When I first visited Costa Rica more than two decades ago, I did not imagine that I would make a second visit to that beautiful country in early November 2009.
On my first visit, I was alone until I met a great couple from Alaska. They had rented a jeep and invited me to join them exploring the country, making our hotel in San Jose our base camp. We made trips to both the Caribbean side and the Pacific side of the country.
We got lost frequently as Costa Ricans give directions based on houses or stores and not on street names or numbers. That did not matter to us as we got to see more of that country when lost.
Today, the airport close to San Jose, the capital of the country, is impressive, big and modern. The road from the airport into town is six lanes wide. I saw no roads this wide on my first visit.
Every home in San Jose seems to have bars in the windows. Properties are protected by walls topped by barbed wire much of which has sharp razor-blade attachments. Every man’s home is thus not just his castle, it is also his fortress.
Costa Rica is the connecting link between South America and North America, bordering Panama on the south and Nicaragua in the north.
Over half the country’s 4.5 million citizens live in the mountains and valleys that form a rich middle spine created by volcanoes, several of which are active.
Our recent tour took us to the rim of the Poas Volcano with steam escaping from red rocks in the crater. In the northern part of the country our hotel was constructed so that every room had a view of the 6 million-year-old Arenal volcano, which looks like an ice cream cone turned upside down. It is an active volcano often covered with clouds. But the skies cleared for us to see it clearly.
We had a tram ride that took us to the top of a tropical rain forest. We made boat trips on four different rivers and canals and saw many beautiful birds, monkeys, sloths and iguanas (one variety is called the Jesus Christ lizard because it can walk on water. We saw one do just that. It jumped off a log and ran very fast to the shore with its webbed feet not breaking the water’s surface).
On one boat ride, we were able to see high in a tree a unique monkey named "Blondie" by the tour guides. She is 8 years old. When she became mature at the age of 3, the alpha female monkey who governed the mating process for that family of monkeys prevented her from mating probably because she was "different" with light orange-colored fur.
We learned much about Costa Rica. It has a law that requires every worker to give 8 percent of salary to pay for a health care system that is thus free to all citizens.
Every working citizen must contribute 1 percent of salary into a national savings account for each individual. At the end of the five years, the citizen must draw out the money saved, and then spend it or deposit it in a private savings account. This forced savings provides capital for growth.
Women in Costa Rica have special status. In the elections for the unicameral legislature next February 2010, a new law guarantees that women will be elected to 40 percent of the 57 seats. The leading candidate for president of the country is a woman, who is expected to win easily.
In 1948, a civil war inflicted much pain and misery, and the army was part of that war. Subsequently in 1949, Costa Rica abolished its armed services and relies on local police to provide security. The former military budget is now reportedly spent on education and health care.
On one of our river explorations we reached the border with Nicaragua. To turn our boat around, we had to go 40 or 50 feet into Nicaragua. There were no military troops at the border. The border was marked by a concrete pillar and a wire fence. Nothing was in the water.
Costa Rica is devoted to environmental protection. Over 30 percent of the country is preserved in national parks that cannot be exploited or developed.
We toured banana, pineapple and coffee plantations and were impressed by the environmental concerns that drive agriculture in that country.
Can larger countries like the United States learn from small Costa Rica, about the size of West Virginia? I hope so.
Tom Nichols is a retired college professor who lives in Gainesville. His column appears regularly on Mondays and on gainesvilletimes.com.