Costa Rica is well known as one of the most environmentally friendly nations in the world; it was rated the third cleanest country in the 2010 Environmental Performance Index prepared by Yale and Columbia universities. Perhaps this, and the fact that Costa Rica does not support a military, accounts for the fact that the country has earned the title as the Happiest Place on Earth by the New Economics Foundation and the World Happiness Index.
Costa Rica is home to more than 500,000 species (more than 300,000 are insects!) and ranks among the top 20 nations for its rich biodiversity. Thanks to its wealth of rainforests and attendant creatures, ecotourism is a principal economic driver in the country. The Costa Rican Tourism Institute and partners have developed a Certification for Sustainable Tourism (CST) program. It guides businesses toward environmental policies to help protect the incredibly beautiful natural paradise that has become a mecca for visitors to explore its tropical beauty. The CST provides a benchmark to help tourists select properties that are striving to preserve the wildlife and fauna that make it so special.
The influx of tourism is certainly leaving its mark on this beautiful paradise, and the rapid growth is outpacing existing regulations, which are insufficient for the sudden demand. Trees must be felled to make room for development, and the increased population puts a strain on water supplies. Lacking water treatment facilities, many homes and businesses operate on septic systems that filter waste water back into creeks, rivers, groundwater, and the oceans. Contamination of waterways is a great concern, particularly because many residents draw freshwater from local rivers. Ocean health is also threatened.
Beaches participate in the voluntary Blue Flag Ecology Program, which provides an indicator regarding water quality. The beach at Quepos is polluted, but the nearby beach at Manuel Antonio National Park has a Blue Flag certification and provides a scenic site for water play. While diving off Quepos, the murky water filled with debris showed that the water is contaminated by runoff from coastal rivers, which carry waste products from civilization as well as agricultural chemicals from tropical farms.
Costa Rican tourism officials and the government will need to continue to forge ever more vigilant regulations in their partnerships with tourism developments as they seek to protect the rare beauty of their land and the creatures that live within it – from mosquitoes and butterflies to residents and tourists – as well as protect the boon to the local economy from tourism.
When you visit, seek properties that boast the seal of approval from the Costa Rican Tourism Institute – the Certification of Sustainable Tourism – and select waterways that bear the Blue Flag Ecology Program stamp.
Here are some resources to guide your travel:
- www.oceansunlimitedcr.com: Owned by two former police divers from Florida, this Quepos dive shop provides training for dive instructors as well as novice divers. The shop engages the community in environmental education through local schools, conducts water cleanups, monitors local reef health, and has been recognized for its environmental efforts.
- www.visitcostarica.com: The Official site of Costa Rica provides detailed information on hotels, attractions, maps, and sustainability ratings.
- www.best-ecolodges.com/costarica.htm: An independent site run by traveler Eve Cabanel, who researches and recommends properties on the basis of their sustainability principles.
- www.costaverde.com: This is a lovely property developed by an individual owner with environmental concerns in mind. Constructed of solid wood and local stone, the hotel includes several buildings in a rain forest overlooking Manuel Antonio National Park and the Pacific Ocean on the central Pacific coast. Howler and squirrel monkeys swing and sing in the trees. Rooms are large with screened windows and broad decks opening into the forest.
- www.lacusinga.com: Bordering Ballena Marine National Park on the southwest Pacific coast, La Cusinga is situated in a virgin rainforest near the town of Uvita. Far removed from tourist activities, the lodge provides scenic views of unpopulated beaches and colorful tropical flowers amid towering trees. La Cusinga provides a stunning yoga pavilion overlooking the ocean and is a popular retreat for groups. A small organic farm yields a bounty for the kitchen. Humpback whales and spotted dolphins are frequent visitors to the waters off the coast, and scarlet macaws can be spotted in the trees.
- www.ramadaherradura.com: A welcome respite from jungle life, this CST property near the airport in San Jose provides all the comforts of a luxury hotel, from hot tubs and massages to fine dining and free Wi-Fi.