A dozen years ago, I spent a summer backpacking through South and Central America. Having lost my glasses somewhere along a four-day hike to Machu Picchu, I arrived in Costa Rica to find a wilderness where green landscapes blurred into turquoise horizons, red volcanic flames bled into the black night, and rainbow-tinted birds streaked across the sky. At that time, basic $20-a-night lodges were the only places to stay, and I moved around by public bus over bumpy roads in search of tiny surfing villages and cloud forests 6,000 feet up.
Nearly everyone I met was an American on a budget, there to catch the waves, study the turtles, and scope out the country's 10,000 species of plants and more than 230 kinds of mammals before the rest of the world discovered this Eden for themselves.
Even with my fuzzy perspective, I shared their urge to guard the fragile ecosystem of this "rich coast"—as Christopher Columbus named the country in 1502—from the onslaught of mass tourism. Once home, I complained about how developed it was (a lie) and how human intervention was destroying natural habitats (not an untruth: the golden toad, now believed to be extinct, was last seen in 1989). When I returned to Costa Rica a couple of years later—contact lenses, this time—the hues still blended like watercolors and the light breaking through the clouds above the Nicoya Peninsula was just as milky. What had changed was the country's newfound respect for its precious resources.
In the mid nineties, the government instituted the most progressive reforestation program in the Americas and began an international campaign to market the nation, wedged between Nicaragua and Panama, as an "ecologically friendly" destination. As a result, environmentally conscious backpackers like me were no longer the only ones heading to Costa Rica. Educated visitors with cash to burn flocked to see one of the most biologically varied places on the planet—the Switzerland-sized country is home to 4 percent of the earth's species of wildlife—and an ecotourism movement was born. Hotels built according to self-imposed conservationist standards couldn't be put up fast enough. Meanwhile, acres of clear-cut land began to grow back into secondary forests. Much of the guilt associated with being a tourist—contributing to erosion and overconstruction—was alleviated. Gradually, this secret natural world opened up.
This year, Costa Rica is expected to lure 1.2 million visitors, up 20 percent over last year. Following the opening of a Four Seasons resort in January, three major airlines increased direct service from Houston, Miami, and Atlanta into the country's second-largest airport, Liberia International (40 minutes from the hotel). Farther down the Pacific coast, dozens of equally luxurious boutique hotels have been built, and in the vast tropical reserves that cover 28 percent of the country, a handful of $500-a-night ecolodges have sprung up.
Though an affluent crowd has invaded this painted land, much of Costa Rica—its roads, its glacial pace—continues to try one's patience. A surfer I met on my first visit gave me some sage advice: Slow down, share the love. His voice has echoed in my head on return trips, and I've learned to adopt the mentality of the ticos (as locals are fondly called). I still want to protect the riches, but I no longer feel compelled to distort the facts about overdevelopment (there really isn't much) or to moan about the disappearing rain forests, which over the past 10 years have begun to reappear. I've even learned to laugh about the treacherous roads, which I now navigate with bilingual naturalist drivers in private vans rather than by public bus. There's just one aspect I take issue with: there's simply too much to do.
Lay of the Land
Choose your adventure wisely. Costa Rica isn't one of those places that you master on your first visit, or one that allows you to slip into a well-trodden circuit. The most developed country in Central America, Costa Rica has roads that are so poorly maintained, they would have been better left unpaved; pristine forests that are accessible only by lightplane, followed by taxi, then boat and, sometimes, foot; and a rainy season that can make moving from one place to the next unimaginable. Split down the middle by two mountain ranges, its 20,000 square miles include more than 750 miles of coastline along the Caribbean and the Pacific, with 12 tropical life zones in between. From west to east, Costa Rica is only 100 miles at its widest—but by car, that can mean a death-defying 12-hour journey. To make your trip easier, think of the country as five essential regions and pick two to visit (optimum time frames are provided below). Unless you've got a month, don't even attempt to hit all five.
Five Ways to Do Costa Rica
SAN JOSÉ AND THE CENTRAL VALLEY
Time: One to two days. Home to almost one-third of the population, San José is surrounded by two volcanic mountain ranges. If the main airport weren't here, though, it would be tempting to skip the city and its suburbs altogether. Little more than a commercial hub, the area lacks the centuries-old cathedrals found in other Latin American cities. But it is an efficient place from which to begin an adventure.
From San José, you can visit a steaming volcano, Poás, or a fire-spewing one, Arenal; hike in a cloud forest; and tackle Class IV rapids—all in one day. Ticos argue over whether the Reventazón or the Pacuare is better for rafting, but the rivers have rapids ranging from Class II to Class IV and are the winter training grounds for a few Olympic kayaking teams. Costa Rica Sun Tours arranges expeditions down both of them.
Anyone wanting to stay in the heart of downtown books into Hotel Grano de Oro, a 100-year-old mansion whose 35 rooms are filled with antiques and contemporary furniture. The patio restaurant is always buzzing with local expense-account lunchers—the sea bass with macadamia nuts and orange glacé is deliciously sweet and salty. Hotel Alta, overlooking the central valley from Escazú, the expat neighborhood southwest of the city center, is close to San José's action (what there is of it, anyway). The 23-room hacienda-style inn has terra-cotta balconies and an Italian-tiled pool. Its tiered lobby doubles as a gallery, where, once every month, area artists host wine-and-cheese receptions.
Near the country's main airport, in Heredia, is the Gaudíesque Finca Rosa Blanca, surrounded by coffee plantations. The seven rooms and two villas of Teri and Glenn Jampol's bed-and-breakfast have arched windows, undulating wood-beamed ceilings, and access to a sunken lounge area that becomes a communal dining room at mealtimes. When I stayed there, Teri handed my infant son to the kitchen staff and joined my table for dinner. She'll also arrange any day trip you can cook up.