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Eco-Tourism Opportunities in Costa Rica



By Beatrice Blake and Anne Becher

Costa Rica transformed itself from an agricultural to a tourism-based economy between 1985 and 1990, and development was poorly planned. Now that Costa Rica is a prime ecotourism destination, growth can no longer be allowed at the expense of environmental and community concerns. Several major tourist attractions are dealing with infrastructure problems brought on by the rapid growth of tourism

The Costa Rican Tourism Institute (ICT) has authored a 10-Year General Plan for Sustainable Tourism Development. The plan recognizes, for example, that the port town of Quepos, gateway to the famous beaches of Manuel Antonio, needs a wastewater treatment plant, a landfill, better bridges, and lifeguard towers on the beach. These improvements are not yet in place, so Quepos is having to make do. Similarly, hotels in Tortuguero are building more and more rooms in response to the demands of tourism wholesalers, without a viable system of waste disposal. The number of rooms in Tortuguero exceeds the number of people allowed on the beach to see the nesting turtles, setting the stage for overtaxing the unique natural resource that draws tourists there in the first place.

Tourism grew by 11 percent in 2005. However, in the hot, dry Guanacaste region, community activists are bringing a hotel complex before the Central American Water Tribunal, claiming that needed water resources are being drained by tourism development. Residents of Puerto Viejo on the Caribbean coast protest that the ICT plan wants to fill in a wetland in order to build more hotels.

The ICT spent $9.5 million on advertising, while the country’s principal attractions—its national parks—are chronically under-funded for personnel and equipment. The small, principled hotels that have made Costa Rica famous as an ecotourism destination are often overlooked as the ICT promotes large beach hotels that bring tourists in greater volume. The lodgings we tell you about in this article are those that are doing their best to protect the environment and foster local economies while respecting local cultures.


Fortunately, many Costa Ricans and international conservationists have good ideas about how to turn the tide toward restoration and preservation of the country’s natural resources. Below, you can read about their efforts, as well as their suggestions for how you as a tourist can help.

Visit Community-Based Ecotourism Projects

As you can see from reading the Introduction, Costa Rica is making many efforts toward integrating sustainable agriculture, conservation and ecotourism. You can be part of this by spending time at small, locally owned reserves that are part of the Mesoamerican Biological Corridor. Almost everyone who consults me about planning their trip ( ) starts out wanting to go to Arenal volcano, Monteverde, Manuel Antonio, and Tortuguero. These places are beautiful, it’s true, but they are over-visited. The community-based ecotourism projects are sometimes difficult to get to, but once you are there, you often have the whole place to yourself. If logistics are too complex, consider taking a tour with CONSERVacations ( ) or Cultourica ( ), or contact ACTUAR ( , e-mail: ). You’ll bathe in waterfall pools, see birds and other wildlife, and be inspired by the dedication of these citizen conservationists. There is no better way to get to know the culture, support local communities and, in the long run, make tropical conservation work.

Be An Ethical Traveler

Here are some simple guidelines for ethical ecotourism:

• Dispose of waste properly.

• Stay on trails.

• Ask permission before entering private property or indigenous reserves, and pay fees if required.

• Dress appropriately. In Costa Rica, this means no skinny dipping.

• Coral reefs, caves, and petroglyphs are easily damaged, so be careful not to touch them.

• Monkeys and other wild animals should not be fed because this alters their diet and behavior.

• Keep your distance from wildlife so that it is not compelled to take flight. Animal courtship, nesting, or feeding of the young should not be interrupted. Birds and their nests should be observed from a safe distance through binoculars, and nesting sea turtles should be observed only with a trained guide.

• Photographers should keep their distance. Leave foliage around nests, and be careful not to bother animals for the sake of a picture.

• Make sure that natural products you buy are commercially grown, and that archaeological artifacts are reproductions.

• Hire local guides. You’ll see more, and you’ll be supporting the local economy.

The year 2002 was the United Nations International Year of Ecotourism. Over 1000 delegates from 133 countries met in Quebec in May 2002 to draft guidelines for ecotourism to be used at the Johannesburg Summit on Sustainable Development in August 2002. Their final Declaration, which can be viewed at , reflects a deep understanding of the importance and impact of ecotourism on rural communities: “ . . . Ecotourism development must consider and respect the land and property rights, and, where recognized, the right to self-determination and cultural sovereignty of indigenous and local communities, including their protected, sensitive, and sacred sites as well as their traditional knowledge. . . . Many of these areas are home to peoples often living in poverty, who frequently lack adequate health care, education facilities, communications systems, and other infrastructure required for genuine development opportunity. . . . Small and micro businesses seeking to meet social and environmental objectives are key partners in ecotourism and are often operating in a development climate that does not provide suitable financial and marketing support for ecotourism. . . .” We strongly support this worldwide effort to make ecotourism a force for good.

Ask Questions

When you want to buy hardwood souvenirs or stay in a hotel built with precious woods, ask about the materials, and how the business has contributed to conservation and reforestation efforts. Most beautiful hardwoods are not “sustainably harvested” but are mined right from the rainforest. One rainforest tree can be used to make dozens of coffee tables or hundreds of bowls. Since the wood is much more valuable when used in this way, the hope is that its value will generate more respect. While it is not necessarily unconscientious to use endangered woods, those who use them should recognize their endangered status and contribute to efforts to reforest with these types of trees. If nothing else, your questions might sensitize the handicraft dealer or hotelier.

Write Letters

Tourism is Costa Rica’s largest industry, and officials need to maintain the country’s image as a tourist’s eco-paradise. Letters from travelers worried about environmental destruction, unbridled growth of mega-tourism projects, and abuses by police or bureaucrats all serve to inform and pressure the government about these problems. Your experience in Costa Rica is of interest to policymakers. Write to the president of Costa Rica (Hon. Oscar Arias, Presidente de Costa Rica, Apdo. 520, Zapote, San José; fax: 253-9078) or to the minister of tourism (Carlos Benavidez, Ministro de Turismo, Apdo. 777-1000, San José; fax: 223-5107). It’s a good idea to send a copy of your letter to the media as well (Tico Times: Apdo. 4632, San José; , e-mail: ; or in Spanish, La Nación: Apdo. 10138-1000, San José; ).

Contribute Money

Visitors are important financial collaborators in the efforts of Costa Rican conservationists. Following is a list of some of the most active conservation groups at work here. If you are especially interested in a particular region of Costa Rica, and would like to help conservation or social projects in that area, ask around for local grassroots organizations. However, check out the reputation of the group and its leaders in the community before writing out your check.

APREFLOFAS (Asociación Preservacionista de Flora y Fauna Silvestre; phone/fax: 240-6087, cell phone for emergency reports: 381-6315; , e-mail: ) organizes volunteers on weekend patrols of wilderness areas to report illegal hunting, fishing, and logging to the appropriate authorities. They support several community-based ecotourism projects.

CEDARENA (Centro de Derecho Ambiental y de los Recursos Naturales; 283-7080; , e-mail: ) seeks to make the environment a fundamental element within the legislative and judicial order. Their projects range from promoting biological corridors to better demarcating indigenous reserves, to legal regulation of hazardous materials. Thanks to their example and outreach, centers similar to CEDARENA have opened throughout Central America. Researchers will be interested in CEDARENA’s publications on Costa Rica’s environmental laws.

FECON (Costa Rican Federation of Environmental Groups; 283-6128, fax: 225-7606; , e-mail: and ) is a network formed to unify the forces in the Costa Rican environmental movement. They are the main environmental lobby in the legislative assembly working on deforestation, water, and energy issues. They also help grassroots organizations throughout the country channel reports of environmental abuse to the proper authority for legal action.

Fundación Neotrópica (253-9462, fax: 253-4210; , e-mail: ) promotes conservation and sustainable development in communities near national parks and other protected areas. Their Editorial Heliconia sells a wall-sized map of Costa Rica showing locations of all national parks, refuges, and reserves; Deidre Hyde’s beautiful posters of the flora and fauna of each life zone (great souvenirs!); and photo-illustrated books on the national parks.

Grupo YISKI (297-0970, 236-3823, fax: 235-8425; e-mail: ) is a student-parent group that has done much to persuade Costa Ricans to recycle. They publish an informative booklet about garbage management, maintain a library, and travel to communities throughout the country to give workshops. Every two years they organize a Youth Conservationist Meeting for high school students.


Volunteering opportunities exist all over Costa Rica. For links to environmental volunteer projects all over Costa Rica, check out FECON’s website: .

There are three different turtle protection projects on the Atlantic Coast: ANAI in the Gandoca–Manzanillo Wildlife Refuge, the CCC in Tortuguero, and the Reserva Pacuare in Parismina. ANAI also takes volunteers at its experimental farm in Gandoca.

PRETOMA (241-5227; , e-mail: ) works to stop pelagic long-line fishing practices that threaten sea turtles with extinction.

Caño Palma Biological Station, near Tortuguero, welcomes volunteers who are at least 18, fit, and able to adapt to remote field station conditions. Minimum stay is two weeks. Volunteers assist researchers and help run the station, contributing to kitchen and yard work as well as research projects. During their free time, volunteers can enjoy the station’s kayaks and hammocks.

In the Northern Zone, the Sarapiquí Conservation Learning Center and Friends of the Great Green Macaw work with local communities on reforestation and building of trails and bridges. Monteverde Institute coordinates a number of volunteer projects ranging from trail maintenance to working in health clinics to organizing women’s groups. Also in Monteverde, the Centro Panamericano de Idiomas includes volunteer work with its Spanish classes. At Ecolodge San Luis, people with a strong background in biology and ecology can help with research.

In Guanacaste, volunteers can work protecting turtles at Playa Grande, Playa Langosta, or Santa Rosa (see ASVO, below).

In the Central Pacific, volunteers are needed at the Karen Mogensen Reserve and ASEPALECO on the Nicoya Peninsula. In Manuel Antonio, Coope El Silencio needs help with its macaw release and endangered orchid-raising projects.

In the Southern Zone, Proyecto Campanario and Delfin Amor are exciting projects in the Drake Bay area, working in rainforest ecology and cetacean research, respectively.

Volunteers almost always have to pay for their own room and board, usually $10-$15 per day, and usually have to make a definite time-commitment to the project they work on.

Through ASVO (Association of Volunteers for Service in Protected Areas; Calle 1, Avenidas 10/12; 258-4430; ), visitors at least 18 years old can donate support services to the severely understaffed national parks and reserves. Volunteers must adapt themselves to work in all kinds of weather, and they should be willing to do everything that a normal park ranger would do. Initiative and willingness to learn are more important than previous experience. Volunteers should speak Spanish and make a minimum one-month commitment.

NOTE: Sometimes it is possible to just walk up to a national park or reserve and volunteer without going through an organization. Try it!

There are several interesting projects in which you can learn about organic farming, sustainable living, permaculture and agricultural experimentation. Among them are Finca IPE ( ) near Dominical, Finca La Flor (534-8003; , e-mail: ) in Paraiso de Cartago, Punta Mona ( ), and Rancho Mastatal ( ) in the mountains between the Central Valley and the Pacific.

Excerpted from The New Key to Costa Rica by Beatrice Blake and Anne Becher. Copyright © 2006 by Beatrice Blake. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission from Ulysses Press. $19.95. Available in local bookstores or call 800-377-2542 or click here.

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