Costa Rica is renowned for being the poster-child for eco-tourism and was the one country which spearheaded the sustainable tourism industry, worldwide, long before any other nation joined the movement. The national park system, set up over 50 years ago, covers almost one-third of the country, with new areas facing an imminent threat from exploitation or over-commercialization being set aside for preservation on an almost yearly basis.
The evolution of Costa Rica’s role as an eco-friendly tourism destination wasn’t an afterthought or coincidence but rather a consequence of some very direct choices. Doing away with an army in favor of conservation, Costa Rica literally set about to become THE world’s most sustainable tourism hub by which all others are judged. A few things happened as a result: first of all, the country cemented its position as one of the most bio-diverse nations, its expansive tropical wilderness home to a mind-boggling array of animals, most of them endemic, many endangered and some that used to be found all over Central America but are now only thriving here. There’s no doubt that Mother Nature is the biggest winner in all of this. Secondly, however, is the fact that Costa Rica’s entire economy now greatly depends on eco-tourism, so although some large-scale commercialization does happen, it is concentrated only in certain areas, leaving most others blissfully untouched. The ecological tourism sector is said to account for almost 20% of Costa Rica’s economy so rather than a gimmicky-ploy, eco-friendly activities and lodges here are the real deal. This is so much more than a hashtag gimmick.
Costa Rica has recently experienced a rapid proliferation of dams for hydro power on rivers draining its northern Caribbean slope. In the Sarapiquí River Basin, eight hydro power plants were built between 1990 and 1999 and more projects are either under construction or proposed. The majority of these dams are small (<15 m tall) and operate as water diversion projects. Because of the threat from a proposed hydro power plant a few years back, the irrevocable damage to the wilderness and tourism scene, the plan was finally (and permanently) shelved by the government in 2005. That’s the kind of power Costa Rica’s eco-tourism industry has here: it can protect and preserve whilst still allowing for tourism businesses to grow. No-one would ever begrudge Costa Rican’s from utilizing and surviving on their country’s incredible nature splendorous but it’s great to know that the government is intent on keeping the efforts clean, sustainable and as least-impactful on the environment as possible.
What Is Eco-Tourism, Anyway?
When you immerse yourself in pristine wilderness, staying in small lodges built with sustainable materials and after careful consideration of the impact of local flora and fauna, leaving behind as few ‘footsteps’ as possible, you are halfway to achieving an eco-friendly adventure. Yet the second half of the journey must entail some kind of education, of environmental enlightenment, if you will: this is at the core of the movement or at least it was as originally concocted in Costa Rica, before ‘eco-friendly’ became more of an Instagram hashtag rather than a bonafide philosophy. Eco-tourism, to be really effective, must involve some kind of immersion, not only physical but also intellectual. Learning about local environmental concerns and being aware of the natural links that determine the health of our entire planet (be it shortage of fresh water, plastic pollution and whatnot) is paramount to enjoying a full eco-friendly adventure.
Education is important because, as researchers have surmised, we only protect what we love and, usually, only love what we know. As much as your heart might pain seeing orangutans fighting for their lives against bulldozers decimating rain-forests in Borneo, you probably won’t be compelled to do very much about it if you’ve never actually been to Borneo. And so it is with Costa Rica: adventurous visitors who visit on exceptional eco-friendly tours usually become the wilderness’ best crusaders, the loud protectors, the ones who sign petitions, keep abreast of the news and go home with a renewed vigor to use and buy less, to recycle more and to be generally more aware of the impact they make on the planet, every single day.
This is why eco-tourism in Costa Rica is so important: the more of it there is, the less need for it there will be, in the future. The ultimate dream, of course, is that all tourism become naturally eco-friendly by default, in years to come.
What If The Love of Costa Rica…Gets a Little Bit Too Much?
Some visitors are surprised when they learn that most national parks impose a daily cap on visitors, some even closing for one day of the week. Yet this is done because when a country becomes as popular a travel destination as Costa Rica, all the love can get a little overwhelming. For the wilderness, that is.
Large crowds will inevitably make a taxing impact on the environment and that’s why many of the country’s most fragile areas are other off-limits to tourists or impose visitor-caps, something everyone should not only accept but also appreciate. When visiting national parks, it’s important to adhere to the rules, to walk only on designated paths, to not pick flowers, feed wildlife or otherwise disrupt the nature, even if it’s by speaking quietly so as not to stress the animals. A great way to help Costa Rica’s nature is to actively seek out-there regions that are lesser visited. By taking your footsteps off the well-trodden path, you can indirectly help it regenerate.
Costa Rica’s parks and nature areas are brimming with incredible finds – glorious wildlife and amazing landscapes – so seek a lesser-known region to have it and you’ll be not only ensuring an unforgettable experience for yourself but also helping the rest of the country out. That’s a pretty neat win-win.
How Can You Partake In Eco-Tourism Activities In Costa Rica?
Head over to our luscious country for the adventure vacation of a lifetime and, as long as you’re willing to soak up all the aspects of a visit, you can enjoy a rewarding and sustainable vacation. Here are some of the way you can do that:
Visit a locally-run farm
Many family-run agricultural businesses are at the forefront of sustainable farming in Costa Rica, with organic coffee, chocolate and fruit plantations utilizing high-tech methods and unusual techniques to promote their business and help their land. So why not contribute to their amazing efforts by visiting? For a small fee, you’ll enjoy an amazing behind-the-scenes-look at how world-class coffee, chocolate and other produce is harvested, get to taste-test your way through the day and will be infinitely more educated on the agricultural process by the time you leave. Kids LOVE these kinds of outings and given there are farms open to the public all over the country, including a visit is very easy to do on just about every itinerary. Read about our favorite Sustainable Farm Experiences to be had in Costa Rica
Visit protected areas that charge a fee
Weird, right? Why wouldn’t you want to go somewhere that’s free to visit? Well, because here’s the thing: the great majority of wilderness protection funds in Costa Rica come from park entry fees, the government pouring in funds back into that specific region, acquiring and preserving more wilderness areas as a result. Entry fees in Costa Rica are really reasonable and knowing your funds will go directly to conservation can give you peace of mind when visiting.
Choose small(er) eco-lodges and resorts
Smaller eco-lodges and resorts are likely to be locally-owned and family run and, sometimes, giving your hard-earned holiday funds directly to locals can be of immense help, most especially if said lodge happens to be in an area is being eyed by foreign-owned building planners. Helping locals stay in business is helpful in a multitude of ways: they’re usually a lot more aware and concerned about their environmental impact, given it’s their land AND their future. Moreover, smaller eco-lodges just naturally have a lesser impact on the environment and nearby villages when compared with mega-resorts that can tax a specific patch of wilderness with an overwhelming impact. Although some argue that 100 visitors leave behind the same number of footprints, no matter where they go, it does make a difference in how those footprints are spread out. A turtle nesting site on a beach couldn’t cope with two hundred visitors, but a hundred beaches will likely not suffer at all if they were to receive two visitors each. Spread the love all over Costa Rica and the country will be more than grateful!
Eco-lodges will usually offer a number of enlightening excursions that are both super fun and educational. Typically, you’ll explore the area of wilderness around the lodge, either by walking tours, horseback riding, bicycle riding and even kayaking and rafting. The latter two are phenomenal ways to reach remote areas that can’t be reached by road or on foot and, on overnight adventures, you can really explore far and wide. What’s more, you’re likely to see a lot more wildlife the further away from civilization you head which is why these kinds of eco-tourism activities are just so popular with nature lovers. You do your bit for nature by spreading out, you get to see amazing landscapes, spot more wildlife and have the adventure of a lifetime while you’re at it.