Costa Rica is a nation that encompasses roughly 0.01 percent of the world’s total landmass, yet it is home to an astounding 27 national parks, 58 wildlife refuges, and 12 ecological zones. The rainforests, cloud forests, and coral reefs support nearly 10,000 species of plants, 205 species of mammals, and 850 species of indigenous and migrant birds—not to mention a human population that has set aside one-quarter of its country as protected park land.

Thus, it is little wonder that Costa Rica has earned a reputation as the birthplace of ecotourism, a practice of responsible travel that conserves the environment, promotes education and awareness, and sustains the well-being of local populations.

In a country that generated more than 98 percent of its electricity from renewable sources in 2016, going green is a way of life—a Costa Rican pura vida that travelers can practice with these simple steps.

Get Out into Nature (and Make Informed Choices)

Between its dense forests, mangrove swamps, tropical beaches, and active volcanoes, the “Rich Coast” of Central America is a haven for nature lovers of all stripes. Here are just a few activities at your disposal to experience green travel in Costa Rica:

  • Watching hawksbill, loggerhead, giant leatherback, and Pacific green sea turtles nest on the Caribbean shores of Tortuguero National Park
  • Hiking among tapirs and monkeys in the shadow of the 5,357-foot Arenal Volcano
  • Mingling with more than 500 species of birds, 124 species of mammals, and 150 species of butterflies within the extraordinary region of Corcovado National Park
 Monteverde Cloud Forest Biological Reserve
The Monteverde Cloud Forest Biological Reserve | Photo courtesy of Isabella Jusková

At the Monteverde Cloud Forest Biological Reserve, you’ll find:

  • More than 500 species of orchids
  • The critically endangered golden toad
  • Ziplines
  • Canopy tours
  • A butterfly garden that cater to families and adventurers alike

And to the south of San José, Manuel Antonio National Park has sparkling white sand beaches, evergreen forests, and 12 coastal islands that are frequented by dolphins and migrating whales.

In the face of such vast natural splendor, do yourself a favor and seek out the services of an experienced local guide—someone who speaks the language, who knows the animals’ tracks, and who is in touch with the rhythms and environmental concerns of daily life.

The tour guide presents a rhinoceros beetle in the forest in Costa Rica
Tour guide presents a rhinoceros beetle | Photo courtesy of Karen

To make this task simple and worry-free, the government of Costa Rica offers a Certification for Sustainable Tourism—an official designation that pinpoints companies with good management practices and services that create positive social impacts.

Shop Ethically and Responsibly

For some travelers, it may be souvenir enough to catch a glimpse or a photo of an endangered leatherback sea turtle, a West Indian manatee, or a rare scarlet macaw. But for others, no trip is complete without something unique and handmade to help you remember the great adventure.

Whether you’re purchasing woodwork or jewelry, a simple conversation with the craftsman or seller can go far in determining the item’s origin, its impact on the environment, and whether or not it truly serves the local population.

coffee at nonprofit Coopesarapiqui in Costa Rica
Sampling coffee at nonprofit Coopesarapiqui | Photo courtesy of

If you’re traveling in Guanacaste, learn about the rich pottery-making heritage of the indigenous Chorotega tribes. Or if you’re in the market for Costa Rica’s famous coffee, be sure to educate yourself about Fairtrade International, the Rainforest Alliance, and other certification programs that work to protect farmers, the integrity of agricultural products, and the state of the global environment.

Lend Your Time as a Volunteer

It’s a noble task, ensuring that every colón you spend in Costa Rica supports sustainability, environmental protection, and the health of local communities. But there is, perhaps, no more direct form of action as an ecotourist than rolling up your sleeves and lending your time, passion, and skills as a volunteer.

Entrance to the Sea Turtle Conservancy in Tortuguero, Costa Rica
The Sea Turtle Conservancy Visitors Center | Photo courtesy of m.prinke

The Association of Volunteers for Service in Protected Areas, for example, brings together foreign and national volunteers, local communities, private companies, and government agencies to work on conservation projects that include:

  • The protection of local sea turtles
  • Patrols with wildlife rangers
  • Studies to control and prevent forest fires

You’ll feel the immediate benefits of working on behalf of the environment—and through your partnership with Ticos on the ground, you’ll build connections and memories that most casual tourists never experience.

Featured photo courtesy of Alyssa Crouse

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Author: Maura O'Brien

Born and raised in Northern California and now based in Portland, Maura credits her mom with her sense of adventure. Maura has a special affinity for national parks, the Greek island of Folegandros, and a three-month trip across Europe with her sister that opened her eyes to the magic of travel.