Want to see a monkey in its natural habitat? Spot a tiny brightly colored poison dart frog along a trail? Stand beneath a giant tropical tree loaded with epiphytes? See a big blue butterfly too beautiful to believe? Would you like to observe toucans, quetzals, and scarlet macaws? How about a crocodile basking on the riverbank or a dolphin arching from the sea? Do all this and more in Costa Rica.
The change for a close encounter of the natural kind with the tropical biodiversity found in this small, friendly country lures tends of thousands of visitors each year. And they must like what they find because many return again and again to explore the varied habitats: rain forest, dry forest, cloud forest, oak forest, high – mountain paramo, and wetland, mangrove, and other aquatic habitats.
What is out there? More than 850 species of birds, 209 mammal species, 13.000 plant species (including 1.500 trees and 1.400 orchids), 220 species of reptiles, and 163 species of amphibians. As for the usually diminutive world of arthropods – creatures with segmented bodies and jointed limbs, such as insects, spiders and crabs – look out: more than 365.000 weird and wonderful species have been identified so far.
Many of the habitats where all this life flourishes are under protective status, with about 16 percent of the country in more than 30 national parks, wildlife refuges, and biological reserves that are open to the public. Another 11 percent is in forest reserves, Indian reserves, and protected zones. In addition, individuals have established reserves for conservation purposes.
So, there are protected habitats, more than half a million known species doing their thing in the ecosystems, and tens of thousands of human visitors who hope to watch them doing it. How can this play out in harmony? Ecotourism offers sustainable strategies. Ecotourism means responsible travel to natural areas, tourism that has low impact on the environment and on local culture while generating income to help conserve natural resources and benefiting local people. Unless benefits reach the local populations, conservation is not sustainable.
Be an Ecotourist
This word bandied about is more than a list of rules to follow, though there are helpful guidelines. It is about awareness and a way of thinking that center on respect, learning, and personal responsibility.
Before you arrive, learn something about Costa Rica and its people (known as Ticos). Don’t be like the traveler who expressed a desire not only to see volcanoes and beaches but to get into the Amazon. No Amazon here. Look at a map, read a book, talk to someone who has been, look on the web.
Avoid whizzing through the country as if you were on a cross – country road race. Allow time to begin to know something about a place, to feel it, before you move to the next destination. Talk to local people. Take a public bus. Eat at a local restaurant, and while your are there, soak up what is happening around you, get a feel for how Ticos interact with each other.
When you observe animals in the wild, do it from a distance that they consider safe – watch for alarm signals that let you know your are getting too close. For example, scaring away nesting birds can open their nest to predators. Don’t cause the demise of eggs or hatchlings.
Don’t feed animals in the wild, even those captivating white – faced monkeys at Manuel Antonio National Park, the ones that come begging. Altering their diets can have harmful effects. Instead, watch to see them eat what the forest provides. Don’t harass an animal in order to get that perfect photo, and don’t permit a guide to do it for you.
Other simple guidelines include: stay on trails; don’t collect things: seeds, flowers, rocks, shells; speak softly and tread quietly – be aware of your impact on others. Ask for permission before you photograph another person. Keep your garbage – generation level low, and pack out what pack in. Be responsible with use of water in drier areas, such as Guanacaste, especially in dry season from December to April.
Finally, lend a helping hand to show appreciation for all the human and financial resources that protect the natural resources you enjoy during your travels. Support one of the private, nonprofit conservation organizations that abound in Costa Rica. Donate money or volunteer your time or expertise to a project. Many hotels and lodges contribute to local community efforts: schools, libraries, youth activities – ask if you can help, too.
Top Ecotourism Activities
For an excellent introduction to tropical ecosystems, walk with a naturalist guide in one of the public or private reserves. The guide knows where to look for the miniature orchid, the scarlet macaws, the three – toed sloth. He or she not only points out species but explains fascinating relationships among them. Leafcutting ants across the trail? Learn why they are called the gardeners of the insect world. A good guide makes all the difference. Some national parks and reserves offer guided walks; most private reserves have trained guides on staff.
Watch turtles lumber ashore to lay their eggs – six species nest in Costa Rica. Hot nesting spots are at Tortuguero, Playa Grande, Ostional, and Santa Rosa. Go with a guide and do not disturb the process. Notice that some hotels near areas where turtles nest minimize lights toward the beach that could keep female turtles from coming ashore. Ecotourism at work. If your timing is right, watch baby turtles emerge from the nest to make a run for the water.
Butterflies can brighten any day. Enjoy them in the wild, learn more about them at butterfly gardens located around the country. The gardens are one way that local people earn income from tourism – related activities that do not destroy the environment. Botanical gardens, aviaries, and snake exhibits offer other learning options.
Canopy tours give travelers a chance to see the upper level of the forest where life is unbelievably abundant. There’s a tour for everyone. Some hoist you up to a platform, with little effort on your part, where you can observe flora and fauna at leisure. Others require hoisting yourself up. You can ride in a cablecar or walk along bridges through the treetops.
For a view from above, try a balloon ride, a nature flight in a small plane, or a tour in a ultralight. Back on the ground, you can go on horseback tours to spectacular waterfalls, or take a bicycle tour to top natural history destinations. Go underground for caving.
Both Caribbean and Pacific coasts offer snorkeling, diving, and surfing. Take to a kayak to enjoy both sea and coastline or to explore one of the country’s beautiful rivers. White – water raft tours range from day trips to two – or – three remote lodges not accessible by road. Windsurfers head of Lake Arenal.
Nature’s fiery side is protected in national parks around volcanoes such as Poás, Irazú, Rincón de la Vieja, and Arenal. Natural history tours to observe them can be arranged through agencies and hotels. Hot springs are attractions near Arenal and Rincón de la Vieja parks.
Costa Rica is a remarkable destination for natural history travelers. But remember that all tourism has an impact – be aware of your own, be responsible for your own. Be an ecotourist.
Costa Rica Travel: Travel Information & Tips
No matter how beautiful a destination may be, it needs easy access and be reachable within the limitations of an average vacation period. Costa Rica is only two and a half hours away from Miami!