Studying Ecotourism in Costa Rica

Apr 18, 2017

by Kiele McLaughlin ’17
Edited for content and length

Costa Rica is one of those places that has been on my bucket list for as long as I’ve had a bucket list. When I found out that my English professor was leading this trip, and that it would be completely free for me, I knew that I couldn’t turn this opportunity down.

Throughout the nine-day trip, we studied ecotourism, learning about different species of plants and animals and about Costa Rica’s efforts to remain environmentally friendly while appealing to tourists from all over the world. At the airport, we met our guide, Carlos, who would stay with us throughout the whole trip to San José, Arenal/La Fortuna, Monteverde, and Jacó. Carlos and our bus driver, Banano, were incredible, and saying goodbye to them at the end of the trip was emotional for many.

One of the first things that really surprised me about being in Costa Rica was the amount of written and spoken English. Many of the places we visited were popular tourist destinations, so it makes sense that the locals speak English to communicate with the tourists. However, I would have liked the challenge of being immersed in a completely Spanish-speaking country and having to communicate with the locals in their native language. I also noticed that I never really felt out of place in Costa Rica. It wasn’t until our last day in San José when we visited a local market that I truly felt out of place in this foreign country.

Led by tour guide Carlos, students learn about the wildlife living in Santa Elena cloud forest.

Each day, we had around three or four activities planned, sometimes with up to a three-hour bus ride in between. Because our days were so packed, we typically had breakfast around 6:30 a.m. For every meal on the trip, we had a different variation of rice, beans, meat, and salad. Even with breakfast we had rice and beans with fruit or pancakes. I immediately noticed how fresh the fruit and vegetables were, and the salad dressing in Costa Rica is some of the best I’ve ever had.

One of the first activities that we did was the Britt Coffee Tour. We learned about how coffee is grown and prepared as well as what qualities make coffee good or bad. For example, though coffee trees can live up to a hundred years old, the best coffee is produced within the first twenty-five years. Good coffee grounds should float; if you pour water and coffee in cup and the grounds sink, the coffee is bad. Good coffee should also taste the same whether it is hot or cold.

We also learned that coffee plantations in Costa Rica are required by law to use the entire coffee seed. While only the very center is used to make coffee, the outer layers of the shell can be used to make fertilizer or paper. We were able to try samples of different types of coffee that were grown in different regions, which actually can affect the taste. Some of the coffee had a chocolatey flavor, while others tasted fruity, while others were very strong and earthy.

Natural Wonders

Throughout our trip, we saw many natural wonders, two of my favorites being the Poás Volcano and La Fortuna Waterfall. To reach the base of the waterfall, we had to climb down 460 steep stairs. At the bottom of the stairs, we instantly felt mist in the air from the waterfall hitting the pool of water at the bottom so hard.

We couldn’t swim near the waterfall because of the safety hazards, but there was a stream and some rocks that we climbed across. The water was much colder than I typically like, but I’m so glad that my friends convinced me to go in anyway. Sitting in the middle of a group of slippery rocks, feeling the water rush across my feet at the base of a waterfall in Costa Rica is an experience that I may never have again, so I’m glad that I decided to step out of my comfort zone a little bit.

The Poás Volcano is the third largest crater in the world, and it last erupted in 2008. We were lucky to visit the volcano on a clear day, because sometimes it can be too foggy to see anything. The view was absolutely breathtaking, both figuratively and literally because we were at an altitude of over 8,000 feet, so it was very cold and very windy. I had never seen a volcano before, and this was unlike what I was expecting. Rather than looking red and brown, the crater looked like a milky lake at the top of a mountain.

Volcanoes are an extremely important part of Costa Rica. They not only offer minerals in the soil that help many of the plants grow, but they are also a source of geothermic energy. Along with solar, wind, and hydroponic power, only four percent of Costa Rica’s energy is from fossil fuels. They can have over 300 days a year powered by renewable energy, which is a goal I wish the United States would try harder to attain.

Discovering Nature

La Fortuna Waterfall.

During the week, we took many nature tours, each one focusing on a different aspect of Costa Rica’s ecosystem. We went on a night tour to see nocturnal animals and an air tram through the rain forest, but my favorite nature walk that we went on was through Santa Elena’s cloud forest. Santa Elena is a national park that is run by a local public school, and all of the proceeds go back to helping the park and different conservation efforts.

Some of the trees in this park have over 240 different species all living on one tree. This seemed really impressive to me, but I later found out that some trees in Costa Rica can be home to over a thousand different species at one time. I was amazed to learn how many different species all live in such close proximity to each other, and many of these plants and animals are dependent on each other.

On this hike, I also learned about the difference between epiphytes, which live harmoniously with their host, and parasites, which harm their host. My favorite thing to look for while on these hikes was a type of parasite: strangler trees. These trees actually grow from the top down; a bird may drop a seed on top of a tree, and then that seed begins to grow down the host tree, eventually stealing all of its nutrients and causing the host tree to rot. When this process is complete, it leaves a hollow opening inside the strangler tree, and we were able to step inside two of these trees.

Conserving the Ecosystem

After walking through a number of forests and seeing nature everywhere, I was a little confused when Carlos told us that we would be planting some trees. While this didn’t sound like a bad thing to do, I didn’t really understand why it was necessary or how it would be giving back to a country that was covered in forests.

Carlos explained that in the late 1900s, many landowners cut down the trees to prove to the government that their land was fertile so they could receive loans from the bank. Many of these landowners only cared about the money, not their land. This massive amount of deforestation still affects Costa Rica’s wildlife today. Now, many locals and tourists are planting new trees in an effort to re-grow the areas that suffered from the unnecessary deforestation. Knowing that there was purpose in planting the trees made this a very special moment, something I don’t think I’ll ever forget doing.

On the final days of our trip, we left the forests and headed to the beaches. We stayed on a black-sand beach in Jacó, but due to strong riptides, we were not allowed to swim in the ocean. However, we took a trip to Manuel Antonio National Park, where we walked through a forest to arrive at the beach. Carlos knew a secret location where not many tourists go, so we had a large area of the beach to ourselves. It was a really long, difficult, and hot walk, but the moment Carlos showed us his secret spot, we all knew that the walk was completely worth it.

As I was lying in the sand under some trees, I heard rustling in the branches above and behind me. When I looked back, I saw two monkeys running through the trees with a banana. I was shocked at how close they came to me, but as we were leaving the park, we walked past a group of trees right near the walkway that had about seven monkeys in it, including a mama and her baby.

Though it was extremely cute to watch the monkeys jumping through the trees and holding onto the branches with their tails, I couldn’t help but think that this is one of the negative aspects of ecotourism. These monkeys shouldn’t be so close to humans. I actually saw one of the monkeys run up a tree with a stolen snack baggie of pineapple. When he finally pulled the pineapple out, he dropped the plastic bag in the trees, where it will likely end up washed into the ocean if no one finds it and throws it away.

Students planting a tree to help repair the country’s deforestation.

Along with the monkeys, some of the other animals that we saw throughout the week were sloths, macaws, toucans, leaf-cutter ants, red-eyed tree frogs, baby vipers, scorpions, tarantulas, crocodiles, caimans, mangrove swallows, millipedes, centipedes, coatis, kinkajous, raccoons, iguanas, great-tailed grackles, blue herons, hummingbirds, and hundreds of other species as well. After learning about how unique and valuable each creature is, I definitely have a better appreciation for plants and animals now.

The concept of tourism typically is viewed negatively, but on our air tram tour up the rain forest, we asked our guide how he honestly felt about tourism. He told us that, like everything, there is both good and bad to tourism in Costa Rica. Ecotourism has opened many jobs for the local people and some of the profits have helped conservation efforts, but the effects of tourism can also diminish Costa Rican culture and negatively impact the delicate ecosystem. While many study abroad trips often include classroom lectures, we truly learned by experience; we learned about ecotourism not only from listening to Carlos and other guides, but also by being tourists, a great example of engaged learning.

During the rest of our time in Costa Rica, we went zip-lining, saw the largest ox cart in the world, explored a hot springs resort, went on a crocodile boat tour, and watched a traditional Costa Rican dance (which ended with a song dedicated to the many ways one can prepare rice and beans). Going on this trip was such a wonderful experience. With the help of our amazing tour guide, we were able to fit so much into our seven full days in the country. Though I’m pretty sure no one wanted to get off the bus when it arrived at the San José airport, when our plane landed in Miami and I walked past the American food courts, I was grateful to be back home.