costa rica, in a (coco)nut shell

Beautiful country, lovely people, good food, clean water, gorgeous beaches, lush forests, diverse wildlife – what more does one need? That’s the question I kept asking myself throughout the trip and upon my return. The Ticos (Costa Ricans) say ¡Pura Vida! and it really does feel that way. Simple, nothing extraneous, relaxed, taking each day as it comes – at least that’s how I experienced it. Here are some more observations from the trip to Costa Rica…

diversity

In equatorial regions, there is greater diversity of plant species than areas north and south of the equator (where there tends to be more within-species diversity). Walking through the rainforest and cloud forest, this was pretty evident. Bromeliads, orchids, and other epiphytes grow high up in the canopy, their roots dangling down like Tarzan swings. All sorts of moss, ferns, and fungus grow on the sides of trees and in any nook they can occupy.

There are hundreds of bird species, snakes, spiders, and interesting fauna, like the agouti (a large rodent), coati (or pizote, a raccoon relative), and endangered tapir.

The landscapes are diverse, too. Dry forests, rain forests, cloud forests, volcanoes, flatlands, hillsides, and beaches (Pacific and Caribbean) are all part of a country roughly the size of West Virginia.

cattle, cattle, and more cattle

Sure, the rolling hillsides with pastured cattle look idyllic, but much of that pasture was once forest. The good news is the government rewards cattle ranchers for leaving portions of their land forest, protecting habitat vital to diverse animal species and tree cover that maintains a healthy rain cycle.

To preserve the health of waterways, there must also be a 50 meter buffer zone between pasture and rivers and streams.

preservation

In response to the deforestation brought on by logging and cattle ranching, both private and government-funded preservation efforts are taking place in Costa Rica. At the diminutive Ecocentro Danaus, a secondary forest where there was once deforested and denuded land, a great amount of diversity has found its way back. We saw a mama sloth and her baby (which I was very excited about!), tree frogs, butterflies, a Jesus Christ lizard, toucanettes, and lots of other birds. For a place that’s only about 600 square meters, it was an impressive demonstration of how restoring native forests can have such a positive impact on protecting wildlife. Danaus also offers a place for the indigenous Maleku people to display and sell their gorgeous colorfully painted and carved artwork.

CapiCapi is a Maleku greeting

As part of a volcano tour (which we never ended up seeing – it was shrouded in clouds), we took a guided hike through the Arenal Rainforest Reserve. It was easy to see where James Cameron found his inspiration for Avatar. Giant trees covered in epiphytes had great significance to the N’avi in the film, and to the Mayans thousands of years before Avatar was conceived. Aside from the towering trees, we saw a deadly eyelash viper, curled up on a branch.

At the Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve, a privately funded conservation park run by Centro Cientifico Tropical, visitors can take guided tours of the dense secondary and primary forest to discover all sorts of creatures and verdantery (okay, I think I just made up that word). Our guide, Danilo, enthusiastically walked (and sometimes jogged in order to catch a glimpse of a transitory creature) us through the well manicured trails of the otherwise wild forest.

Many nature enthusiasts come just to witness the quetzal, a bird species that is said to be in decline. Many leave without seeing one. We were lucky enough to see not just one but at least 4 quetzals. The male is especially resplendent (as they are called) for the gorgeous iridescent plume feathers that hang down from its back. Mayan kings would pluck these special feathers and add them to their headdresses – the shifting colors and soft fir-like nature of them surely made the kings appear otherworldly.

As a bonus at the end of our tour, Danilo teased a female tarantula out of her nest for us to see. Then we visited the hummingbird gallery to engulf ourselves in the buzzing and humming of the quick and tiny birds.

The Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve was at one time part of a Quaker settlement (and is in part still managed by Quakers). Knowing their water supply for ranching would be severely compromised if the mountaintop forest were no longer there, the Quakers worked with Centro Cientifico Tropical to ensure protection of the cloud forest.

blue flag beaches

The national water utility and the tourism board got together and created the Bandera Azul Ecologica (ecological blue flag) to reward beach communities for their ecological responsibility. A 90% score or better in water and environmental quality gets the beach a blue flag. Find out which beaches earned blue flags here.

Turtle eggs are protected from poaching and predators at Playa Junquillal, a blue flag beach.

dogs, dogs, everywhere

Without rabies to worry about, dogs roam the streets freely. They seem more cat-like than dogs in the US. Independent, finicky, sometimes aloof, apprehensive of other dogs, yet loyal to humans. We had the companionship of 4 such dogs at the house where we stayed in Playa Negra. They were serious about protecting their property from other animals and strangers, but they were really friendly to us. It was comforting having them there, even when their middle-of-the-night howling at who-knows-what took me out of my dreams.

up with the sun, down with the sun

Without the distractions of TV and internet, it was easy to get into a more natural rhythm of waking with the sunrise and winding it down a couple of hours after the sun set.

not without its environmental problems

The government protects 40% of the land from development and the majority of Costa Rica’s power comes from renewable sources of energy (mostly hydroelectric). There are some really good recycling efforts in place in some locations, with even organics (compostables) collection. But for such an eco-friendly country, there’s still room for improvement.

One of the biggest problems I witnessed was littering. Mostly truckers throwing plastic soda bottles out of their windows, or people leaving bags of trash on the roadside (I’m assuming to avoid paying for trash pick up). Colorful striped plastic bags (the equivalent of the black or white deli or takeout bag in the US) lined the highways, despite signs requesting “no tirar basura.”

Just like here, there is disposable everything and individually wrapped goodies in the pulperias and supermercados. It felt just like home with all of the industrialized food options at the grocery store. And then there are the nasty chemical cleaning products proliferating the shelves and being used in businesses and households pretty ubiquitously (at least from what I saw in my 8 day stay). And don’t get me started on the cologne.

Illegal logging is still an issue, as is poaching plants from protected parks.

But despite these gripes, I am truly glad (and very lucky) to have experienced the pura vida way of Costa Rica.

If you plan on visiting Costa Rica, here are a few tips to consider:

1. Don’t underestimate the power of the equatorial sun. It can really do some serious damage to your skin. Stay out of the sun during the midday hours, basically anytime from 10am to 4pm is probably a good call. Of course, wear plenty of sunscreen, at least 30 SPF. Use brands that are less toxic  – my favorites are California Baby and Badger.

2. Check into an eco-lodge. ResponsibleTravel.com promotes lodging that’s not just ecologically sound but socially responsible, too.

3. Just like at home, consider your own ecological impact while in Costa Rica. Here’s a simple rule: Take only photos and leave only footprints.

4. Skip the plastic. If you plan any trips to the supermarket or pulperia, BYOB – bring your own bags. It’s easy enough to tuck a couple of foldable shopping bags into your suitcase or backpack. Also, drinking water from the tap is safe and delicious, so no need to buy the bottled stuff.

5. Crafts made by locals and indigenous people make nice souvenirs.

6. US dollars (dolares) are accepted just about everywhere, so there’s usually no need to exchange money.

7. If you’re an apprehensive driver, leave the driving to a taxista or a tour company. The roads have greatly improved in the last few years, but there are still some seriously bumpy (and winding) back roads on the way to some of the more frequented destinations. If you do decide to drive, get a GPS and bring a map for back-up (sometimes the GPS prefers the most direct route, not the most sane route).

¡Pura vida!

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