While much of Costa Rica has been stripped of its forests, the country has managed to protect a larger proportion of its land than any other country in the world. In 1970 there came a growing acknowledgment that something unique and lovely was vanishing, and a systematic effort was begun to save what was left of the wilderness. That year, the Costa Ricans formed a national park system that has won worldwide admiration. Costa Rican law declared inviolate 10.27 percent of a land once compared to Eden; an additional 17 percent is legally set aside as forest reserves, "buffer zones," wildlife refuges, and Indian reserves. Throughout the country representative sections of all the major habitats and ecosystems are protected for tomorrow's generations. The National Conservation Areas System (SINAC; see below) protects more than 186 areas, including--at press time--32 national parks, eight biological reserves, 13 forest reserves, and 51 wildlife refuges.
The Yellowstones and Yosemites of Costa Rica--the lure for 90 percent of all visitors to the park system--are Manuel Antonio, with its beautiful beaches; Braulio Carrillo, with its rainforest beside a highway; Tortuguero, a watery, forested world teeming with wildlife; Irazú, where on a clear day you can see both the Caribbean and the Pacific; and Poás, where you can peer into a steaming crater and see the earth's crust being rearranged.
Besides providing Costa Ricans and foreign travelers with the privilege of admiring and studying the wonders of nature, the national parks and reserves protect the soil and watersheds and harbor an estimated 75 percent of all Costa Rica's species of flora and fauna, including species that have all but disappeared in neighboring countries.