Top 14 Costa Rica Ecotourism Experiences
La Pura Vida Delivered via Costa Rica Ecotourism
One of the first countries to embrace the concept of eco-travel and sustainability is filled with lush green forests, waterfalls and beautiful beaches. Costa Rica ecotourism has been promoting environmental consciousness and conservation awareness long before it became a trendy topic in the travel world. Long before it became critical for the planet. Citizens, affectionally known as Ticos, live ~ La Pura Vida~ the Pure Life. A sustainable lifestyle is a strand of their DNA.
The country is one of the most biologically diverse areas in the world; plants and wildlife thrive across 12 different ecological zones. The standard is high; promoting Costa Rica ecotourism and responsible travel experiences has been incorporated into the tourism structure from an early beginning.
Visitors can float through mangroves, zip across rainforests and explore cloud covered mountains where over a thousand species of orchids bloom amongst the humid mist. Whether you are looking to relax and recharge on a white powder beach, search for wildlife in an untouched jungle or experience adventure down a raging river, ecotourism is thriving in Costa Rica. My brief visit barely scratched the surface.
Where to experience Pura Vida with Costa Rica Ecotourism:
1. Take a Canopy Tour
The award winning Rainforest Adventures has been called “Possibly the world’s most sustainable theme park” by the International Ecotourism Society. I’d have to agree. High above the rainforest, visitors can ride an aerial tram to understand the lay of the land. It’s a heady trip, one that smoothly glides along the treetops over the canopy. Even those with a bit of vertigo can rest assured this is one of the gentlest rides.
The tram seats 9 or 10 people and slowly floats on a track above the trees. The views are spectacular, a naturalist points out important sightings and it’s all a visual overview of the rainforest. This particular venue (one of two in Costa Rica) lies about an hour outside of San Jose. Canopy tours last around two hours. It is an unforgettable experience for observing the surrounding forests and more than 400 species of birds.
If you’re looking for more of an adrenaline rush, try an intense zip line on the property. In addition, a butterfly house and plenty of reptiles safely behind glass will acquaint you with the flora and fauna of the area. Can’t fit everything into one day? Stay at one of the property’s ten eco friendly bungalows with all the comforts of home.
2. Visit an Orchid Garden
People are drawn from all over the world to see the astonishing array of more than 1,300 species of orchids. The unique flowers can be seen in their natural habitat, as well in several orchid gardens. One of the best is in the Monteverde region. 80% of orchids growing in the wild are miniatures and the collection in Monteverde highlights some of the smallest in the world. With an average of 120 plants in bloom throughout the year, this location is a great spot to learn about basic tips for care, the structure of the plants and how they remain so healthy in this area of Central America.
3. Sleep the night away in an EcoLodge
Costa Rica’s ecotourism has far surpassed the rest of the world. As a result, the country has proven that you don’t have to sacrifice luxury standards for sustainability. Luxe has taken on new meaning for modern travelers who consider this factor when choosing a hotel.
It is hard to put into words the feeling of freedom one gets from sleeping under mosquito netting with your room open to the elements. Selva Bananito Lodge is an oasis in the jungle. Jürgen Klein, one of three owners, is a bit of a folk hero in the conservation world. Getting to the property is part of the experience: 4 wheel drive, deep pot holes, thru running riverbeds into what feels like the middle of nowhere. Then again, arriving in paradise isn’t supposed to be easy.
The lodge is back to basics, with all the comforts you’ll need, a form of rural tourism that felt truly genuine and gave me a glimpse into the heritage of the local community. I could see that tourist dollars were benefiting the people who lived and worked here, one of the basic tenets of responsible travel.
During my stay, I was surrounded by an unspoiled, natural landscape. Falling asleep to the sounds of the jungle and waking to the songs of birds, I felt the perfect mix of qualities; an authentic experience few destinations can achieve.
4. Gyrocopter Ride with a View
Who want’s to ride in a gyrocopter? As my hand shot into the air, I realized that I didn’t even know what a gyrocopter was, let alone what I was getting myself into. Seeing the small two-seater contraption the next day, I was reminded of something I might have seen George Jetson driving. Definitely futuristic, with a side of Are you kidding me?
Jürgen Klein took me for an early morning ride to see the conservation efforts of the area for myself. Those five minutes of worry were for naught. I love to fly and once airborne felt completely as ease. Seeing miles and miles of forest that crept out to the Caribbean in all directions gave me an overpowering sense of the success of Costa Rica’s commitment to protect their beautiful landscape.
High above what looked like heads of broccoli, I could observe (barely) the platforms Klein has built in the jungle for monitoring the growth of the jaguar and big cat population. I really was in the middle of the nowhere that I mentioned above in #3. The 1,000 hectare forest adjacent to the lodge covers almost two thirds of the land owned and has slowly been reforested. Costa Rica is actually the first tropical country to reverse deforestation.
A gyrocopter can be a real asset for ecotourism in more remote areas. Search and rescue, animal monitoring, anti-poaching, and implementing organic treatments for crops are just a few of the ways it is incorporated into keeping the property sustainable. Open to the elements in the sky, the gyrocopter was an experience I will not soon forget. It was an honor to take to the skies with a leader in the world of responsible tourism who is so passionate about keeping the land viable through ecotourism.
5. Eat Local
Costa Rica has an abundance of fresh ingredients to delight the palate. My first encounter with La Pura Vida involved ceviche and a cooking lesson from Costa Rica’s handsome Gastronomic Chef Ambassador for a Sustainable and Healthy Plan, Randy Siles. Let’s just say it was a culinary success.
In San Jose make sure to visit Mercado Central, the largest in the city with over 200 vendors. Have a meal at one of the sodas, a mom and pop restaurant before heading out into the rainforest. You will also find sodas throughout the country.
Costa Rica has long had a farm to table mentality and the rich volcanic soil provides a bounty of local ingredients. The pineapple is sensationally sweet. Coconut milk, a characteristic of Caribbean flavors provides a creamy take on traditional rice and beans. With fresh fish, it’s a satisfying and tasty meal.
Take advantage of the abundant pipa. Coconut water is an excellent foil to the hot humid weather, filled with electrolytes, vitamins and minerals.
6. Visit a Cacao Factory ~ Taste Raw Cacao. Make sure to suck-not bite!
Who doesn’t love chocolate? To see the process from bean to bar gives a much greater appreciation for intensive labor involved in making an artisan bar of the popular sweet. Close to Puerto Limón and La Amistad Bioshpere Reserve, I had the good fortune to happen upon a small grower of cacao. She showed me the beginnings of what would eventually be a thick rich bar. A taste of the white bean right off the tree revealed a hint of chocolate, but was a far cry from the finished product.
Sibu Chocolate is one of the country’s best known sustainable brands, hand crafting their product with organic cacao. Their creatively decorated squares are a feast for the eyes as well as the taste buds.
7. Walking on a Beach + Dip into the Caribbean
The Caribbean is undoubtedly known for having some of the world’s most beautiful beaches and Costa Rica’s eastern coast is no exception. With roughly 125 miles of shoreline between Panama and Nicaragua, you’ll find a subtropical paradise complete with palm trees, mangroves and white sandy beaches. Christopher Columbus might have landed on the coastal shores of city of Limon in 1502, but this area of the country is still quite untouched and natural.
A bit further south is the small Caribbean town of Cahuita with a unique Creole culture. The nearby Cahuta National Park is one of the smallest parks in the country, with swimming areas, hiking paths and a very laid back vibe. Boat tours are available for snorkeling in waters protecting the coral reefs. Monkeys, sloths, iguanas and abundant birdlife can be found in the forested area of the park.
8. Take A Hike
A diverse landscape allows for miles of hiking to suit all levels. With over 30% of the land protected, adventure seekers and nature lovers will find something for everyone. National Parks, wildlife refuges and preserves provide challenging mountain treks, visual coastal trails and volcanic routes throughout the country. Guided hikes are a good way to learn from local knowledge. Hanging bridges link together many hiking trails making the paths safer for tourists. No matter what landscape you choose as your venue, amazing views will be the reward at the end of your effort.
9. Visit a Coffee Farm
Enjoy La Pura Vida while drinking a cup of Fair Trade coffee. The crop took root here near the end of the 1700’s and by law, Costa Rica only produces the Arabica bean, known to be of the highest quality, strong aroma and rich taste. Fertile soil, a cool climate and high altitude make for ideal growing conditions. In fact, the country ranks 13th in production worldwide.
The coffee culture is a strong one and beans hold a special place in La Pura Vida lifestyle. For an historical perspective, head to the Doka Estate and learn about the process. You’ll travel up a winding road of plantations and strawberry farms to the oldest roasting factory in the country. Visitors can enjoy the energizing brew while learning all the aspects of its production, from the harvest to the roasting and packaging of the bean.
For an additional taste, don’t miss one of the roadside coffee stops. Here I had a cup brewed with what must have been the original drip cup-and yes it was good to the last drop!
10. Search for animals and birds in the Tortuergo National Park
Tortuguero National Park is accessible only by boat or small plane. Located on the northern shore of the Caribbean coast, this ecotourism paradise covers over 46,000 acres of wildlife habitat. Home to 60 different species of mammals, more than 300 birds 57 amphibians, 200 plants and 400 species of trees, it gives new meaning to biodiversity. Warm and humid, the area feels not unlike river travel on the Amazon. Boat tours on the canals amongst the mangroves and into the rainforest offer a myriad of wildlife sightings.
On the edge of the park, just five minutes by boat to the entrance is the eco-friendly Evergreen Lodge, a great base for exploring the area.
11. Sea Turtles
One of the most important conservation sites in the country is the above mentioned Tortuguero National Park. Protecting over 20 miles of coastline, it provides a safe environment for sea turtles: the green, hawksbill, loggerhead and giant leatherback all nest here at different times of the year.
Our timing was perfect, as we got to experience just born hatchlings digging their way out of the nest and helicoptering their tiny fins to make a quick escape to the water. The season is from July to October, and we were at the tail end of the season. At night we were able to come back to the beach and observe one of nature’s rarest spectacles. Green turtles digging a nest, laying their eggs and then returning to the water. No lights allowed, so this is one that will live in my mind’s eye. It was a bit of a relief to just be able to sit and listen and take it all in without having to worry about photos.
12. Go Bird Watching
Costa Rica is well know among birders for the National Birds Route made up of 18 locations across the country. With over 900 species endemic to the country and 220 migratory species, success is all but guaranteed. Nature guides make the experience fun and educational, an activity that will please everyone in the family.
Make sure to keep your eyes peeled for the brilliantly colored quetzal, a bird that was worshiped by both the Mayans and Aztecs. The Monteverde Cloud Forest Biological Reserve spanning six different climate zones is a favorite spot for viewing. The impressive flora and fauna here are often covered in mist, a dreamy image that comes to mind when thinking of a rainforest.
13. Connect with Ticos
While you’re at it, connect with the locals and have an authentic conversation. Everyone is proud of the success their country has had with responsible tourism. Ask them where they like to eat, I’m sure they’ll share an off the beaten path favorite. Pura Vida shines through. Good food and hospitality are a recipe for success. The people of Costa Rica take a good vacation up a notch.
14. Ecotourism and Yoga
Eco friendly yoga retreats have been a fixture in Costa Rica for quite some time. At AmaTierra Retreat and Wellness Center, the focus isn’t just on yoga, but on restorative activities as well. Daily Hatha classes are combined with additional options of massage therapy, energy balancing, ear candling and exfoliation, and nutritional consultations to promote overall wellness.
The center’s AmaTierra Foundation offers ecotourism opportunities that promote recycling, environmental education, and organic farming initiatives in the local town of Turrubares. I must admit the thought of practicing yoga and Costa Rica ecotourism in a magnificent open-air pavilion overlooking the Costa Rican mountains while exotic birds fly overhead is a pretty seductive picture.
While small in size, accounting for only .03% of the earth’s surface, the country has an incredible 5 percent of the world’s biodiversity. The government has committed to making the country carbon neutral by its bicentennial in 2021. Learning from mistakes others have made with tourism, Costa Rica has demonstrated it knows how to stand behind a strong environmental policy.
Exploring Costa Rica’s ecotourism, I spent much of my time on the Caribbean coast. Island infused food and music makes it easy to find cultural similarities to nearby neighbors. Combine the warm friendly greeting Ticos offer with the unique biodiversity of the land and it’s not hard to understand why La Pura Vida is such a seductive lifestyle in this Central American destination.