Ecotourism in Costa Rica

Everything is eco these days. Eco-friendly, eco-conscious, even eco-chic. The current trend towards all things eco has commercialized a prefix once packed with gritty optimism and turned it into a marketing tool. Given the proliferation of eco in business and the media, it’s easy to lose sight of its original meaning. Costa Rica is all about ecotourism—but what does that mean?

Ecotourism immerses travelers in natural areas – a rainforest or a coastal wetland, for example – with the goal of educating and imparting environmental awareness. It employs our sense of sight, smell, hearing, touch, and sometimes even taste to bring about a better understanding of the natural world. According to The International Ecotourism Society, ecotourism is defined as “responsible travel to natural areas that conserves the environment and improves the well-being of the local people.” Ecotourism unites conservation with local communities and incorporates important aspects of sustainable travel. It should minimize impact and provide a financial incentive for conservation.

Video: Costa Rica a Ecotourism

A Little History

Costa Rica’s push towards ecotourism began with the establishment of the Cabo Blanco National Reserve in 1963 and the first national parks in 1971. The trend continued and today the Costa Rican park system includes 70 entities and protects over 3,221,000 acres (1,303,492 ha). In addition to this, there are private reserves that are operated by nonprofits and environmental groups. That leaves Costa Rica with over 30 percent of its national territory marked for conservation—one of the highest ratios in the world.

Costa Rica also has the highest density of plant and animal species on Earth. As part of the Central American isthmus, Costa Rica is both interoceanic and intercontinental. Species from North and South America migrated here during its geological formation and many animals continue to pass through the country every year. Costa Rica’s tropical climate extends across extreme variations in altitude and covers countless ecosystems. The country has 20 life zones, 850 bird species, 237 mammal species, 1,260 tree species, 1,200 orchid species, and 361 reptile and amphibian species. This incredible biodiversity plays an important role in the country’s commitment to conservation.

Given Costa Rica’s natural riches, it’s no surprise that ecotourism is so popular. But it wasn’t always this way. During the first half of the 20th century Costa Rica was on the same track as other Central American countries. It cut down its forests and used the land for cattle and agriculture.

The creation of the park system changed all this. Travelers came to Costa Rica to experience nature and were willing to pay for it. This meant that conservation did not entail losing money.

Pros and Cons

The Costa Rican Tourism Institute (ICT) estimates that nearly half of all international visitors participate in some form of ecotourism—be it rafting a river, hiking in the rainforest, or snorkeling among coral reefs. As a result, ecotourism is responsible for both direct and indirect employment and has helped contribute to a reduction of poverty in Costa Rica.

Tourism is clearly a boon to the local economy. But critics argue that it’s impossible to truly conserve nature with so many people visiting fragile outdoor areas. People take a toll on plant and animal life through habitat destruction (accidental or intentional), noise pollution, and littering.

Balancing this impact is the main challenge facing ecotourism. Popular national parks already cap entrants. Monteverde, for example, does not allow more than 200 people inside the reserve at any given time. Manuel Antonio is closed on Mondays and does not allow more than 800 people into the park each day.

The Certificate for Sustainable Tourism (CST) is another step in the right direction. CST is a certification program that evaluates businesses for sustainable practices. The CST rates companies from 0 to 5 based upon their degree of environmental, social and economic involvement. Higher ratings are given to businesses that successfully balance the impact of their activities.

Business dogma assumes that there are winners and losers. Sustainability attempts to change this by eliminating the traditional losers of business – the environment, the local economy and culture. By focusing on factors that have traditionally been ignored, sustainability balances good business with good practice.

The CST program is voluntary but rigorous. Evidence is presented on over 100 practices – involving community, the environment, and labor – before a business is given a CST rating. These ratings help visitors to Costa Rica make educated purchasing decisions.

Video: Costa Rica Sustainable Practices

The Ecotourism Experience

Still, the question remains: How do you get a genuine ecotourism experience in Costa Rica? And what is it like?

First of all, get outside. “Wildlife is nearly everywhere in Costa Rica but some of the best places to go are rural and remote,” says Gema Cantillano, a vacation planner at Anywhere Costa Rica. She advises travelers to explore rural communities like San Gerardo de Dota, Orosí, and Sarapiquí. Monteverde is another good one, she says, even though the area has become increasingly popular during peak season. “By visiting rural areas, travelers decrease the foot traffic in Costa Rica’s better known parks, thereby spreading out and minimizing the impact.”

A huge number of Costa Rica’s national parks and reserves are not billed as “must do” activities. Nonetheless, these places offer unfiltered access to the Costa Rican outdoors. Some include the Cahuita National Park along the southern Caribbean coast, the Cabo Blanco Absolute Reserve on the Nicoya Peninsula, and the Braulio Carrillo National Park in the central highlands. If your goal is to experience nature without being elbow-to-elbow with other visitors, Costa Rica has you covered—just be willing to get your boots dirty and go off the beaten path.

Ecotourism activities (eco-activities) involve visits to protected areas (like national parks and private reserves), wildlife rescue centers, and family-run coffee plantations and organic farms. The fees that visitors pay to access these areas often goes towards maintaining, purchasing and conserving land, protecting endangered or threatened species, and educating local students on environmental issues.

Eco-activities, however, don’t just involve plodding along a trail or staring at obscure plants. You’ll raft down rivers and identify coastal birds. You’ll go whale watching in the Pacific Ocean and ride horses across the plains of the Central Valley. The options are as varied as the terrain.

The Costa Rican landscape is diverse—think rainforests, volcanoes, beaches, wetlands, and caves. All that in a state that’s roughly the size of West Virginia. Ecotourism exposes travelers to all this. It gets you outside and gives you perspective on the assorted complexion of life.

By their very nature these activities are educational. On a guided hike through the rainforest, for example, you might learn about the structure of the forest canopy or the medical uses for tropical plants. A guide may help you distinguish between the calls of a bellbird and toucan or point out the intricate root system of a balsa tree. During oceanic activities, you might learn about the migration patterns of humpback whales or the effect that climate change has on coral reefs. It’s literally impossible to not learn something during these activities.

Video: Regenerating Costa Rica Rainforests

That covers what you’ll do. How about where you’ll stay?

That’s where the ecolodge comes in. The main qualifier for an ecolodge is that they are close to nature and far from towns (or other hotels). Ecolodges are intentionally isolated—this gives travelers direct, uninterrupted access to the outdoors. Hiking trails extend from their property and wind through the surrounding forests, hillsides, and beaches. Guests need only look past the hammock on their porch to be in the midst of nature.

Many of the country’s first ecolodges were sustainable long before sustainability became a buzzword. These ecolodges operated in remote, off-the-grid locations that required them to optimize their efficiency and minimize their impact. They used solar and wind power because the area lacked electrical lines and grew their own food because there were no accessible supermarkets. They hired locals, the only workforce available, and became educators within the community, often training guides, receptionists and chefs.

Costa Rica’s original ecolodges paved the way for the ecolodges of today, which are scattered across much of the country. You can now find ecolodges deep in the Osa Peninsula and along the Caribbean coast. They spread around the base of the Tenorio Volcano and line the isolated shores of Mal País.

Ecolodges are usually less fancy and have fewer amenities than traditional resorts. That said, they still range from rustic to luxurious. Some offer basic bungalows while others sport rooms with air conditioning and wireless Internet. Due to their physical isolation, ecolodges always have a restaurant. The food is notoriously tasty and fresh—the vegetables are often organic and the seafood is usually caught locally. Most ecolodges also have a bar that offers a variety of beer, wine and liquor.

Ecolodges provide comfortable accommodations in places where there are few other (if any) options. They put you in contact with priceless natural areas and give you the tools – the guides, trails and equipment – to go exploring. Make no mistake though, ecolodges are not for everyone. Families with small children may find it impractical to be so isolated, and newlyweds may prefer something that is a bit more swanky.

However, if experiencing nature is one of your travel goals, prioritize it by staying at an ecolodge in a remote area. You’ll have to give up certain luxuries. You won’t be able to choose between fancy restaurants or enjoy a rowdy nightlife. Your Internet access will be slow and you may lack cell coverage. But the rewards are many and you’ll experience daily the raw beauty of Costa Rica.

Ready, Set, Go

Nearly one-third of Costa Rica is national parks and reserves. These areas cover everything from volcanoes to beaches and protect some 500,000 species of plants and animals—about 4 percent of the world’s total biodiversity. This positions Costa Rica to provide travelers with powerful outdoor experiences. Ecotourism aims to do this.

In ecotourism, you don’t just see the forest for the trees. You see it for the mammals and reptiles, insects and microbiota, soil structure and climatic patterns. Ecotourism helps you grasp the big by first understanding the small. As you explore Costa Rica, you’ll not only comprehend the particular nature of each landscape but also learn to recognize the interconnectedness of the entire environment.

When asked what advice she would give to travelers interested in ecotourism, Cantillano says, “Don’t be afraid to explore. Stay open-minded, go off the beaten path, and be ready for new experiences. If you do, you’ll discover the environmental and cultural beauty of our country.”

Anywhere Costa Rica offers travel planning assistance and free online travel guides for all of Costa Rica. We can help plan eco-vacations and have a comprehensive selection of activities and ecolodges.

Video: Plan a Journey Together