Two weeks ago, I was walking by a local pizzeria and the owner came out to chat (my kid is a lady magnet). Next thing you know, we were talking about our travels in Costa Rica. "C'est le Paradis!" she kept repeating. "It's virgin, it's not polluted, it's quiet, it's absolutely beautiful and I can't wait to go back." The feeling is mutual.
When I first went to Costa Rica, I did feel like I'd gone to heaven. And until I was able to return, my mind would routinely wander back to this tropical paradise I had just discovered. Fellow wanderers and I often bond over our love for the country: "Costa Rica is a dream", we all agree. Starting with the warm and welcoming locals, moving on to the incredible natural and historical sights, continuing with the delicious, fresh food and ending with the pristine beaches and lush forests – and lots more in between. It's really a jewel of a destination that is unique in so many ways.
The fact that Costa Rica remained unpolluted and retains a virgin feel is truly a divine mystery. How is it possible that it has the highest volume of travelers in the Central American region and yet remains unspoiled? Verdant. Thriving. In a world where nature is exploited for wealth, Costa Rica, a country that is made up of 1/4 national parks, rises above to show that working together with nature generates more than just financial wealth. It brings about well-being, quality of life, health, adventure, and yes, a booming tourism industry. 90% of locals say they benefit from sustainable development practices. This is huge. It's incredible to visit a country, practice sustainable tourism and know that your travels are positively impacting other people too.
Why is Costa Rica a model for sustainable practices?
Before I attempt to answer, I think it's important to understand the purpose of sustainability. The objectives of sustainable practices are: protecting the environment, helping local businesses make long-term profits and creating a space where social systems are improved and tradition is celebrated.
Based on my own experience and the vast amount of literature on the Internet, Costa Rica has successfully reached these objectives. So how did Costa Rica become such a star in sustainable practices, winning global awards yearly?
All the research I've done points to a common factor: the Monteverde Zone of the country is where sustainable practices have their origins. It all started with the Quakers who lived in the area. That’s right, maybe your mind is conjuring up with images of men wearing wide-rimmed black hats (thanks Quaker Oats), but beyond the hats, the Quakers’ philosophy is deep. They are truly committed to sustainable environmental practices and as early as the 1950s, these Quaker ranchers and farmers were setting aside portions of land that would be left untouched. Much of this land became what is known as the Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve today.
To complement the efforts of the Quakers, who employed practices that would have a positive future impact (as part of their religious value system), there were also well-known conservationists who emerged in the 1970s. They lobbied for large portions of land to be state protected and legally made into National Parks. And the local communities were in complete agreement; they wanted to cherish their beautiful land.
According to experts on ecotourism, cooperation from local communities is a must if sustainable practices are to be successfully applied. This cooperation is crucial because the locals are the ones who employ these practices in their every day lives. Tourists then become the benefactors of these endeavors. The locals and tourists working together create a mutually beneficial relationship between themselves and Mother Nature. A relationship in which nature is protected enjoyed and worked with for the benefit of all.
There are many examples of the harmonious nature-local-tourist relationship in Costa Rica, particularly in Monteverde.
For example, the Don Juan Coffee Plantation, a decades-old, sustainable family business that takes travelers high up into the mountains and gives them breathtaking views, as well as practical experience on everything coffee-related. From picking the coffee beans to drying and roasting them and finally, getting them to the mug, you’ll get a hands-on experience on this excursion (available on the Travelous Coast to Coast tour). The Don Juan family uses traditional and environmentally friendly practices to produce delicious and organic cocoa and coffee. Then there's the Finca Rosa Coffee Plantation (tours available as part of the Costa Rica Discovery tour). This plantation began with a woman with a vision. Thirty years ago, she bought miles and miles of land and began a sustainable coffee venture together with her son, his wife and many local friends. On these stunning grounds that offer awe-striking views of the Arenal Volcano and the cloud forest, even recycling is a fine art. Using plants and trees for shade and to minimize the impact of erosion, the coffee growers on this organic plantation achieve natural agricultural feats.
Eco-friendly practices for travelers
How you can take part of sustainable practices while in Costa Rica (but not only!)
Stay on the trails
Costa Rica is known for its biodiversity and the trails in the forest are built in such a way so as not to disrupt ecosystems. There is a strategy that goes into fashioning every minute of the experience. So enjoy the trails and all the marvelous sites they offer but don't venture off!
You'll see that there are opportunities to recycle everywhere. Given that there are so many travelers passing through the natural reserves, it's important that everyone takes advantage of these recycling opportunities and minimize waste. So look at packaging before you purchase something and try to stick with recyclable options whenever possible.
Community members are all in it for the long-haul so whether you’re buying handmade soap, jewelry or fruits and vegetables that were grown locally (using sustainable practices), you’re supporting and encouraging locals to continue on. And of course, you’re benefitting from delicious, healthy and creative products that are gifts from Mother Nature herself.