Costa Rica preserves its natural wonders

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Victor Block
Two spider monkeys show off their human-like expressions in Manuel Antonio National Park in Costa Rica. They are among the thousands of species of wildlife that live in the country, which prizes its preservation efforts.
© Hugoht | Dreamstime.com

I knew before traveling to Costa Rica that it has a well-deserved reputation for preserving its magnificent environment. I was aware of the diversity of landscapes and multiplicity of animal and bird life.

But only after spending time in what I found to be a virtual Garden of Eden did I fully appreciate the fact that so much variety is compressed into an area slightly smaller than West Virginia.

The setting changes quickly and frequently in the compact Central American country. An uphill climb can transport you from an Amazon-like jungle environment to an alpine woodland reminiscent of Switzerland.

Both dry stretches of forest and pockets of verdant wetlands lie in the shadow of volcanoes, several of which occasionally remind those within sight and earshot that they’re still active.

No matter where you are, an astounding array of animal, bird and plant life is always close at hand. Because so much of the miniscule country is preserved in its natural state, human development is never far from Mother Nature.

More than 1,000 species of butterflies dot the landscape with myriad colors. About 850 types of birds have been spotted, more than 600 of them permanent residents.

Fortunately, we escaped encounters with the nearly 100 different kinds of mosquitoes that find Costa Rica’s damp environment to their liking.

Even wildlife that prefers to live in isolation has few places of refuge unreachable by people determined to admire animals on their home turf.

Wishing to experience as much as possible of what Costa Rica has to offer in the limited time we had available, my wife Fyllis and I chose to go there with a tour operator we had traveled with before. We went with Overseas Adventure Travel (OAT), the self-styled “Leader in small groups on the road less traveled.”

The trip itinerary allowed us to pack as many experiences as possible into every hour of every day. And packed with action every waking hour was.

For example, one typical day included a visit to an OAT-sponsored school where the children greeted the group with a charming folkloric presentation, a traditional lunch with a local family, and a guided horseback ride through a dense forest.

Another began with a hands-on tortilla-making lesson followed by two opportunities to view giant crocodiles at close range, and ended with a visit to one of Costa Rica’s most beautiful beaches.

A preservation pioneer

Much time was spent being introduced to the country’s major claims to tourism fame — animal watching and exploring vast stretches of the unspoiled environment.

Those two activities are inexorably intertwined, for the major emphasis the country puts on preservation provides the diverse landscapes that sustain the tremendous variety of wildlife.

While Costa Rica today is renowned for being at the forefront of efforts to protect and preserve nature, that was not always the case.

Several decades ago, it was one of the most deforested countries in the Western Hemisphere, with major problems of pollution. Forests were being cleared by loggers, highlands were threatened by coffee growers, and the Pacific lowlands were being devastated by cattle ranchers and cotton farmers.

Reacting to those challenges in a way that could, and should, be a model for other nations, the government responded efficiently and effectively. It clamped down on the export of more than 60 species of trees and began to require permits for timbering. It established a commission to prescribe remedies for the country’s growing environmental problems.

The results have been dramatic and successful. About 28 percent of Costa Rica’s land is set aside in national parks, wildlife refuges and reserves. Nearly one-third of funds derived from the tax on gasoline goes toward conservation.

Among many laws passed to protect the environment is one that requires people who cut down trees for certain uses to plant several more in their place.

Some credit for these accomplishments must be given to Costa Rica’s army — or, more accurately, the fact that it does not have one. In 1948, the government disbanded its military and redirected funds it had been spending on defense to environmental and social programs.

One result of this widespread effort is that in 2009, Costa Rica was named the “greenest” and “happiest” country in the world. This designation was bestowed by the New Economics Foundation, an independent organization in London that promotes innovative solutions to environmental, social and economic issues. In that same listing, the United States was ranked 114th.

This emphasis upon preservation is used to market Costa Rica as the eco-friendly destination it is. For example, nearly 250 hotels, tour companies and other travel vendors have received Certification for Sustainable Tourism, a much-sought-after honor that recognizes and rewards their commitment to that goal.

The results of these efforts are evident everywhere, and we got to observe a variety of them first-hand. We saw small plots of wooded land owned by low-income people who in the past would have sold the trees to raise money. Now they receive a subsidy from the government to retain them in their natural state.

We hiked in Manuel Antonio National Park, which is both one of the smallest preserves in Costa Rica and one of the most bio-diverse areas in the world. Its varied terrain includes a luxuriant rain forest, bird sanctuaries and four inviting beaches.

Costa Rica’s remote Monteverde Cloud Forest covers 26,000 acres and is home to 3,000 kinds of plants, including 500 types of orchids, the most anywhere on Earth.
© Brian Lasenby | Dreamstime.com

A forest in the clouds

Most awesome to Fyllis and me was time spent in the Monteverde Cloud Forest, a 26,000-acre preserve that spills down both the Caribbean and Pacific slopes of the Tilaran mountain range. We reached the entrance to this jungle-like setting after an 18-mile, 90-minute drive over a road that is more ruts and potholes than gravel.

Andres Herrera, our jovial and very knowledgeable OAT guide, explained that the road is maintained in that condition as one way of discouraging too many visitors from descending upon the forest and threatening its fragile ecosystem.

The environment into which we entered lives up to its name. Warm air rising from the tropical coast condenses into a persistent fog and mist, more like a constant drizzle than rain.

Because sunlight has a difficult time breaking through the thick veil of clouds and dense tree canopy, plant life reaches upward, covering every tree trunk and branch with a proliferation of velvet-like green accented by colorful flowers. More than 3,000 kinds of plants call Monteverde their home, including over 500 types of orchids, the largest diversity of that flowering plant in the world.

We explored this dream-like setting by means of six suspension bridges, one almost 1,000 feet long, that wind their way through the high tree canopy about 425 feet above ground level. This provides both a bird’s-eye outlook over the forest below, and close-up views of the plant, bird and animal life that thrives in the mysterious treetop world.

Andres explained that the plants that blanket tree trunks are called epiphytes. They grow above the ground, using every trunk and limb as a ladder in their quest for sunlight. Vines that would prompt Tarzan to howl with delight festoon the setting.

Adding to the wonder is the opportunity to spot wildlife that thrives in this other-worldy environment. A sign at the entrance to the Cloud Forest notes that 126 species of mammals and 448 types of birds live there.

Mammals include jaguars, pumas, ocelots, sloths and tapir. We heard the roar-like sounds of accurately named howler monkeys reverberating from treetops, but had trouble spotting those noisy but elusive critters.

When Christopher Columbus reached this land in 1502, he chose the name Costa Rica, or “rich coast,” because he believed the land would yield a vast treasure of gold. However, Spanish conquistadors soon realized they would not discover the mineral wealth they had hoped to find.

Visitors today discover wealth of a very different kind. No matter what their expectations, they — like Fyllis and me — are likely to leave Costa Rica with memories of a magnificent natural setting, extraordinary assortment of wildlife, and people who value and protect the riches that Mother Nature has bestowed upon them.

If you go

While Fyllis and I often travel on our own, we agree that some destinations are best visited with a tour company. Group travel combines the convenience of having all logistics and transportation taken care of with the vast knowledge of seasoned guides.

Overseas Adventure Travel boasts a 35-year history, offers trips to nearly six dozen countries from Albania to Zimbabwe, and limits land excursions to a maximum of 16 people.

It will offer a choice of three 13-day itineraries to Costa Rica during 2013, with prices beginning at $2,395 for trips that include airfare. Trips are priced about $500 less if you arrange your own air transportation to Costa Rica. From the Washington area, the lowest airfare is $463 roundtrip on United from Reagan National Airport in early December. Tour prices include most meals.

For more information, log onto www.oattravel.com or call 1-800-955-1925.

Victor Block is the Beacon’s travel writer.