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Costa Rica; Orchids, shimmering rivers -- and democracy

Neither the dreadful Hollywood movie flickering on the overhead TV screen nor the loud, petulant little boy across the aisle could dampen my enthusiasm on the flight from New York to Costa Rica. For years I had heard and read about the little "Switzerland" of Central America; now I was finally going to see it.

About two hours from Miami the Caribbean coast of Costa Rica slid thousands of feet beneath us: long, lonely beaches bordering tropical forest, the forest broken only by some shimmering rivers winding their way to the sea. Intriguing, but it didn't look like Switzerland. Then, after only a few minutes of flying time, the landscape began to rise sharply into sizable mountains. The Air Florida DC-10 was soon climbing in a broad arc over a long valley amid those mountains. There below us was Costa Rica's capital, San Jose, sprawling comfortably in temperate setting where most of the country's inhabitants live.

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Curving past enormous white clouds that seemed to rise directly from the mountains, the plane began to descend toward the Santamaria airport. Narrow and flat in the middle of the undulating valley floor, the airport looked like an aircraft carrier at sea. A gentle landing and we were there.

Nothing bothers the "Ticos," as the Costa Ricans call themselves, more than the common foreign assumption that their nation is just another banana republic. Costa Rica, they want you to know, is different. Their anxious pride in their misunderstood homeland sometimes extends to forgivable hyperbole: "In the center of beautiful America there is a happy and fruitful nation of a virile and industrious race . . . Costa Rica. . . . Its soil is so varied and fertile and encloses such rich treasures that it stands out on the map of the world like a beautiful garden."

The interesting thing about this statement, written many years ago by a Costa Rican geographer named Miguel Obregon, is that it is more or less true. Costa Rica does seem to be a relatively happy and productive country in an area where those two qualities are traditionally in short supply. And more important than being virile, it's a practicing democracy, a rare condition in Central America. Costa Rica is also an amazingly beautiful and varied "garden," with more varieties of animals and plants in its less than 20,000 square miles than in all of the United States and Canada together. Over 1,000 of those varieties are of orchids alone, another fact the Costa Ricans proudly impart.

Flowers, however, were not on the mind of Columbus, who touched the "rich coast" in 1502, or the conquistadors, who penetrated the interior during the ensuing century. They all sought gold or slaves, and they found neither. Precious metals were never discovered in significant amounts in Costa Rica, and the unfortunate Indian population was soon almost extinct. The Spanish settlers were forced to become smallholders, growing abundant crops for amid the lonely mountains, far from the mainstream of the Spanish Empire.

As we crawled through a rush-hour traffic jam of Datsuns, Toyotas, and Mitsubishis on the highway to the Hotel Irazu, it was obvious that the slow centuries of isolation were over.

San Jose is only minutes from the pleasant Irazu. It's a large, clean city, with its share of skyscrapers and an air of purposeful bustle. There's also noticeable lack of beggars and shantytowns, but not of charm and color.

Situated in the middle of the city, opposite the stately Grand Hotel, is Costa Rica's most precious building, the National Theater. It is modeled after the much larger Paris Opera and opened in 1897 after seven years of construction. The theater is a planter's vision of glory, a late Victorian symphony of gilded stucco, rare woods, and polished marble.

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In this nation with a 90 percent literacy rate, compulsory voting, and no army, the relative informality of the government is a matter for justifiable self-congratulation. There is a police force in Costa Rica, but contrary to Central American, not to say worldwide, custom, few of the officers carry guns.

English is spoken almost everywhere, and there's even a good English-language weekly newspaper, the Tico Times. The Times is full of interesting local news and advertisements. Prominent among the latter are those of such financial consultants as "Doctor Dinero" (Dr. Money), who offer to acquaint Americans and others with the intriguing income (and tax) possibilities available in Costa Rica.

Almost all of the resident North Americans cluster with most of the Costa Ricans in the Central Valley. There are exceptions, though, and we found one of them in the eastern rain forest, at the end of one of those shimmering rivers we had seen on the flight down.

Swiss Tour's "Jungle Adventure," a twoday excursion to the east coast, began with a spectacular four-hour bus ride up over the mountains and down into the western edge of the coastal rain forest. By midday we were at Puerto Viejo, a sleepy little town with, incongruously, a largish modern bank building. There our party boarded two small boats for the almost 200-mile river journey to Puerto Limon, Costa Rica's main port on the Caribbean.

Powered by noisy outboard motors, the boats skimmed swiftly up a wide green river past small settlements. As we moved downstream, the frequency of houses and farms decreased until, two hours out of Puerto Viejo, they became rare and isolated. Along the thick forest walls that lined the river we saw water birds, butterflies, turtles, small crocodiles, and -- in the water itself -- an occasional surfacing tarpon. We also scanned the tall trees for monkeys. Sometimes we saw them: whole families perched randomly on branches 60 feet or more above the tangled floor of the forest.

The sun was setting across the delta of the Colorado when we disembarked at the Rio Colorado Lodge, in the small town of Barra del Colorado. We could see a few grass-roofed houses grouped together in small communities on each side of the mile-wide delta. Waiting for us on the lodge's landing was Ken, the resident manager. Under his guidance we pulled our luggage out of the boats and found our rooms in the separate cabins that form the lodge. The cabins stand on pilings above the low shore and were connected by covered walkways to a central two-story building, with a dining room, lounge, and terrace on the top floor. As darkness fell the white wood hotel blended unobtrusively with the skyline of the river and the forest.

After dining hungrily I spoke for a while with Ken, a Canadian, who has been managing the lodge for almost four years. That seemed to be a long time in a place like Barra del Colorado. Did he, the only North American in the area, ever get lonely?

"No. I have to go to San Jose or Puerto Limon once in a while, but I'm happy to get back here." He was in a corner of the dining room, his portable radio beside him tuned to a shortwave opera broadcast from Europe. I had interrupted his reading; a dogeared paperback lay opened in his lap. Most of my weary fellow travelers had gone to bed -- we had to be up early the next day.

We were off the next morning in the noisy boats, Ken wav ing goodbye from the dock, alone again with the lodge. We now headed south along the narrow canals that lead through the forest to Puerto Limon.More monkeys, birds, and fish and, almost always parallel to our route, sometimes only yards away, the shore of the Caribbean. Seated comfortably in the open-sided boats, we sped past endless jungle walls through wind-swept rain. After four hours our intrepid party reached Puerto Limon, where we lunched on fresh seafood and walked about the lively town.

Here most of the inhabitants were black, not Hispanic, and bananas were the main crop. Here also was the eastern terminus of the famous railroad that winds precipitously and slowly up to San Jose. There was no time for that now, for we had to fly back to the capital in time to catch our plane for New York. I'll take the train next time. Like Switzerland, Costa Rica is well worth returning to.

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