The expression pura vida rolls off the Costa Rican tongue like a mantra. Pura Vida--Pure Life. It's an expression of happiness, excitement, and national identity. And it fits Costa Rica and the Costa Rican people to a T.

This small Central American country enchants with its lush, blooming countryside, pristine beaches, and lovely people. For years, Costa Rica has capitalized on this Eden-like beauty, drawing ecotourists to its lodges and hostels like bees to blossoms. A well-established ecotourism infrastructure leads visitors hiking through rain forests, rafting down river rapids, and visiting active volcanoes. Nature-loving travelers from all over the world come here for the country's bird-watching and natural history tours, diving safaris, kayaking trips, and sport fishing.

The news for meeting and incentive planners is that more hotels have opened recently with the size, service levels, and meeting facilities that are essential to a well-run event. An Adams Business Media Showcase Site Inspection trip this fall brought 22 meeting executives and their guests to see some of the newest properties and experience the service of the destination management companies that make the tourism and meeting industries tick.

Something for Everyone Arriving via American Airlines on the two-hour flight from Miami, the group started its trip in San Jose, Costa Rica's capital, hosted by the Melia Cariari Conference Center & Golf Resort. While not one of the country's brand new properties, this low-rise resort offers every convenience in a tropical setting. Less than ten minutes from the international airport, the property has 220-rooms, meeting space to accommodate 600 persons for cocktails or 250 for a sit-down dinner, and a Fazio-designed, 18-hole golf course. Other amenities include a free-form pool, eight tennis courts, a casino, a business center, and a health club.

On their first full day of the tour, planners began with a site inspection and breakfast at the three-year-old Camino Real Intercontinental (which at the time was just two days away from adding Intercontinental to its name). Impressed with the property's polish, the planners learned that it hosts banquets for 600 persons and receptions for 1,000, and will dedicate up to 170 of its 260 rooms to groups. The property is just completing a renovation of its large poolside pavilion, closing its sides to make it usable on wet or windy days.

Following breakfast and a sweet good-bye from a little boy costumed in the garb of folkloric dancers, the group headed off on a city tour hosted by Swiss Travel Service, one of nine destination management companies that contributed to the Showcase program (see sidebar, next page). After a drive by the National Theater, Metropolitan Cathedral, and other city sights, attendees got a pleasant introduction to Costa Rican history with a tour of the National Museum.

After a quick taste of the museum's pottery and gold, as well as some freshly brewed espresso--a national treasure--the group headed off for a working afternoon at the Herradura Golf Resort & Conference Center. The hotel, just blocks from Melia Cariari, offers 234 guest rooms, an 18-hole golf course, 11 tennis courts, five restaurants, eight meeting rooms, a casino, and swimming pool in a low-key business environment. But for all that, the real star of this resort is the 25,600-square-foot International Conference Center. Its elegant 13,200-square-foot main hall features the latest in lighting and audiovisual equipment and can be divided into five separate meeting rooms.

The Conference Center was the scene for a trade show of Costa Rican suppliers and a presentation by Bary Roberts, vice president of the Ministry of Tourism. Roberts spoke honestly of his country's charms and challenges. "Maybe we don't have the sophistication of the Europeans, but if our waiter brings the plate in from the wrong side, he'll do it with a big smile," he said. "We have a very warm and very friendly attitude toward the North American people. . . . We are the new kid on the block and we know we have things to learn, but we are committed to the incentive market and absolutely certain you'll have a successful event." Roberts cited roads and road signs as areas in which the Costa Rican government hopes to improve in the near future.

It had been a busy business day, but there was more. The impressive, year-old Costa Rica Marriott hosted the Showcase group for its final night in the city. The property, a faithful reproduction of a 16th-century colonial hacienda, wowed the group with its period decor and attention to detail. The 252-room property, a sun-baked yellow with antique roof tiles, set amidst a 30-acre coffee plantation, offers groups a strong sense of history just a few miles from downtown San Jose. The multi-course dinner was first-rate and elegant, with a touch of the exotic in the soup course--a puree of palm fruit.

Eco-Adventures The next morning, the group split up for a day of recreation. Half traveled south to the Reventazon River, to paddle their way down its thrilling Class III rapids. River rafting is one of Costa Rica's most popular adventure sports, and the professionalism of the Show-case group's guide company, Aventuras Naturales, was unquestionable. The other half of the group stayed on land, but also got a bit damp exploring the rain forest. They took in this Costa Rican national treasure both by foot and by aerial tram--which carried them first over the forest canopy then into the thick of the forest. Lunch was in the spirit of the day, with a green-on-green rainforest theme.

Saying good-bye to San Jose, the group took a short night flight to the northwest city of Liberia in the Guanacaste region. Greeted by flag-waving school children and a bus decorated like a fiesta, they made their way out to the Pacific coast to Melia Hotels' new gem, the Melia Playa Conchal Beach & Golf Resort.

With 318 well-appointed mini-suites in a "village" of villas, the year-old resort is well suited to the incentive market. On a hill overlooking the property and ocean, the conference center can host up to 350 for a dinner, or it can be divided into five smaller rooms. When sessions are over, guests can enjoy an 18-hole Robert Trent Jones II golf course, Central America's largest free-form pool, tennis courts, or water sports off the spectacular 3.8 mile beach, which is blissfully empty of any other resorts, homes, or anything that might break the view of the tropical coastline.

Melia's theme party savvy showed itself, with a final-night folkloric party that just wouldn't quit. Native dishes and a whirlwind of dancers made a festive end to this chock-full and educational tour highlighting Costa Rica's emerging incentive potential.

Did You Know? * Costa Rica, sometimes called "the Switzerland of the Americas," abolished its army in 1949 and dedicated the defense budget instead to education. The country now boasts a 93 percent literacy rate.

* Twenty-seven percent of the country is reserved in national parks or other protected areas.

* Costa Rica has nine active volcanoes.

* Costa Rica is home to more species of birds than are found in the U.S. and Canada combined.

Nine Heads Are Better than One It's rare to have more than one destination management company (DMC) handle the logistics of a familiarization trip. For Adams Business Media's Showcase Site Inspection in Costa Rica, nine DMCs worked together closely to help sponsor the four-night event. The activities and special events were outstanding and the teamwork exceptional, a real tribute to the Costa Rican travel industry.

Below are the contact numbers for nine of Costa Rica's finest DMCs.

Costa Rica Temptations (506) 220-4437; Fax: (506) 220-2792 E-mail: crtinfo@sol.racsa.co.cr

Cosmos Tours (506) 234-0607; Fax: (506) 253-4707 E-mail: cosmos@sol.racsa.co.cr

Escapes Ecologicos (506) 257-7010; Fax: (506) 257-7012 E-mail: escapes@tourism.co.cr

Horizontes (506) 222-2022; Fax (506) 255-4513 E-mail: horizont@sol.racsa.co.cr

Swiss Travel Service (506) 282-4898; Fax: (506) 282-4890 E-mail: swisstvl@sol.racsa.co.cr

Tam (506) 256-0203; Fax: (506) 221-6465 E-mail: info@tamtravel.com

Tikal Tours (506) 223-2811; Fax: (506) 223-1916 E-mail: advtikal@sol.racsa.co.cr

Vesa Tours (506) 239-1049; Fax: (506) 293-4206 E-mail: vesatour@sol.racsa.co.cr

Via-Tur (506) 232-4949; Fax: (506) 220-1080 E-mail: pentai@sol.racsa.co.cr

For four years now, Costa Rica has been part of the Caribbean Basin Initiative. Under this pact, the U.S. Internal Revenue Service permits companies to deduct the cost of their meetings and conventions just as they would for a meeting held in the United States. Costa Rica--like other Caribbean nations such as Jamaica, Barbados, and Trinidad and Tobago--has agreed to share investor banking records in return for its tax deductible status.

For More Information Costa Rica Tourist Board (ICT) Maria Amalia Revelo (506) 223-1733; (800) 343-6332 Fax: (506) 223-5452