For many Americans, “global warming” has become a charged term. It’s splashed across headlines and the subject of dinner table arguments: There’s a clear divide both here and abroad about climate change. But one Central American destination is decades past asking questions about global warming, and is leading the way in sustainable travel and ecotourism.
Costa Rica’s eco-consciousness powers its tourism rather than clashing with it. “Sustainability” might not be the first word that comes to mind when you’re planning a vacation, but the organic coffee plantations, rainforest zip lines, and remote eco-lodges that visitors flock to in Costa Rica are shining examples of it. And Costa Rica’s ecotourism is made up of not only responsible choices, but bucket-list-worthy experiences.
Here’s how to experience the best ecotourism Costa Rica has to offer.
Ecotourism in Costa Rica
Stay at An Eco-Lodge
For the ultimate sustainable travel experience, unplug at a remote eco-lodge. In the thick jungle that blankets Costa Rica’s Central Valley are rainforest hotels largely without electricity or Wi-Fi that instead connect visitors with thrilling and educational outdoor experiences.
For a high-end eco-lodge experience sans technology, head to the Pacuare Lodge. About 95 percent of this 840-acre property is a nature reserve that overlooks the Pacuare River. And getting there is no joke: Travelers must arrive via whitewater raft, off-road vehicle, or helicopter. Most of the Pacuare Lodge’s 20 separate open-air bungalows tucked into the forest are lit only by candles after dusk.
There’s electricity and Wi-Fi in the main lodge if you really need a charge or connection, yet the digs are anything but rustic. Indulge in your own personal infinity pool, outdoor hammock, and claw-foot tub, head to the spa for a lengthy treatment, or opt for on-property activities like zip-lining, waterfall hikes, canyoneering, and river rafting. The Pacuare Lodge will make you forget about connecting to the rest of the world.
Costa Rica’s Certificate for Sustainable Tourism campaign (CST) awards “leaves” rather than stars to rate hotel eco-friendliness and sustainability—the Pacuare Lodge is, unsurprisingly, a five-leaf lodging option. The property stocks its kitchen with ingredients from its own organic farm, heats its water and spa using solar power and an on-site pig farm, and provides guests with not one but four different in-room recycling bags. Nightly rates include meals—homemade local cuisine—and the lodge brews its own house beers and has a wine cellar. Plus, if you’re lucky you might spot a sloth, monkey, or leopard during your stay in the jungle.
Hike a Coffee or Chocolate Plantation
You’ll learn about Costa Rica’s 12 ecosystems on almost any nature activity you opt for, but the country’s heralded coffee plantations might be the best place to do so. Coffee is one of the Costa Rica’s biggest exports, and the government mandates that only high-quality Arabica beans make up the coffee produced here. Short tours of a plantation and roastery often including a cupping session (coffee tasting). Coffee fields can be found in most ecosystems below a 6,000-foot elevation, including just outside bustling San Jose, in the famed Monteverde cloud forests, and near the Pacific coast’s pristine beaches to the north.
Want something sweeter? Another golden crop for Ticos is cacao, which is sometimes grown alongside coffee beans, creating a two-for-one ecotourism experience. Inexpensive options offering both coffee and chocolate experiences include Cafe Britt tours from San Jose and coffee, chocolate, and sugar cane experiences in Monteverde.
Feast at a Farm
Go one step beyond educational ecotourism by heading to an organic farm where you can get hands-on with animals and taste fresh local fare. Corso Lecheria is a favorite among visitors and locals alike for organic ingredients that create dishes like handmade tortilla tacos and hydroponic strawberry juice. Feast to cap off a tractor tour of the grounds at the foothills of Poas Volcano: You’ll be able to milk a cow, explore a cloud forest, spot chickens and bunnies, and taste fresh handmade cheeses, or queso fresco, and strawberries.
Visit a Volcano
Poas is one of the six active volcanos in Costa Rica. Since they “erupt” daily—emitting smoke and ash—you’re likely to spot a steaming volcano on the skyline, and should make time to get up close to one on an epic hike. Poas Volcano National Park is popular for its steaming blue crater pool (above), which you can view from a nearby lookout point. Closer to the Pacific coast, Arenal Volcano is cloaked in biodiverse rainforest you can explore by foot on a wildlife tour. Not up for a hike? Irazu Volcano’s towering summit is accessible by car from San Jose.
How often do you hear the word “reforestation”? You will in Costa Rica, where the government is combatting long-term deforestation with incentives like tax breaks for businesses that protect and regrow forests. The country is working toward near-reversal of the deforestation that preceded its tourism boom, and hopes to achieve carbon-neutrality by 2021.The best way to see the stunning mahogany and cedar trees that are helping reverse logging is to zip-line through thick forest canopies for a bird’s-eye-view safari.
This adventure activity is said to have been invented in Costa Rica by nature researchers, and is a must-do experience if you want to familiarize yourself with the country’s famed biodiversity. Sling along the forest from platform to platform for a unique look at birds, insects, waterfalls, and vegetation. Some hotels or lodges have zip-line offerings on-site, including the Pacuare Lodge’s 11 platforms that snake along the reserve.
Indulge in Spa Treatments
Unwinding from a long day of adventure activities is only another way to learn about Costa Rica’s ecosystems. Wellness treatments like massages, mud baths, facials, and hot-spring soaks are powered by Costa Rica’s rich natural resources.
Body scrubs incorporating coffee beans and chocolate are a unique way to try the local ingredients. Geothermal hot springs at Arenal Volcano draw bathers year-round, and mineral-rich volcanic mud is commonplace at hotel spas for use in body wraps and facials. Most treatments here are much more affordable than they are in the United States, especially at authentic inns like the Finca Rosa Blanca in Heredia—a sustainable CST-honored inn and coffee plantation that offers spa packages like scrubs, massages, and facials followed by an indulgent coffee- or chocolate-based cocktail.
Pick the Right Hotel
Costa Rican hotels like the aforementioned Finca Rosa Blanca Inn and Pacuare Lodge are internationally recognized for their sustainable practices. Finca Rosa Blanca owner Glenn Jampol chairs the Global Ecotourism Network and has traveled the world to teach other destinations about sustainable practices, and Pacuare Lodge is recognized by National Geographic as one of the top eco-lodges in the world. But they’re just the tip of Costa Rica’s ecotourism iceberg, thanks to enticing government incentives for businesses to go green.
From all-inclusive resorts to Holiday Inns, it’s easy to find a property at any price point that will wow you with sustainability. Before booking, ask what standards the property has for recycling, nature tour offerings, or what they do to reduce their carbon-footprint in general. Most hotels, inns, and resorts will be happy to tell you.
More from SmarterTravel:
- 10 Best Family Vacation Destinations
- 10 Best Places to Go in Costa Rica
- Video: Costa Rica in 5 Senses