Look up information on Costa Rica and you will find it compared with the state of West Virginia in size. This is a bit of a stretch, since West Virginia is nearly a fourth larger than the Central American country, but I guess it’s important to think in terms of the familiar when you plan a trip to the unfamiliar. However, even if they were exactly the same size, they would have nothing else in common. The highest point in landlocked West Virginia is 4,863 feet, while Costa Rica ranges from sea level to 12,530 feet. And speaking of sea level, Costa Rica is bordered by 801 miles of the Pacific Ocean on one side and 132 miles of the Caribbean on the other. That high mountain range that runs down the center of Costa Rica is also home to several active volcanos, something else you won’t find in the ‘Mountaineer’ state. This wild mix of elevations, ocean frontage, tropical jungle and location (Costa Rica is just one country distant from South America) is also responsible for one of the richest bird habitats in the world, making this nearby travel destination a paradise for birders. Nearly three times as many species are found in Costa Rica as in West Virginia, but we shouldn’t pick on John Denver’s ‘almost heaven’. Costa Rica’s near 900 bird species outnumbers those of the entire U.S. and Canada combined. This many birds packed into less than 20,000 square miles gives Costa Rica the record for most bird species per square mile of any country in North, Central or South America.
These include plenty of familiar birds, since many of our warblers, orioles and vireos winter there. For example, this is where we saw our first Baltimore Oriole. But it’s the exotics that are the real draw, and the colorful names match the colorful birds. Here you’ll find aracaris, toucans, leaftossers, foliage-gleaners, flowerpiercers, tityras, motmots, puffbirds and quetzals. There are also 52 species of hummingbirds, with evocative names like White-tipped Sicklebill, Garden Emerald, Violet Sabrewing and Purple-crowned Fairy. Those who named our birds could have learned something here.
With the densest avian population in the Americas, you would think finding birds in Costa Rica an easy task, and you would be right. Scarlet Macaws perched over our cabin at Cerros Lodge, and Fiery-billed Aracaris came to the banana feeders every morning. Blue-throated Goldentails visited the heliconias that grew in our open air bathroom, making it difficult to concentrate on shaving. Wherever you venture in Costa Rica, you will find birds. Even in the streets and parks of the capital, San Jose, parrots chatter in the treetops. One of the most interesting surprises for a visiting birder is that a short drive from one location to another often creates a dramatic change in species.
Costa Rica is possibly the safest country south of Arizona to visit, as well. This may be because more money is spent on education than on the military. In fact, no money is spent on the military, because there isn’t one. Consequently, there are no military coup d’etats, and a guerilla uprising has no army to rise up against. This has spared Costa Rica from the bloodshed in neighboring countries, and has generated a climate favorable to tourism and investment. If you have a chance to visit Costa Rica, don’t hesitate. If you’re a birder, start packing. If you need any other encouragement, consider this: the shortest flight from Phoenix to Morgantown, West Virginia involves two stops and takes 8 hours and 24 minutes. Phoenix to San Jose, Costa Rica is just 5 hours and 5 minutes, and there are no stops.
(This article originally appeared in the May, 2013 issue of the Saddlebag Notes newspaper, Tucson, Arizona.)