When you think of Costa Rica, what comes to mind? If you live in the United States, Canada, or Europe, there’s a good chance it’s a form of ecotourism.
Whether you’re imagining secluded beaches, towering waterfalls, soaring macaws, or bubbling volcanic hot springs, Costa Rica’s identity as an ecotourism destination has been carefully cultivated. Costa Rica is incredibly beautiful and diverse, and its natural splendors are enjoyed by foreigners and locals alike.
Let’s explore the history of ecotourism in Costa Rica, and how you can best tailor your itinerary to take advantage of everything Costa Rica has to offer.
What is Ecotourism and Why is it Important to Costa Rica?
Ecotourism is “tourism directed toward exotic, often threatened, natural environments, intended to support conservation efforts and observe wildlife.” In other words, your visit to Costa Rica probably constitutes ecotourism, assuming you plan to visit natural attractions and hope to support their conservation.
Ecotourism is incredibly important to Costa Rica. Conservation and environmental stewardship have become part of the national identity, and tourism drives the country’s economy.
When and Why did Ecotourism Start in Costa Rica?
Costa Rica’s history as an ecotourism destination can tenuously be traced to 1963, when Cabo Blanco Absolute Nature Reserve on the Nicoya Peninsula became the country’s first major conservation area. But Cabo Blanco wasn’t created as a place for visiting – it was designed entirely to protect the threatened forest.
A more direct link to Costa Rica’s ecotourism boom occurred in 1978 when a BBC documentary of Monteverde caught the attention of birdwatchers in Britain and elsewhere. As a result, the number of people visiting Costa Rica for nature-related reasons began to increase.
In 1994, the movie “Endless Summer II” put Costa Rica on the map as a surfing hotspot. Realizing the importance of conservation for both economic and environmental gains, the Costa Rican government continued creating national parks and launched a hugely successful program that pays citizens to protect natural habitats.
Today, the Environment Ministry (MINAE) manages Costa Rica’s protected areas, while the Tourism Board (ICT) helps to shape the country’s global image as an ecotourism destination.
We won’t sugarcoat things: Costa Rica has plenty of work to do before it’s a truly “green” country. Poor waste management, an antiquated transport sector, and lax fishing regulations are three areas the country could certainly stand to improve.
At the same time, Costa Rica has managed to double its forest cover and has placed more than 25% of its land in protected areas — achievements that are worth celebrating.
What are the Top Ecotourism Destinations in Costa Rica?
Costa Rica’s small geographical size and an ever-growing number of national parks mean you’re never far from nature. Four destinations, in particular, have become hotbeds for ecotourism in Costa Rica:
Monteverde has only continued to grow in popularity since that BBC documentary. The protected cloud forest remains an excellent bird-watching destination and one of Costa Rica’s most beautiful destinations.
The breathtaking Arenal Volcano towers over the town of La Fortuna. Surrounded by rainforest and bordered by the country’s largest lake, Arenal is a postcard-worthy destination with countless ways to reconnect with nature.
A town built into the rainforest on the Nicoya Peninsula, Nosara has beautiful beaches, excellent surfing, and plenty of open-air yoga studios. It also borders Ostional, where thousands of sea turtles come ashore in one of the world’s most spectacular events, known as an arribada.
The large protected area on the Osa Peninsula is considered the jewel of Costa Rica’s national parks system. It protects big cats, several monkey species, sloths, tapirs, and more; in the rivers, you can spot sharks and caimans (and sometimes their unlucky prey). Corcovado isn’t for everyone – it’s tough to get to and less developed – but a worthwhile journey for true nature lovers.
What Ecotourism Activities are Available in Costa Rica?
Costa Rica offers a variety of ecotourism activities suited for travelers of all ages and abilities.
First things first: If you’re flying to Costa Rica from abroad, consider offsetting your carbon footprint. The Costa Rican government offers this service through its National Fund for Financing Forestry (FONAFIFO), meaning your payment helps expand the country’s forests.
Once you’re in Costa Rica, here are some ecotourism activities to consider:
Visit Costa Rica’s National Parks
Visit one of Costa Rica’s 30 national parks and enjoy a hike through the rainforest, a whale-watching trip, or a ride through Amazonian canals. Better yet, hire a guide: their expertise will help you truly appreciate the natural wonders that surround you.
Zipline and canopy
Thrill-seekers can soar through the rainforest on ziplines, or explore the canopy on hanging bridges. Either way, you’ll have a blast – all while quite literally getting a new perspective on nature.
Scuba and snorkel
Costa Rica’s biodiversity is as impressive underwater as it is on land. Bring a snorkel to experience it for yourself at Conchal or Cahuita or Cano Island, or book a scuba diving adventure to see rays, reef sharks, and massive schools of fish up close.
Yoga and Mindfulness
Connecting with yourself and with nature is a wonderful rejuvenation strategy during your Costa Rica vacation. Nosara and other Nicoya Peninsula towns are known for their yoga, but don’t be shy: No one will bat an eye if you’re doing a solo session on any of the country’s beautiful beaches.
Costa Rica is an Ecotourist’s Dream Trip
By experiencing the beauty Costa Rica has to offer, you’ll help to support the ongoing conservation of the country’s natural resources. What’s more, ecotourism is often the perfect antidote to the wear and tear of your daily routine. And it might lead to increased awareness and appreciation for nature that will spark changes in your life and shape your children’s perspectives, bettering the world for generations to come.
Contact us below to plan your Costa Rica Ecotourism vacation.
John Rabenau has been working in the eco-tourism & adventure travel industry in Costa Rica since 2002. He has worked in a variety of capacities from Outdoor Educator & Principle Guide to Itinerary Design Manager & Business Owner for numerous organizations. He has grown Costa Rica Escapes into one of the most reputable Costa Rica travel agencies since its creation in 2006, hosting more than 5,000 people with custom vacation itineraries.