and butterfly gardens.

Travelers on this G.A.P. getaway also spend a day in coastal Cahuita National Park, hiking the trails with a guide (look for howler and white-faced monkeys, sloths and parrots), and then snorkeling the reef (home to more than 120 species of fish and 35 types of coral).

G.A.P. Adventures specializes in active vacations that make minimal environmental impact. Its "Costa Rica Hike, Bike and Raft" trip packs a variety of adrenaline-pumping pursuits into a 15-day itinerary, while the "Learn to Surf" jaunt spends a week at the Zopilote Surf Camp at Playa Hermosa de Cobano.

Several cruise lines incorporate Costa Rican ports when sailing the Panama Canal on either full or partial transits. Puntarenas, on the Pacific coast, is featured on the Panama Canal itineraries of Celebrity Cruises, Norwegian Cruise Line, Princess Cruises and Royal Caribbean International. Passengers can disembark and join shore excursions to Monteverde Cloud Forest or Arenal Volcano, or to an orchid farm or scarlet macaw sanctuary.

Puerto Limon is featured in Caribbean and Panama Canal sailings by Holland America Line, Carnival Cruise Lines and Princess Cruises. Excursions from this disembarkation point include rain forest canopy tours, off-road adventures, horseback rides through the jungle and tubing down rivers. You can also tour sugarcane, pineapple and banana plantations.

One cruise line, Windstar Cruises, devotes an entire week to Costa Rica. The 148-passenger Wind Star meanders along the country's Pacific coast on round-trip sailings from Puerto Caldera. The small size of the masted sailing ship, called a motor-sail yacht, allows it to maneuver into five less-traveled Costa Rican ports, such as Puerto Quepos, a former banana-exporting town where visitors can trek trails to waterfalls or ride horses to hidden jungle pools.

It also visits the privately owned reserve at Curu, where ocelots, capuchin monkeys and anteaters dwell, and Tortuga Island, perfect for a lazy day of swimming and snorkeling. Check cabin rates at the site of cruise discounter Vacations To Go.

Whether you sample Costa Rica during a brief cruise port call or spend a week exploring its forests, rivers, springs and beaches, the splendid natural beauty of this tiny country is bound to make a big impression.

The information in this story was accurate at the time it was published in July/August 2009.


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