The People of Costa Rica: Leading the Way in Conscious, Responsible Travel
In Costa Rica, many local businesses have created and designed innovative spaces and experiences in order to ensure responsible tourism that supports both the communities and the environment.
This post is a contribution from guest blogger, Kayla Sippl. We are keen to encourage more bloggers and individuals working in tourism, conservation and sustainability to reflect on their experiences while providing suggestions and tips for future GOOD travellers. If you’d like to share an idea that you believe incorporates GOOD values and practices, please email us at firstname.lastname@example.org. We look forward to sharing more guest posts like this one!
As tourism begins to resume, it is a great opportunity to intentionally examine how we travel and the impact on the environment and communities we visit. The experience of seeing new places, meeting new people, trying new food and learning about different cultures can be truly rewarding and beneficial. However, there is also the potential for harm. Unknowingly, or knowingly, tourists can leave a trail of destruction through the environment and local communities. Recognition of these harmful effects has generated a deep examination for both tourist organizations and travelers. Some people call it responsible tourism, others sustainable tourism, but in the end, everyone’s goal is to ensure travelers’ time in an area has a positive effect on the land and the people who live there.
In Costa Rica, a country known for its tourism and environmental protection efforts, numerous Costa Rican individuals and organizations are focusing on how to operate responsibly at the intersection of tourism, protecting nature, preserving culture, and supporting local communities.
Below is a list of a few of the tourism providers that are aiming to do GOOD in their communities and who commit to sustainable tourism.
Maquenque Ecolodge: Committed to Protecting Nature
“Our father gave us the farmland and my brothers and I decided we wanted to start an eco-lodge to bring jobs to the community, promote responsible tourism, and protect nature. We didn’t think about the money.”Family-owned and located in San Carlos, near Boca Tapada, the Maquenque Ecolodge and Treehouses offers visitors the chance to not only connect with nature, but to care for the land they are staying on, and learn about the local culture as well.
Oscar Artavia, one of the owners, explains that his family has lived on the land for decades. Over time, they witnessed the ugly results of deforestation and businesses’ disregard for the land and its inhabitants. Thanks to the initiative of his father, the Maquenque Wildlife Reserve was established by executive decree in 2005. Through employment, they have directly supported over 35 families in the small Boca Tapada community and other families have benefited indirectly from the increase of tourists to the area. Their farm has expanded to include an extensive garden that produces 80% of the food served to guests. Partnering with a group called Sonati, they created a Costa Rican branch and have offered environmental education to schools in the surrounding areas for over four years.
As a guest, you can plant trees to off-set the carbon footprint of your stay, take a chocolate or farm tour to learn more about the eco-lodge’s food production,or visit the local school to better understand the family’s efforts to increase knowledge about protecting the environment. All while being surrounded by 60,000 hectares of pure jungle and it’s wildlife inhabitants. Maquenque also offers the unique experience of staying in a treehouse and viewing the tree canopy from your balcony. Reservations are now open. Learn more at (https://maquenqueecolodge.com/).
Osa Wild: An Example of Community-Based Tourism
Their overarching vision is to allow people to contribute to the universal responsibility of helping others. For Osa Wild Travel, that looks like supporting local people and protecting the land through tourism. Osa Wild is located in the Osa Peninsula, the last remaining patch of lowland tropical rainforest on the Pacific side of Central America, which contains 2.5% of the world’s biodiversity. Ifigenia Garita Canet, or Ifi, came to the Peninsula 18 years ago as a tropical biologist, with the goal of protecting the rainforest and restoring its ecosystems. After witnessing the large amounts of land being sold to foreigners, she became determined to increase the wellbeing of local people through community-based tourism. She joined with a friend who had started the organization and later took it over as the single employee and guide.
Since then, Osa Wild has evolved into a social enterprise, with profits going to families and back into the local community. They use their tours as a way to create responsible tourism opportunities, having travelers stay with local people to taste local food and learn about the culture and land. Tourists then venture with Osa Wild guides into Corcovado National Park to learn about natural history, wildlife, the local culture and traditions and the numerous reasons the area needs to be protected. This gives community members another source of income, allowing people to use their land and knowledge to teach others. It also prevents them from potentially needing to sell their land, therefore protecting the unique and precious flora and fauna.
Today, Osa Wild has grown to a staff of over 20 people and supports over 16 projects headed by locals throughout the peninsula. Ifi describes the organization’s growth process as organic, saying the adventure was never economically driven, instead they stayed true to their principles and kept their focus on helping nature and people evolve together in a responsible way. Learn more about their tours and other opportunities here (https://osawild.travel/).
Rancho Maleku: Preserving Indigenous Culture
Rancho Maleku was created in March 2016 with the aim of giving visitors a unique spiritual and cultural experience. Along with the Maleku/Maleku/Guatatuzo, the Bribri, the Cabécar, the Huetar/Quitirrisi, the Boruca, the Guayami, the Térraba, and the Chorotega are the eight groups of indigenous peoples currently in Costa Rica (https://www.borucacostarica.org/8-indigenous-groups/). Hiqui Morera, one of the leaders of Rancho Maleku, co-created the space to share and spread their culture and knowledge. She explained, ‘We hope to put the name Maleku in every part of the world and to have our voices heard.’
There are 15 people working at Rancho Maleku besides her, all of them passionate about supporting the culture and community through teaching others. They offer tours that teach about Maleku culture and Maleku crafts, explaining their meaning and how they have evolved over time. Participants can view natural paintings and practice their own painting skills as well. Tours also include talks about the importance of taking care of Our Mother Earth and the spiritual connection between the Maleku people and Mother Earth. Learn more at: https://rancho-maleku-ni-urijifa-tafa.negocio.site/.
ASOMOBI: An Example of Women Empowerment through Tourism
ASOMOBI stands for ‘Asociación de Mujeres Organizadas de Biolley’ or the Association of Organized Women of Biolley. The association was started in 1997 by a group of 19 women from the remote community of Biolley near La Amistad International Park. Their goal was to improve their lives, the lives of families in their community, and those in neighboring areas.
The women have a deep commitment to both a healthy coexistence with nature and the community’s economic development. This led to the creation of programs to promote rural community tourism, as well as the expansion of their coffee production efforts, allowing them to complete the entire process from bean to cup themselves. In 2002, the association won a grant to complete a visitors center in order to accommodate tourists who wanted to stay for a longer length of time and have space for workshops, talks, and lectures. Today, there are 36 members. They offer coffee tours, amphibian night tours in Finca Biolley, tours to the hot springs in Aguas Calientes de Coto Brus, birding tours, hiking to Sabana Esperanza, and walking tours through the Valley of Silence. In addition, they offer lodging, homemade meals, and tourists can buy local honey and their premium coffee. To learn more about the amazing women behind the association, their tours,and volunteer opportunities, take a look at their website here: http://asomobi-costarica.com/en/.
UpTica: An Example of Waste Management and Upcycling
UpTica is an organization dedicated to waste management, environmental protection, increasing economic opportunities, and supporting women in the Perez Zeledon community. They do all of these things by repurposing single-use plastic bags and upcycling them into reusable fashion. Their website explains, ‘In San Isidro and surrounding communities, families and businesses dispose of their trash by burning it, burying it, or taking it to the dumpster in the city. These methods have both environmental and health impacts, and ultimately disregard waste as simply trash rather than as a valuable resource. Fabric is one of the valuable resources that UpTica chooses to upcycle.’
The idea for the organization started with Nicol Chinchilla, a native of La Ribera, and two other University students in 2015. Nicol describes her goals as wanting to create alternative income-generating opportunities to support people in the community, decrease migration from the area and to stop using plastic. Within a year, they had secured a small amount of funding and they found Rita, a talented woman living in Perez Zeledon, who was up for a creative challenge. As they started selling products, other women became interested in joining and they created a three month training program for new members. Today, UpTica is a registered Asociacion in Costa Rica and they have four women- Jeannette, Ana, Angela, and Milagro- who are behind the growth of the organization and the production of the beautiful, eco-friendly products. Reach out to them to learn more about visiting and volunteering opportunities: https://uptica.org/ and be sure to watch for their online store, coming soon: https://uptica.org/temporary-shop/.
Loma Larga: Committed to Preserving Farming Traditions
Carlos Pineda explains that the land that makes up Loma Larga has been farmed for decades. It started in a strategic location, situated between two main ports where goods were sold. As time went on and things around the farm changed. The community kept the land dedicated to growing produce, but they found themselves slowly witnessing the loss of traditional ways of farming. Technology might have made processes quicker, but it further removed the connection between people and the land, increased pollution, and depleted the soil’s nutrients. Coming together, the farmers decided they wanted to preserve their traditions and continued to farm using older, environmentally-friendly processes- the artisanal system of agriculture.
They also opened the farm to visitors, with the goal of offering tourists something different, a unique way to experience a culture and learn the ways of the past. The farm has a lot to offer. Visitors can tour the farm, watch the land be worked with ox and yoke, learn how to harvest the produce, and see how they process organic fruits like mango, papaya, lettuce, tomatoes, peppers, etc. You can also take a tour of the trails and old roads around the farm on horseback or by riding in a traditional cart. They offer local dishes, all made from their own produce. For years they have carefully been switching to organic agriculture and are currently in the process of being certified. To learn more about their projects and to visit the farm, visit their Facebook page.
Cafe Don Emilio: Supporting the Community through Coffee
Located 21 km from Perez Zeledon, Don Emilio and his family have been making coffee for over nine years. As people outside the region began to buy their coffee, they expanded their business and added employees from their community. To care for the environment, they do not use pesticides and reuse production by-products, such as taking the ‘cascara’ or shell and turning it into compost. In addition, for the past three years, they have offered coffee tours, where they share their family’s passion and teach visitors the process of growing, harvesting, and making coffee. They invite tourists to experience the surrounding nature by including a visit to a local waterfall and river as well. To learn more about the business and tours, check out their Facebook page here.
Bamboo School: Using Eco Friendly Building Materials
Rodolfo Saenz said he knew at a young age that he wanted to work with bamboo wood because of its eco-friendly properties. Thirty-nine years ago, he began making furniture and learning different techniques. For the past 8 years he has been teaching courses across Costa Rica and recently started his own school.
Located in Tinamaste, classes at the Bamboo School are open to both locals and tourists, and typically last one to two weeks, with longer opportunities – including onsite living options and creating cabins from start to finish – in the planning.
To learn more about his work and class offerings check out his Facebook page.
A List of Responsible Organizations
Here are additional businesses and experiences we didn’t have the chance to speak to, but who are doing inspiring work as well!
- Danta Corcovado Lodge (https://www.dantalodge.com/): Accomodation in the Osa Peninsula
- Ecotermales (https://ecotermalesfortuna.cr/): Natural spa with restaurant and bar in La Fortuna
- ASOPAC (https://www.facebook.com/pages/category/Product-Service/Asopac-1916429405337113/): An organic cocoa farming group offering chocolate and cocoa tree tours
- AGAEDRU (https://www.acicafoc.org/organizaciones/asociacion-de-ganaderos/): A cattle ranching association that promotes tourism and good practices for milk-cattle related activities
- Maleku (https://www.acicafoc.org/proyecto/canonegro/): An indigenous group that promotes tourism as a means for them to preserve their traditions
- Fudebiol (http://www.fudebiol.com/espanol/fudebiolES.html): A private community reserve that is co-managed by a women’s group
- AMACOBAS (Facebook, @amacobas): A women’s group that co-manages the Alexander Skutch Reserve
- ASOCFAC (Facebook, @asofac): A women’s organic farming group who has a small lodge
- Green Circle Experience ( http://www.greencircleexperience.com/): A list of hotels and lodges who respect the environment and help local communities
- Ascona (http://www.asconacr.org/) : A group who works to protect the natural resources and land in the Osa Peninsula through education and promoting local art and culture
Some other projects to take a look at include: Feria Verde (local, organic farmers market every week; https://www.facebook.com/FeriaVerde), Chepecletas (a group offering bicycle tours around San Jose; https://chepecletas.com/tours/), The Green Heart Foundation (people dedicated to supporting the Earth; https://www.instagram.com/fundaciongreenheart/).
What is Sustainable Tourism?
The Costa Rican Institute of Tourism, or Instituto Costaricense de Turismo (ICT), describes sustainable tourism as the balanced intention to appropriately use natural and cultural resources, to improve the quality of life of local communities and to obtain economic success in the activity, which can also contribute to national development. Tourism sustainability is not only the response to demand but also an essential condition to successfully compete now and in the future. (Definition of Tourism Sustainability, CST 1997). In an effort to increase the number of organizations participating in sustainable tourism, the ICT has developed multiple certifications to highlight those who exemplify their definition of responsible tourism.
The Certification of Sustainable Tourism
The Certification of Sustainable Tourism is a process which rates organizations according to their sustainable practices. According to the ICT website, it was created to ‘turn the concept of sustainability into something real, practical, and necessary in the context of tourism competitiveness in the country, trying to improve the way in which natural and social resources are used, promote an active participation of local communities, and provide a new support for the competitiveness of the entrepreneurial sector.’ Learn more about what practices organizations adopt here: https://www.ict.go.cr/en/sustainability/cst.html#a-hallmark-of-tourism-sustainability.
Do Your Research
There are many other organizations in Costa Rica who uphold the responsibility of protecting nature and supporting local communities through various tourism activities. In some cases there can be barriers to organizations receiving certifications for their work, especially smaller businesses or ones experiencing difficulties with recent travel restrictions, but they still have a tangible positive impact. Doing your research as you plan your trip to Costa Rica, or anywhere else, can help you find organizations that you feel good about supporting.
We hope this article has inspired your next trip to Costa Rica to be a GOOD and responsible one, or that it might inspire some sustainable practices within your own organization.