Often likened to a Noah's Ark due to its rich fauna, including 1,250 species of butterflies and multitudes of bird species, Costa Rica is sort of a poster child for eco-tourism. This tiny Central American country -- roughly the size of West Virginia -- has 12 ecological zones and has made an effort to preserve its many natural attributes and wilderness in national parks. It also offers multiple eco-friendly activities: from river rafting to hiking, snorkeling and kayaking, to zip-lining and tram-riding over the rainforest canopy.
The main cruise ports in Costa Rica are Puerto Limón on the Caribbean coast and Moin, a short distance away from Puerto Limón, and Puntarenas and Puerto Caldera on the Pacific side. They all serve as "trampolines" to the country's lush interior and the capital of San José. San José, in Costa Rica's Central Valley, is approximately 60 miles from Puerto Limón and Moin, where cruise ships sailing from Florida ports stop and these ports are also convenient to other points of interest and eco-tourism activities.
Highlights of San José, founded in 1736, include the Plaza de la Cultura with the Museo de Oro Precolombino (Museum of Pre-Columbian Gold) where visitors can admire beautiful gold figurines. Other must-sees include the National Museum featuring pre-Columbian native art and exhibits about Costa Rica's natural history; the National Theater, the Opera House and the Cathedral dating from the 18th century. The route from Puerto Limón to San José takes through the Braulio Carrillo National Park with views of nearby Irazú Volcano often possible.
Other popular excursions offered by cruise ships include a tour to the Aerial Tram, where visitors ride in an open-air gondola over the forest canopy to get a bird's eye view of wildlife -- perhaps three-toed sloths, monkeys, snakes, coatis, butterflies and birds including showy toucans. The intrepid will, of course, prefer to opt for a zip-lining tour, also offered onboard ships or perhaps a river rafting tour on the Reventazon River with Class III rapids.
Yet another option is an excursion to Tortuguero's National Park canals. Tortuguero is about 35 miles from Puerto Limón on Costa Rica's northern Caribbean coast. Here boat tours take visitors to see the region's abundant flora and fauna including birds, two- and three-toed sloths, caymans and monkeys.
For those who would like to just relax at a beach, Playa Bonita is the best beach near Puerto Limón, about two miles west of the port. It has golden sands, restaurant/bar and a small shopping area. Independents need to be sure to arrange transportation back to the pier.
Local flavors not to be missed include an abundance of tropical fruits such as papayas, watermelons, bananas and pineapples and the delicious Costa Rican coffee -- Costa Ricans sometimes joke that Juan Valdez actually drinks Costa Rican coffee. A bag of coffee makes for a great souvenir or gift. Cruise passengers may purchase it at many shops within the port area in Puerto Limón and in the Central Market, between Avenidas 2 and 3 and Calles 3 and 4, about a 10-minute walk from the cruise pier in Puerto Limón. The market also sells local handicrafts including woodcarvings, leather goods, silver jewelry and carved wood boxes that make great souvenirs as well.
Cruise lines that visit Costa Rica include Azamara, Carnival, Celebrity, Crystal, Holland America, MSC, Norwegian, Princess, Regent Seven Seas, Royal Caribbean, Seabourn, Silversea and Windstar.
IF YOU GO -- For additional information on Costa Rica, visit www.tourism-costarica.com.Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times