Modern-day Costa Rica exotic, tropical and will do wonders for your skin



Glenda Haggerty explores the Monteverde Cloud Forest in Costa Rica.



“Cambiamos las armas por cuadernos.”

“We exchange armed forces for notebooks,” said Daniel Zúñiga from Monteverde, Costa Rica.

It’s a way of life for the 4.5 million residents of Costa Rica, Daniel said, at least since the Civil War of 1948. That’s when Jose Figueres, the “Father of the Nation,” known as Don Pepe, launched the last war in this uniquely pacifist country.

Exotic. Tropical. Friendly. Diverse. Intriguing.

All describe modern-day Costa Rica.

But it was Figueres, in 1948, who reformed a corrupt government, expanded social reforms, nationalized banks and abolished the army.

In 1949, with a new democratic constitution, women and Afro-Caribbeans were allowed to vote and the latter were finally given citizenship.

That’s a far cry from 1855, when Tennessee physician/lawyer/kingdom builder William Walker attempted to institutionalize slavery throughout Central America.

It’s assumed in this peaceful state that current Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker is a descendant of the former Tennessean, who was executed in the Honduras in 1860.

Yes, these people do know about Scott Walker. This modernized country has satellite TV, especially ESPN for “futbol,” and CNN and Telemundo for news, cell phones, laptops, iPads, microwaves, refrigerators with filters and ice-making machines, and lots of newer-model Toyotas.

The highway system is extensive, although there are plenty of rough dirt roads in remote areas, just like Colorado.

Yet, even without an army, peace doesn’t come without conflict. There’s a tract of land north of here, between the San Juan River and the Carribean coast, that Nicaragua strongman Daniel Ortega is battling Costa Rica for control.

Historically, this was a major trade route cutting across a thin strip of land from the Atlantic to the Pacific Ocean. Ships would sail up the San Juan from the Caribbean Sea, then across Lake Nicaragua, the 19th largest lake in the world, ninth largest in the Americas. A stagecoach line owned by American business magnate Cornelius Vanderbilt connected the lake with the Pacific Ocean, not far away.

The dispute over the San Juan River was exacerbated by the possibility that it might become part of a Nicaragua Canal, connecting the two great oceans.

The opening of the Panama Canal in 1914 took care of that issue.

Recently and curiously, however, Nicaragua began dredging the San Juan River. Ortega says it’s to open up navigation and take care of years of siltation.

And, oh yeah, Google Maps mis-drew the boundary map last year, and Ortega jumped all over it. The Google world map now has been redrawn with both Costa Rican and Nicaraguan versions of the border.

Costa Rican President Laura Chinchilla, the first female president of this Central American Country, filed a petition to The International Court of Justice, the primary judicial organ of the United Nations, in November 2010. The court ruled last month that both countries should cool down and pull everyone out of there — civilians, policia, military — everyone but the native people who live there and the people checking on the health of the river and the forest.

Pura Vida.

This is really living!

In modern Costa Rica, the water is safe to drink, the beaches are clean and drop-dead gorgeous, and the cloud forest is spectacular.

The local people — ticos — are warm and wonderful, happy and long-lived. Our host family in Monteverde, Cecilia and Emiliano Fonseca González and daughter Jasmin, were gracious, kind, sharing — and very patient with my rudimentary Español.

Cecilia was also a fabulous cook. That’s how we met Daniel, a neighbor. With such a great cook in the neighborhood, he didn’t miss many meals at the González household.

A week in the cloud forest did wonders for my dry skin, and for my wanderlust.

Tropical cloud forests are enormously rich ecosystems, supporting 20 percent of the world’s plant diversity and 16 percent of the world’s vertebrae diversity in only 0.4 percent of the Earth’s surface.

We visited the Monteverde Cloud Forest Biological Reserve, the Children’s Eternal Rain Forest, Selvatura and Santa Elena Bosques (forests). All were spectacular.

The Monteverde Cloud Forest Biological Reserve protects more than 100 species of mammals, 400 bird species, 120 species of amphibians and reptiles, tens of thousands of insects and more than 3,000 plant species.

To my friends at the Western Colorado Botanical Gardens: this reserve also contains the largest orchid diversity in the world, with more than 500 species.

Although this is an extremely remote area of our planet, this educated population is concerned about activities of the U.S., Japan and the rest of the world.

“We are all connected,” they say.

Nowadays, these tropical cloud forests are threatened by deforestation and vulnerability to climate change — particularly to changes in cloud dynamics.

Yet, eco-tourism is strong, as is their will to protect, preserve and enhance what they have.

More next week, when we visit the Pacific Coast beaches of this spectacular country.


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