The Costa Rica conundrum

Costa Rica's bountiful rainforests host countless animal and plant species – and a raft of activities to boot

3 mins

In the rainforest all around me I could hear the angry gnashing of teeth. “Chanchos del monte!” shouted my guide. “Get up a tree!” 

As we were surrounded by saplings, this advice wasn’t much help. Instead, I stood and quivered, brandishing my bottle of sustainably sourced spring-water. 

The gnashing was followed by a chorus of snorts and grunts and a reek that betrayed the chanchos as wild pigs or, more accurately, white-collared peccary. These are the piranhas of the forest, marauding through the trees in groups of up to 100.

“If they come close,” my guide whispered, “urinate on the head of their leader. All the rest will go crazy because of the smell, and tear him to pieces.” 

But I had an empty bladder and a dry mouth so instead I sprinted up the path. “Parar!” cried my guide. “Stop! You are heading straight towards the lava fields!” 

Being a responsible traveller is, it seems, a risky business. 

The ethical traveller

I’d headed to Costa Rica thinking I’d be spending most of my time worrying about carbon emissions and whether my coffee was organic, not toothy wildlife.

It had all begun with a seemingly simple question: was it possible to take a long-haul trip that gave more to planet earth than it took away? Could I really be an ethical traveller? 

The campaigning groups clearly didn’t think so. When I rang Tourism Concern for anonymous advice I was told the most ethical thing would be to “stay at home”. Others had a similar message – the number-one tip for ethical travel, it seemed, was to avoid flying wherever possible. 

But I wasn’t satisfied.

What about my friends in Latin America who relied on tourism for their livelihoods? What about Gero in the Brazilian Amazon who has given up blasting the riverbanks with high-pressure hoses and sieving out gold with mercury because he could make more money through tourism? He now has his own area of protected forest.

And how about Cristalino Jungle Lodge in Mato Grosso, located in its own private ecotourism reserve in a sea of encroaching soya? Setting aside the economic welfare of its staff, how many thousands of trees – and tonnes of CO2 – has it saved? 

To prove my point I had decided to visit Costa Rica, the developing world’s capital of sustainable tourism. The country is tiny – about three-quarters the size of Scotland. Yet it has some 5% of the world’s biodiversity, protected through a series of national parks – which make up about a quarter of national territory – and a network of private reserves.

Thoughts of Pompeii

It is the only country in the world where reforestation exceeds deforestation, and it has the world’s finest and most exacting government system of environmental accreditation – the Certification for Sustainable Tourism (CST). This is based on a series of leaves – awarded to operators and lodges like the hotel star system – according to a four-fold set of criteria: biological conservation (including recycling and sustainable infrastructure); work to support the local community; the education of guests; and excellence of service.

I can also speak Spanish and hate visiting countries where I interact only with those local people who have learned – usually courteous, management school – English. 

But my first two days in Costa Rica had been a baptism of fire. Almost literally. I’d headed straight for the Arenal volcano – the country’s ‘must-see’ sight. If it wasn’t possible to visit this sustainably then what was the point in coming at all? I wanted to prove to myself that even mass tourism sights don’t always have to degrade the environment. 

After feeling good about eating lunch in a local café (rather than an American chain), I’d headed to the lodge in a minivan – not so sustainable as I was the only passenger. But my hotel, Arenal Observatory Lodge, has three leaves on the CST accreditation scheme and works both with reforestation and the local school – guilt assuaged. 

Arenal looked worryingly close – practically casting its shadow over reception – and as I took my key it let out a loud, guttural roar. That night I was woken by another, and the crater on the summit was suffused with a red-hot, molten glow that gradually began to ooze down the side. I thought of Pompeii, my only consolation being the knowledge that there could be no more ecologically responsible way to die.

That was until meeting the peccaries. Now, as I finally got out of their forest and let the adrenalin rush ebb away, I wondered which was more sustainable – being consumed by nature or cremated by it.

Head in the cloud forests

Thankfully my next port of call was in distinctly gentler surrounds. The beautiful Arenal Hanging Bridges reserve drips with waterfalls and is filled with birds. More importantly, it protects an extensive tract of forest that, judging by the cattle pasture lapping at its feet, would otherwise be timber.

It owes its existence to the tourist pound, so I felt good about walking its trails and lofty canopy bridges. After a soak in the volcanically heated thermal pools at the Eco-Termales La Fortuna, my conscience and relaxation levels were in pretty good shape. 

The next day I left early for Monteverde. If I was really doing the right thing I’d have taken the public bus, a tortuous seven-hour journey. But I opted for the launch across the artificial lake that feeds the country’s largest dam, then hopped back in the minivan to get there in two. I brushed aside thoughts about the relative green merits of hydroelectric or coal-fired power, a debate about the lesser of two evils, and thought about how I could best make up for the minivan’s CO2. 

The Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve is Costa Rica’s most ecologically important private protected area. And like so much of the country’s wilderness it survives only because of tourism. But access is not easy, so I figured I was earning a fair few brownie points simply by visiting. 

I chose my hotel carefully too: Fonda Vela employs only local people, is involved in conservation projects and is joining the CST programme. After checking in, I lunched at the local coffee cooperative and bought several bags of organically grown fairtrade beans (at source). Then I headed into the reserve. 

Monteverde straddles the continental divide at 1,440m, and the forest was spectacular. The trunks of the trees were encrusted with hundreds of epiphytic plants and carpeted with moss and orchids. Poison arrow frogs added flecks of brilliant colour, tanagers flitted through the trees and the air was washed with a light mist.

I narrowly missed seeing the park’s most magnificent resident – the brilliant green-and-red resplendent quetzal – but left content with the magic of the experience and the knowledge that I had supported a good cause. 

Monkeying around

My next port of call, Lapa Rios Ecolodge, is a paragon of responsible tourism, holding a maximum five leaves on the CST scheme, and replete with animals and birds. The lodge sits in its own private reserve on the edge of Corcovado National Park on the Osa Peninsula. Together, the national park and the lodge protect the largest original tract of moist tropical forest on the Pacific coast of Central America. 

Even as I jolted down the dirt road to the lodge, the abundance of wildlife was astounding. Trees in the two-jeep-town of Puerto Jiménez were brilliant with scarlet macaws and the air thick with cries of red-lored parrots. Nago, Lapa Rios’s permanently smiling driver, told me that it wasn’t always this way. 

“When I was young there were almost no animals here and I grew up learning to hunt. But now I teach my little boy the names of all the birds and how rare they are,” he said, pointing out red-backed squirrel monkeys in the trees near the roadside. 

When we arrived at the lodge a mantled howler monkey lay lazily in branches just above reception. From the balcony of my luxurious bungalow I spotted a chestnut-mandibled toucan and its mate in a tree just a metre away. Raucous orange-cheeked parakeets passed swiftly overhead in a chorus of chirrups; coatimundis quarrelled over food in a nearby banana tree; the heliconias were buzzing with hummingbirds. 

A post-lunch walk in the forest revealed equal abundance. I asked my guide Ulises what he and other locals would be doing were there no tourism. “I worked my guts out with my father for almost no return when I was a teenager. Now as a guide I have enough to send my son to a decent school and I can help my parents out too. Without tourism, we’d be chopping down the forest and hunting just like we used to.”

Sustainability tour

The next day I took the lodge’s sustainability tour. First, I was proudly shown the pigs. They looked cramped in their concrete pens, but they eat all the lodge’s organic waste and their fecal methane provides gas for the kitchen. I saw the Lapa Rios school, where children of the staff receive free education, and a bridge built by the lodge to help them cross a dangerous, rushing river.

All the money comes from ecotourism, my guide explained. And the Lapa Rios model has been an inspiration for several other lodges in the area that are joining the CST programme. 

I felt like I was in Eden. In the bar that night I asked another of the guides, Eduardo Morales, if there was a serpent in the garden. “In some areas along the Costa Rican coast, like Matapalo and Guanacaste, there has been such an influx of tourists buying holiday homes that we Costa Ricans are shut out,” he told me.

“The cheapest acre there is around $40,000; the average salary for people in a good job like mine is around $350 a month. This means people who grew up in these areas cannot afford to live there anymore. You have these gringo ghettoes where no one speaks Spanish and the only Costa Ricans are maids and shopkeepers.” He looked at me seriously. “By all means buy a holiday in Costa Rica. But not a holiday home.”

Be wary of dubious marketing, too. I was all set to stay at the Peace Lodge, in Vara Blanca, but sadly the reality wasn’t as eco as its brochures claimed. The member of staff who showed me to my room opened the door and simultaneously switched on both the icy air-con and a blazing gas fire. The reserve also invites visitors to feed its wild hummingbirds sugar-water, a practice said not only to make them dependent on man but also to kill them.

It wasn’t for me. I checked out early and moved on, wondering how I could offset this splurge of unsustainability. 

Green dreams

Thankfully my next, and last, port of call was one of Costa Rica’s poorest provinces – Sarapiquí. It also has one of the country’s greatest levels of environmental degradation. Here, I roasted cocoa beans grown in the wilds and planted a tropical hardwood tree at La Quinta lodge. So I was already feeling green and good by the time I sat in the bar that evening to share a beer with the lodge’s Costa Rican owner Leo Jenkins. 

We talked for a while and he learned of my interest in sustainability. “You should meet my partner, Alex,” he said, introducing me to the wiry, bright-eyed man next to him. “His life encapsulates true sustainability in a real way, here in the developing world.” 

Leo and Alex told me about their Lapa Verde project, which has been key in protecting one of the world’s largest and rarest parrots – the great green macaw. The bird mates for life and nests only in the almendro tree, which takes some 20 years to mature and is one of the rarest trees in Central America – it makes excellent construction timber. 

As we were talking it dawned on me that Alex and Leo are the future for forest conservation – small operators on the ground where it really matters. Alex has a permanent limp from an injury sustained while chasing macaw poachers.

“Once I was a hunter,” he said. “But when I saw all my beloved forest being turned into pasture I gave up the gun and took up conservation.” 

He and Leo can only do the work they do because they have an income from international tourism. This, I realise, is why I am important. Without these local people fighting daily to protect their patch – funded by our dollars – the forest will soon be gone.

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