Hemmed in between the Pacific and Atlantic oceans near the narrowest point of the Central American isthmus, the tiny republic of Costa Rica is often pictured as an oasis of political stability in the midst of a turbulent region. This democratic and prosperous nation is also one of the most biodiverse areas on the planet, an ecological treasure-trove whose wide range of habitats – ranging from rainforests and beaches to volcanoes and mangrove swamps – support a fascinating variety of wildlife, much of it now protected by an enlightened national conservation system widely regarded as a model of its kind.

Though this idyllic image might not do justice to the full complexities of contemporary Costa Rican society, it’s true that the country’s long democratic tradition and complete absence of military forces (the army was abolished in 1948) stand in sharp contrast to the brutal internal conflicts that have ravaged its neighbours. This reputation for peacefulness has been an important factor in the spectacular growth of Costa Rica’s tourist industry – some two million people visit the country annually, mainly from North America. Most of all, though, it’s Costa Rica’s outstanding natural beauty that has made it one of the world’s prime eco-tourism destinations, with visitors flocking here to hike trails through ancient rainforest, climb active volcanoes or explore the Americas’ last vestiges of high-altitude cloudforest, home to jaguar, tapir and resplendent quetzal.

Admittedly, tourism has made Costa Rica less of an “authentic” experience than some travellers would like: some towns exist seemingly to provide tourists with somewhere to sleep and places to visit, while previously remote spots are being bought up by foreign entrepreneurs. And as more hotels open, malls go up and visitors flock to resorts and national parks, there’s no doubt that Costa Rica is experiencing a significant social change, while the darker side of outside involvement in the country – sex tourism, real-estate scams and conflicts between foreign property-owners and poorer locals – are all on the increase.

Costa Rica’s economy is the most diversified in Central America, and some argue that of all the regional nations, it has the least to gain from the Central American Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA), which it finally officially entered into in January 2009 – an important step in its economic history, and in particular the history of its relationship with the US. Regional integration may mean prosperity, or job losses – only time will tell.

In any case, revenue from tourism is one of the reasons Costa Ricans – or Ticos, as they are generally known – now enjoy the highest rate of literacy, health care, education and life expectancy in the isthmus. That said, Costa Rica is certainly not the middle-class country that it’s often portrayed to be – a significant percentage of people still live below the poverty line – and while it is modernizing fast, its character continues to be rooted in distinct local cultures, from the Afro-Caribbean province of Limón, with its Creole cuisine, games and patois, to the traditional ladino values embodied by the sabanero (cowboy) of Guanacaste. Above all, the country still has the highest rural population density in Latin America, and society continues to revolve around the twin axes of countryside and family: wherever you go, you’re sure to be left with mental snapshots of rural life, whether it be 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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