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Costa Rica's ecotourism boom: From volcanoes to jungle wetlands Costa Rica cashes in on its extraordinary natural diversity

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Travels in Central America, Part 7

Crossing the border from Nicaragua into Costa Rica is like stepping out of the Third World into the familiar surroundings of our own privileged society. Although both countries have their roots in Spanish Colonialism, Nicaragua remains one of the poorest countries in Latin America - second only to Haiti in the poverty of its people. And though Costa Rica is by no means a wealthy nation it has a thriving economy and a stable government that gives priority to the education, health, and welfare of its people, and to the preservation of its natural environment.

Costa Rica's unique position among the nations of Central America stems largely from its history of neutrality and democratic government. Sometimes referred to as the "Switzerland of Central America", the tiny country is surrounded by nations that have known little but warfare, revolution, and corruption since gaining independence from Spain almost two centuries ago.

In 1948 Costa Rica abolished its armed forces and, while its larger neighbours squandered their human and physical resources on warfare, armaments, and the personal fortunes of corrupt dictators, Costa Rica remained neutral and developed a strong well-co-ordinated civilian society with the second highest standard of living in Central America (after Panama). Today it is one of the easiest and safest places to travel in Latin America.

We crossed the border into Costa Rica at Sapoa and travelled south through the Pacific lowlands to Canas where our bus left the main highway and turned inland, up winding switchbacks, into the highlands of the Cordillera Guanacaste. The rolling foothills are dotted with small farms, patches of hardwood forest, cultivated fields and coffee plantations - and above the foothills a string of towering volcanoes forms the spine of the Cordillera de Guanacaste.

Near the crest of the highlands the road skirts the northern shore of Arenal Lake which fills the valley between the mountain ranges of Guanacaste and Tilaran. Lago de Arenal, the largest body of fresh water in Costa Rica, is an artificial reservoir dammed in 1973. It supplies hydroelectricity for both local use and export, and high on a nearby ridge the rotating turbines of a modern wind-farm are a reminder that Costa Rica is a rapidly developing industrial nation. No longer reliant on the fragile economics of coffee and banana production, the country's top dollar earner is now high-tech manufacturing, followed closely by tourism.

Our destination is La Fortuna, the closest village to Vulcan Arenal, and across the lake we get our first view of the volcano. The perfectly symmetrical cone of barren lava is in stark contrast with the lush greenery of the surrounding landscape. Its grumbling summit sends out daily puffs of black ash that linger in the air like smoke from a perpetual signal fire. For centuries the volcano lay dormant, until the 29th of July 1968 when a huge explosion sent lava coursing down its slopes, obliterating farms and villages and killing almost 80 people who had no warning of the impending disaster. Since its reawakening more than three decades ago Arenal has been in almost continuous eruption, making it one of the most active volcanoes in Central America, and the nearby village of La Fortuna one of the most popular tourist destinations in Costa Rica.

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