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Our guide to sustainable travel in Costa Rica

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Pura vida. It’s a phrase you’ll hear often on your trip to Costa Rica, but while it translates literally as ‘pure life’, it’s so much more than just words. It’s an outlook, an approach to living in a way that prioritizes well-being, happiness, and the simple pleasures in life. From the pristine emerald canopies of the cloud forest to the surf-rippled ocean, Costa Rica’s natural beauty and bounty are encompassed in this friendly greeting. And it’s also at the heart of the nation’s famed focus on the environment and sustaining the ecological balance that this biodiverse country nurtures.

As a tourist, you might be wondering how you can travel to Costa Rica ethically and in an eco-conscious manner, so read on to discover our guide to sustainable travel in Costa Rica and let our local experts show you the true meaning of pura vida.

Costa Rica Nauyaca Waterfall

Costa Rica’s approach to sustainability

Costa Rica is one of the world’s best ecotourism destinations for travelers looking to experience extraordinary wildlife, richly biodiverse landscapes, and exhilarating activities. As a country and as people, they’re inordinately proud of their nation’s natural wealth, and no wonder; this is a country that can boast 6% of the world’s biodiversity and 3.5% of its ocean life. For such a small country, it certainly packs a lot in. From cloud forests to volcanoes, kaleidoscopic rainbow reefs to palm-fringed sands, Costa Rica’s landscapes are home to around 175 amphibians – 85% of which are frogs, nearly 250 species of mammal – including sloths, white-headed capuchin, ocelots and pumas, and around 1,000 species of bird, including the vibrant scarlet macaw and resplendent quetzal.

And they’re rightly dedicated to preserving the biodiversity, varied landscapes and abundant wildlife that make Costa Rica such a magnet for adrenaline-seekers, birdwatchers, wildlife enthusiasts, surfers, and everyone in-between. With this in mind, the country has become something of an ecotourism pioneer, putting in place sustainable tourism practices which are far more than an exercise in greenwashing. A system of organizations and certifications give travelers confidence in the hotels, activities, and excursions offered.

When you consider that the country has plans to reach net-zero emissions by 2050, producing around 93% of its electricity from renewable resources, and that 30% of its territory is protected natural land under the National System of Conservation Areas, it’s clear that in Costa Rica, environmentalism is much more than simply a buzzword. As with pura vida, it’s a way of life. And it’s working – Costa Rica boasts one of the world’s five Blue Zones, meaning people here live longer than anywhere else in the world.

Costa Rica, pair of macaws in the forest

Top protected areas to visit in Costa Rica

From the surf-lapped beaches to the summits of smoking volcanoes, Costa Rica boasts a diverse array of protected areas, including wildlife-rich national parks, awe-inspiring cloud forests, and coastlines.

Dramatic volcanic landscapes

This volcanic country offers a number of both sleeping and smoking giants, but the most famous is Arenal. Discover La Fortuna, where the vibrant local markets and charming ambiance set the stage for adventure, before diving into the heart of Arenal Volcano National Park on a guided hike, immersing yourself in the area’s rich biodiversity and volcanic history. A night hike through the jungle at Ecocentro Danaus offers a chance to spot the park’s nocturnal inhabitants, from possums to red-eyed frogs. While it’s a landscape made for adventure, the natural thermal springs provide a welcome balance of relaxation.

Costa Rica Arenal Volcano

The captivating landscapes of the Rincón de la Vieja Volcano and National Park, are part of the protected dry forest ecosystem where bright yellow-flowering trees, waterfalls, gorges, and hot springs create a diverse ecosystem that’s home to toucans, capuchin monkeys, howler monkeys, and coatis, while providing the dramatic landscapes that lend themselves to adrenaline-pumping activities such as canyon canopy tours and waterfall rappelling.

Nestled within the Cordillera Central Volcanic Range, the Braulio Carrillo National Park is surrounded by iconic volcanoes such as Poás, Irazú, and Barva, and is one of the largest protected areas in Costa Rica. Its steep mountains, lush forests and winding rivers are home to tapirs, raccoons, tayras, and armadillos. From the turquoise waters of the Rio Celeste waterfall to the dense rainforest, this biodiverse national park is a treasure trove of wildlife, colorful birds and intriguing amphibians.

Swing through the canopy of the cloud forest

Whether gaining a bird’s-eye perspective from the network of hanging bridges or flying like a bird on a zipline through the canopy, spotting diverse flora and fauna from above is the best way to experience the misty mountains of the Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve. The canopy of this tropical high-altitude rainforest rings out with the calls of the aptly-named resplendent quetzal, while delicate hummingbirds hover beside brilliantly vibrant flowers. Damp mosses and lichen cling to the trees while porcupines, sloths and white-faced monkeys are just some of the larger animals that call Monteverde home.

Costa Rica suspension bridge in the cloud forest

From the Pacific to the Caribbean

With not just one but two spectacular coastlines to explore, Costa Rica’s beaches offer golden sands, scenic surf spots, and laid-back beach living – the perfect downtime after the adventure and activity offered by the inland landscapes. But you’re never far from a wilderness experience in Costa Rica, and the coastlines are no exception. Tortuguero, where the lush rainforest meets the sparkling Caribbean coast, offers the chance to explore remote villages, dive into the rich biodiversity on a scenic boat tour, and spot sloths, monkeys and vibrant bird species. Also on the Caribbean coast, Cahuita National Park is a lush swath of dense foliage where red-eyed tree frogs, howler monkeys, coatis, and toucans enjoy the peace of the protected rainforest.

Over on the Pacific coast, you’ll find Corcovado National Park, Central America’s largest area of Pacific coast tropical rainforest. Its unparalleled biodiversity includes naturally pristine beaches and dense rainforest where Baird’s tapirs, pumas, scarlet macaws, and harpy eagles can be seen. The gateway to the park, Drake Bay is where you’ll find Costa Rica’s extraordinary marine life, including giant sea turtles, dolphins and rays, while humpback whales put in a guest appearance between July and August.

Costa Rica Playa Hermosa coastline

Indigenous community tourism in Costa Rica

Costa Rican ecotourism extends beyond the wildlife and their habitats. As in so many countries, the natural guardians of the landscapes are the indigenous communities who’ve lived in harmony with the forests, mangroves and wetlands for generations. Which means that some of the best ecotourism destinations in Costa Rica are those run by and for the local communities. This tourism focuses on prioritizing cultural diversity and indigenous needs by involving local communities from the very beginning, using their expertise in planning activities and experiences. This is a win for you and the community – you benefit from the first-hand, multi-generational knowledge that creates immersive, authentic experiences, while the community gains the investment and resources that allow them to continue protecting the local natural habitats and wildlife.

Get involved: activities to help give back to the community and environment

Taking a mindful approach to your trip is key to sustainable travel in Costa Rica. That could mean learning about the traditional ‘cowboy’ way of life of the vaqueros in the Rincón de la Vieja National Park, helping to clean a beach with a local community group, or volunteering with the Sea Turtle Conservancy Museum in Tortuguero.

Costa Rica sea turtle hatchlings conservation, sustainable travel

Taking the time to visit local farms and industries allows you to support the economy. For instance, Sarapiqui in the Heredia province is famed for its rich biodiversity which supports banana and cacao plantations farmed by the local community. Take a cooking lesson with a local host and learn about the organic agriculture of the region – perhaps lending a hand with harvesting some of the products to use in the lesson. In 2019, Costa Rica created the National Cacao Plan to improve sustainability and help return chocolate production to local families; a tour of a Tirimbina cacao plantation offers insight into this and the chocolate production process, while providing income and support to the farm. Meanwhile in Boca Tapada, you can learn about the sustainability efforts of an organic chocolate, coffee, and sugar cane farm.

The family-run Pierella Ecological Garden is a strikingly beautiful butterfly garden where the local family work to protect the different species, and use this as an opportunity to teach visitors about their work and the life cycle of their colorful winged residents. As you walk the trails you discover why smaller, local initiatives like this are so important – not only are they providing a habitat for butterflies, supported by the tourism this attracts, but the forest is also home to sloths, frogs, colorful insects and birds.

Costa Rica coffee farmers, local farms

Stay in harmony with nature

Costa Rican ecotourism and their approach to sustainability extends to every corner of a trip to the country, from the excursions and activities to the accommodation. It’s not hard to find an eco-lodge that promotes sustainable tourism practices, from the luxurious to family-run homestays. Search out those that prioritize staff development and education, recruiting from the community to offer opportunities to their team and the benefit of local knowledge to their guests.

Eco-lodges are those with a more innovative approach to their waste management and energy use, whether that’s energy-saving systems, rainwater harvesting, or renewable energy such as solar. You’ll find there’s a greater emphasis on local, organic ingredients in their restaurants, so your dining experience is likely to be fresher and tastier too. In many cases, the wildlife around the eco-lodges will be more prolific as they’ll have been built with a respect for the local environment, and are likely to be working in partnership with wildlife conservation projects.

Costa Rica ecological wooden house, sustainable eco-lodge

Make it happen

Planning a sustainable and responsible trip to Costa Rica begins with those who know the country best – the local experts! Get in touch with our on-the-ground experts from Costa Rica and start creating your tailor-made itinerary to experience the wildlife, lush natural habitats, and pristine beaches in a sustainable way that gives back to the country.

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