By Carrie Dunlea
Are you the type of person who loves to travel but at the same time you think about ways to reduce your carbon footprint? Do you have disdain for places where rows of condominiums litter the coastline and masses of tourists throng to the same destination making your trip seem more like a Vegas weekend than a relaxing getaway?
If this sounds like you, you’re in luck! Ecotourism, or green travel, is popular now, and for those of us with a concern for the environment, there are places to visit where the waterways are protected and forests remain a habitat.
One country most associated with ecotourism is Costa Rica. It’s popularity as a destination is on the rise because of its well-protected natural beauty. Located in Central America, this country has amazing options. With coastlines on both the Caribbean and Pacific, it is almost one-fourth rainforest, the main draw for visitors. In addition to the rainforests, there are volcanoes and prime beaches. What could be better than that?
Costa Rica is considered to be one of the 20 countries with the greatest biodiversity in the world. The country has dedicated over 23 percent of its land to national parks, wildlife reserves and protected lands. Though tiny at just under 20,000 square miles, the country has a lot to offer with virtually no real winter period, and sunshine throughout the year, for over 12 hours a day.
Plan your visit thoroughly before you go. Though small in size there is so much to see
so don’t try to do it all in one trip. Be sure to check which seasons are best to visit as the rainy season could put a damper on your trip and you may not gain access to everything you want to explore.
Start your trip in Northwestern Costa Rica at the Cloud Forest Reserves. Though not really clouds, it is actually a constant mist created by the extreme humidity of the altitude. The weather is cooler and the atmosphere makes it a perfect environment for beautiful plants and flowers as well as a variety (over 3,000 to be exact) of mammals, amphibians, and reptiles, including pumas, jaguars, poison dart frogs, sloths, spider monkeys and more. If bird watching is more your thing, there are over 500 species to view as well.
At Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve, the best way to see the forest is through a guided tour. The marked trails cut through ferns and orchids, and way overhead, suspended bridges allow walks above the forest canopy. You can hike in the forest, hang with locals or try any other outdoor activities from horseback riding and hiking to adventures such as zip-line canopy tours and canyoning, involving rappelling down the face of a jungle waterfall.
Not far away is the smaller, more private Santa Elena Cloud Forest Reserve. The locals claim this forest reserve offers so much more, just on a smaller, less touristy scale.
Monteverde and Santa Elena are the two main tourist centers in the region, with accommodations and other options nearby. If you’re not into high adventure, many local coffee and sugar plantations are open for touring in the area. For the more sedate traveler, yoga and massage treatments are available, and opportunities to shop for paintings and handicrafts by local artists in galleries are plentiful.
At Manuelo Antonio National Park you’ll find wildlife, beaches and fun at the park in its namesake town nearby. The park has a diverse blend of sand, forest and wildlife habitats in the area. If you want help spotting wildlife and seeing the best of the park, tour guides are available.
Because of the options the area offers with great beaches in and outside the park, this location is a great place to stay a few days and see all you can before you head north or south to another part of the country. There are snorkeling tours, zip line tours, fishing expeditions, ATVs and much more to try. The lodging in this area is more unique, offering small boutique hotels immersed in the forest.
One of the top volcanoes to see is Arenal Volcano National Park found in the rugged Cordillera de Tilarán in La Fortuna, Costa Rica. At a height of over 5,300 feet it is considered a top viewing area. The volcano now sees regular activity complete with ash or red lava flowing since its last eruption in 1968. Much like the Cloud Reserves, you’ll find a number of birds, reptiles, amphibians and mammals within the park.
For optimal viewing check out the Arenal Observatory Lodge located on the south side of the volcano on a macadamia nut farm within the park. Hiking trails, zip line tours, whitewater rafting, hanging bridges and expansive vistas are all within your reach. Want to relax? Check out the hot spring pools or try a volcanic mud wrap at a nearby spa.
While in the area, check out the La Fortuna waterfall. Just a short distance from area hotels, you can get there by car, hike or ride a horse to see a breathtaking 200-foot waterfall. The hike can be a bit strenuous and it is suggested you have the proper attire and be in good physical condition to go on this adventure.
Head over to the Caribbean coast and you’ll find Tortuguero National Park. Though only accessible by boat or plane, it is worth a visit. Experts recommend taking a boat ride on at least one end of your journey so you’ll have the opportunity to travel along the water canals and see water birds, monkeys, crocodiles and beautiful flora. The park is known as a breeding ground for green sea turtles. If you travel to the area from August through October it is possible to see the nesting of the turtles. Be prepared for rain. The climate is very humid and one of the rainiest areas in the country.
Before you leave Costa Rica, make sure you check out Papagayo Peninsula in the northwest region where visitors can experience one of the best places for diving tours and beach goers can enjoy the Guancaste beaches. Not only is the weather amazing, there are 124 miles of beaches on the Pacific Coast best known around the world for clear water, surfing, diving, fishing, horseback riding, swimming, sunbathing and more. In addition there is a plethora of 5-star resorts to choose from to make your stay complete.
If you want to visit a nearby volcano in this region, check out Rincon de la Vieja Volcano National Park. Incredible scenery and wildlife will take your breath away. View volcanic craters, bubbling hot springs, dramatic waterfalls and a pristine rainforest where visitors have been known to spot tapirs, monkeys, birds, sloths, jaguars and quetzals while trekking along the trails.
Next time you want to leave big cities and crowded beaches behind, plan a trip to ecofriendly Costa Rica. This small country provides abundant options for travelers looking for boundless beauty, beautiful beaches, mountains, rainforests, wildlife and adventure all in one place.