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Costa Rica, Wild & Mild : From jungles full of birds and butterflies t curves of pristine seashore, this Central American country has something for both eco-traveler and beach sloth

Times Travel Writer

A rain forest shouldn’t be easy to reach. Civilians like me should have to face chancy transportation, bewildering directions, dripping heat and myriad insects to get there.

Otherwise, there’s too good a chance that too many of us will trample the place flat. So I believed last month, before I came to Costa Rica.

Now, after a punctual, painless voyage down the well-marked path that leads to its jungles, seashores, beasts and bugs, I’m convinced of it. This place may be too beautiful, too peaceable, too affordable, too convenient to last.

My introduction came in three stages. First, I explored the tidy, gridlocked streets of San Jose, where gracious locals patiently explain how their city came to be the cheerful sophisticate among Central America’s otherwise troubled capitals. Second, I relaxed on the bougainvillea-draped slopes of a Pacific beach retreat, where a visitor in the busy dry season is surrounded by birds, iguanas and hundreds of other sun-and-sea tourists. Finally, I landed in a Caribbean coastal refuge about 150 miles from the capital, and floated with a dozen eco-travelers in a boat on a quiet stretch of green river. Above rose a lone blue morpho butterfly, luminous wings beating fast against the humidity. A fine moment.

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No doubt there are plenty more of those moments to be had in places I didn’t get to--the cloud forest at Monteverde, for instance, or the volcano rims at Poas or Irazu, or the fast waters of the Reventazon River, or the unpopulated, waterfall-rich island of Coco. Most North Americans spend 10 to 12 days in the country, and still don’t get to all the destinations they wonder about.

In a territory slightly smaller than West Virginia, primordial, progressive Costa Rica contains the following: 3 million residents of mostly Spanish descent, a better than 90% literacy rate; 9,000 species of plants, 1,200 species of butterflies; 800-and-some species of birds; 200 or so species of reptiles; 15 national parks; four volcanic mountain ranges, which often wear tiaras of wispy white clouds; two coastlines (one Pacific, one Caribbean); a northern border with Nicaragua; a southeastern border with Panama; one Nobel Peace Prize winner (former President Oscar Arias), and no army.

Something about this place compels cataloguing, and among those already inclined to quantify experience with lists, Costa Rica may prompt euphoric fits. At breakfast one morning just outside the rain forest of Tortuguero National Park, I found Wayne Peterson of the Massachusetts Audubon Society with some clearly valuable papers tucked away in a pocket. His sighting list. When I asked how many bird species he’d seen so far, he beamed and bent to tally, line by line, page by page.

“Two-hundred and thirty,” Peterson eventually announced. In six days. He couldn’t have been any happier if he were a Rockefeller counting his billions.

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Most visitors these days arrive the way I did--by jet, roaring over the aluminum rooftops and touching down on the green fringe of San Jose. The city holds a million people, yet feels not modern, not ancient, not particularly colonial. Most of the architecture is mid-to-late-20th-Century, more functional than distinguished. The streets are clean, the tap water is potable, and beggars are rare, but downtown is choked day and night with driving, walking, riding and running Ticos, as Costa Ricans refer to themselves. For many tourists, San Jose exists only as a necessary stop on the way to the beach and wilderness. The place is worth a look, but probably not more than a night or two.

Perhaps the most treasured building in San Jose, the 96-year-old National Theater in the city’s center, is under scaffolding, still recovering from a 1991 earthquake that did substantial damage throughout the country. Workmen say they’ll be done by the end of March. (Meanwhile, visitors can contribute 250 colones --about $2--for a chance to see renovations in progress on the building’s ornate ceiling and balconies.)

Good shopping is possible on Calle Cinco (Fifth Street), most notably in Atmosfera, a multileveled handicraft store between First and Third avenues, where colorful, high-quality paintings and carvings carry prices that run up to several hundred dollars. (Judging from gift shop inventories, hammocks seem to be Costa Rica’s leading souvenir export, followed by croquet mallets.) Cheap, tasty meals are available in storefront restaurants known as sodas .

One day I ducked into one called La Vasconia. “This is your typical Costa Rican Restaurant,” the proprietor had painted, in English, on an outside wall. The strange thing was, it seemed to be true. It was during the weekday noon rush, and everyone spoke Spanish, including the peddler hawking samba cassettes from a briefcase and the cooks and the Elvis imitator singing “Jailhouse Rock” on the sound system. I sat at the counter, and got a tasty plate of beans and rice ( gallo pinto , say the locals), fried bananas, fresh tortillas and a hot dog, all for about $1.50. If the International Assn. of Tourist Trap Operators ever gets ahold of that proprietor, he’s got some explaining to do.

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I stayed about a mile outside the city center at a new bed and breakfast called the Hotel Milvia. The house held five guest rooms, a fishpond in the garden and a sunny upstairs deck. I spent a night there, then a night out of town, then another night at the Milvia, which is how things often go with lodgings in San Jose.

Tourists are forever alighting and leaving again, since most of the nation’s main roads and almost all domestic air routes lead through town. A “jungle train” to Limon ran through the capital as well, until two years ago, when landslides closed down the century-old line. It isn’t expected to reopen. Irazu and Poas volcanoes are each about a 90-minute drive from San Jose; the cloud forest of Monteverde, at the end of a tough road, is about four hours by car or bus. Many comfort-seeking American travelers evade the city altogether and stay at the upscale Cariari Hotel & Country Club, near the airport.

Quepos, my second stop, would have been a three-hour drive from San Jose. Instead, I did as many tourists do--climbed into a tiny Cessna with 13 other travelers, a circumspect pilot and a plainly visible control panel. While the needles fluctuated, we puttered out of the central valley, over rolling green mountains, past quilt-perfect banana plantations, through great white cloud banks. Soon the Pacific took over the horizon, and after about half an hour in the air, we put down on a 200-yard stretch of blacktop. The Quepos airport.

Quepos is a growing town of 10,000 or so on the county’s west coast, directly south of San Jose.

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The city is an old banana shipping port, but visitors come for neighboring Manuel Antonio National Park, an ever-more-popular coastal reserve where the rain forest meets sandy beaches.

A taxi took me through the modest town and over a hill, revealing a gentle slope, thick with trees and studded with small hotels, many recently constructed. At the bottom of the slope, a finger of sand and vegetation curled out to a 300-foot-high jutting rock, once an island known as Cathedral Point. Near the surf, the tables of an outdoor cafe were packed. Close by stood coconut merchants and bottled water vendors. Suspended from the trees beyond them, backpackers napped in hammocks. The sun rode low on the Pacific, painting us all orange. The entrance to Manuel Antonio National Park lay just across a patch of sand and seawater, but I let that wait and found my way to the Hotel La Mariposa in the failing light. I’d already paid for dinner.

The 21-year-old Mariposa, with its 10 units, terrace dining area, ubiquitous flora and wrap-around sea-and-verdure views, may be the most thoroughly discovered lodging place in the country. Various travel publications have touted the American-owned hotel as a destination for sun and sloth--of the human variety around the pool; of the two-toed variety in the local trees. The guest units (some split-level, some not) have high ceilings, greenhouse lavatories, large balconies, the plainest of furniture and no phones. At $165 a night for a couple (breakfast and dinner included), it is among the most expensive hotels in Costa Rica. But in high season, which stretches from November into May, the hotel is booked months in advance.

Fame and heavy traffic evidently take a toll. Several of my fellow guests were grumbling about the place, especially the food, and how it all was better in years past. I did find the service slow (something I wouldn’t mention if I were spending half as much), but on the night I ate and slept there, the London-broiled steak was very good. The jungle and the neighboring hotels, their sounds climbing the hillside to my patio windows, buzzed me to sleep.

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In the morning, I hiked the 1,685-acre park and catalogued findings. Admission fee: about $1.50. Black birds, brown birds, blue birds. Six-inch crabs with red claws, lurking in rocky recesses. Ripe coconuts with white meat inside. “Cocos ,” said 26-year-old Adrubal Blanco, a lifelong Quepeno offering horseback rides on the beach. And the unripe coconuts with milk inside? “Pipas .”

Moss-covered logs. Hissing. Rustling. Chirping. A two-towed sloth. A four-foot iguana, motionless and sun-drenched. A sign: “Do not feed the monkeys.”

There are three beaches. On Espadilla (also known as First Beach), just outside the park boundary, the tide is strong enough for tame surfing. Espadilla Sur (a.k.a. Second Beach), inside the park, is less crowded. On Manuel Antonio Beach (a.k.a. Third Beach), sheltered by fine sand and vegetation, snorkeling comes highly recommended.

The approved park path, mostly easy hiking, leads repeatedly across the exposed roots of living trees--big, burly roots, like half-submerged swimmers. But how many feet pound them in a week?

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Probably too many. Costa Rica wins praise for its forward-thinking environmental policies, and affluent, aware Americans such as New Yorkers George Davitt and Lynda Ceremsak holiday here in part because, as Davitt allowed over a sunset cocktail one night, “It’s a feel-good destination.” But it remains a struggling small nation with only so much money to spend, facing the enormous temptation to take revenue where it can find it. Unlike some reserves, Manuel Antonio sets no limit on the number of visitors on its territory at a time.

One recent study by Costa Rican conservation groups found the number of visitors to Manuel Antonio National Park grew from 36,462 in 1982 to 152,543 in 1991. The annual budget for operating the park, according to the same study: just $130,372.

Outside the park, I rented a horse through the hotel (at $15 an hour, not a great bargain) and rode with Adrubal Blanco down a jungle path and along the shoreline. I soaked in the Mariposa pool, and ordered pizza for lunch. Back on that 14-seat plane, I watched Quepos tilt and shrink and vanish behind clouds.

journey into the jungle landscape, but that’s how it worked out. My last stop was Tortuguero, a roadless, carless, swamp town of 500 or so on the Caribbean Sea. Once the site of lumber and turtle-hunting businesses, it’s now surrounded by national parkland, in which reside birds, monkeys, reptiles and insects beyond counting.

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Though the turtles ( tortugas ) are no longer hunted, they remain the centerpiece of the economy. From July to September, hundreds of green turtles arrive to nest and lay eggs on a 22-mile stretch of beach. Other types of turtles can be seen year-round.

The jungle is thick, as is the humidity--Tortuguero gets an estimated 200 inches of rain annually--and there are only two ways in: by boat (three hours from the port city of Limon to the south) and by plane.

The plane that took me into Tortuguero was even smaller than the one to Quepos--room for five passengers this time. I drew the co-pilot’s seat, and spent the short flight peering over another control panel (one gas tank half-full, the other empty; next to the altimeter, a picture of Jesus) at cloud-wreathed mountaintops, green slopes, winding rivers, waterfalls, dense jungle and finally, wedged between the sea and a broad canal, the airstrip.

That broad canal, I learned, functions as Tortuguero’s Main Street. The 26-year-old, 25-room Tortuga Lodge, certainly the most costly and probably the most comfortable of the area’s lodgings despite its lack of keys, TVs and air conditioning, stands at the water’s edge. A dozen of us--that is, two planeloads--filed in, dug into a hearty, family-style breakfast at long tables, and found 17 members of the Massachusetts Audubon Society ahead of us, with 500-page volumes of “Birds of Costa Rica” bulging in their khaki pockets. (“ Pajareros, " say the Ticos. Birders .) Then we filed out again, climbed aboard a boat, and with naturalist George Cash at the outboard motor, puttered and coasted beneath the green ceiling of the rain forest. (Most people take a couple of boat tours along with their meals and lodging at Tortuga for one package price. Through Costa Rica Expeditions, my flights in and out, one night’s accommodations, four meals and two tours came to about $250.)

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Some sightings from the first two hours on the water: an idle vulture; several blue herons; an egret, motionless on a branch; a trio of toucans, winging past above us; repeated kingfishers, gliding low across the glassy river face; a howler monkey in silhouette, munching leaves high above us, then pausing to howl for us. Think of your stomach growling through a stadium public-address system.

“Never can tell what gonna show up,” said the poker-faced Cash, 33, who has spent his life in the area. Cash’s family, like those of most Tortuguero residents, arrived here involuntarily, by way of Africa and Jamaica. He delivered his Spanish and English with a Caribbean lilt.

After a break for lunch at the lodge, we floated for three hours more, this time in the company of that blue morpho butterfly; a tiger heron; a five-foot-long male iguana, his spiny back bathed in a rare patch of sunlight; a tree snake; shrieking parrots; a sloth, and various crocodiles, caimans, monkeys and lizards.

(For a more tranquil view of the jungle--and a better chance at approaching many animals--travelers can make their way into town and rent an unmotorized canoe, with or without guide, for a few dollars. That will also contribute a little money directly to the lower end of the local economy, which can use the help.)

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The colors were green, brown, yellow, orange, more green, black, red and still more green. This, I imagined, is what truly wild Central America looked like, before there were cities or beach resorts or tour companies.

Yet for all its remoteness, even Tortuguero was convenient. The mosquitoes and other insects, which swarm around hikers and attack rapidly in the jungle, for some reason leave waterway travelers largely alone. My Spartan room in the lodge was well-screened and bug-free. The place is easy for senior travelers, and it wasn’t much trouble for one family, a German pediatrician and his wife, who brought along their 4-year-old son, Max. Now, more disquieting numbers: In 1991, right here on the rain-soaked, carless edge of the jungle, the Tortuguero park rangers counted 47,376 visitors, nearly 90% of them foreigners. That adds up to a lot of outboard engines, each sending up a tiny plume of gray into the high leaves.

While our boat floated on that first afternoon in Tortuguero, the German pediatrician decided photographs of the place weren’t enough. Silently, he raised his tape recorder’s wire microphone overhead, and stood in his yellow slicker like a fly-fisherman about to cast. While his wife and son held their breaths, the jungle mumbled and screeched, and the rest of us admired his thinking.

I can imagine that family now, back in the old country and gathered around the dining room table, retelling tropical tales, passing around photos and recycling Costa Rican birdcalls. I hope the next generation can do the same.

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GUIDEBOOK

Jungles and Beaches of Costa Rica

Getting there: United, Costa Rica-based LACSA , Mexicana and Continental offer direct flights from Los Angeles International Airport to Juan Santamaria International Airport in San Jose, at prices beginning at $581 for a restricted ticket. There are no nonstops. American and Continental offer connecting flights in the same price range.

Getting around: More than a dozen tour companies arrange lodging and transportation packages in Costa Rica. I used Costa Rica Expeditions (Apartado Postal 6941-1000, San Jose, Costa Rica; from U.S. telephones 011- 506-57-0766, fax 011-506-57-1665), a veteran, American-owned company. Rental cars in Costa Rica are costly (for a mid-sized car, Avis charges $46 daily with a two-day minimum and unlimited mileage) and vulnerable to theft. Taxis in San Jose are cheap: A cross-town ride is about $3. Bus service between cities is frequent and cheap, but can be slow. Flights within the country--offered by two companies, the long-standing Sansa and year-old Travelair--usually take less than an hour and cost under $50 one way to either coast. Travelair is more expensive, but is widely acclaimed as more punctual; the company was flawless on the four flights I took.

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Where to stay: Expect to add about 15% for taxes to the rates noted below.

In San Jose, I stayed at the Hotel Milvia, P.O. Box 930-2050, San Pedro, Costa Rica; tel. 011-506-25-4543, fax 011-506-25-7801. Five rooms (doubles run $69 through May 15, breakfast included), attentive service, no pool. Near the University of Costa Rica, a five-minute bus or cab ride to central San Jose. Closer to the city center, the newish Hotel Grano de Oro (Apartado Postal 1157- 1007 Centro Colon, San Jose, Costa Rica; tel. 011-506-55-3322 or fax 011-506-21-2782) has 21 rooms; through December, double rooms run $67-$79 with one garden suite (with Jacuzzi) available at $115. Patio, restaurant, gift shop; a 15-unit expansion is scheduled for completion by year’s end. The 63-year-old Gran Hotel Costa Rica (tel. 011-506-21-4000, fax 011-506-21-3501) stands at the noisy center of town; 106 somewhat dowdy rooms, a casino downstairs. Doubles run $68 and up. Also near the middle of town, the 200-room Aurola Holiday Inn (P.O. Box 7802-1000, San Jose, Costa Rica; tel. 800-465-4329 or 011-506-33-7233) has doubles for $117-$127.

In Quepos, I stayed at the Hotel La Mariposa (P.O. Box 4, Quepos, Costa Rica; tel. 800-223-6510 or 011-506-77-0355, fax 011- 506-77-0050) for $165 per night, breakfast and dinner included (taxes and built-in gratuities add another 25%). Children under 15 forbidden. There are more than a dozen other less expensive hotels closely grouped along the road to the beach. Those I looked at combined spectacular views with crackerbox facilities, at high-season prices of $70 nightly and below.

In Tortuguero, I stayed at the Tortuga Lodge (tel. fax 011-506-71-6861) run by Costa Rica Expeditions (see below). Rates for simple standard rooms run $59 nightly per double; breakfast is $6.75, lunch $10.50, dinner $11.50. Lodge-arranged tours run $10- $30. Most guests buy a package for lodging, meals, tours and air fare.

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Where to eat: San Jose is full of well-regarded restaurants. One notable place where I sampled was Tiquicia (tel. 011-506-22- 0468), which offers Costa Rican cuisine and colorful folk dancing in an adobe building on a working coffee farm. Warning: It’s a common stop for tour buses, and a traveler may feel part of a herd, but the site, on a hilltop beyond the suburb of Escazu, a 45-minute drive from the city center, offers unbeatable views of the city skyline. The all-you-can-eat buffet, with subsequent folk dance performance, runs $18. For a good quick lunch in the city center, try La Vasconia (tel. 011-506-23-4857) on Avenida 1 between Calle 3 and Calle 5. Full meals, likely to include rice, beans, fried bananas and tortillas, run $1-$4.

For more information: Contact the Costa Rican Tourism Board, P.O. Box 777-1000, San Jose, Costa Rica; tel. (800) 343-6332. Two good guidebooks are Lonely Planet’s “Costa Rica,” published in 1991 ($11.95), and “The New Key to Costa Rica,” written by Costa Rica residents Beatrice Blake and Anne Becher (Ulysses Press; $13.95), published in 1993.


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