Costa Rica: A bird of a very different feather

It continues to thrive while its neighbors remain mired in violence, poverty and corrupt politics

This tiny Central American country can charm as well as puzzle you. Its dazzling biodiversity, which attracts 1.7 million tourists and $1.7 billion dollars in revenues yearly, is irresistible. The other, more surprising side of Costa Rica is how it has remained an oasis of prosperity and political stability for 60 years in a swampy corner of the globe that gave us the epithet “banana republic” to signify corruption, human rights abuses and pervasive poverty.

Hello and welcome to my jungle.

Actually, the country’s success is a work of both God and man. It is very small, about the size of West Virginia and has a population of 5.1 million. While it doesn’t have traditional resources such as oil or mining it is one of the most biodiverse countries on the planet, with an estimated 500,000 species of wildlife (even if 300,000 of those are insects) thanks to discrete “life zones” created by mountains at different altitudes.

And it rains—as much as 150 inches in some parts of the country. In San Miguel where we live, a year with 24 inches of precipitation is considered a blessing. Costa Rica’s wet and warm climate in turn has created an ideal climate for wildlife to run really wild, from tiny red-eyed frogs on the ground to troops of howler monkeys that swing from the trees above and let out an eerie screech that reminded me of a low-flying jet plane.

A chorus line of small bats resting, presumably after a night of chasing insects.

One forest resident, the sloth, is both the most famous and reserved. Every visitor, including us, wants to espy sloths but we saw only one, high up on a tree, striking its customary pose of a shapeless and motionless blob of fur about the size of a cat. The only distinguishable feature of the one we saw were the three long nails in its front feet, which set it apart from, yes, the two-toed sloth.

Costa Rica’s teeming biodiversity may be the work of God, but the fact it has survived, and even experienced a rebirth, is most definitely the work of visionary men and women running the country. Following a short but bloody civil war, triggered by a president who would not concede losing the election in 1948—does this sound familiar?—José Figueres Ferrer formed an army, and ruled the country for 18 months and then handed over the presidency to the legitimate winner. In 1953, Ferrer is elected president, and then again in 1970.

In October 11, 1949 a new constitution was drafted with a provision that was pure genius: It abolished the army, which in fact paved the way for the country’s political stability. From Mexico to Patagonia, Latin American militaries have been the sources of coups, instability and human rights horrors. Costa Rica’s elimination of the army and the shift of military spending to education and public health was pure genius (but I already said that).

In the town La Fortuna, at the foot of the Arenal volcano, I met this future president of Costa Rica, practicing one of his campaign moves.

Beginning in 1982, the U.S. government began a pressure campaign to get Costa Rica to join a regional campaign to overthrow the Sandinista government in Nicaragua. Costa Rica refused and in fact, President Oscar Arias led a peace initiative among Nicaragua, El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras, and for his effort was awarded the 1987 Nobel Peace Prize. I imagine U.S. President Ronald Reagan, who opposed the accords, didn’t cheer the award.

Just as unusual as its militarization, was Costa Rica’s campaign, beginning around 1996, to not only stop but reverse deforestation. It is believed that during the 1940s, 60 percent of the country was forested but that area had shrunk to between 30 and 50 percent by 1987. Today the percentage of forested land is back up to around 60 percent. Also ingenious is the government’s use of some of the proceeds from ecotourism—today the largest earner of foreign currency—to pay for its plans to reduce carbon emissions.

After only ten days in the country, I’m not about to crown Costa Rica as the Switzerland of Latin America, or pretend that all its economic problems are behind it. The Covid pandemic, for one, dealt a sucker punch to the country by forcing it to shut down the airport and its tourist industry for a year. And global problems such as inflation tend to magnify their effect on smaller countries.

Parting shot: This is Saga, a mutt equipped with his own lifejacket and goggles, who captained the outrigger we took on a brief tour of the waterfront. (Photo courtesy of Esteban, our bus driver.)

Stew and I loved Costa Rica and wish we had seen more of its national forests and fauna. Stew has already mentioned a return trip, perhaps a solo driving excursion without the strictures of group travel. I’m up for it, and I’m not leaving until we find a sloth ready for its close-up.

A few more photos:

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