Costa Rica stretches from sea to sea. Sandy beaches fringed by palms, grassy savannahs, warm inland valleys, temperate plateaus, smoking volcanoes, frosty peaks, forested slopes and steamy jungles succeed each other across the landscape. Twice as many species of tree are native to the many regions of the country as to the continental United States. More than a thousand types of orchids flourish. The national wildlife treasures are still being discovered and inventoried.
Yet, by most standards, Costa Rica is small. From north to south or east to west, the country runs only 200 miles. The shortest distance between oceans is only 75 miles.
Costa Rica drapes itself upon a jagged, mountainous spine that runs from northwest to southeast, part of the great intercontinental Sierra Madre-Andes chain. The volcanic Guanacaste, Tilarán, and Central ranges, separated from each other by relatively low passes and valleys, rise successively higher down the northern two-thirds of the country. Traversing the south of Costa Rica and continuing into Panama is the Talamanca range, which encompasses the highest points in the country. Cool and even frigid, the mountain slopes remain in part in their natural, breath taking condition, but are more and more being deforested and exploited as pasture.
South of the volcanoes of the Central Range is the Meseta Central, or Valle Central -the Central Plateau, or Central Valley- in every sense the heart of Costa Rica. Measuring only about 20 by 50 miles, the Central Valley covers an area roughly equivalent to that of metropolitan Los Angeles. Yet packed into it are not only the capital city and most of the major population centers, but the richest farmland. Ranging from about 3,000 to 5,000 feet above sea level, with rolling, forested, and farmed terrain, the valley also abounds in natural beauty.
East of the Central Valley, between the Talamanca Range and the Pacific, is the valley of the General River, which was isolated from the rest of the country until the construction of the Pan American Highway in the 1950s. Here, at elevations lower and warmer than those of the Central Valley, is Costa Ricas fastest-growing concentration of family farms, many operated by migrants from the more crowded core of the Country.
Toward the Pacific, Costa Rica tilts precipitously down a slope broken by fast-flowing rivers, some of them harnessed to provide electrical power. In the northwest, on the edge of the hilly Nicoya Peninsula, are miles of sandy beach where Costa Ricas new resort industry is concentrating. Just inland are the savannahs of Guanacaste, populated mostly by fat, grazing cattle.
To the northeast of Costa Ricas mountainous spine, the land slopes down to a broad, low-lying triangle of hardwood forest and jungle, with two sides formed by the Caribbean Sea and the 300-kilometer (186-mile) border with Nicaragua. This is the land of eternal rainfall, where storms can blow in at any time of the year. Elsewhere in Costa Rica, the central mountains block Caribbean storms, and it rains only from May to November, when the winds are from the Pacific.
Flora & Fauna
Costa Rican flora and fauna, and tropical flora and fauna in general, are too varied to be treated justly in a small section of this book, or even in a few books devoted exclusively to the subject. Botanists refer to the natural exuberance of the tropics as "species richness". An area that supports two or three types of trees in the temperate zones might lodge dozens or even hundreds of plant species from ground level to forest canopy in the tropics.
Some dimensions of this natural abundance in Costa Rica: more than 2,000 species of tree have so far been catalogued, twice as many as in the continental United States. Two-thirds of all known seed plants are found in Costa Rica. And there are over 1,000 orchids, ranging from the guaria morada, the purple national flower, down to those with blossoms too tiny to be casually noticed; more than 800 species of fern; and so on.
As a bridge between two continents, Costa Rica is home to animal forms both familiar and exotic. More than 750 species of bird inhabit Costa Rica, as many as in all of the United States. These range from common jays and orioles to large-beaked toucans and macaws, and the exquisite and elusive long-tailed quetzals of the trogon family. The national list includes 50 species of hummingbird, 45 tanagers and 72 flycatchers. A checklist of birds of Costa Rica is available for $2 from Natural History Tours, Box 1089, Lake Helen, FL 32744.
As for mammals, monkeys abound, among them howler, spider, white faced, and the tiny marmoset. White-tailed deer, raccoons, and rattlesnakes, all common in North America, live alongside their Southern cousins, the brocket deer, coatimundi, and bushmaster. Sea turtles -six of the worlds eight species- nest on Costa Ricas shores.
Alligators, peccaries (hatchback versions of the domestic pig), tepezcuintles (pacas), jaguars, ocelots, pumas and many other "exotic" species are still not uncommon in parts of the country.
Paradoxically, many of these species are difficult to sight. In settled native animals and plants have been wiped out by hunting, land-clearing and poaching. In less-settled areas, the lack of roads and trails keeps out the interested visitor. Fortunately, however, many species can be seen in Costa Ricas national parks.
To themselves, and to those who know them, Costa Ricans are Ticos. The nickname derives from the way they speak. Diminutives are common in the language of Latin America. A moment becomes a "little moment", momentito, to indicate "in a little while". But in Costa Rica, the word is momentico, and the peculiar ending is applied to the people who us use it.
Like their Spanish language, which was locked away for centuries from the outside world by mountains, jungles, and seas, Costa Ricans are gracious, courteous, traditional, even a bit archaic. The retreta -that circling of boys and girls in the central square on weekend evenings, with shy glances that could, just could, lead to romance- hung on in Costa Rica even as it was disappearing from elsewhere in Latin America and Spain. Now, dating is the norm. But old-fashioned prudishness survives in public. Movies, for one, are heavily censored.
Blacks were present in early colonial Costa Rica in small numbers as slaves, but those who survived the harsh conditions and ill treatment of that era merged into the general population. A later generation of blacks arrived in Costa Rica at the close of the nineteenth century, from Jamaica and elsewhere in the West Indies, to construct the railroad from San José to the Atlantic, and remained to labor on the banana plantations established by Minor Keith.
The 30,000 blacks in the country today more and more consider themselves Costa Ricans. All legal discrimination ended with constitution of 1949. Most blacks who attended school since that time learned Spanish as well as English. Bilingualism has earned them some good jobs in commerce and the travel industry in the Central Valley, though, as Protestants, they stand apart from other Costa Ricans.
Indians, or native Americans, are Costa Ricas forgotten minority. Their numbers are few -20,000, perhaps even less- and they live in small groups away from the centers of population.
The Indians of the Talamanca group live in the forested valleys north of the Talamanca mountain range, and in the adjacent Caribbean lowlands. Their ancestors were forced into the area from central Costa Rica and from the Caribbean coast, and there they have remained, except for some who have migrated to the Pacific region. Two tribes survive, the Cabécar and the Bribri, composed of the remnants of a number of pre-Conquest tribes.
The Borucas of the southern Pacific coastal area, near Panama, still live largely where they did before the Conquest. Aside from working their land communally, they live like other rural Costa Ricans. But by their racial heritage, their particular devotion to the celebration of the Immaculate Conception, and through pre-Columbian ritual that survives as superstition, the Borucas maintain a separate identity.
Other Indian groups are the Chorotegas of the Nicoya peninsula, who lost the use of their separate language years ago, and are almost indistinguishable from the mestizo, or mixed-blood, Costa Ricans of the area; and a few Guatusos, who live in the northern border lowlands east of the Guanacaste mountains.