Whats Costa Rica Like

Costa Rica is a small country, even though it doesn't appear so from the standpoint of the traveler who is driving a rental car from one end of the country to the other, over winding roads, uphill and down. Every turn in the road brings a new vista, something else to contemplate. Actually, the country contains a little less than 20,000 square miles.

Travel articles and guidebooks traditionally describe Costa Rica as being "the size of West Virginia," but that's not really accurate. Some travel writer must have said that years ago and others automatically repeat this misinformation. The truth is, Costa Rica is smaller than West Virginia by 20 percent. To be more accurate, let's say that Costa Rica is about the size of New Hampshire and Maryland with poor little Rhode Island tossed in for good measure. Well, would it help to say that Costa Rica is about half the size of Kentucky? If that makes the place sound small and insignificant, we can balance out the equation by pointing out that Costa Rica is larger than Albania, Denmark, Belgium, Holland or Switzerland (plus a handful of countries I've never heard of). Here's a final comparison for you: Costa Rica is almost two-and-a-half times the size of Israel.

Yet, few large countries offer such a diversity of scenery, climates or such a wide variety of flora and fauna. Probably no country in the world devotes as large a percentage of its territory to national parks and wildlife refuges. About 27 percent of Costa Rica's land is thus protected. These preserves range from cloud forests to tropical beaches, from volcanic craters to jungle swamps and inland waterways.

A bewildering assortment of wildlife includes 850 species of birds-more than three times as many as in the United States and Canada combined. Common mammals are monkeys, coatis, jaguars and ocelots as well as sloths, tapirs and agoutis. One evening, down on the Pacific coast, a large anteater ran in front of my car, its long snout almost touching the ground in front with an equally heavy tail drooping behind, looking very prehistoric. Turtles, colorful frogs and toads of all descriptions are found, as well as crocodiles and iguanas. There are said to be more varieties of butterflies in Costa Rica than in all of the African continent. The number of orchids and bromiliads confuses the mind. This is truly a naturalist's paradise, drawing visitors from all over the world.

Many countries offer beautiful beaches and excellent vacation accommodations, but nowhere else in the world can a tourist find such a combination: delightful beaches, a safe and pleasant country, plus a tropical wonderland that's accessible year round-only in Costa Rica.

The Costa Rican government recognizes this unique asset and actively involves its citizens in both the preservation and exploitation of nature at the same time. How can you protect and exploit the environment? just one example: by hiring local people to guard and preserve endangered turtle nesting beaches, jobs are created. Beach villages then become tourist attractions, complete with motels, restaurants and shops, thus creating even more jobs. Visitors from all over the world can now visit cloud forests, turtle nesting beaches and nature preserves-in comfort. In the process, they leave much-needed foreign currency with Costa Rican businesses and banks.

Many North Americans and Europeans are scrambling to join this bandwagon and, with government encouragement, are investing heavily in tourist businesses, particularly in motels, restaurants and endeavors of a like nature. Many of these enterprises become instant successes, with full bookings and plenty of business. One Canadian who started a motel on the Caribbean side of the country a few years ago, showed me the registration book for his 12-unit facility, saying proudly, "This place has an occupancy rate of 98 percent during the tourist? season and over 60 percent during the off season." I asked for a room, but was told, "Not until next week. I'm booked solid."

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