by Christopher Baker

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If San Salvador were hosed down, all the shacks cleared and the people rehoused in tidy bungalows, the buildings painted, the stray dogs collared and fed, the children given shoes, the trash picked up in the parks, the soldiers pensioned off--there is no army in Costa Rica--and all the political prisoners released, those cities would, I think, begin to look a little like San José. In El Salvador I had chewed the end of my pipestem to pieces in frustration. In San José I was able to have a new pipestem fitted . . . [Costa Rica] was that sort of place.

-- Paul Theroux,

In his highly entertaining and incisive book The Old Patagonia Express, describing his journey south by rail from Massachusetts to Tierra del Fuego, Paul Theroux portrays a litany of places one might want to avoid. But Costa Rica is different. One of his characters sums it up. Freshly arrived in San José, the capital city, Theroux finds himself talking to a Chinese man in a bar. The Asian--a Costa Rican citizen--had left his homeland in 1954 and traveled widely throughout the Americas. He disliked every country he had seen except one. "What about the United States?" Theroux asked. "I went all around it," replied the Chinese man, "Maybe it is a good country, but I don't think so. I could not live there. I was still traveling, and I thought to myself, `What is the best country?' It was Costa Rica--I liked it very much here. So I stayed."

At first sight, Costa Rica appears almost too good to be true. The temptations and appeals of this tiny nation are so many that an estimated 30,000 U.S. citizens (more than one percent of Costa Rica's population) have moved here in recent years and now call Costa Rica home, attracted by financial incentives and a quality of life among the highest in the Western Hemisphere. Pensionados and other Americans-in-residence seem to have known for quite some time what travelers are only just wising up to: Costa Rica is one of the world's best-kept travel secrets, as well as a great place to live.

Travelers have neglected this exciting yet peaceful pro-Yankee nation primarily because of a muddled grasp of Central American geopolitics. While its neighbors have been racked by turmoil, Costa Rica has been blessed with a remarkable normalcy: few extremes of wealth and poverty, no standing army (the army disbanded itself following the 1948 coup d'état by which it gained power), and a proud history as Central America's most stable democracy (the 1990 elections were so trouble-free that crowd control at polling stations was handled in part by schoolchildren). Of the 52 presidents since independence from Spain in 1821, only three have been military men and only six could be considered dictators.

Ticos, as the friendly, warmhearted Costa Ricans are known, pride themselves on having more teachers than policemen, a higher male life expectancy than does the United States, an egalitarianism and strong commitment to peace and prosperity, and an education and social-welfare system which should be the envy of many developed nations. Even the smallest town is electrified, water most everywhere is potable, the roads are generally excellent, and the telecommunications system is the best in Latin America. In 1990, the United Nations declared Costa Rica the country with the best human-development index among underdeveloped nations; in 1992 it was taken off the list of underdeveloped nations altogether. No wonder National Geographic called it the "land of the happy medium."

This idyllic vision, however, ignores the country's enormous problems. The truth, of course, is more complex. Costa Rica is mired in an economic crisis. The nation's per-capita debt, while improving, ranks among the world's worst. Inflation reached 25% in 1992. One-third of Costa Rica's 520,000 families live in poverty. And in recent years, diseases like measles and malaria have reappeared. Traffic fatality statistics are frightening. Deforestation outside the national parks is occurring at a rate faster than in the Amazon. Still, one element has set Costa Rica apart from its neighbors: geography is the only extreme in Central America's most peaceful nation . . .

Despite its diminutive size (about the same size as Nova Scotia or West Virginia), Costa Rica proffers more beauty and adventure per acre than any other country on earth. It is in fact a kind of microcontinent unto itself. The diversity of terrain is remarkable, most of it as supremely beautiful as Mother Nature ever intended. Costa Rica is sculpted to show off the full potential of the tropics. Anyone who wants to journey, as it were, from the Amazon to a Swiss alpine forest has simply to start in a valley and start walking uphill. Within a one-hour journey from San José, the capital city, the tableau changes with dramatic effect through dense rainforest, airy deciduous forest and montane cloud forest which swathe the slopes of towering volcanoes, to dry open savannah, lush sugarcane fields, banana plantations, and rich cattle ranches set in deep valleys; and rain-soaked jungle, lagoons, estuaries, and swamps teeming with wildlife in the northern lowlands. The lush rainforest spills down the steep mountains to greet the Pacific and Atlantic oceans, where dozens of inviting white beaches remain unspoilt by footprints and offshore coral reefs open up a world more beautiful than a casket of gems.

Though the history buff may be disappointed by the lack of pre-Columbian or colonial sites and structures, Costa Rica's varied ecosystems, particularly its tropical rainforests, are a naturalist's dream. Unlike many destinations, where man has driven the animals into the deepest backwater seclusion, Costa Rica's wildlife seems to love to put on a song and dance. Animals and birds are prolific and relatively easily seen: sleek jaguars on the prowl, tattered moth-ridden sloths moving languidly among the high branches, scarlet macaws which fall from their perches and go squalling away, coatamundis, toucans, brightly colored tree frogs, and other exotic species in abundance. That sudden flutter of blue is a giant morpho butterfly, that mournful two-note whistle, the quetzal, the Holy Grail of tropical birds. The pristine forests and jungles are full of arboreal sounds that are, according to one writer, "music to a weary ecotraveler's ears." You can almost feel the vegetation growing around you. There is a sense of life at flood tide.

The nation's 12 distinct ecological zones are home to an astonishing array of flora and fauna--approximately five percent of all known species on earth in a country that occupies less than three ten-thousandths of its land area--including more butterflies than the whole of Africa, and more than twice the number of bird species than the whole of the United States . . . in colors so brilliant their North American cousins seem drab by comparison. Stay here long enough and you'll begin to think that with luck you might, like Noah, see all the creatures on earth.

Scuba divers, fishermen, golfers, spa addicts, kayakers and whitewater rafters, hikers, surfers, honeymoon romantics, and every other breed of escape artist, too, can find their nirvana in Costa Rica. The adventure travel industry has matured into one of the world's finest under the tutelage of experienced North American operators. About the only adventure activities not possible in Costa Rica are those that involve snow skis or camels.

For better or worse, Costa Rica, too, seems set to burst into blossom as a contender on the international beach-resort scene. The nation's Pacific coast has dozens of miles-long, soft sand beaches (note, however, that few beaches live up to the scintillating beauty of beaches in the West Indies, Thailand, or Cozumel). The nation boasts a number of supremely attractive resorts, civilized hotels and rustic lodges and cabinas where, lazing at a romantic Pacific resort or Caribbean jungle lodge dramatically overlooking the beach, you might seriously contemplate giving it all up back home and settling down to while away the rest of your days enjoying the never-winter climate.

Fortunately, as yet there are no Acapulcos or Cancuns scarring the coast with their endless discos and concrete beachfronts and vast high-rise condominiums: Costa Rica's progressive conservationist tradition and dedication to development with a genteel face have helped keep rapacious developers at bay . . . until now! The nation's law setting aside its beaches as surfside parks for the people is being eroded. And although Luis Manuel Chacón, the country's first and current minister of tourism, recently vowed to allow no buildings "taller than a palm tree" to blight the fabulous beaches, megaresort complexes are beginning to rise along the jungled shoreline like mushrooms on a damp log, often without heed for existing environmental laws.

The country is finally having to face a paradoxical problem: that of being loved to death. As the word spreads, the more people come. The more, too, the big developers are drawn in, backed by an administration which, environmentalists charge, appears more concerned with banking on the country's reputation abroad than with preserving the goose that lays the golden egg. Hopefully, it will be many years before Costa Rica is spoiled.