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In sharp contrast to the brutal internal conflicts in Guatemala or the grinding poverty of Nicaragua,
has become synonymous with stability and prosperity - Costa Ricans enjoy the highest rate of literacy, health care, education and life expectancy in the isthmus. Unlike so many of its neighbours, the country has a long democratic tradition of free and open elections, no standing army (it was abolished in 1948) and even a Nobel Peace Prize to its name, won by former president, Oscar Arias, a key architect in the Peace Plan that helped bring an end to the conflicts in the region during the 1980s.
In recent years Costa Rica has also become the prime
destination in Central America, if not in all the Americas, due in no small part to an efficient promotion machine that trumpets the country's complex system of national parks and wildlife refuges. Every year hundreds of thousands of visitors - mainly from the United States and Canada - come to walk trails through million-year-old
, raft foaming whitewater rapids, surf on the
and climb the
that punctuate the country's mountainous spine. More than anything it is the enduring
that impresses. Milk-thick twilight and dawn mists gather in the clefts and ridges divided by high mountain passes; on the Pacific coast, carmine and mauve sunsets splash down into the sea like meteors; vaulting canopy trees and thick deciduous understoreys carpet large areas of undisturbed rainforest, and vestiges of high-altitude cloudforest offer glimpses into a misty, primeval universe, home to the jaguar, the lumbering Jurassic tapir and the truly resplendent quetzal.
One glib accusation you're almost certain to hear lobbed at the tiny nation is that it has
no culture or history
. It's certainly true that there are no ancient Mesoamerican monuments on the scale of Guatemala or Honduras, and just one percent of the population is of indigenous extraction, so you will see little native culture. However, anyone who spends some time in the country will find that Costa Rica's character is rooted in distinct
, from the Afro-Caribbean province of Limon, with its Creole cuisine, games and patois, to the traditional
values embodied by the
(cowboy) of Guanacaste. Above all, you're sure to be left with mental snapshots of
la vida campesina
- whether it be aloof horsemen trotting by on dirt roads, coffee-plantation day-labourers setting off to work in the dawn mists of the Highlands, or avocado-pickers cycling home at sunset.
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