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Exploring a Compact Costa Rica

September 14, 1997|LUCY IZON | Izon is a Toronto-based freelance writer. She can be reached at

Costa Rica, the tiny country tucked between Nicaragua and Panama, is popular with North American travelers because of its reputation for being relatively peaceful and safe. Between 1989 and 1993 the number of visitors doubled. This has led to the development of new tourism opportunities and put a strain on others.

With all the growth and change, a current guidebook can be well worth its price. "Costa Rica," by Rob Rachowiecki ($17.95, Lonely Planet), is one of the best choices. An updated third edition was published this summer.

Christopher Columbus met natives on Costa Rica's Caribbean shore in 1502 during his fourth voyage to the Americas. Because they were wearing gold, the Spanish hoped that this meant the land would have more to offer (for these early explorers, it didn't).

But today's visitors will feel as though they have hit pay dirt. The country is so compact that the longest bus ride from San Jose (the capital) costs less than $7. Visitors can travel easily and cheaply to see tropical rain forests, smoking volcanoes, giant leatherback turtles laying their eggs and sandy beaches popular with surfers.

One of the special features of the country is that about 27% of the land is protected, 11% of that by national parks. For its size, it has some of the most varied flora and fauna on the planet. There are 850 species of birds, more than 200 species of mammals, about 1,400 tree species and more than 35,000 known species of insects. The country is only 19,730 square miles and is split in half vertically by a line of volcanic mountains.

"Costa Rica" includes practical information on how to get around, what to see, where to stay, and details on sporting opportunities from hiking and horseback riding to surfing and river rafting. Readers find out the best times to visit certain regions (there are two seasons: wet, April to December and dry the rest of the year) and detailed information on the ecology and environment. Plus, there is a 35-page wildlife guide with color photographs.

A small hostel network affiliated with Hostelling International is listed. Beds cost as little as $8 per night. In some cases, hotels or lodges have made an arrangement with HI and also will provide budget accommodations for members, with rates about $40 per night.

For the novice international traveler, the guide will introduce some of the quirky problems that arise in developing countries. Your hotel might not have hot water, or you might have to figure out how to work an electric shower, which is a heating element in the shower head that heats the cold water. He warns: "Don't touch anything metal while you're in the shower . . . the power is never high enough to actually throw you across the room, but it's unpleasant nevertheless--like holding a nine-volt battery across your tongue."

Other dangers to be aware of: "The tourist brochures with their enticing photographs of tropical paradises do not mention that approximately 200 drownings a year occur in Costa Rican waters. Of these, an estimated 80% are caused by riptides." Riptides pull you out, not down, but frightened swimmers can exhaust themselves trying to swim into shore, rather than letting the tide carry them out to a point where it dissipates. The guide lists beaches with a reputation for riptides.

But the sea is a big attraction. The guides offer a special map to the best surfing locations, plus a telephone number and Internet address for surfing information. "The waves are often quite big, though not as huge as the almost mythical ones in Hawaii. But they make up for this in length, with fast kilometer-long waves at Pavones on the south Pacific coast often giving rides of two or three minutes," the guide notes.

One popular spot where you can rent beach equipment and take in some spectacular wildlife viewing is Tamarindo. The beachfront village is a six-hour bus trip from San Jose. There are surfing and windsurfing, small cafes, a variety of accommodations and camping. Just north of the village at Playa Grande is the country's most important nesting area for leatherback turtles.

Playa Grande is a national marine park. Nesting season is from October to March, with its busiest time November to January. Each night as many as 100 of these giant creatures will lumber up from the ocean, leaving tracks that look like tractor trails, to deposit their eggs in nests dug in the sand. When I first visited the site in 1992, tourists could just sit on the beach beside the giants. Now because of the swelling numbers of visitors, special viewing platforms have been built so the turtles won't be disturbed. A $6 entry fee is charged.

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