Visiting This Little Country Won’t Destroy the World
Many travelers worry about the environmental footprint of their wanderlust. Costa Rica wants to make it nonexistent, or even beneficial.
Hiking a jungle in Costa Rica is about 85 percent watching your feet — it’s muddy and there are snakes — and watching where your hands land if you slip on the mud — spike-covered vines and poisonous dart frogs are not hard to find.
Standing in front of a 600-years-old cedar that would take 16 people holding hands to hug, I’d been hiking for a while and was drenched — I wasn’t sure how much of it was the rain and how much was my own sweat. I was in a forest that is part of a private preserve kept by Selva Bananito Ecolodge — located on the Caribbean slope of the Talamanca Mountain range.
I was here at the invitation of Costa Rica, exploring the country and its sustainability efforts with my travel companion, Luis Diego Soto — a veteran Costa Rican guide with a near encyclopedic knowledge of the country and wildlife. What I discovered was a rich, tropical landscape and a sustainability end-game with regenerative tourism at its heart.
When nations say they want to be sustainable, they don’t always mean the same thing. From where I sit, it often feels like the U.S. is playing a game of chicken with climate change — psst, Congress, just in case you’re wondering, climate change won’t blink. But other countries, like Costa Rica, feel like they are playing a game of chess. The country is a U.N. recognized leader in sustainable tourism, with an official national certification system for businesses who want to prove they’re actually doing the things they say they are doing — like avoiding gas emissions, recycling, using biodegradable products, reducing waste, conserving water, and hiring from within the community.
While being sustainable is, in and of itself, valuable for attracting tourists, certification offers benefits, like the official branding of being certified, tax incentives, relief from surcharges on certain imports, and the advertising power of the tourism offices. Those seeking certification can achieve a Basic Level or Elite Level based on a measurable percentage of compliance with their criteria. Benefits vary depending on the industry seeking certification (hotels, airlines, travel agencies, etc.). The extensive process of auditing in getting certified (in theory) avoids greenwashing — a marketing spin used to appear green when a company’s practices are not.
More importantly, they are looking to go beyond sustainability to regenerative tourism, where their actions don't just cancel out emissions, they are intended to restore a damaged ecosystem.
Though it is only a country of 5 million, Costa Rica has ambitious national plans, like reaching total decarbonization by 2050. (Their goal of carbon neutrality is still set for 2021, having already managed to power their grid with 100 percent renewables for 299 days in 2018.)
These are especially important given the most recent United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change report (UNFCCC). While 113 (including Costa Rica) of the 191 parties to the Paris Agreement are showing a decrease in greenhouse gases of 12% by 2030, the overall output of the 191 parties involved still means an increase of 16 percent. In other words, greenhouse gases are still growing despite current efforts.
“Unless actions are taken immediately,” according to the UNFCCC, it “may lead to a temperature rise of about 2.7C by the end of the century.” For the record, that’s bad. Really bad.
My time in Costa Rica was intended to experience their conservation efforts by visiting a series of four distinct types of lodging, including hotels, an ecolodge, and a coffee farm.
For my first night there, I stayed at Hotel Quelitales, which sits in the mountains along a more rural, peaceful setting of the small town of Cachí, just outside of Cartago, and an hour southeast of San Jose. Rooms consist of upscale bungalows with wall to wall windows and hardwood floors, tucked away into a bright, colorful, and verdant landscape. Each bungalow is private, with mine having an outdoor waterfall shower surrounded by beautiful stonework. (Depending on the size of the bungalow and time of the year, prices range from $100 to $250 a night.)
My room faced a large natural waterfall, which was also the soundtrack of my stay. You wouldn’t know it from looking at it, but the trees and vines covering the slope of the mountain are actually a restoration of the landscape that was once cut down for farming. Owner, José Álvarez, brought in native plants to bring life back to the area, especially flowers that attract birds. The hotel’s restaurant, Casa José, where Alvarez is also a chef, has a sustainable, organic menu supplied by local vendors and from the property’s own garden.
That restoration effort is also good for business. This beautiful view helps to bring in those seeking a spiritual retreat, and with almost 400 of the country’s 900 birds, it is a prime spot for birding and bird conservation.. With my trusty eBird app launched, I was eagerly tracking the calls and species I don’t have at home — like the keel-billed toucan, yellow-throated euphonia, or violet sabrewing.
Alvarez points to the trees and jokes, “we only have one channel on our televisions.”
My time at Hotel Quelitales was less than 24 hours, but it was a good introduction to Costa Rican tourism, where restoration efforts and sustainable practices work together to contribute positively to a space’s impact on the climate.
The next day, we hit the road and headed further east — into the more tropical and humid Caribbean side of the country, one hour outside of Limon — where we spent three nights at Selva Bananito Ecolodge.
The ecolodge has an interesting history. Decades ago, Rudi Stein came to the region with his family and bought thousands of acres of land along the Bananito River for farming and logging. He had hoped to make his fortune, but his son Jürgen, who currently runs the ecolodge, and Jürgen’s sisters, had other ideas. In 1985, they convinced their father that conserving the forest was a moral necessity for protecting the land and wildlife from loggers, as well as the watershed integral to the region’s drinking water. The ecolodge was born in 1995 as a source of income for those efforts.
If there was a photo next to “ecolodge” in the dictionary, it would look like Selva Bananito.
The road to the ecolodge is a bumpy, muddy, and sometimes sloshy one, which includes crossing a river in an SUV. It is built on existing farmland along the edge of the forest preserve. Cabins are constructed on traditional Caribbean stilts. The hardwood used to make the cabins are from discarded wood left behind by loggers. Floors are tiled and bathrooms are spacious, with the water heated by solar power. Cabin bedrooms have accordion doors that lead to the terrace and overlook a landscape outlined by mountains and illuminated at night by sunsets that glow in purples and pinks.
The soundtrack of Selva Bananito is that of wildlife, especially nocturnal wildlife.
By the second night, I found that nocturnal chorus relaxing, though the openness of the cabin to the outdoors meant that for the first two nights, I had to encourage a bat to leave his hideout on my ceiling, a large spider to exit out a window, remove a palm-sized grasshopper, and escort three gentle anoles back to where they belonged. For me, this became part of the charm of staying at Selva Bananito.
Selva recycles, composts, and treats its own waste water (using a clever system of lagoons), and to facilitate this waste water treatment they also provide biodegradable soaps. Potable water is supplied in the room for drinking. There are also no outlets in rooms. In fact, most of Selva is without electricity. Recently they added wifi, though it’s a very temperamental one, which is also kind of the point of being in a jungle.
Cabins are priced per person with a two-night minimum, with a single person room starting at $130 per day and two persons from $75-$90. Tours and food are separate.
Selva Bananito is not a luxury lodge, but that is on purpose. “Luxury and conservation,” Jürgen told me, “are a contradiction.” He holds up his hand, pauses, and then adds, “That is my own personal opinion.”
Even so, this wild, remote escape, the adventure it holds for visitors, and its lush scenery dotted by red, orange, and yellow flowers — as well as the memories being there generates — feels like a luxury to me. I’ve forgotten most of the individual big chain hotels I’ve stayed at, but I won’t forget about this gem that successfully connects you to the outdoors and the importance of the conservation and restoration of wild spaces.
In my time there, we joined the Jaguar Rescue Center to release back into the wild two snakes — a boa and one of the most poisonous pit vipers in Costa Rica, the fer-de-lance — two very angry racoons, and two adorable kinkajous. I was also given a tour of the region on a small two-seater gyrocopter — which is part of Selva Air, a funding stream for their conservation. I ate fantastic meals (with the freshest pineapple possible) by candlelight with other guests. I hiked and rode horseback into the forest, where I was also stung by two wasps. Pro tip: before you try to steady yourself on a branch, make sure there isn’t a very active nest on it.
But like I said — memories.
Jürgen Stein is passionate about the mission of Selva, a true believer in not just sustainability, but also regenerative conservation. That passion leaves an impact on its visitors, and as Diego and I crossed the river on our way out, I was already thinking about when I might go back.
The next two nights were very different — as in, finally some air-conditioning and wifi different — with a stay at a Caribbean luxury resort, Aguas Claras, in the bohemian setting of Puerto Viejo.
There is a stark contrast between Selva Bananito and Aguas Claras, but both also serve guests looking for different experiences within a sustainability setting.
Aguas Claras is the project of artist Elizabeth Steinvorth and her daughter Elena, incorporating Elizabeth’s art, as well as that of locals. Life in Puerto Viejo is laid-back and beach-focused and the vibe of Aguas Claras applies a luxurious layer to that atmosphere. I stayed in a two-bedroom bungalow called Magnolia ($595+). Bungalows were once homes in Playa Chiquita that are now rescued and given new life at Aguas Claras. Each offers generous outdoor lounging areas, and open-air dining spaces (two bedrooms), along with patios. They are nestled within a vibrant garden with a walkway that leads to fountains and out to the beach club. It also provides significant privacy for each bungalow.
Aguas Claras is a member of the Cayuga Collection of Sustainable Hotels, and incorporates environmentally friendly practices, like avoiding single-use plastics, using biodegradable soaps, and heating hot water through solar power. Their restaurant, Papaya, has a sophisticated menu influenced by the tropical region and AfroCaribbean culture. They source their food sustainably and locally. As part of their regenerative efforts, they organize cleanups with employees at Cahuita National Park and at the beaches.
Aguas Claras is an easy place to kick back for anyone craving that Caribbean air.
My final stop before heading home was Finca Rosa Blanca Coffee Farm and Inn, which is an Elite member of Costa Rica’s sustainability certification and one of the first carbon-neutral hotels in the country. But it also should be, as owners Glenn and Teri Jampol have been involved in Costa Rica’s sustainable tourism movement virtually from the start, with Glenn Jampol currently serving as chairperson of the Global Ecotourism Network.
Finca Rosa Blanca is a very enchanting luxury stay, which takes you away from the city and into a quiet setting, nestled on their reforested land overlooking their peaceful, organic coffee farm in Santa Barbara. It is a great place to start or end a vacation in Costa Rica.
When asked about its history, Glenn Jampol tells me that the inn was once intended to be their family home. It now offers beautiful, spacious rooms with high ceilings, jacuzzi tubs, local art, and culturally focused murals. Private balconies come with sweeping views of the farm and valley, with San Jose in the distance. Their infinity pool includes a waterfall and is cleaned using ionization.
Their farm-to-table El Tigre Vestido Restaurant resources its food locally and its menu is seasonal, with modern takes on traditional Costa Rican recipes. It has a romantic atmosphere, overlooking their farm, with San Jose off in the distance. The organic coffee tour takes visitors through their entire process of maintaining a shade grown, certified sustainable coffee farm. (While getting the tour, the Finca Rosa Blanca guide, Ulises, and I also did some birding, which felt like the perfect bookend for the trip — 137 different species can be found here.)
A week in Costa Rica only scratches the surface, but it does allow for a glimpse into what they mean by sustainability in tourism, where there is an interplay between systemic changes on a national level and those stakeholders engaged in that mission in some form locally.
Yes, there will be businesses in and out of tourism that are not on board with the country’s vision yet, and this trip only highlighted those that are. And while flying over Selva Bananito in the gyrocopter, for example, Jürgen readily pointed out an alleged illegal logger that had not yet been addressed.
Still, whether you’re a tourist looking for some hotels that are working hard to not just be sustainable, but also regenerative — or if you’re looking to hike through a leafy jungle and spot a few colorful dart frogs — Costa Rica is your place to go.
Just be careful where you put your hands.