Costa Rica Seeks a Breather from Tourism Gone Wild

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A tourism paradox plagues beautiful Costa Rica, the must-see destination for every family I know. Its highly visited parks, like Manuel Antonio, depend on visitors to keep the bulldozers and loggers out, yet the growing crowds pose an obvious threat to the protected birds, iguanas and sloths, not to mention the monkeys in the trees people aren’t suppose to feed.

As a result, this original capitol of eco-tourism is taking steps to reduce the impact, capping the number of daily visitors to Manuel at 600 during the week and 800 on weekends and holidays to give the animals a break. According to a travel report in the Vancouver Sun, park officials are even closing down to the pubic on Mondays, just another way to tame the traffic jams along the narrow trails. “Costa Rica’s most popular sites are at risk of being overrun by tourists tripping over each other in their search for solitude and unspoiled beauty,” says the report.

Part of slowing down the traffic is literally to slow down the traffic. In this regard, you could say Costa Rica has come full circle from 20 years ago when I first traveled there.

Just two weeks after my met my now husband, Edwin, he invited me join him on his own planned excursion to the region. It seemed sooo remote and exotic to me back then – I kept the trip a secret from my family. Political unrest was plaguing Central America at the time and I didn’t want my mother making a fuss and raining on my cloud forest fantasy. Little did I realize my biggest problem wouldn’t be an intervening Jewish mother or angry junta, but traveling with a virtual stranger in a crude rented Jeep down unpaved mountain roads for an eternity to reach our destinations.

I recall breaking down and crying en route to a hidden-away beach town called Montezuma, as the 5th hour of winding roads approached with no soda (roadside cafe) in site. “Are we ever gonna get there?” I bemoaned to the handsome Jeep driver whom I had grown to detest on the road trip.

“Montezuma looked so close on the map, but it ended up taking all day to basically travel the distance from Berkeley to San Francisco,” recalls Edwin, a noted skeptic who also was worn down by the time we pulled into the Ylang Ylang Beach Resort. If anything depicted the “old Costa Rica” it was this funky haven of surf bums and German tourists. We were convinced a few ex-cons were among the mysterious hammock potatoes lounging between trees. I coped with water on the floor of our shabby chic bungalow and dining at the El Nano Banano cafe which showed movies on a large outdoor screen at night. We watched Goodfellas. Yes, all of this fine romance and I marred Edwin, anyway.

In the years since our rugged adventure, Costa Rica became the “it” spot – and travel became manageable. A posh, 153-room Four Seasons sprang up along with other four-star resorts, and nearly two million people booked trips annually to Monteverde, Manuel Antonio, and the other attractions on both the Pacific and Caribbean coasts. The country took dynamite to the hilly terrain to make it easier to travel in those ubiquitous Jeeps, adhering to the notion if you blast it they will come.

But according to the Sun, eco-tourism has halted the road smoothing projects, so it’s back to four hours to cover 30 miles. Costa Rica remains a leader in eco innovations, such as the zip-line rides through the rainforest and its commitment to protecting 25 percent of its land from development. The tourists bring in twice the revenue Costa Rica can make exporting coffee and bananas. It needs us, and we can do our part by opting for sustainable travel.

According to eco travel consultants, we can shun the big corporate route and stay at inns that grow their own fruits and vegetables and hire local workers. And try to spread the wealth by opting for small-scale tours and visiting sites off the usual tourist path so large crowds don’t spoil your commune with nature.

I have to say I was pleased to learn that Montezuma hasn’t lost its quirky charm. The resort still has those little bungalows and plays nighttime movies. Best yet, it donates a dollar a day per person to the Asepaleco Foundation toward conservation efforts.

Images: baxterclaws, law_keven

Luanne Bradley

Luanne Sanders Bradley is the West coast Editor at EcoSalon and currently resides in San Francisco, California.