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An Introduction to Ecotourism in Costa Rica

For thousands of years human beings have been traveling around the world—often within the context of the spread of civilizations, but sometimes just to satisfy their curiosity about what existed beyond the next mountain range. Yet the ease of 21st century travel hasn’t altered our essential desire to visit the world, and especially our desire to see the natural riches the world has to offer. Costa Rica has been blessed with a great deal of those riches, and over a million people are traveling to this small country annually to participate in what has come to be known as ecotourism.

With nearly 30 percent of the country protected within some level of conservation area, it’s easy to see why Costa Rica is such a prime ecotourism destination. Those protected areas cover at least 6 different kinds of habitats, including tropical cloud rain forest, cloud forest, dry tropical forest, montane oak forest, mountainous paramo, as well as mangrove and other wetland regions. When you look at this diversity, it’s easy to see how ecotourism can be viewed as an important conservation tool. Both local and national governments are able to see the value of preservation, as tourists are drawn to the protected areas to experience both flora and fauna of the region. These travelers help support the local economy through their use of transportation, food and lodging, park fees, and most importantly, guides.

Costa Rica has over 400 well-trained natural history guides who can help visitors spot and identify the enormous amount of biodiversity within the small terrain. With more than 850 species of birds, 209 mammal species, 220 species of reptiles, 163 species of amphibians, 13,000 plant species (including 1,500 trees and 1,400 orchids) and over 300,000 species of arthropods—that’s an enormous amount of information to interpret! Guides can explain the relationship between different ecosystems and the species found within them, providing visitors with an even greater appreciation for what they’re having the special opportunity of seeing. Naturalist and ecotourism pioneer Amos Bien has explained the importance of guides quite succinctly—“Being in the rainforest without a guide is like being in a library without knowing how to read.” The educational value of this exchange can’t be underestimated for visitors of every any age. Due to the numerous conservation and research organizations in Costa Rica, guides are continually able to update their information about indigenous flora and fauna, making each visit an exciting one for ecotourists.

The benefits of ecotourism to the local economy were documented in a recent study carried out by researchers at INCAE, a Latin American business school based in Costa Rica. They found that roughly half of the dollars spent by tourists on a typical Costa Rican vacation remain within the local economy, while in more traditional forms of tourism often leave as little as ten percent of the expenditures in country. This is one of the reasons why Costa Rica continues to carefully nurture its role as a leader in the field of ecotourism, with constant innovations in both the public and private sectors (see the related article on the Certificate for Sustainable Tourism).

Ecotourists often go beyond the “normal” role of tourists-as-sightseers. At Lapa Rios, one of Costa Rica’s most well regarded eco-resorts, visitors become so involved with the local community that they helped to fund and construct a school for the local community. It is this ethos of sharing that really defines ecotourism. The founders of Lapa Rios, in turn, have created a land trust that will protect an enormous tract of Peninsula Osa primary forest in perpetuity, using proceeds from the success of their business. With this type of community activism, it isn’t hard to understand why local communities, ecotourists and businesses all find ecotourism so rewarding.

Although immersing oneself into the wilds of nature is an important component, ecotourism doesn’t necessarily require physical extremes. People of all ages and fitness levels can participate. What it does require is sensitivity to the areas visited, to both the wildlife encountered and the people who make the region their home. By leaving wild places exactly as we find them, by volunteering to help restore a natural area, by getting involved with organized study tours to increase our knowledge, or by supporting local economies when traveling by buying locally made products and using local services—we are all participating in ecotourism. We recommend visiting the website of The International Ecotourism Society (www.ecotourism.org) for more useful information on this topic.

There are quite a few areas in Costa Rica that people return to again and again to fulfill some of these goals. The largest areas include Tortuguero National Park, Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve and the Peninsula Osa. Other popular ecotourism destinations include San Gerardo de Dota, where birders often go in search of the resplendent quetzal, the rainforests of Sarapiqui and Talamanca, Rincón de la Vieja and Manuel Antonio National Parks, Playa Grande and Caño Negro Wildlife Refuge. Knowledgeable guides are available in every region and with Costa Rica’s enormous variety of ecosystems and habitats, there are more choices than most visitors have time for in one vacation. No matter, because people always seem to come back to Costa Rica, for another chance to experience nature’s exceptional riches.


Tortuguero National Park

This national park has become one of Costa Rica’s most popular ecotourism destinations, possibly because it contains one of the wilderness areas with the greatest biological diversity in a the country. No small feat considering that country is Costa Rica! The park protects a unique series of natural inland waterways that can be reached only by boat or small aircraft. The silt carried by the meandering rivers has over millions of years developed into long, straight beaches that have become an ideal nesting site for sea turtles. Four varieties return there annually, the hawksbill, loggerhead, pacific green and the giant leatherback, and for decades the Caribbean Conservation Corporation (CCC) has been sponsoring volunteer programs to protect the turtle populations. The CCC, in partnership with the National Parks Service, has also trained local people as turtle guides, involving them directly in the conservation efforts that are so vital to their community.

But the turtles aren’t the only wildlife visitors are prepared to see on a visit to Tortuguero. Mammals, birds and reptiles abound within the park, and it’s rare that anyone can leave without seeing some of the charismatic residents. A number of excellent lodges provide comfortable accommodations, including family-style dining. In addition, most lodges provide transportation from San José along with extremely knowledgeable guides. These naturalists accompany visitors through the park’s canals, providing fascinating information about the flora and fauna encountered during the day. In addition to the park itself, the visitor’s center of the CCC is another important destination, providing a view into the human and natural history of the region. Funds from these locations help to provide services to the local townspeople.


Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve

Founded by Quaker residents in 1972, Monteverde is one of Costa Rica’s most famous cloud forests, attracting numerous birders and other nature lovers from the world over. Yet, the 400 species of birds within the area are actually a small portion of the biological wealth within this private reserve. These misty heights protect an enormous variety of wildlife, as well as provide visitors with a beautiful and mostly accessible view of the cloud forest ecosystems. Among the 2,500 species of plants identified within this primordial landscape, there are nearly 300 species of orchids and 200 species of ferns. In order to protect the delicate habitats, admission into the reserve is restricted to 120 at a time, but within the 554 hectares, visitors can often hike without coming across another group for some time. A self-guided map is available at the entrance, but hiking with a guide is recommended in order to really appreciate all the reserve’s hidden beauties. (Most hotels can assist in making a reservation for a guided tour the night before.) The popularity of the reserve has provided inspiration for the preservation of several other areas nearby, creating 1000s of hectares of private conservation areas—including The Children’s Eternal Rainforest—in addition to the nearly 12,000 hectares of protected land that forms the Arenal Conservation Area that drapes both the Caribbean and Pacific slopes of the Tilarán Mountain Range.

Managed by the Tropical Science Center, the reserve provides a living laboratory for visiting scientists each year. Well-established volunteer programs are also a constant part of the community, participating with reforestation programs, reserve maintenance and local English as a Second Language programs. The Monteverde Institute offers courses on a variety of subjects for adults and students, as well as sponsoring an annual music festival. The Monteverde Conservation League also sponsors numerous programs and has an ambitious plan to purchase more land in order to create wildlife corridors for migratory birds and butterflies. These organizations serve both the community and its visitors, creating a link between the two that remains unsurpassed in the country.

A wide range of lodges can be found outside the reserve, fitting every budget and style. Most offer some form of package with transportation to the area from San José. Some are located on small, private reserves with self-guided trails. Guides are often available through these hotels.


The Peninsula Osa

The National Geographic Society has called Costa Rica’s Peninsula Osa “the most biologically intense place on earth,” and those who’ve had the privilege to visit there know this to be true. Eighty percent of the peninsula itself is either nationally or privately protected land, including Corcovado National Park, the Golfo Dulce Reserve, and the Refugio Nacional de Vida Silvestre de Osa, to name a few. All of these efforts go toward the protection of this very special area of the country, where the Pacific lowland rain forest extends into a biogeographical link to the Amazon basin. Nearly all of Costa Rica’s mammal species make the Peninsula Osa their home, as well as a disproportionate number of bird, reptile and insect species as well. The goal of many of the private reserves is to create biological corridors, linking the large tracts of land that would otherwise remain separate. Numerous foundations and research organizations have programs within this vast area, and in some cases visitors can get involved by volunteering their time toward conservation efforts. In almost every case, choosing to visit the region is a form of support, as proceeds from an amazingly large percentage of the local businesses is directed back into the community, whether by purchasing land in important watershed areas, or helping with education programs in the community. The National Parks system also sponsors programs through ASVO (Association of Volunteers for Service in Protected Areas), where volunteers are trained to help park rangers in maintenance and wildlife protection.

It’s obvious to see that a great deal of forethought and follow-through has gone into making Costa Rica one of the world’s prime ecotourism destinations. In addition to having set aside an astounding portion of the country’s total landmass into protected regions and national parks, the national tourism board has developed a certification process to rate the sustainable practices of the industry—not just for ecotourism, for all tourist companies. This helps to preserve the link between Costa Rica’s visitors and the protection of the environments they’ve come to experience. Being an ecotourist in Costa Rica means participation—participation in the spirit of preservation that has given every visitor the opportunity to be amazed by the kaleidoscopic riches found here, as well as in the vision that those fragile riches will still be there for generations to come.