In January of 2002 I was planning to visit Egypt, but the destruction of the World Trade Center and America's subsequent war in Afghanistan made me change my plans. For a couple of years I had been thinking of visiting Costa Rica, so that's where I went instead. For me, the attractions of Costa Rica were its reputation as a mecca for bird and other wildlife watching, and its interesting landscapes, especially its volcanoes. Unusually, especially in this part of the world, it has no army, having disbanded it after a short but nasty civil war in the late 1940s. Despite the best efforts of the CIA and others, Costa Rica was largely able to keep out of the cold war clash of ideologies which lead to so much death and destruction in Latin America; President Arias even received the Nobel peace prize in 1987 for his work promoting peace in Central America.
On the Pacific coast it's only about 440 kilometers as the crow flies from Costa Rica's northern neighbor Nicaragua to Panama, and 200 kilometers on the Caribbean coast. However, the high central mountain ranges, including peaks like Cerro Chirripo (3820 meters), means that Costa Rica has an enormous variety of wildlife habitats, which is why the country is such a mecca for ecotourists. The only thing that's lacking is good water clarity for diving, so I left my underwater photography equipment behind on this trip. Unfortunately I soon learned that the famous volcanoes like Poas, Arenal and Irazu spend most of the time shrouded in clouds, and the only view most tourists will have of them is on the front of a travel brochure. Happily, other attractions like the sunny white beaches of the Pacific coast can be relied on to be available year round. The country's national parks are also numerous, scattered throughout the country, and very accessible. They range from tropical dry forest in the north west to alpine in the mountain ranges to wetlands and tropical jungle in the northern and Caribbean lowlands.
The birdlife is the main reason why many ecotourists come here. With 850 species, Costa Rica has more variety than the whole of North America, Australia, or Europe. The mountainous regions are home to perhaps the single most sought after species in the world for birdwatchers, the resplendent quetzal, whose spectacular plumage made it highly prized in the Aztec and Maya cultures. Many of the common neotropical birds like motmots, trogons and toucans and macaws are found here, as well as species like the orange-bellied trogon and some hummingbirds which are only found in this area.
Costa Rica is also home to a huge variety of insect species, ranging from spectacularly beautiful butterflies to less well loved varieties like ants - voracious army ants, huge bullet ants and the ubiquitous leafcutter ants with their extraordinary patterns of social behavior. There are other insects which are also poorly thought of, but can have patterns and colors every bit as interesting as the butterflies, including dragonflies, moths, caterpillars, beetles, and true bugs. Finally we get to the creatures which most people never want to encounter, including spiders (many of which are actually very attractive and interesting), centipedes, millipedes and scorpions.
There are many mammals in the forests, including the raccoon-like coatimundi, some of which are friendly with people, and monkeys including the white-faced capuchin, squirrel monkeys and the howler monkey, which is frequently seen and whose bizarre deep-throated calls are even more frequently heard. There are other inhabitants which are very rarely seen, like six varieties of native cat, ranging all the way up to pumas and jaguars. I was lucky enough to catch a glimpse of one of these cats, a jaguarundi which is considerably less intimidating than its similarly named cousin! As well, there are the prey of these cats, including peccaries and agoutis. Rounding out the list are prehensile tailed kinkajous and the bats which I saw flying around hummingbird feeders after their regular customers had retired for the night.
I made it a particular exercise to track down some of the local reptiles, especially snakes. I came across only one tiny specimen during my self-directed hunt, but added another four varieties on a guided walk during my last full day in the country. Other types of reptile were more common, including green iguanas (most of which were brown) and the similar looking ctenosaurs (one of which was blue), and the local crocodilians - caimans and American crocodiles, a large group of which can be easily viewed from the bridge at Tarcoles, on the Pacific Coast. Finally there are always lots of cute and unintimidating lizards in any tropical country, with some local specialties here, particularly in some of the cooler habitats, including blue-eyed anoles and cloud forest anoles.