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COSTA RICA'S LUSH WILDERNESS

A RIPE GOLDEN mango hurtled down through the thick branches overhead, its flight accompanied by a raucous hooting. A hapless tourist standing below received the full impact of the fruit, its juicy pulp streaming down his surprised face.

As his friends laughed, they peered up at a family of large, black howler monkeys careening from tree to tree, 60 feet above the forest floor. More mangos streamed down from the well-organized army of hairy hurlers, and the group laughingly ducked the onslaught.

The scene was a splendid dry tropical forest in Costa Rica, bordering the gentle Corobici River. The group had taken a break from a raft trip on the river to hike around fallen orchids and bromeliads and to see giant butterflies and brilliant scarlet-and-green macaws.

Costa Rica is justifiably proud of its 850 bird species, 237 mammal species, 361 different amphibians and reptiles and 1,200 types of orchids. Exotic hardwoods, ficus, kapoks and brasilitos grow in profusion in these dry forests.

Mountain rain forests are filled with giant fern trees and umbrella plants. There are also gigantic versions of that tiny ficus tree that is barely making it at home.

Newly arrived visitors to this tiny country, the size of West Virginia, are impressed with the lushness, the coolness of the Central Valley region and the incredible variety of climates and flora and fauna.

The Rio Corobici is a popular river for rafters, and there are a number of one-day rafting trips from San Jose. Visitors are driven from Costa Rica's capital up the Inter-American Highway through Guanacaste province.

Neatly organized rice paddies and endless fields of sugar cane rim the road, while mountain slopes covered with coffee plants frame the sprawling valleys. Your meeting place will be La Pacifica Ecological Center on the Corobici River.

Here, scientists are studying ways to save Costa Rica's delicate environment. Some endangered wildlife habitats are protected (about 11 percent of Costa Rica is within the national park system), and there are private reserves as well. So there is hope for the forests.

At the Corobici, tourists are met by seasoned rafting guides. Life jackets are issued and the group is divided, seven to a rubber raft.

On our trip, nervous laughter accompanied the first pathetic paddling attempt as the rafts slid down into the rushing water. White knuckles gripped paddles as guide Gregg Dean's directions echoed along the river. "Right side, forward; left side, reverse. OK, rest." Thick vegetation crowded the banks.

"Duck," Dean shouted as a branch suddenly loomed over the raft. A large green iguana stretched out on the riverbank, eyeing the intruders warily. Wispy bits of cotton from kapok trees floated overhead. Loud squawks came from the trees.

"This is easy," shouted a rafter as he rested his oar and gazed around. Suddenly, rapids swirled in front of the lead raft, and shouted instructions set the rafters to frantic paddling.

Calm arrived, and with it the sounds of hundreds of birds. Boat-billed herons, bitterns, laughing falcons, northern jacanas and macaws all vied for air space as the guides identified each one. We beached the raft to take a swim, assured by our guides that crocodiles didn't live here.

This rafting trip is ideal for first-timers who want to test the waters, but who aren't quite ready for the big time. There also are much more challenging waterways for veteran rafters.

There is plenty of water in and around Costa Rica, from the Pacific Coast with its miles of uninhabited beaches and small resorts (fine sport fishing) to the 76 miles of canals (which do have crocs and caymans) running parallel to the Caribbean coast. Some of the world's best tarpon, snook, marlin and sailfish are caught off both coasts.

Twelve of the world's 16 climatic zones are found in Costa Rica, and at one point, the Pacific Ocean and the Caribbean are only 75 miles apart, making the country easy to traverse.

Mountain streams and waterfalls lace their silvery paths down mountains and volcanoes. Yes, this amazing little country has its share of volcanoes: three active, 10 dormant.

The chain of volcanoes runs along its central ridge from Mexico through Central America. Go with a tour group or drive independently from San Jose to nearby Mount Irazu -- 11,260 feet.

Mount Poas, at 9,500 feet, also can be visited by car. Other volcanoes can be reached by hiking, horseback riding or jeep. Irazu erupted last in 1963, covering Jan Jose with ash and damaging the 1964 coffee crop. But the fallen ash left the soil extremely fertile for later plantings.

If you're fortunate, you can see both the Atlantic and the Pacific oceans from Irazu's summit. Poas last erupted in 1978, but its steam clouds billow up on a constant basis.

The cloud/rain forests at the tops of the mountains are filled with masses of bromeliads, orchids and other plant and animal life, including the rare Blue Morpho butterfly and the resplendent national symbol, the red and iridescent green Quetzal bird.

We encountered Mount Aranal (northwest of San Jose) during one of its frequent minor blowups. Enormous clouds of brown and orange smoke billowed out as sparks and red-hot rocks flew into the dark blue sky.

During Aranal's '68 eruption, the damage to nearby villages was severe. It hasn't erupted since then, but its insides never sleep. It rumbles, and huge red-hot rocks tumble over its rim every few hours.

You can camp at the Tabacon thermal pools, due east of Lake Aranal. Or you can visit Mount Aranal Volcano Observatory and join scientists from the Smithsonian Institution in studying the volcano from a safe distance.

The drive to Aranal from San Jose is filled with scenic stops. In fact, Costa Rica is crammed from one coast to the other with dramatic sights.

On the road north, you'll visit the town of Sarchi, with its delicately painted houses and stores. Costa Rica's famous painted ox carts are made here. If you don't own an ox, these colorful wooden carts make outstanding cocktail carts.

A few miles up the road in the village of Zarcero, you'll enjoy a fanciful topiary park planted in front of a church. The lone gardener takes great pride in his creations.

Pride is the name of the game in Costa Rica. This peaceful country stuck in the midst of turbulent neighbors (Panama, El Salvador and Nicaragua) is a true democracy and has no standing army. Known as "the Switzerland of Central America," Costa Rica is very proud of its Nobel Peace Prize, awarded to President Oscar Arias in 1987.

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