Costa Rica is at the forefront of ecotourism. Hotels made from native materials, ongoing reforestation campaigns, and locally sourced cuisine all contribute to Costa Rica’s ability to maintain a biodiverse environment. But every year, travelers to Costa Rica and other naturally beautiful countries – including Peru, Ecuador, and Guatemala – are unknowingly damaging the ecosystems of Central America through a seemingly harmless and undeniably exciting activity: ATV (All-Terrain Vehicle) tours. Travelers may want to consider the impact that these tours have on sensitive ecosystems before hopping onto an ATV.
It’s all in the name: off-road vehicles were created to drive in places that were not designed for automobiles. Tour companies lead customers along the same unpaved terrain repeatedly, slowly rendering the land beyond repair.
The ruts etched into the ground by ATV wheels are more than just unsightly: the wheels compact the soil, making it difficult for plants to grow back. This change in the surface of the forest floor can lead to accelerated erosion, and sediment pollution in water sources. The damage done by ATV wheels also includes severe harm to the root systems of trees and other vegetation.
The roar of ATVs may be part of the excitement in driving them, but it causes animals to flee in fear and confusion. This drives them away from their habitats, hunting territories, and family.
The fresh jungle air is also affected by ATV tours. Off-road vehicles use two-stroke engines, which tend to produce excessive exhaust. In addition to exhaust pollution, the dust clouds kicked up by ATVs may cause breathing problems for locals and visitors. Many roads in Central America are unpaved due to the massive expense of building and maintaining roads, and the fine dust ATVs send into the air is harmful to the lungs of people in these communities. Children exposed to this dust may even suffer long-term health effects.
Four ATV manufacturers in China were recently fined well over a million dollars and forced by the US Environmental Protection Agency to discontinue selling their vehicles in the U.S. due to clean-air violations. They are still able to sell in Central America, however, and even ATVs that pass legal code have motors that pollute heavily—ATV motors aren’t restricted by the same laws as cars, and one ATV ends up putting as much pollutant into the air as about four cars.
For those who can’t resist the roar of the two-cylinder engine, staying on designated roads or trails is key to avoiding immediate harm to the forest floor. When you’re on an established trail, drive directly in the center to keep from widening the path. While crossing a stream, it may be tempting to accelerate for a dramatic splash of water, but approaching the stream slowly and at a 90-degree angle is the best way to prevent killing plants and animals. And on wet days? Well, it’s better to wait for the dry season so that an ATV adventure doesn’t create massive muddy ditches.
It should be noted that ATVs are notoriously dangerous for their drivers and passengers. Manufacturers blame the frightening number of annual ATV accidents and fatalities on the way people drive, but the facts remain: In 2014 alone, there were over 508 fatalities associated with ATV accidents. According to federal records, over half of these involve the vehicle flipping or rolling on its side. Fancier, heavier ATVs may seem like the safer bet, but they are known to crush their occupants during rollovers. The Consumer Product Safety Commission’s data shows that ATV rollovers occur at similar rates for those drivers who adhere to safety warnings and those who do not.
The fun of an ATV is built into its narrow width and high ground clearance – that’s how it crawls over boulders and along narrow trails – but those are also qualities that make it far less balanced and reliable than a car. Even ATV manufacturers call the vehicles “rider-active,” meaning the driver has to move their body weight to keep them from rolling or flipping (just like a motorcycle).
If the thrill is too irresistible for travelers and they decide to rev up an ATV despite this information, they should ensure that no one under the age of 16 – and no one smaller than an average adult – is driving. It is illegal in Costa Rica and other countries for a person under 16 to operate an ATV, though some guides are not strict with this rule. In 2009, an American 12-year-old was killed in Costa Rica on an ATV tour after losing control of her vehicle and hurdling over a cliff. ATV enthusiasts should also make sure their tour doesn’t include driving along a paved street—since they are really only meant for unpaved ground, ATVs are deceptively titled. They become exponentially more dangerous on pavement.
There’s a lot happening on the rainforest floor that goes unseen by the naked eye: from insects that help fallen leaves decay to the roots that feed the trees, more hangs on the health of the ground than we might first imagine. Before risking that – and possibly personal safety too – with an ATV tour, consider the facts.
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