La Ruta Tropical

Costa Rica

    Photo: Corel

Costa Rica has long been familiar to those who measure success by the number of birds on their life list. Or who are annoyingly persistent about referring to the golden toad as Bufo periglenes. Or who won't let it rest until they can explain to you the difference between two-toed and three-toed sloths. (Yeah, we thought it was one toe, too.) But for gringos who are mainly on the run from Frosty the Snowperson, this pocket-sized edition of nature-gone-to-the-carnival also offers just about any sporting vacation you could think of that doesn't involve the risk of frostbite or having to pick up the tab aprŠs-ski.

Rough terrain can make getting around difficult, so for visits of under two weeks, most people use a tour company to put together an itinerary. In the U.S. two of the more knowledgeable companies are Costa Rica Experts (800-827-9046) and Costa Rica Connection (800-345-7422). In Costa Rica, talk to Horizontes (011-506-222-2022) and Costa Rica Expeditions (257-0766).
Whitewater Rafting
Even in the dry season, whitewater rafting in Costa Rica is a world-class thrill sport, with levels of difficulty ranging up to Class V. Go with Ríos Tropicales, the king of Costa Rican paddle sports (233-6455). If you do only one river it should be the Pacuare (Class III-IV). It's only a day trip from San Jos‹ ($90, including transportation and lunch), but it traverses some of the prettiest jungle in Costa Rica. Blue morpho butterflies will flutter ahead of you in the narrow gorges. You'll shoot in and out of waterfalls that drop into the river from high above. And you'll ride rapids that will make what the screaming people do on the roller coaster at Space Mountain seem like whispering at the library.

Boardsailing One of Costa Rica's newest sports, but gaining an international reputation, is boardsailing on 24-mile-long Lake Arenal, about 85 miles northwest of San José. The three-foot waves that can develop keep Arenal from ranking with Oregon's Columbia River Gorge, but not by much. High-wind season is November to March, when the breeze often funnels across the lake with such velocity that you don't want to go out without first double-checking the drawstring on your bathing suit. Base yourself at the Hotel Tilawa (doubles, $65 per day; board rental, $45 per day; 695-5050), a windsurfing resort at the opposite end of the lake from the Arenal Volcano that, yes, was intentionally built to look like the ancient Palace of Knossos, on the island of Crete.

Surfing
Surfers have been making use of Costa Rica's 735 miles of coastline for so long that it's almost surprising to hear that the first visitor of record, Christopher Columbus, didn't have a board with him. Most of the classic breaks are on the Pacific side, with the area around Playa Tamarindo, in the north, being a favorite. Tamarindo village itself has too many places to stay and eat and party that cost more than they should, so after grabbing a killer burger at the Junglebus, head south 12 miles to isolated Playa Junquillal. The Iguanazul Hotel (doubles, $60; 232-1423) sits on a bluff high above the beach and gets you into the morning surf long before the party-hearty folks coming out from Tamarindo. For more wide-ranging surf trips, call Surf Express (407-779-2124). They're based in Florida, but know Costa Rica and surfing so well that you can comfortably begin your conversation with "Buenos déas, dude."

Hiking
Some of the best hiking in Costa Rica is 100 miles southeast of San Jos‹ in Corcovado National Park on the wild Osa Peninsula, whose biologically diverse population includes big cats and illegal gold miners. A good base for day hikes or multi-day trips throughout the park is Costa Rica Expeditions' Corcovado Lodge Tent Camp (doubles, $68 per person, including all meals; 257-0766), so remote that, after being deposited at the nearest jungle airstrip, you still have a 45-minute walk. A favorite trip is the overnight hike from the tent camp north to the ranger station at Sirena. Most of the hike is along a surf-pounded Pacific beach beneath a canopy alive with monkeys and scarlet macaws. The ranger station provides meals—anything you want, as long as it's rice and beans and fish—for $16 per day for three meals. Reservations are required (735-5036).

Horseback Riding
Most of the horseback riding in Costa Rica is on jungle trails, and the only skill needed is the ability to accept that the horse is smarter than you, and has no intention of sliding down the side of a mountain. The best riding, and the best horses, are in the "Wild West" ranching country of Guanacaste in the northwest. Los Inocentes Lodge (doubles, $112, including meals; 265-5484), at the northern edge of Guanacaste National Park, offers rides ($15 per day, $25 with lunch) that include a view of the cloud-capped Orosé Volcano and a chance to spot rare spider monkeys. The lodge is a classic, built in 1890 of local hardwoods as the main house for a large cattle ranch. Beautifully renovated, its best feature is still the wide veranda, where, if you're whiling away a pleasant afternoon in one of the rocking chairs and the talk turns to politics, it's best to keep in mind that the lodge was built by the grandfather of Nicaragua's current president.

Scuba Diving
The best place to scuba dive in Costa Rica—in fact, one of the best in the world if you like to swim with sharks that have attitude—is Isla de Cocos, 300 miles off the Pacific Coast. But if you've only got a week or two, stick to the mainland. Most of the diving is done along the northern Pacific coast, but in the winter you'll find clearer water at Isla de Cano, near Drake Bay, in the south. As with most Costa Rica diving, there's not much coral but plenty of sea life, including schools of big manta rays. Stay at the Èguila de Osa Inn (doubles, $100 per person, meals included; two-tank dive, $110; 232-7722), in Drake Bay, where Cookie the chef serves up fish almost as fresh as those you'll see on your dive.

Fishing
There's tarpon and snook on the Caribbean side around Tortuguero. And some anglers are so single-mindedly focused on Lake Arenal's rainbow bass that they have been known not to notice that the volcano is erupting. But what really hooks fishermen in Costa Rica are the Pacific ocean billfish, especially sailfish, which they're willing to spend $400-$800 a day to pursue. Flamingo and Tamarindo are becoming the centers of activity, but in winter, when the sea kicks up a bit, many boats move down to the more sheltered Quepos, where the 36-foot Dorado IV (253-6713) hooked and released 100 sailfish in three days last season.

The Cloud Forest
Even if your attitude is that one nature preserve has the same dumb plants and bugs as another, a Costa Rican experience not to be missed is a trip to a cloud forest, where dampness is a virtue. The most famous is Monteverde, about 110 miles northwest of San Jos‹, still a misty wonderland even if the iridescently green resplendent quetzal and other wildlife have largely fled before the hordes who have come to admire them. A good alternative is the nearby Santa Elena Forest Reserve, three miles farther up the rough mountain road, where you have a better chance of seeing not only quetzals and 400 other species of birds, but also sloth, deer, ocelots, and monkeys. You can go without a guide, but that would be the cloud-forest equivalent of experiencing Times Square blindfolded.

Take one of the guided tours that start at the visitor's center (645-5238), where you would also be wise to rent a pair of rubber boots. Stay at the Monteverde Lodge (doubles, $93; 257-0766). It's just 15 minutes from the Santa Elena Reserve, and has an atrium Jacuzzi where you can sit and recount the day's events with up to 14 of your newest friends.

Volcano-Watching
Even more than quetzals and blue morpho butterflies, the visual stunner in Costa Rica is the almost continuously active Arenal Volcano. Nighttime is the best time to observe it, when flowing lava often puts on an action-flick-quality sound and light show. Unless you want to become tourist on toast, don't even think about trying to climb the volcano's slopes. But you'll feel like you're practically on them from some of the rooms at the Arenal Observatory Lodge (doubles, $55-$110; 257-9489), which was originally built for volcano watchers from the Smithsonian Institution and the University of Costa Rica. The lodge, accessible only by four-wheel-drive from the village of Fortuna, is so close to the volcano that on occasion the rooms allow you, finally, to feel the earth move while you're in bed.

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