Costa Rica has established itself as a destination for eco-conscious tourists seeking out a sustainable vacation. With its abundant wildlife, famous eco-resorts, and variety of habitats that you can experience through immersive activities that are either athletic or relaxing, it’s no wonder that five of my most conscious friends have visited the country in the past two months alone. Five! EDIT: Make that, like 10, with many people I know attending the Envision Festival this week.
Costa Rica, for the sustainable set, is a thing.
It’s hard to decide which area to visit. When I put it to my Facebook friends, they all came up with different compelling answers. I’m eager to go back a second and third time to see the rest. But for our first trip, my fiancé and I decided to visit the Osa Peninsula, which is on the southwest side of the country, and contains the pristine Corcovado National Park. (This New York Times article made up our minds.) On either side of the park are two main tourist towns: Drake Bay, on the north side of the peninsula, is all walkable. Puerto Jimenez, on the south side, is all bikeable. Drake Bay is more idyllic, but the beach is nicer in Puerto Jimenez. In short, they both have their charms.
The first thing to know about the Osa Peninsula is that it is not an area that has a lot of experience with tourists. And this manifests itself in several charming ways – and some slightly frustrating ways as well. If you enjoy handholding, retail therapy, and/or hard partying, then the Osa Peninsula is not for you. But if you think that Carnival Cruises sounds like the fifth ring of hell, you have no interest in shopping, you want to avoid anyone who is drunk, and you like to stretch and use your muscles when you’re on vacation, then read on.
(If you want something slightly different, my friend Nichole of Green or Die has an excellent guide to Puerto Viejo!)
The Pros and Cons of Osa Peninsula
Con: It’s not a super easy place to access. After you fly into the international airport in San José, you next must either drive six hours to get there, or fly on an eight-seater. We flew into Drake Bay, stayed there for a few days, then got a car transfer over to Puerto Jimenez, where we flew out at the end of our trip. You could do the opposite – it doesn’t matter. But don’t try to fly in and out of the same place if you’re visiting both. Because of the condition of the dirt roads, it takes about two hours and $130 to get a car between them.
Fun fact: If you fly on SANSA to get there, it will be a carbon neutral Flight. SANSA offsets all the emissions from its flights through a government program that protects hectares of primary rainforest on the Osa Peninsula, the very rainforest you will soon be walking through.
Pro: It’s calm and clean. This second leg of the trip has the happy effect of preventing the hard partying frat boys from arriving, and bringing with them their trash and cigarette butts. (We heard when we were leaving that there are tiny clubs right outside of Drake Bay, but we didn’t visit them so we can’t report on them. Our impression is that they were a thing for locals, so we surmised that they might be adorable, hilarious, or magical. Not sure which.) While I can’t say it is utterly free from trash – it’s inhabited by people after all – the litter is sparse and rare, especially compared to what you see in Bali, Thailand, or other destinations in Costa Rica, even.
Pro: They like tourists. For real. The nascent tourist industry on the Osa Peninsula is at that charming stage where they still consider you friends to show around, instead of targets. They just want you to have a good time, and will bend over backward to accommodate your (reasonable) needs and requests. When you book your hotel, they’ll email you and set up all your tours for you ahead of time. There’s hardly any thinking required on your part.
Pro/Con: Everything is super-casual. Nobody seems especially worried about time. Nobody has packed even a sundress, instead just tank tops and shorts. So forget about impressing anyone, throw some shit in your bag and go.
Also, the thought of liability seems not to have occurred to anyone. As opposed to the extensive safety demos you get elsewhere, the liability wavers, the dire warnings of what might happen to you if you fail to follow instructions and do something stupid, on the Osa Peninsula we got perfunctory explanations before diving in. Squeeze means go, pull on the reigns means stop, and off we ride on a horse. Here’s how to climb a slippery waterfall to jump off – oh yeah, don’t be like that girl one time who almost hit the rocks on the way down. I’ll discuss this lax attitude toward scuba diving later.
This casualness is probably because the tour guides are used to sane, athletic, smart people who don’t need babying, since …
Pro: The other tourists are chill. Typical tourists to Osa Peninsula are capable, down-to-earth backpackers, middle-aged intellectuals, and European families, and there aren’t many of them. We didn’t meet any pairs or groups of friends, but many couples, though none on their honeymoon. During our time in Drake Bay, the beach was mostly empty, and we would run into the same people repeatedly, because of its small size. It felt sort of like a half-empty, all inclusive resort, actually, but less cheesy.
Pro: It’s safe. When we arrived, I realized I had forgotten to leave my engagement ring at home. Our resort room didn’t have a safe, so I decided it was better to just keep the ring on my finger, but worried at it for the first couple of days. By the end of the trip, I had decided that any fear of theft I had was overblown. Several times we would leave our stuff with tour operators, including wallets and cameras, and get them all back intact at the end of the tour. My fiancé, Illich, who is from Venezuela and so was initially on guard against crime, was encouraged to leave his brand new Tevas at the entrance of the Corcovado National Park while we hiked. As promised, they were still there hours later when we returned. Mind blowing.
Con: The food is not affordable. Because all the restaurants are for tourists and locals eat at home, a lunch or dinner for two with drinks will set you back $40 to $50. The alternative is to get fresh fruit and an empanada to go at the Drake Bay Minisuper bodega. But for a sit down meal? It’ll cost you.
Con: Much packaging and meat. Also, while the emphasis here is on immersing yourself in nature, the guides haven’t caught up yet to the fact that the kind of people who love nature and animals also tend to dislike processed food, allergens, excessive or plastic packaging, and often animal products. Many tours have lunch and snacks included, and that always involves locally grown fruit that they slice up for you, but also packaged cookies and sugary tea drinks in little plastic bottles. It’s jarring when a guide laments the plastic water bottles washing up on the beach, then hands you a plastic bottle when you stop for a rest. Also, most meals are meat or fish based, and I saw no mention of vegan anything at any point on our trip. True, the meat is not raised in CAFOs here, but for a vegetarian, your options are limited.
What to Do on the Osa Peninsula
Convinced yet? Now that we’ve run over the basics, here’s a comprehensive list of Osa Peninsula activities, from my favorite at the top on down. You can accomplish all these things in seven days if you plan smartly, but I would give yourself eight if you can so you can relax a bit. We had only five days, so I’ve included the things that we wish we had time to do, but did not. If you do them, please comment and tell me how they are!
UPDATE: There’s also a responsible tourism website called Lokal that lists a bunch of locally owned and operated experiences. I definitely recommend it!
1. Take a guided day hike into the Corcovado National Park. This is why people come to the Osa Peninsula. This national park has primary (never been cut) rainforest filled with beautiful birds, fascinating insects, and the famous but elusive tapir. Hardcore backpackers will hike from ranger station to ranger station over about eight hours, camping each night. Good for them – we did not do that. Instead, we stayed at a casual resort then got a tour guide to take us to the park for a half day hike. Corcovado lies between Puerto Jimenez, the main town on the southern tip of the peninsula, and Drake Bay, on the northern side. So you can get to it with about an hour’s boat ride from either town. Our experienced guide brought along a scope and a laser point, peering through the lush foliage as we walked and stopping to point out everything from a tiny lizard to a half dozen species of birds to a whole herd of wild boar crashing through the brush. He even managed to find a tapir snoozing in a mud hole. Not every tourist gets to see that. Make sure to reserve your hike before you arrive, through your hotel. I recommend our guide, Steven from Utopia Drake Tours.
2. Wade out into the bioluminescent algae. This one doesn’t last for more than an hour, but it’s worth it! You can only do it when the moon is new, so that it’s not too bright on the water. The local man about town, Pacheco, will take you out into the water, where the bioluminescent algae glow and spin away from your hands like sparks when you move through the water. Because this algae is hypersensitive to pollution, it’s a magical experience that only happens in pristine waters, which are getting rarer and rarer.
3. Stay the night in a platform 40 feet up in the primary rainforest canopy. We were grateful we had taken a tour of the park, because that night we stayed in primary rainforest outside of Drake Bay on an open air platform, nothing in between us and the wildlife but a mosquito net. It was nice to know that the sounds we heard weren’t from bloodthirsty animals. Our bioluminescent guide, Pacheco, owns the platform, and when he saw that we are an adventurous couple, he offered us the chance to stay there. He dropped us off at 6 pm with a stockpile of food, beer, wine, and candles, and we bedded down for the night, listening to the jungle symphony around us until 8 am the next morning, when one of his sons came to pick us up. It was an unforgettably romantic night.
4. Float down the river to a series of secret waterfalls. This one is also put on by the enterprising Pacheco. When his son picked us up from the platform, we handed our bags over to Pacheco’s friend before we were driven to a hiking path through primary rainforest. We spent about 45 minutes frolicking in and jumping off of a waterfall with two other couples, then pulled our lifejackets on upside down like diapers – giggling at the absurdity – to take a leisurely float down the river. When we approached the mouth of the river, our guide led us up a series of waterfalls, each one more secluded than the next, until we swam under an arch and found ourselves in a grotto. I mean, that is why you come to Costa Rica. That right there.
5. Go on a horseback ride to a secluded waterfall. For this, a guide who spoke zero English showed up to the beach by our hotel with three horses and a little black dog, then led us through Drake Bay’s tiny downtown, down some country roads, and up a shallow, rocky river until we reached a gorgeous waterfall after about an hour of riding. It was just me, my fiancé, our guide, and the dog splashing around in the shallows. It felt really special. On the way back, seeing I was handy with a horse, my guide gave me his more spirited animal and let me canter across the beach to our hotel. I’ve always wanted to gallop along the beach, so I’ll cross that off my bucket list. We also reserved this through our hotel ahead of arriving.
5. Visit a sustainable cacao farm. Finca Kobo is a sustainable cacao farm outside of Puerto Jimenez. It’s not certified organic, but it basically is, practicing diversity and eschewing pesticides and herbicides for natural pest and weed control. On our tour, a guide used his little machete to slice up fresh fruit to share with us as he explained how the farm uses biodiversity to its advantage, instead of monocultures like all the palm plantations we saw on our drive from Drake Bay. At the end of the tour, after observing how they process cacao into chocolate, we were treated to a spread of fruit and dark chocolate fondue. Finca Kobo also has lodgings, if you would like to stay the night and have more chocolate and fresh fruit for breakfast! The car ride to and from there from our resort was pricey, but they have a bus that runs the route, as long as you are fairly flexible.
7. Lay on a nearly empty beach. Exhausted yet? We were, so we treated ourselves to one full day lounging on Plantanaras Beach in Puerto Jimenez. We got our driver to stop downtown so we could pick up some beers and snacks for the cooler our resort lent us, and drove down down a long, bumpy road until we got to Iguana Lodge, an upscale-ish resort on the water. When we arrived, there were a total of two other people that we could see. We clambered into some shaded hammocks, and – save for a dip in the warm water – didn’t move for the rest of the day.
6. Have dinner at an eco resort on the beach. Like I said, food is not cheap on Osa Peninsula, so make it worth it! We ate at several restaurants, but our favorite meal of the trip was the one we had at the end of our beach day, when we wandered from the beach into the open-air restaurant attached the Iguana Lodge and had fresh fish and amazing guava cocktails.
Almost all the resorts on Osa Peninsula include an open-air restaurant with excellent food, so I suggest you decide which resorts you want to have dinner at, then have your resort call ahead to make a reservation the day before. We really wanted to have dinner at a gorgeous eco resort in Drake Bay, La Paloma Lodge, but were turned away. They only make exactly as much food as they need, so they don’t waste any.
9. Go scuba diving or snorkeling at Caño Island. Scuba diving and snorkling are both worthy activities. But I put them near the bottom of my list for a couple reasons. One, the underwater landscape here is not nearly as vibrant as many other destinations, such as Belize, the Great Barrier Reef, etc. We did see some sea turtles and some interesting fish, but the color was desaturated, and I actually started to get a bit bored! The other reason I put it near the bottom of the list is because the casualness of the instruction freaked me out a little. Usually they spend a couple hours painstakingly going over all the ways you could die during scuba diving. Not here. After our instructor showed us the hand signals and how to blow out our respirator and masks if they filled with water, he told me to go ahead and flop over the side of the boat. My respirator hit the water and started spraying everywhere, and my fiancé had a mild panic attack as he started sinking under the water because of an underinflated vest. After the instructor fixed that and calmed my fiancé down, he took us underwater, showing us what to do as we went. My fiancé now had an overinflated vest, and started to float away before I swam over to the instructor and tugged on his fin to get him to notice. So … yeah. For the second dive, I decided to go snorkeling instead.
Things we wanted to do, but didn’t have time for:
10. Zipline through the canopy.
11. Take a night tour of the forest.
12. Go on a whale or dolphin watching tour.
Do You Wish All Vacations Were So Sustainable?
In the spirit of turning our energy outward to affect broad change that means all tourists will be sustainable, not just concerned readers like yourself, here are some ways you can support some crucial movements:
1. Support Cap and Trade. You shouldn’t feel like a dick every time you fly somewhere. With cap and trade, an economic scheme in which total emissions would be capped, and companies who want to burn more could buy credits from companies who can burn less, you could fly knowing that somewhere else, someone is burning less. Learn more.
2. Support extended producer responsibility. Does the litter on beaches make you said? Support a scheme where producers of plastic bottles and cigarettes and everything else that washes up onshore would have to take responsibility for their disposal, either by taking them back when you are done at collection points, and/or designing with an eye to make recycling and reuse easy and economical. Costa Ricans shouldn’t have to pay to clean up Hershey’s candy wrappers, Hershey should! Learn more.
3. Support an effort to get a wild land or marine area protected. Osa Peninsula is as magical as it is because it holds a large protected area full of wildlife. There should be more places like that. You can start by reading this book, or just choosing a local or international should-be-protected area and throwing your support behind it with donations, petition signatures, etc.
4. Get involved in efforts to limit or ban unsustainable palm oil production. During our tour of the sustainable cacao farm, our guide informed us that Costa Rica’s biggest monoculture crop is palm, for palm oil. While the problems with Central American palm oil production aren’t as serious as in Southeast Asia, it’s still terrible for the diversity of Costa Rica. According to the Union of Concerned Scientists, only 15% of the biodiversity remains when rainforest is converted to a palm oil plantation. Learn more at the anti-palm oil blog Selva Beat.