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Costa Rica is a nature lover's playground.

Imagine a place of 8,000-foot volcanoes, accessible rain forests with 200-foot trees (each covered with its own jungle of ferns, lichens, orchids, and bromeliads), and unspoiled beaches lapped by two seas, their waters brimming with brilliant fish and giant turtles. Imagine more species of mammals, reptiles, amphibians, birds, moths, butterflies, and plants than in all of North America-all in a country about the size of California's San Bernardino County. This is Costa Rica, both laboratory and playground for nature lovers.

More operators now offer more ways to sample this country and its amazing biological diversity. This new interest makes sense: Costa Rica is only 6 hours nonstop by air from Los Angeles; it's a stable democracy in a region of political tumult; and, though Spanish is the official language, many residents also speak English.

We review the organized touring opportunities on page 57; you can also go on your own by rental car. Here, we suggest some of our favorite areas.

The capital: San Jose

This cosmopolitan city of more than a million can serve as a base for day trips or longer forays into the areas we describe here. The city itself also offers much to see, including the Jade Museum (pre-Columbian artifacts), the Gold Museum (pre-Columbian gold figures), the National Theater, and the National Museum (in an old fortress, with archeological and historical as well as nature displays).

Poas Volcano and Puntarenas

A 1 1/2-hour drive from San Jose is the Pacific port of Puntarenas, on a spit in the Gulf of Nicoya. A 28-mile side trip, Poas Volcano National Park offers a chance to explore an 8,000-foot active volcano surrounded by unusual dwarf mountain forest. Here live several species of birds that are unique in the world, such as the fiery-throated hummingbird. You'll also see many kinds of bromeliads, ferns, and mosses.

Puntarenas is a traditional vacation spot for many Costa Ricans (or "Ticos"). It's an old-time beach resort, with hotels, restaurants, and fast-food stalls, but no one actually uses the beaches anymore. You can snack on bocas-small servings of ceviche, clams, or sea snails. Or try the local specialty, a churchill: shaved ice with syrup, something alcoholic, milk, and cinnamon.

At the harbor, you can board a charter yacht (make reservations in San Jose) for a short cruise among the islands of the Gulf of Nicoya. In about 2 hours, you reach Tortuga Island, a fantasy complete with coconut palms, white coral sand, and buoyant 72[deg] water that's ideal for swimming and snorkeling.

On to Arenal Volcano

Heading northwest into Guanacaste province, the Inter-American Highway passes the small town of Tilaran, center of plantings of coffee, macadamia nuts, and peanuts. Coffee is the country's main export, and you can buy samples here to bring home. And at Lake Arenal, you can water-ski, windsurf, or fish. A 31/2-hour drive from the volcano to the northwest coast brings you to the white sand beaches of Playa Flamingo, in the Guanacaste resort area. You can overnight here. It's a 3 1/2- to 4 1/2-hour direct trip back to San Jose.

East to jungly Limon

Gudpiles Highway runs the 100 miles from San Jose to Limon, taking you through Braulio Carrillo National Park and Zurqui Tunnel from the drier central highlands to the cloud-forest jungles of the Caribbean. Just north of the tunnel, look for hillsides cloaked in the unmistakable 7-foot-diameter leaves of the poor-man's umbrella (Gunnera insignis).

You can also reach Limon by one of Costa Rica's favorite tourist attractions, the Jungle Train. The first part of the trip, through dense jungle, is especially beautiful. But the full 8-hour run can seem long. An alternative is to take the train to Siquirres, then catch a bus on to Limon or back to San Jose.

From Port Moin, just north of Limon, you can travel by boat to Tortuguero National Park or Barra del Colorado Refuge; 30-foot launches make the trip in 6 and 8 hours, respectively, mostly through palm-lined canals. Reserve through a travel agent or San Jose hotel. Tour costs start at $150.

Scan the borders of the jungle for several kinds of monkeys; sloths are common, and you'll probably see iguanas sunning in the trees and bushes. In the evening, fireflies ignite the shoreline as brilliantly as stars do the black sky. This jungle boat ride truly puts the Disneyland version into perspective.

Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve

The road to the Monteverde reserve, off the Inter-American Highway, is rough, steep, and dusty-but still worth taking. There are several lodges, and nature lovers will want more than one day for a visit. In more than 26,000 acres, Monteverde's cloud forest is home to some 2,000 plant species including wild orchids, begonias, mosses, ferns) and hundreds of birds (among them, the brilliant quetzal). Well-maintained forest trails lead past huge candelillo trees (Magnolia poasana) that are draped with epiphytes.

Entry costs $10; for a small fee, you can join a naturalist-led half-day tour. You'll need rubber boots and an umbrella, but you can rent them. At the Monteverde Cheese Factory in town, pick up delicious cheese and homemade whole-wheat bread for a picnic.

Corcovado National Park and Marenco Biological Station

One of the wettest parts of Costa Rica, Corcovado receives more than 175 inches of rainfall a year. The jungle here is the northernmost extension of the Amazonian type, with at least 500 species of trees-many of them more than 150 feet tall. Here, too, are some 300 species of birds, including the yellow-cheeked parrot, the scarlet macaw, and at least 16 hummingbirds. Among mammal species are tapir, collared peccary, and howler, spider, squirrel, and white-faced monkeys.

You'll need at least three days in this area; accommodations are limited, so plan well in advance. In San Jose, you can pick up a tour that gives you a bunk in an open-air cabin at the biological station; cost, including air fare, is about $600.

Planning your visit

You don't need a visa for Costa Rica. Best time to go is between November (when the rainy season ends) and March. Rainfall varies from 65 inches a year on the northwest side to 175 inches in the northeast and southwest. Seasonal temperature changes are minimal. Be sure to bring sun screen and insect repellent.

For travel information, start with the Costa Rica National Tourist Bureau, 1101 Brickell Ave., Suite 801, Miami, Fla. 33131; (800) 327-7033. Car rentals are available from Hertz, Avis, Budget, Discovery, Global, and Toyota; make reservations at least two weeks in advance. The largest tour operator in Costa Rica is TAM Travel Corp. It is located at Box 1864, First Street, 1000 San Jose; 23-5111 (for international calls, dial 011-506 first). For flight information, call LACSA, Costa Rica's national carrier, at (800) 225-2272. Ask your travel agent about tour packages.

Useful guidebooks include Costa Rica-A Natural Destination, by Ree Strange Sheck (John Muir Publications, Santa Fe, New Mexico, 1990; $16), and Costa Rica, by Paul Glassman (Passport Press, Champlain, N.Y., 1988; $13). For birders, a good reference is The Birds of Costa Rica, by E Gary Stiles and Alexander F. Skutch (Cornell University Press, Ithaca, N.Y. 1989; $35).
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Date:Nov 1, 1990
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