13 November 2009

Costa Rica - Final Thoughts

Costa Rica is unlike its Central American brethren for one striking reason: it has no standing army. This means there have been no military coups, destructive civil wars, or much American meddling. Instead, it has poured its political power into the environment and the well-being of its citizens. What a novel concept.

Costa Rica is known for its vast and diverse parks, abundant wildlife and eco-tourism opportunities. Through personal experiences and conversations with locals, rangers, and visitors, I have come to the following conclusions.

     Costa Rica has done:
  • An excellent job promoting eco-tourism (Everybody KNOWS about Costa Ricas parks and adventure playgrounds, even if they haven't been here).  
  • An admirable job protecting these parks (While other countries were declaring war, Costa Rica was declaring new parks)
  • A mediocre job in managing them (Bad communication with users, few educational/research opportunities, very expensive user fees, no maps, generally horrible trail conditions, no websites)
  • A poor job in protecting the area around the parks (Complete lack of planning has led to huge hotels built right on the park borders, no buffer parks, unhealthy activities like ATV, roads, and logging). This last point is particularly poignent because many people are now claiming that "eco-tourism" is actually ruining the environment.
Overall, we really liked Costa Rica. The food was good (not great). Prices here were more expensive than anywhere else, but we still never paid more than $10 for a bus ticket or $20 for a private double room. Plus, we were able to camp more (free!) and we didn't need to hire "guides" for safety. Parks were empty (and sometimes closed) because we went in the off season. We didn't feel insecure or trapped, and people were very friendly. We could drink water from the tap and eat the fruits and veggies.

Finally, we had a fantastic time with our friend from Davis, Carlos, who hosted us in San Jose. His family made us feel at home, didn't make us feel weird when we were forced to do weird things to get rid of bed bugs, and invited us to a giant family gathering where we ate well and played games. His mom is thoroughly an excellent cook.

The question that nags us is: What exactly is eco-tourism? How do you know if the place you give your money to actually follows said practices? When does your visitation actually bring more harm than good? Please share your thoughts via Comments. Thanks!

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