17. Forest Plump
Monteverde Cloud Forest Preserve, Costa Rica
Thank some conscientious-objector Quakers from Alabama, fleeing the draft in 1951, and a group of scientists trying to save the golden toad in the early 1970s for creating the granddaddy of all ecotourism destinations, in the Cordillera de Tilarán. Today the fruit of their labors, the 25,000-acre Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve, is Costa Ricas prized park, with well-maintained trails, more than 400 species of birdsfrom emerald toucanets to orange-bellied trogonsand a bevy of mammals. (Dont miss the lively guided walks nightly at 7:30 p.m. for a chance to glimpse orange-kneed tarantulas.)
The result of Monteverdes popularity is a blanket of neighboring reserves at varying elevationsand different ecosystemssouth of Volcán Arenal in north-central Costa Rica. Adjoining Monteverde is the much larger but less visited 50,000-acre Bosque Eterno de Los Niños, established with money raised by schoolchildren around the globe, known for its waterfalls and rainforest hikes. There are two smaller attractions nearby: The Santa Elena Cloud Forest Reserve straddles the Continental Divide, and has eight miles of trails and an above-canopy observation tower; El Jardin de las Mariposas is home to 750 types of butterflies, including zebra longwings and blue morphos, and banks of feeders that draw 26 species of hummingbirds. Both reserves are along the three-mile road between Monteverde and the town of Santa Elena.
DETAILS: Monteverde Cloud Forest Preserve (011-506-645-5122, www.cct.or.cr/monte_in.htm) prefers reservations and offers a tour ($12 per person entry fee, plus $15 per person for a day tour, $13 at night). Three miles west of the reserve on the main road, El Sapo Dorado (doubles, $84-$99; 011-506-645-5010, www.sapodorado.com), named for the famous golden toad, has mountain-view bungalows with terraces.
18. Horseshoe Haven
Punta Uva, Costa Rica
At the southern edge of Costa Ricas Caribbean coast, paradise takes the form of a five-mile horseshoe of white sand framed on one side by sparkling aquamarine watera comfortable 82 degrees year-roundand on the other by coconut palms and mango trees backed by tropical green mountains. Waves break on colorful coral that extends nearly two miles offshore, but that hardly disturbs the peace: Theyre of the small, perfect-for-bodysurfing variety. (Punta Uva, after all, translates to Point Grape, not Point Break.)
Here, in one of the most biodiverse places on earth, youll see howler monkeys, sloths, green parrots, butterflies, lizards, birds, andwith the help of a snorkel and a maskan abundance of marine life. Besides diving and snorkeling, you can also kayak with dolphins or go on an epic bird-spotting mission in the 12,000-acre Refugio Nacional Gandoca-Manzanillo, a maze of tropical rainforests and mangrove swamps that are home to some pretty wild things.
DETAILS: Planted right on the beach, Cabinas Punta Uva (doubles, $40; 011-506-750-0431, www.puntauva.com) has ocean views that will make you want to jump right in. Each of the four garden bungalows has a tiled bath and a hammock-strewn deck. And if you fall under the spell of this slice of beach heaven, you can cut a deal on a weekly rate$210.
T. F. S.
19. Where the Jaguars and Quetzals Roam
El Sendero de los Quetzales, Panama
Copa de oro, repeats my taxi driver, Danilo, on the way to the trailhead for El Sendero de los Quetzales, an extraordinarily steep five-mile hike through the cloudforest of western Panamas Parque Nacional Volcán Barú. Its his descriptor of choice for the region surrounding the village of Boquete, in the heart of the Chiriqui Highlands. And why not call it a cup of gold? This forest is a nesting habitat for at least 200 breeding pairs of the paths namesake, the turquoise-backed, crimson-breasted resplendent quetzal.
But the quetzals are only one of the highland regions treasures. In Parque Internacional la Amistadhalf a million acres straddling the Talamanca rangelive 400 bird species and native megafauna like jaguars, tapirs, spider monkeys, and harpy eagles. Also here are trout-rich streams and the headwaters of the Chiriqui and Chiriqui Viejo rivers, whose Class III rapids are frequented by Boquete outfitters.
Check in to the clean, spacious Pensi-n Marilos, near the town square in Boquete, and then wander a block to Café El Punta de Encuentro to try the addictive mango licuados and get another ringing regional endorsement from the proprietor, Olga Rios, who will sigh and tell you, Boquete is like no other place in the world.
DETAILS: Rooms at Pensi-n Marilos (011-507-720-1380, marilos.freeyellow.com) cost $15. Chiriqui River Rafting (011-507-720-1505, www.panama-rafting.com) charges $75-$100 per person for half-day trips on the Chiriqui or Chiriqui Viejo.
20. Dive Inn
Bocas Inn, Panama
Pulling up to the dock at the Bocas Inn, in Bocas del Toro, I wonderedfor about 30 secondswhether wed made an enormous mistake. Could we have waited eons for a ferry and then crossed the open seas in the tiny fiberglass skiff only to wind up at a harborside lodge wedged into a ramshackle waterfront? Not on your life. Within minutes we were diving off the inns porch into bay water as warm as a bath. Within days, we were completely seduced.
In the middle of Bocas del Toro, a funky expat town on Isla Colón, Bocas Inn is a two-story, aquamarine clapboard building with a restaurant and seven guest rooms, two of which open onto a breezy balcony strung with hammocks. Wake up, pad barefoot down to a breakfast of scrambled eggs, mangoes, and dark Panamanian coffee, then pay a boatman to speed you and your snorkel out to coral gardens to commune with queen angelfish. Or head out to surf mellow, chest-high peelers as they roll off the reefs. The best adventure we found? Catching a water taxi out to a series of thatch-roofed cabanas built over a glassy snorkeling spot known as Coral Key. Cervezas and Frescas cost $1 at the docks mint-green snack bar. Hang there for hours, making like a fish or doing pretty much nothing at all.
DETAILS: Doubles at the inn, run by Ancon Expeditions (011-507-269-9415, www.anconexpeditions.com), cost $65 per night; meals and activities are extra.
KIM BROWN SEELY
17. Forest Plump