Offering perhaps your best shot to see an ocelot (pictured), quetzal or capuchin monkey, Costa Rica is practically synonymous with ecotourism and adventure travel. The Central American nation of 4.5 million people aims to be carbon neutral by its 200th birthday in 2021 (including tourist visits). As a testimony to its success in focusing on sustainability and authenticity, tourism has grown in the country 300% since 1984, to two million annual visitors. As one example of the potential of ecotourism, Alfio Piva, vice president of Costa Rica, pointed out that a marlin caught for food is only worth 200 Colones (less than a dollar), although that same fish is worth $6,000 U.S. in attracting and supporting sportfishing and ecotourism.
I recently had the privilege of visiting Costa Rica for the second time, as a guest of the country's tourist board (ICT). It was an inspiring time to go, because the New Economic Foundation recently ranked Costa Rica as the happiest country in the world. A whopping 25% of the land is protected. Costa Rica is roughly the size of West Virginia, but it offers many secrets to explore...(also check out this brief video overview of our trip).
The Movie Star of Birds
Called by locals the "movie star of birds," the resplendent quetzal (Pharomachrus mocinno) is a spectacular animal that takes patience to observe and photograph. Guests of the upscale Savegre lodge get a better chance than most, with pre-dawn guided tours and several nesting pairs on the idyllic property. According to local naturalist (and son of Savegre owner) Marino Chacon, quetzals are doing well in Costa Rica, although they are threatened in nearby Guatemala, where they are the national bird (but are menaced by habitat destruction, especially loss of wild avocados (pictured in beak), which make up roughly 80% of the species' diet.
Volcanoes, Rainforests and Beaches
In the words of Vice President Piva (who was an ecologist before he became a politician), "Dear God has given us natural capital in spoonfuls." He explained that Costa Rica hosts greater biodiversity than Europe or North America, despite its small size. This includes more than 850 species of birds (more than the U.S. and Canada combined), 200 species of mammals, 150 amphibians and more than 35,000 species of insects.
"In the government we can support tourism, as long as it is green, and it is respectful of our youth," said Piva. "Costa Rica is not a place where the visitors are having champagne but on the other side of the walls everyone is poor and out of sight," said Maria Amalia Revelo, who works in marketing for ICT. "Sustainability is not just about nature, it's also about sustainable communities."
Costa Rica's minister of tourism, Carlos Ricardo Benavides, told The Daily Green that "sustainability is seen very well" in his country, and that it doesn't face the kind of political opposition that we see in the U.S. "It's always an economic challenge, but we are convinced we need to do it," he said.
Glenn Jampol, an American expat who established the country's first green boutique hotel, the lovely Finca Rosa Blanca Coffee Plantation and Inn, told us that "people come to Costa Rica for the nature and the friendliness of the people." The residents are known as Ticos (Ticas for women), and they are often praised for their hospitality. The country is widely considered safe for visitors, crime is relatively low, and 97% of the people are literate. Many (especially the young) speak English, and only 20% are considered below the poverty line. Ticos are proud that they haven't had a national army since 1948, a fact you'll often see advertised on t-shirts and stickers. Costa Rica is also known for its high-quality universal health care.
According to Jampol, the country is on target to reach its carbon neutral goals, mostly through reforestation, paid for by a gas tax. He said making all tourist trips to the country carbon neutral amounts to about 70 cents per traveler per day, a fee which he said is being spread out among operators.
World Famous Canopy Tours
Ziplines and aerial walkways were first used by ecologists who wanted a closer look at the diversity of life teeming in the forest canopy. Today, such adventure courses offer guests a thrill as well as an education.
To Jim Damalas, an American expat who has been in Costa Rica since 1992, it is important that guests to his Greentique Hotels " come and learn something, and have a real experience." He has established research centers and reserves, and had just come from cataloging the world's biggest butterfly on one of them. Damalas also trains local children to count endangered species, rewarding them with small cash prizes.
World Class Spas
According to Jampol, "My clients want luxury, and they are very surprised to find out that can be green." In addition to a host of nature and community experiences, guests to Costa Rica can enjoy world-class spas, such as the gorgeous Borinquen Mountain Resort and Spa (pictured). For those on a more modest budget, there is the quirky Thermomania, also in Guanacaste.
Many soaking pools are filled with natural mineral water that is heated by the region's volcanic activity.
Some visitors to Costa Rica are surprised that the food isn't spicier (though hot sauce is usually always available upon request, along with the delicious Salsa Lizano). Rice and beans are staples, and vegetarians usually make out pretty well. Farmers and laborers still sometimes take their lunch wrapped in a banana leaf, which keeps the contents moist and tidy and can be used for reheating.
The American journalists on the trip had a hearty debate about the marketing savvy of the phrase "typical food," which you see throughout the country on restaurant menus and signs. Some of us thought "typical" sounded like the food would be boring or average, while others, particularly the older generation, thought it had a neutral or even positive connotation, indicating that the food would be authentic. We never settled the linguistic debate, but we had many fantastic and interesting meals, few of them average.
If you crave some pool time on your vaca, there are definitely Costa Rican resorts with ammenities. Case in point: Rancho La Botija, which is not far from Parque Nacional Chirripo, the country's highest mountain. The view from the gorgeously manicured grounds reminded me of the setting of Lost, with verdant peaks in the distance, humid air and forest teeming with life. The ranch and spa has wonderful amenities for relaxing or exploring the gorgeous area.
Rancho La Botija is also a good place to admire a traditional la carreta, the brightly colored oxcarts that were formerly the workhorses of Central America, and are now often used as symbols of the extant culture.
The ranch also has a small display of some of the pre-Colombian artifacts that have been found on the property. Guests can see a pilon, used by indigenous peoples to grind corn, this ornate stool and fragments of pottery.
Rancho La Botija also hosts some impressive native petroglyphs, which are thought to be nearly a thousand years old (but get there early, because your best chance of making out the faded designs on the rock is in early morning light).
Arts and Crafts
Dantica Eco Lodge
Nestled in its own private cloud forest reserve in San Gerardo de Dota, and close to Los Quetzals National Park, Dantica Lodge and Gallery is a true ecotourist paradise. Dantica is the Spanish word for tapir, chosen because the owner first came to Costa Rica from his native Holland as a tropical ecologist studying the rare mammals.
Today, the boutique hotel is a remarkable blend of Dutch minimalism and understated but genuine sustainability. The property earned four out of five leaves from Costa Rica's rigorous Certificate of Sustainable Tourism (Finca Rosa Blanca has five), and is certified by the country's Blue Flag Ecology Program. In addition to the green roofs and solar thermal heating, "primary forest is right outside your door," explained the owner. "We didn't cut a single tree here," he added. Rooms start at $120 per night.
Dantica Eco Lodge
"All our rooms have big windows, so you always have contact with nature," Dantica's owner explained. "Our goal here is harmony with nature." Dantica's art gallery is a provocative showcase of contemporary and indigenous art. Unique works also adorn the living spaces.
The surrounding cloud forest is home to the iconic quetzal birds, as well as more than 1,700 species of plants, 30% of which are found nowhere else. The lodge is also not far from Mount Chirripo, where the air is cool and the hiking is fantastic. For about $35 visitors can hire porters to carry their gear up to the mountain lodge, which is powered by solar panels. The few who make the trek are rewarded with views of a picturesque glacial lake and the chance to see endemic species like the yellow baby sock flower, volcano juncos and lizards that carry their eggs around with them.
The Original Coffee Table
A Steal for $8 a Night
The Secret Garden
1,500 Kinds of Orchids
Hot Springs and Mud Baths
Near the dormant volcano Miravalles in Guanacaste there's a considerable amount of volcanic activity near the surface, not unlike Yellowstone. The family-owned Las Hornillas Tours offers a fun and educational way to experience it. On a walk along a steamy path, our guide, Omar Lopez, pointed out geysers, bubbling mud pots, and fumaroles, which vent volcanic gases. Lopez told us Las Hornillas means small ovens, and he pointed out the neon-yellow crystallized sulfur on the rocks. Lopez said the area is believed to have been volcanically active for about a million years, and experienced a significant eruption about 500 years ago.
Johnny Alvarez, the owner of Las Hornillas, joked that the mud keeps him young. He said the area had previously been used, and abused, for livestock. But since his family has turned it into a tourist attraction, it has become more profitable, and he is able to preserve wildlife in the area.
An experimental eco-paradise that calls to mind The Beach (before things turned bad), Rancho Margot is a serene retreat and thriving living laboratory on the shore of Lake Arenal, just 15 km from the world famous Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve. The owner, Juan Sostheim, comes from a family that escaped the Holocaust. Sostheim gave up training in chemical engineering and a lucrative career managing Burger Kings in Europe to transform a previously abused piece of land into restored native forest and a productive organic farm and teaching center. The Sostheims (Frederick, of the younger generation, is pictured) are close to living self reliant, and they host a steady stream of expat guest-workers and academics, including whole classes from Harvard Business School, the University of Texas and other storied institutions.
"My goal was to become self sufficient, but not to put a wall up," Juan explained under an open-air shelter. "It was to integrate in the community and become a solution to the greater problem." As a result, Rancho Margot offers classes in yoga, construction and sustainable farming--and not just to paying Americans, but also to the surrounding community, which is also supported in other ways by the ranch, such as free bus service and access to healthcare.
This gorgeous natural pool is heated by decaying compost, but you'd never know it while sidling up to the submerged bar. As the younger Sostheim explains, the pig pens and chicken coops, heck even the compost piles, don't smell, because they are balanced in harmony with nature, unlike industrial factory farms. "We try to produce everything here we use," Frederick explains. This includes soaps, biodiesel and pork products.
Rancho Margot thrives on "volunteerism," and offers as many positions for guest workers as there are professions under the sun. The typical resident seems to come intending to stay the minimum four weeks but somehow manages to stick around for a year or more. Who can blame them? Besides stunning natural beauty, Rancho Margot offers hot springs, mountain biking, horseback riding, climbing and much more. Guests can also rent a comfy bungalow for $140 a night per couple, including breakfast and yoga classes.
Most of the time, Rancho Margot makes all the power it needs from its two microhydro water turbines (pictured). The property also takes advantage of biogas, and many efficiency measures are in place, including green roofs. The livestock are free range and are fed a natural diet from the bounty of the surrounding land. Cows are hand milked, and the result is made into fresh cheese and yogurt on site. To prove how well the animals are doing, Frederick had us sniff their manure. As he predicted, it did not smell or attract flies, apparently proving that they ate a balanced diet and did not undergo undue stress. "It should not be uncomfortable to be near nature, if it is it's because of what we're doing to it," said Frederick.
With its extensive nursery, wildlife rehab efforts and community outreach, it's hard to think of a place more sustainable than Rancho Margot. It's easy to see why people don't want to leave.
The Springs Resort and Spa Arenal
The Springs Resort and Spa offers panoramic views of the famous stratovolcano Arenal, which provides near nightly displays of gas and tumbling hot rocks off the active peak. The Springs boasts a series of beautifully landscaped, naturally heated hot springs, pools and waterfalls, ranging in temperature from 76 degrees F to 103. Guests can also enjoy nature walks, horseback riding, the full service spa, or simply relaxing in the twelve "lagoon" pools, complete with in-water bar service. Rooms start at $295 in the low season, or $365 in high ($485 during the winter holidays). The experienced travel writers on the trip said the richly appointed rooms were actually a good value compared to most other destinations.
The Springs is an American-owned luxury resort, but it has made some strides toward going greener. The building materials were sourced locally, as are foods when possible. The pools are heated by the energy of the Earth. In recognizing their steps toward treading lighter, the resort has earned three leaves from the Certificate of Sustainable Tourism.
Don Benigno Cigars
Costa Rica's capital and largest city, San Jose, doesn't have a reputation as an exciting tourist attraction, but there are certainly some points of interest, including the gold and jade museums and the spectacular national theater. One unique place off the beaten path that's worth checking out is Don Benigno Cigars. Benigno (pictured) is a Cuban emmigrant who came to San Jose about a decade ago, where he set up shop in the family business, which is rolling fine cigars.
Benigno is a gregarious host, and his son, who is learning English, makes a perfect espresso. Trying one of Benigno's cigars, it is easy to see what the fuss over Cubans has been all about. They are incredibly smooth, with nuanced flavors and a mellow high.
Alexander Skutch House and Sancutary
Alexander Skutch grew up in Baltimore, but he went to the tropics in the 1920s to study banana leaves. Eventually he got hooked on birds, and he became a leading conservation biologist and tropical ecologist, with many seminal discoveries to his credit and numerous species named after him. Skutch and his wife lived modestly on the farm and sanctuary they bought in Costa Rica in 1941, and they were instrumental both in promoting conservation in Central and North America, and in promoting education and scholarship in the developing world.
Skutch died in 2004, one week short of his 100th birthday, and he is buried with his wife outside the home they built themselves. They modeled the structure on an efficient, passively cooled plantation design they had seen in nearby Guatemala. The Skutches donated their land to the Tropical Science Center, which operates it today as a visitor center and natural laboratory, in conjunction with a protected biological corridor in the region.
Gimme Some Sugar
A mile high in the mountains of Talamanca, the sweet smell of boiling molasses fills the air, while a team of oxen faithfully drive the gears that grind up fresh sugarcane. The demonstration project at Mirador Valle del General offers visitors a chance to see the traditional way our food was processed. The family-owned and operated attraction also includes a canopy tour ($25), affordable restaurant and guest rooms.
"We have 38 acres here and we try to keep it sustainable, and keep the family together," the young manager, Diego Calderon Vega, explained. Diego's parents opened part of their home to guests 17 years ago. While he is carrying on the family trade in hospitality, one of his sisters is in law school and another is a psychologist. The flora and fauna of the surrounding tropical forest embrace the property, while the views of the stunning mountain valley reveal some neighboring landowners who have converted biodiversity to pastures.
Costa Rican Puppets
Prince of Peace
Costa Rica Online
Costa Rica is blessed with spectacular beaches on both its Pacific and Atlantic coasts. In fact, the country is narrow enough that one can see both oceans from the highest points on a clear day.
Unfortunately, we didn't get a chance to frolic in these warm Pacific waters, out of respect for some migrating stingrays. Farther down the coast, I got a chance to practice my bodysurfing, while watching the local (real) surfers bust it up.
Bloggers on a Boat
Our trip ended with a leisurely two-hour cruise in the Pacific. We were serenaded by local musicians (see earlier photo) as we sampled Imperial beers and ceviche. We kept a sharp eye out for whales or dolphins but didn't see any. Frigate birds glided overhead. Christopher P. Baker, a writer and photographer who has written numerous travel guides on Latin America and created the Costa Rica ¡Pura Vida! mobile app, explained that frigates are among the lightest of birds, and that they spend most of their lives aloft. Baker also pointed to the hazy shore of Isla San Lucas, an island that formerly hosted a notorious prison but is now a national park. One of the most famous prisoners, according to Baker, was Jose Leon Sanchez, who recorded his harrowing experiences there in the book The Island of Lonely Men.
This reporter's travel expenses were covered by ICT, Costa Rica's travel board.