Tuesday, March 15, 2005

Costa Rica's Indie Circuit

Central America's hottest eco-ticket—for less.

By Cliff Ransom

You won't be half an hour in Costa Rica before you hear someone say, "Pura vida."
To Ticos, as Costa Ricans call themselves, the expression is "hello," "good-bye," and "I'm fine" all in one. It also sums up the country's biological diversity: In an area the size of West Virginia, Costa Rica houses an outlandish proportion of the world's plant and animal species.

WHAT TO DO

The charms of the capital city, San Jose, pale next to just about everything else in Costa Rica, so don't linger upon arrival. Instead, catch a taxi ($4) straight to the Coca-Cola terminal and board a bus ($3.50) bound for the town of La Fortuna and 5,358-foot (1,633-meter) Volcan Arenal, one of the world's most active volcanoes.

The December-to-April dry season is prime time to ply the area's mountain bike trails. On the half-day tour offered by the Arenal Paraiso Resort and Spa ($65; www.arenalparaiso.com), you'll circumnavigate the volcano, dip down to the blue waters of Lake Arenal, and end up at the thundering, 230-foot (70-meter) Fortuna waterfall.

When it's time to move on, the lodge can arrange jeep-and-boat transportation ($25) to Santa Elena, the gateway to the cloud forests of Monteverde. Spend a few hours wandering a hundred feet up among orchids, bromeliads, and butterflies on six suspension bridges at the privately owned Sky-walk facility ($15; ).

The next day, stick closer to the ground on a hike in the Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve ($12; www.monteverdeinfo.com), where rubber boots are the local fashion. Then grab the 2:30 p.m. bus back to San Jose.

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