Many cruise ships that are plying the route between Florida and California via the Panama Canal spend one day in Costa Rica, usually in the port town of Puntarenas. The port itself is a sleepy town that essentially offers little for the visitor. If your itinerary includes a stop in Puntarenas, plan to spend the day on an excursion otherwise you will be spending eight to ten hours in utter boredom.
There are three major options open to you, but with variations depending upon your cruise line. These basic options include:
- Visiting one of the rainforest reserves or beaches along the coast
- Visiting one of the major nature reserves in the western mountains, the most popular being the Monteverde Cloud Forest
- Taking a tour into the central plateau, which is the heartland of Costa Rica and visiting one or more of the following: San José – the national capital and largest city; Poas Volcano – a massive active volcanic crater; Sarchi – home to much of Costa Rica’s arts and crafts culture
Costa Rica is the most unique country in Central America. It is a small country, covering 51,100 square kilometers or 19,700 square miles. It has a central plateau bounded by mountains on both its eastern and western coasts, which are tropical with a hot, humid rainforest environment. The mountains and central plateau have a tropical upland climate that has made it conducive to settlement and is thus the core of the nation. However, like the rest of Central America, it is prone to periodic earthquakes and volcanic eruptions thus making it a fragile country where life is essentially on the edge of catastrophy.
The culture of Costa Rica differs from its Central American neighbors. When the Spanish explorers arrived in the 16th century, they found few if any native tribes had settled, thus the land was available for colonization without the normal conflicts that occurred elsewhere throughout Latin America.
Spanish and other European colonists established themselves, and as Costa Rica evolved, it became essentially a middle class society. There are few people of mixed native and European blood living at or below the poverty level. Only on the Caribbean coast are there a few people descended from African slaves. The majority of Costa Ricans are of pure European ancestry. And unlike the majority of Latin America, true democratic ideals have replaced dictatorship. This is a peaceful country and the only nation in the Western Hemisphere that does not have an army. The literacy rate is the highest in Latin America, comparable to that of Canada and the United States. Government health care is excellent and there is a high standard of education.
Costa Rica is not an industrial country. It has depended upon it agriculture, raising fine quality coffee, bananas, tropical fruits and both cattle and sheep. But tourism has come to play a major role along with retirement from both Canada and the United States. This is the country where ecotourism has been developed to an art, some claiming that Costa Rica was the creator of this sustainable form of tourism. The tropical rainforest and cloud forest parks are well visited. Several of the country’s volcanoes, though potentially destructive, are popular destinations. One in particular named Arenal erupts so regularly that there are guesthouses within safe distances where visitors can watch the eruptions in perfect safety, especially enjoying the nighttime performances. And Costa Rica is famous for its beautiful art and craft items.
When your ship docks in Puntarenas, here are the three most popular of the various tours that the majority of cruise lines offer. Since these are all day tours, you can only choose one of the following:
- Monteverde Cloud Forest – Located on the western slope of the west coast mountains, this tropical forest is often bathed in morning fog. Warm air is forced to rise by the mountains, creating fog and mist that helps nourish this beautiful forest. A miniature train takes you on a journey through what is called the cloud forest, enabling you to view the landscape with a minimal amount of walking.
- Poas Volcano – This massive crater complex located in the interior plateau is about a two-hour drive over the west coast mountains, through the lush farmland of the plateau and then up the slopes of the massive caldera. Poas does not erupt with any great degree of violence, but its craters boil and steam and on occasion overflow, a sight that speaks to the primeval forces deep within the planet. This is a very awe-inspiring visit. But given the high altitude it is often shrouded in fog or mist, thus you are not always guaranteed a good view once arriving at the overlook.
- San José – Costa Rica’s capital city has around 500,000 residents. It is easy to get around with a well-planned grid pattern, so your tour can visit all of the major highlights and include lunch with ease. San José has far less poverty than any other city in Central America. It is quite safe, very clean, but also very traditional. There is a beautiful central plaza, a small opera house, impressive government buildings, a baroque cathedral, an interesting historical museum and an overall colonial ambiance. The outer suburb of Escazu is where many expatriate Canadian and American retirees live. It is both traditional and ultra modern, sprouting many new high-rise condos, which stand in contrast to the rest of the city. En route to San José or on return, you will stop in Sarchi, which is the arts and crafts capital of Costa Rica. Here you will find a variety of very colorful products all produced by local artists.
There are other tours offered by the various cruise lines that stay closer to Puntarenas. There is adventure rafting on a local river, beach tours where you simply relax on a beautiful sun drenched beach and other rainforest tours depending upon the ship’s arrangements. But regardless of where you go, you will find Costa Rica to be a delightful country that has a more sophisticated environment with a people who are friendly and welcoming. And there is little fear of becoming a victim of crime or violence as elsewhere in the region.
Once again I emphasize that if you simply stay in Puntarenas for the entire day, you will have missed the true joy of visiting Costa Rica.
Submitted by, Dr. Lew Deitch www.doctorlew.com