SAN JOSE, Costa Rica — It's no wonder that Costa Rica is known as the birthplace of ecotourism. This Central American country, which touches both the Caribbean and Pacific coasts, has set aside 1.3 million acres, just over 10 percent of the entire country, as biological reserves and national parks.
The lush rain forests and cloud forests are teeming with animal life. The life list includes macaws, hummingbirds, sloths, monkeys, frogs, iguanas and, of course, insects — beautiful butterflies, exotic moths and fascinating leaf-cutter ants being high on the "must see" list.
Plant life is abundant, too. About 9,000 plant species, including 1,200 orchid species, are part of the diversity of this tiny country with an area of only about 19,600 square miles.
The diversity of terrestrial life, and its accessibility, draws nature and wildlife lovers — some with binoculars, some with cameras — to Costa Rica.
My family and I visited the country in Costa Rica. Certain species of the Costa Rican rain forest, like many rain forests around the world, are now on the brink of extinction because of hunters, poachers or the disappearance of their natural habitats. Two examples: the once-common green iguana, with its tender meat, is no longer easy to find; jaguars and other wild cats, prized for their pelts, are virtually impossible to spot in the wild.
Our first real wildlife adventure was at the Aviarios Del Caribe, a wildlife sanctuary and lodge on the Caribbean coast, which we learned of by watching an episode of "Jack Hanna's Wildlife Adventure" syndicated television series. The sanctuary, our home for three days, is home to a pet sloth named Buttercup, which lives (actually sleeps a lot) in a hanging chair on the porch of the lodge. Visitors get to hold Buttercup, but only under the guidance of the sanctuary's managers, Luis and Judy Arroyo.
If you don't know about sloths, they are among the slowest moving mammals on the planet. When they walk, it looks like they are in slow motion — very slow motion. Sloths also have cute faces which, like dolphins, seem to be smiling at you all the time.
On our last day at Aviarios Del Caribe, we took a peaceful, two-hour, sunrise canoe ride on the river in front of the sanctuary all the way to the ocean. Along the way, we saw many bird species, including the Northern Jacana.
The private canoe trip is a beautiful way to experience nature. Just be sure to bring your sunscreen and bug spray as well as your camera or binoculars.
On the way back to San Jose, we stopped at the small Zoologico La Pacifica in Aguas Zarcas, San Carlos. Seeing the animals close-up-and-personal, many of which are in natural-looking settings, was a thrill for all of us. Howler monkeys and spider monkeys jumped from tree to tree, as if performing an acrobatic show for us. Toucans, macaws, owls and parrots gazed into our eyes from only a few feet away. The highlight of the tour was seeing some of the wild cats of the rain forest: a cheetah, a jaguar and a margay, the smallest of the wild cats that live in the rain forest.
Back in San Jose, Susan, Marco and I visited Costa Rica's largest zoo, Zoo Ave. Here, too, many of the animals are in natural-looking habitats. We especially liked several of Costa Rica's smaller animal species in glass enclosures — a parrot snake, a redeye tree frog, a centipede, a poison-dart frog and a transparent glass frog. Zoo Ave also has birds, monkeys and wild cats. It's a good place to get an introduction to Costa Rican wildlife before you venture out into the field.
Our time together in Costa Rica was drawing to a close. My wife, Susan, had to take son Marco back to school in New York. I had more pictures to take. After a good-bye dinner at the Cariari, I took off for my next location — LaPaz Waterfall Gardens — and Susan and Marco packed for an early morning flight back home.
LaPaz Waterfall Gardens, I found, is a wonderful place to experience both the climates of the cloud forest and rain forest — and many of the plant and animal species that live in these unique areas. My self-guided tour took me past five waterfalls, several fern trails, the butterfly observatory, the hummingbird gardens and the orchid houses.
At each location, I snapped more than a few pictures, knowing that a nature park and wildlife refuge like LaPaz is a good place for animal photography.
Rick Sammon, and his wife, Susan, are the authors of "Rain Forest in 3-D," which they shot in Costa Rica.