I just returned from a family vacation in Costa Rica. Well, actually, I just returned from a business trip in Ireland, but I didn't have time to collect my thoughts on Costa Rica before that. We spent time in two areas: in the vicinity of the fishing town of Quepos, outside of the Manuel Antonio national park and in the area outside of La Fortuna near the Arenal volcano. The former is lowland, coastal, and semi tropical forest land; the latter is referred to as cloud forest as it is a higher elevation and somewhat wetter during the dry season.
Costa Rica has 5% of the world's biodiversity, but what is amazing is the sheer density of the biodiversity in the remaining primary and secondary forests. I was surprised by the amount of land that has been converted to agricultural use: it is extensive. American real estate speculators are omnipresent, so Costa Ricans (referred to as Ticos) are going to have a rough time protecting what natural resources are left. Given the power of the dollar, it does not bode well in my opinion.
The country itself has first world sanitation, education, and health care. There is petty crime, but violent crime seems minimal (outside San Jose). Many of the Ticos I talked with indicated they saw no reason to leave Costa Rica for the US except to visit, as "Life is too good here." The city of La Fortuna, for example, was much nicer than lower income areas in virtually any American cities, with substantially lower costs and a more interesting environment to boot. I was impressed by the pride and intensity of passion that the Ticos have for their ecological system. The guides we had in Quepos -- in particular Vanessa at Iguana Tours -- were infectious in their enthusiasm and had a deep knowledge of wildlife and the supporting ecosystem. Even our taxi drivers carried binoculars and wildlife identification guides. One of them swerved off the road and started to point out birds by their scientific names, providing us with high powered binoculars to observe them ourselves.
Of the two areas I visited, the cloud forest was my favorite, largely because of the staggering diversity of life from the ground floor of the forests to the top of the canopy. We saw everything from armies of ants that literally wore a visible path on the forest floor to three species of monkeys to sloths to poison vipers. Definitely not a vacation to waste laying on the beach. I recommend it as a destination for anyone that wants an experience much like stepping into an episode of the Jeff Corwin Experience.