THINK of Costa Rica as a Rorschach test for travelers. Outlined on a map, it has no recognizable shape. But enclosed in tropical lines of latitude, with appropriate squiggles for mountains, coasts and interior borders, it's an inkblot for projecting travel fantasies. Beach lovers trace the craggy coasts and see hammocks swinging in the sunset breeze. The eyes of the nature-minded glaze when they note all the national parks. And adrenaline fanatics fixate on the mountains and rivers.
Costa Rica is tiny, smaller than West Virginia, but huge in versatility, with coasts on two oceans, coral-lined beaches and active volcanoes, luxury resorts and surf camps, roaring streams and rich biodiversity. Planning a trip for myself and my father last November, I set myself a challenge. How many Costa Ricas could we sample in just eight days? I settled on three: the rich primordial forest, the adventurer's playground and the beachfront paradise. After subtracting travel time within the country, we would have a day and a half to two and a half days at our chosen location for each one, time enough for a taste, at least, of the country's riches.
I stared into the dark jungle, hoping to see something staring back. The blackness was not complete; overhead the outlines of banana trees let in a little starlight, and, of course, for walking through the forest at night we all carried flashlights. Like most tourists, I had come to the Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve in hopes of seeing big mammals like jaguars, ocelots or tapirs. I didn't. Almost no one does. But 10 minutes with a guide on a three-hour walk our first night in the reserve proved that the plants and insects can be just as captivating — and as deadly.
The guide, who introduced himself only as Christian, combined the laid-back attitude of a surfer with the taxonomic command of an evolutionary biologist. He showed us an alligator tree, whose broad, conical spikes were developed to repel the elephant-size sloths that roamed the Americas as recently as 10,000 years ago. He grew animated as he called us over to look at a strangler fig, which begins life as an innocent epiphyte delivered into an unsuspecting tree's branches by a bird, then grows vines up to the sunlight and down to the ground, eventually enveloping the host tree and strangling it.
In a hole in the dead tree, behind the sinewy crawl of fig roots, Christian shined his light on an orange-kneed tarantula perched at the entrance, waiting for its prey. Why didn't it hunt out in the open, someone asked? Christian explained that tarantula wasps live in the area, waiting to paralyze a tarantula with their sting, lay eggs inside it and wait as the wasp larvae slowly consume the still-living spider from within. Let's see an ocelot try that.
Situated in the Tilarán Mountains northwest of San José, Costa Rica's capital, Monteverde is a Disneyland for eco-tourists. With its verdant cloud forest and 1,000 endemic plant species, Monteverde offers the pilgrimage to nature that many seek from the tropics. Since tourists are unlikely to spot all the wildlife they might wish to, private guides have always operated in the reserve, and in recent years, privately run zoo-like exhibitions have popped up: a bat jungle, a frog pond, a butterfly garden, a serpentarium. Add an organic cheese factory, a fair-trade coffee plantation and a half-dozen high-end hotels that vie to outdo one another with their recycling programs and renewable energy projects, and Monteverde has all senses of the word “green” covered.
Twenty-seven percent of Costa Rica's land area is devoted to national parks and reserves, one of the highest percentages for any country. Monteverde, which is the primary place marketed to eco-tourists, is between two reserves — Monteverde and Santa Elena — deep in the Costa Rican highlands. It is well developed, with hotels, several restaurants, shops and art galleries. It even has an asphalt road connecting the two reserves and villages between, which is curious since the four-hour drive through farms and orchards to get to the area from San José is rocky and rutted — a result, locals say, of an earlier desire to keep down the number of visitors (now, most would prefer that the government pave the road). It is an oasis of infrastructure amid the rural and the wild.
We stayed at the Hotel Belmar, off the main drag between the town and the Monteverde reserve. Most people make reservations for the various activities through the hotels because guides are recommended. For those with keen wilderness eyes or their own binoculars or both, it is possible to walk through the reserves unguided.
The next day, our only full day in the area, brought sunlight and a decidedly more benign face from nature. Inside the Monteverde reserve, weaving among clusters of people with their own guides and tripod-attached spotting scopes, our tour group passed huge, leafy elephant ear plants and miniature orchids no more than a millimeter or two across. Monkeys howled and birds twittered overhead, and we spotted a sloth sleeping out the day, matted gray fur tucked into a cradle of branches 20 feet up.
The real joy-bringers were the hummingbirds, sporadic companions within the reserve but constant ones just outside it, where sugar-water feeders were set up. The names by themselves were enough to force smiles: green-crowned brilliants, purple-throated mountain-gems, coppery-headed emeralds! The most dramatic were the violet sabrewings with their white tail feathers and iridescent bodies, purple like a royal robe. Around the feeders, the hummingbirds buzzed by our ears like a squadron of propeller planes. No wonder: with only nectar for food and heart rates of as high as around 1,200 beats a minute, these birds live in a nonstop sugar rush.
Looking for animals in a nature preserve is a bit like playing blackjack in a casino: you know the odds are against you, but at least it feels like skill when you win. Not quite sated with birds and bugs and plants, I decided to stack the deck and take a taxi to El Ranario, a private frog pond. But the frogs still required some effort to spot, blending in against the leaves and soil of their somewhat dilapidated cages. The blue jeans frog (red with blue legs) was no larger than a thumbnail, while the bodies of the glass frogs were completely translucent. But by far the best frog to find behind glass was the “chicken-eating frog” — a bull frog the size of a small cat that is said to eat chicks when given the opportunity. Confronted with that monster frog in the jungle at night, armed with only a flashlight, I may well have turned and run.
“Will there be cliffs we can jump off of?” Jana Hoffman asked our guide, her native Minnesota accent creeping in. We were in a lull on an 18-mile white-water run down the Pacuare River near the town of Turrialba. Ms. Hoffman and her husband, Dan, on their honeymoon, were on the starboard side of the raft. My father and I held the port, paddles at the ready. Rudolfo Camacho (called Chalo), the guide, a burly, mustached man in his 40s, grinned and nodded to Ms. Hoffman.
But we had rapids to navigate first. The one coming up was Class IV: major obstructions, big, unavoidable waves, distinct risk of flipping — in short, fun.
“Forward hard!” Chalo cried. We dug into the foaming water, Chalo in the rear steering us between two huge boulders. The current picked up as the river drove us through the funnel, waves far larger than our dinky craft dragging us up and down, smashing into us sideways. The funnel wound around the boulders, and at the end of it I saw the hole: a deep depression in the river that sucks water down and shoots it back up, creating a permanent huge wave. This one was so tall it blocked our view of the river beyond. We went down hard and then up, up, up, until the raft was almost completely vertical.
But this was routine for Chalo; he needed a little more excitement. Just as we crested the wave he jumped headfirst into the froth. “Whoo!” he cried, shaking his face dry as he surfaced. He climbed back into the raft as the river calmed.
Among the adreno-scenti, Costa Rica is known as one of the best and closest foreign adventure tourism destinations to the United States. The surfing, particularly on the Nicoya Peninsula, is known to be first class. The volcano hiking and Caribbean scuba diving are not far behind. With but two days to sample Costa Rica's blood-pumping options, I went for the main course: rafting near Turrialba on some of the most scenic whitewater an amateur can access — and some of the most challenging.
For a town so well regarded for its rafting, Turrialba itself has relatively few tourists. That is because it is less than two hours east of San José, and most rafting groups begin and end their day in the city. Turrialba's mostly bare-bones hotels, hostels and rest houses combined number in the single digits, many fewer than the number of rafting companies that operate in the area. We were staying at the Hotel Interamericano, a colorful but spartan hotel run by an American woman.
Booking a rafting trip in Turrialba is a local affair, in which company owners (some of them expatriate Americans) will come to your hotel common room to discuss the trip in person. Entertainment in the town itself is nonexistent. In the evening, we strolled up to the main square to watch teenage couples canoodling on blue stone benches and old men arguing in pairs as the sounds of evening Mass echoed from the nearby church.
The Pacuare started off difficult enough, but Chalo, who had captained the Costa Rica national rafting team from 1994 to 1998, was almost too good, lulling us into a state of absolute trust with his pinpoint control. Even the cliff jump Ms. Hoffman had requested — 20 feet off a moss-covered boulder into a calm pool — had my heart racing only for a moment.
After a second jump, we drifted in our life vests down a steep vegetation-lined gorge under a rickety wooden bridge as drizzle dimpled the calm water. The narrow patch of sky visible through the moss-covered leaves and branches was gray, but upriver the sun shone bright, misty rays illuminating our passage like some heavenly corridor — wonderful for the aesthetically oriented centers of the brain, but doing nothing for the adrenal glands.
The next day changed all that. We tackled mighty Reventazón, a brown powerhouse of a river. “Today a little more agresivo, yes?” Chalo asked. He explained that the day before, in deference to my father, who is 63, he had been running the “chicken line,” the safest path through the rapids. On this day, my father was staying behind.
The Reventazón has 20 Class IVs back-to-back. Still flush with the previous day's confidence, we told Chalo to go for it. I was scared from the moment we launched the raft in the middle of a rapid, pulling hard from the start. We took the first waterfall sitting on the floor for ballast but tried to power through others, despite occasionally reaching the paddle over the side and finding only air. Even the Hoffmans, who own and use their own raft in their hometown of Steamboat Springs, Colo., looked nervous.
And then we flipped. It was at a hole like the one we'd seen the day before, but instead of going straight up and over, the raft twisted, upended as easily and callously as a child's toy in a bathtub. Chalo guided us over to one of the cliffs on the bank as we clung to the raft, the tanklike press of the water trying to rip us away. Chalo had the raft upright again in a matter of moments and in less than 30 seconds had us all back in our spots, dumbstruck. He caught the boat on a rock before the next rapid to let us find our breath. I looked into Dan's eyes and then Jana's, as the river roared by the unmoving raft, and they both nodded to me. I informed Chalo of our decision: the chicken line, please.
After Turrialba, we took an 18-seat propeller plane to the Pacific coast. It was time to sample what legions of visitors come to find in Costa Rica: sun, sand and sybaritic relaxation.
Some of the country's best beaches are preserved in Manuel Antonio, Costa Rica's smallest and most popular national park, with about 4,000 acres and 150,000 annual visitors. Twenty-five years ago the area nearby held no more than a few cheap cabanas. Now a luxury infrastructure has grown up. Compared with Mexican resort towns like Cancún or Cabo San Lucas, the area still doesn't feel overdeveloped. The airport that serves the park, at the town of Quepos, is served by two local airlines that land on an asphalt runway surrounded by jungle. Flying in feels as if you're heading to a sea of African oil palms, the favored crop of nearby plantations.
The half-hour drive down the coast from the airport to the park is a strip of tourist restaurants, spas and hotels, with a turnoff midway to the high bluff where all the luxury lodgings are. The Hotel Parador, where we stayed, sprawls over the tip of the bluff like a Mediterranean villa and falls toward the high end in the local scale of luxury. In high season, the room prices are $200 to $400.
We arrived on a Sunday to immediate disappointment. It was too late to get to the park that day, and we couldn't go the next day either: Manuel Antonio is closed on Mondays. The sky was dimming from gathering clouds and a retreating sun as we walked a muddy road to Espadilla Beach, a public beach.
The beach was at the end of a long cove, bounded on one end by a brackish moat formed by the skirmishes of a freshwater stream and the salty tide, and on the other by a long wooded promontory. A brown pelican dived from the steel blue sky into the sea but came up empty. The wind picked up, unheard over the crash of surf but felt in the goose-pimpling of flesh. It seemed idyllic enough.
But then my father and I sat down on a set of beach chairs, and although aside from some surfers we were the only people on the beach, a man scurried over after a couple of minutes and insisted we pay for the seats. It began to rain. The cries of souvenir sellers pierced the air as they covered up their wares, and the black tarp roof of an unappealing beachside restaurant flapped incessantly in the wind. Espadilla was nice, but with so many other coves dotting the shoreline, surely Costa Rica's famed beachfront could be better.
We lazed away the next morning in our hotel's infinity pool, counting the languages and accents of the other guests who floated by us. In the afternoon, we walked downhill through the jungle to Biesanz Beach, a tiny cove where igneous boulders the size of small dogs to small trucks break up the waterline. The water itself was a lovely turquoise, as if someone had mixed the blue of the sky and the green of the jungle, and the beach was quiet, with only two other visitors. But the water was still. We craved waves.
Back at the hotel, I went in for a massage at the spa. The aromas of lavender and mint guided me to my masseuse, under whose capable hands I let the day seep out of me to the music of chirping tree frogs in the dimming twilight. We had dinner at Kapi Kapi, a restaurant with both Costa Rican and Thai influences, where we had a brilliant macadamia-crusted mahi-mahi, sugar cane-skewered prawns and a slice of magnificently tart mandarin lime pie. I fell asleep as soon as we returned; relaxation, it turns out, can be difficult work.
The park itself is a relatively short stretch of trails on upraised concrete blocks under cotton-silk, almond and coconut palm trees. Stepping out of the steaming jungle on Tuesday, onto the breezy beaches, had a “Robinson Crusoe” feel — until we saw other people already sunbathing. Even the park's farthest beach, called Puerto Escondido, or the Hidden Port, filled up quickly when the tide receded, leaving the path accessible without a scramble over sharp rocks. In the end, I felt more like Goldilocks: this beach was too small, this one too rocky, and all were too crowded, with negligible waves.
Dispirited, we left the park and returned to Espadilla Beach, where we had been before, as the rain again began to fall. We stopped in the restaurant with the plastic tarp roof and had a plate of surprisingly delicious pork ribs, then sat on chairs again. The same man came to take our money, but recognizing us, he stayed and joked around with my father for a while.
As the rain intensified, the sky darkened and all but the most hard-core of surfers left for drier places, I took a second look at Espadilla Beach. Of all the beaches we had visited, it was the only one with any waves. Nestled between two knobby bluffs, the arc of its cove was smooth and sweet, and the little islands offshore broke up the horizon just so. How had I missed it?
It is amazing how the character of a beach can change when the dingy restaurant becomes a local gem, the pushy entrepreneur becomes a friend, and the rest of the tourists clear out. We waded into the surf, savoring every swell and break that buffeted our bodies, drifting in the gunmetal sea.