Costa Rica is for the birders -- and volcanologists, botanists, herpetologists, zoologists, beachcombers, anglers, yachtsmen, equestrians, photographers and many other occupations and avocations.
Its variety of tourism opportunities is equaled only by its biodiversity. The country has the largest percentage of protected areas in the world, with more than 26% of its landmass set aside as national parks or reserves. These sanctuaries are home to 5% of the world's biodiversity, including more than 840 species of birds.
Since many in the wild kingdom are early risers and I was in Costa Rica to explore the Central American country's flora and fauna and its ecotourism efforts, I grudgingly welcomed a 5 a.m. wake-up at the Lapa Rios Eco Lodge on the Osa Peninsula courtesy of the not-too-distant sounds of a troop of howling monkeys.
A squirrel monkey in Corcovado National Park. Photo Credit: Mark Edward Harris
The Lapa Rios, a 1,000-acre, private nature reserve in a tropical rain forest, has 17 private bungalows similar to the well-appointed, high-end lodges familiar to travelers exploring Africa in style. After a fascinating early morning exploration of the reserve's environs, thanks in part to the howling monkeys, I joined a small group (of people, not monkeys) for a 15-minute charter flight arranged by Costa Rican Vacations to the Sirena Ranger Station in the heart of Corcovado National Park. The park, known for its biodiversity, is home to jaguars, pumas, ocelots, tapirs, sloths and all four Costa Rican monkey species: the white-headed capuchin, the Geoffroy's spider monkey, the Central American squirrel monkey and my new friends, the mantled howler. The flight is the most practical way to make a daytrip to the heart of Corcovado from the Lapa Rios.
After landing on the small, grassy airstrip, we ventured forth into the surrounding jungle for a four-hour hike with guide extraordinaire Rudy Zamora. He pointed out one species after another, quickly focusing his tripod-mounted Swarovski spotting telescope, which gave us the opportunity to take turns witnessing wildlife up close in its natural habitat.
An aerial view of the Lapa Rios Eco Lodge on Costa Rica’s Osa Peninsula. Photo Credit: Mark Edward Harris
The three lodges I stayed in during my week in Costa Rica -- Lapa Rios, Arenas del Mar and Finca Rosa Blanca -- served as great case studies of ecotourism done right. Finca Rosa Blanca, a coffee plantation and boutique hotel in the highlands above San Jose, has three master suites and villas and 11 junior suites. Among their recreational activities is a Coffee Tour, which finishes with a tasting. Coffee beans started being planted in Costa Rica in the early 19th century and soon became the country's first major export. Costa Rican Tarrazu, used for making espresso, is considered among the finest arabica coffee beans in the world.
Arenas del Mar, an 11-acre ecoresort overlooking Manuel Antonio National Park, is built up and down the cliffs along the Pacific Ocean and has direct access to two beaches. The property is an excellent example of how a large-scale resort can offer world-class service while operating completely carbon-neutral.
All transportation on the property is by electric golf cart. Solar panels are used to heat water, coupled with energy-saving auxiliary water heaters. Energy-efficient lighting is used throughout the property. Chlorine-free ionization systems are used to clean the pool water, while nontoxic, biodegradable cleaning products are used to keep the resort sparkling, and a vermiculture-based compost system recycles organic waste.
A guest stays cool under the waterfall at the Finca Rosa Blanca Coffee Plantation and Inn, located in the central valley mountain highlands above Costa Rica’s capital of San Jose. Photo Credit: Mark Edward Harris
All plants at Arenas Del Mar are native to Costa Rica and can be found growing naturally in this area of the country, eliminating the need for chemical fertilizers and pesticides.
The country itself is a pioneer of ecotourism. Its progressive environmental policies and aspirations include the goal of becoming the first carbon-neutral country by 2025. In 2012, it became the first country in the Americas to ban recreational hunting.
Costa Rica's ability to focus on tourism is in large part due to its political stability: It has had an uninterrupted democracy since a brief civil war in the late 1940s. In 1948, it abolished its military, becoming the first of only a few sovereign nations without a standing army, stating that it would be replaced with an army of teachers. The results include a literacy rate of over 96%, with Spanish being the primary language.
A boy flips into the warm waters off of Puerto Jimenez. Photo Credit: Mark Edward Harris
The English translation of Costa Rica is "rich coast." Whether it was first applied by Christopher Columbus, who reached its Caribbean shores on his final voyage in 1502 and reported the presence of natives adorned with gold jewelry, or by conquistador Gil Gonzalez Davila, who landed on the Pacific side in 1522, "la costa rica" is an accurate description for its 800 miles of coastline.
But Costa Rica's most important riches are not its gold reserves or pristine beaches but its biodiversity, a treasure it is more than willing to share with visitors. According to the Costa Rica Tourism Board, over 1 million North Americans visited the country in 2015.
Visit Costa Rican Vacation at www.vacationscostarica.com or the Costa Rican Tourism Board at www.visitcostarica.com.