The first-time visitor to Costa Rica can feel overwhelmed by the banquet of choices: tropical forests to explore, steaming volcanoes to photograph, beaches to comb, mountains to climb, rivers to raft, flowers to smell along the way. Hire a guide? Take a tour? Travel independently?

If it's your first trip, you may choose to stay a day or two in San Jose. It has crazy traffic and crowded sidewalks, but it also has museums and parks and is the center of Costa Rican culture and government. You can stay in San Jose itself or choose among some wonderful small hotels and inns not far from the airport, near Alajuela, Heredia, Atenas, or Grecia Some travelers start their experience from Liberia, landing at the country's second international airport.

Wherever you make your initial base, sign up for a trip with a naturalist guide for a good introduction to the tropical world. The guide knows where the crocodiles hang out, what time scarlet macaws fly over the trail, what tree the hummingbirds nest in, and which orchids are in bloom.

Costa Rica's essence is tied to its rural roots. Its people and its natural resources are the biggest part of what it has to offer. Privately owned reserves provide excellent opportunities for adventures in nature: for those whose bliss is tromping along muddy trails through a jungle miles from nowhere, and for those who prefer viewing plant and animal life from a shady veranda or strolling along a quiet beach. Some reserves include bilingual biologist guides; others offer local people with varying commands of English who are naturalists by life experience. Accommodations range from bunk beds to first- class hotels with hot water and fine dining. Few parks offer a place to stay, but lodges are usually nearby and offer day visits to parks and reserves.

Increased in-country flights make it easier to experience a variety of destinations. Though distances may seem short in miles, many paved roads are potholed, and unpaved roads can be slow going. A network of buses As for accommodations, I emphasize small and midsize lodges and hotels, many owner-operated, because I believe they give the traveler a sense of place and are more in keeping with the wonderful smallness and variety of the country itself, facilitating the connection with both people and nature.

Vacations have to do with moving you beyond the ordinary. Let your dreams come true in Costa Rica: climb a mountain, be pampered on a cruise, tramp along trails in a tropical forest, ford rivers with water that reaches to the hood of the car, stay up all night trying to photograph a volcanic eruption, or take off on horseback to explore the countryside. Sit on a beach, walk in a cloud forest, see birds and animals you know only from National Geographic specials, and bathe under a waterfall. Meet a warm and gracious people. Walk softly, aware of your own impact on the culture and environment

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