on-line contest

What's New

Most Popular


Story and photos by

Green iguana
Green iguana
Photo © Barb & Ron Kroll

If you love nature, Costa Rica will captivate you. Although it's less than one-third the size of Florida, this Central American country has 28 national parks, more than 300 beaches and 25% of its landmass designated as protected wildlife areas, refuges and biological reserves.

Sandwiched between Nicaragua and Panama, Costa Rica has two coasts, just over 300 kilometers apart — the Pacific Ocean on the west and the Caribbean Sea on the east.

Biological diversity

Covering less than 1% of the world's surface, Costa Rica is home to 5% of the planet's biodiversity. More than 500,000 species of flora and fauna encompass in excess of 850 bird species, 1,000 species of butterflies and 150 species of orchids.

Critters abound, from green iguanas to monkeys. All of this biological richness is only a five-hour flight from Toronto.

Costa Rica weather

Twelve micro-climates span tropical coasts, pristine jungles, forested valleys, a temperate central plateau and mountain ranges. Although Costa Rica is only 10 degrees above the equator, the temperature can drop to cool or even freezing as the land climbs to the three mountain chains that form its backbone.

Rising as high as 3,800 meters, they cradle both dormant and active volcanoes. The latter are tourist attractions as much as the beaches, hot springs and rainforests.

Gerardo Rivera with eggbeater made from branch
Gerardo Rivera with eggbeater made from branch
Photo © Barb & Ron Kroll

Eco-lodge hiking trail

Our first stop was an eco-lodge near La Fortuna de San Carlos. We booked a nature tour guided by a visiting biologist. Gerardo Rivera disclosed some of the secrets of the rainforest as we walked with him along trails near our lodge.

He showed us a Pouteria congestifolia tree. "It belongs to the same family as the chicle tree, which provided sap to make chewing gum before the invention of synthetic gum bases," he explained.

Using a thin strip of bark from another tree, he rolled it between his palms until it coiled into a string. He repeated the exercise with a different-colored bark to make a strong two-toned twine. (One of Rivera's specialties was discovering natural dyes from vegetation like teak leaves and avocado seeds.)

To demonstrate how plants can be used to make tools, Gerardo severed a small branch from a Guararibea costaricensis tree. Peeling off the bark, he fashioned a five-spoke eggbeater that he manipulated by rubbing the handle between his palms.

As a final touch, he hung it from the string that he had made earlier. It now hangs in our kitchen, a tangible reminder of the versatility of the rainforest.

Cucumber tree
Cucumber tree
Photo © Barb & Ron Kroll

Cucumber tree

Fallen flowers, strewn over the ground, resembled delicate mauve confetti. Tiny white orchids adorned moss-covered trees.

Twisted lianas dangled from epiphyte-covered limbs. And ruby-red berries dripped pearls of moisture on lacy green ferns below.

Gerardo also identified purple orchids, moths with wings that resemble an owl (to frighten birds that eat them) and a tree with long green cucumber-like fruits growing from its trunk. "More than 5,000 plants in Costa Rica have medicinal value," he said, pointing out a yellow flowering plant used to treat malaria.

Rainforest plants

If you were ever lost in the jungle, you would want to be with an expert like Rivera. Crushing a few lemon-scented scarlet berries in his hand, he explained that they were citronella, which repels insects.

He identified the Protium costaricensis tree which contains oil that will burn, even when the wood is green and wet.

Natural health remedies

Rivera explained that more than 5,000 plants in Costa Rica have medicinal value. Crushing various leaves to release their scents, he described their uses in deodorants, perfumes and food seasonings.

Primitive plant in rainforest
Primitive plant in rainforest
Photo © Barb & Ron Kroll

Not all the plants are friendly. Rivera cut a small wedge into a Virola kochnyi tree. "Anyone inhaling the red sap that leaks out will hallucinate for five days," he said.

Other plants are mere curiosities, such as the primitive plant. It is a plant fossil that has never evolved.

Seed bank

Whatever the purpose of the plant, Rivera planned to include it in a seed bank that researchers could use as rainforests are destroyed and plants become extinct. "Many trees in the virgin forest are at least 800 years old," he said.

When Rivera wanted seeds, fruits or flowers high up in a tree for his collection, he reached into his back pocket for a slingshot. First he flung a lead weight, attached to a filament, high up over the branch.

Costa Rica butterflies and moths
Costa Rica butterflies and moths
Photo © Barb & Ron Kroll

Then he used the filament to pull up a nylon rope with a chainsaw blade attached. By pulling back and forth on both ends of the rope he sawed off the specimen.

New rainforest species

Gerardo Rivera has discovered three new species in the surrounding rainforest. Scientists named them after him.

He showed us some of his collections: a palm-sized bean seed — the largest in the world, insects and trays of butterflies and moths. Some had wings of iridescent turquoise.

Arenal volcano

Although Gerardo's tour was fascinating, we had to continue our journey. We wanted to see Arenal, which once was Costa Rica's most active volcano. Since October 2010 it has been dormant.

Soaking in Tabacon Hot Springs
Soaking in Tabacon Hot Springs
Photo © Barb & Ron Kroll

When we arrived, clouds obscured its 1,633-meter-high peak. We didn't care, because Tabacon Hot Springs seduced us instead.

Tabacon thermal pools

A maze of garden-lined pathways and arched bridges joined the thermal river, pools and waterfalls heated by hot springs at the foot of Arenal. This natural Jacuzzi was so warm that steam rose as high as the surrounding palm trees.

We nestled into a natural rock grotto below a tumbling waterfall. Green ferns, red ginger and yellow gladiolas separated us from elongated cascades where entire families luxuriated in languor-inducing foam.

Lake Arenal windmills

It was the perfect way to relax before we drove to San José for the final day of our trip. (Arenal is located just three hours northwest of the capital city on the Inter-American Highway.)

As we drove past Lake Arenal, we spotted towering windmills on the hills above generating wind power. Engineers created the lake in 1973 by damming a river to produce electricity.

Lake Arenal windmills
Lake Arenal windmills
Photo © Barb & Ron Kroll

Strong northeasterly winds whirled their 10-meter-long vanes and churned up waves on the lake, making it a favorite destination for windsurfers.


Costa Rica Tourism Board

More things to see and do in Costa Rica:

Costa Rica Adventure Tour

Marenco Beach Rainforest Lodge - Hiking in Osa Peninsula Rio Claro Refuge

Savegre Hotel Birdwatching Tours

Manuel Antonio National Park - Hiking, Beaches and Wildlife

San Jose Day Trips to Canas, Carara National Park and Sarchi