Focusing on Sustainability in Costa Rica

sustainability in costa rica

Today’s Culture with Travel guest post is by Carmel

When I first moved to Costa Rica, as an 18-year-old straight out of high school, I knew no one there. I spoke only enough Spanish to ask directions for the bus and I relied solely on the address of the small lodge where I would be working for the next few months.

I had already been accepted to a university program to study hotel administration but instead of heading off to college in September like my peers, I deferred my acceptance and took off to Costa Rica. In the nine months I spent working in sustainable tourism, I discovered my calling: using tourism as an agent of social, environmental, and economic change.

Despite my limited Spanish and upbringing in the concrete jungle of New York City, I made it to the real jungle of Monteverde, Costa Rica, where I began working at a ten-room sustainable lodge. Karla, the woman who cleaned the lodge and cooked breakfast spoke no English. I learned Spanish while she taught me how to cook Costa Rican specialties using ingredients we grew in the back yard. The only things I could say in Spanish for the first few months were about food. I made friends with locals who taught me to identify birdcalls and various plant species. I met travelers from around the world. One was a renowned bubble blower from Spain, and a bat expert from Belgium (who had moved to Costa Rica because of the large variety of bat species).

making friends in Costa Rica
Carmel making friends in Costa Rica

Over the course of the nine months I spent in Costa Rica, I worked at three hotels. I developed a sustainability initiative for a yoga retreat and created sustainability tips to post around the property. I interned for a luxury hotel and wrote a report for their Level 5 Certificate for Sustainable Tourism. Learning that sustainability is not limited to mitigating environmental impact, I planned events to engage the local community. I fell in love with sustainable tourism, the country, and the culture. I witnessed how Costa Rica uses tourism to protect the environment and improve the economy, without sacrificing “pura vida (pure life)” culture or natural capital. Traveling to other countries in the region, I wondered why they were not able to capitalize on tourism in the same way.

sustainability: Red-eyed tree frogs aren't poisonous despite their brilliant colors
Photo via Carmel: Red-eyed tree frogs aren’t poisonous despite their brilliant colors.

I have been studying hotel administration for two years, learning about the business side of the tourism industry. I have heard stories of both the good and the bad that tourism can do. From destroying mangroves to build beachfront resorts to developing tourism schools in rural communities to give locals opportunities to earn higher wages, tourism makes an impact. My personal goal is to combine the passion I developed for sustainable tourism in Costa Rica with the business skills I am learning at school to help expand economies, benefit local people, and preserve environments through tourism.

But as travelers, it is also up to us to decide what impact tourism will have. For example, a round-trip flight from the USA to Costa Rica releases 0.52 metric tons of CO2. But, by paying to hike through a nature reserve, you can contribute to planting new trees.

So, what can you do to make sure your trip emphasizes sustainability?

First, spend money and be generous where it counts. Even if you’re on a budget, think of your trip as an invitation to stay at someone’s home. But, you wouldn’t go without a gift. My favorite spot to eat out in Costa Rica was at a women’s co-op. There, local women ran a restaurant and also sold their handmade crafts. When it came time to find gifts to bring back home, I knew exactly where to go.

Second, find a locally-owned hotel, hostel, or Airbnb to stay at. While looking for sustainability certifications like LEED is a good strategy, a lot of smaller hotels and lodges don’t have the money to become certified. But, don’t rule them out. Some of my favorite experiences have been at locally-owned hotels. One favorite was Hostel Mama Sara in Nicaragua. Mama Sara welcomed us with homemade lemonade and soup.

Third, volunteer. “Voluntourism” has gotten a bad rap and for good reason. While a lot of volunteer abroad projects don’t meet local needs and aren’t the most efficient methods of altruism, do it for yourself. I volunteered a local school in Costa Rica. I met wonderful people, learned how to dance by a 7th grader, and gained a better understanding of the community. A well-sourced volunteer project will bring you closer to the community and make you more empathetic. P.S. You don’t have to wait until the flight lands to volunteer – start at home.

Last, tip the housekeeper. In Costa Rica, housekeepers make around $2-3/hour. In Mexico, housekeepers make around $4-6/day. One of my favorite experiences – when I interned at a resort in Mexico – was working alongside a housekeeper, Lidia. She was the hardest working person I ever met. By the time I had finished sweeping the floor, she had finished cleaning the rest of the room to perfection. If you need to skimp on something, don’t let it be cash tips. Housekeepers, servers, bellmen, and others generously welcome you to their country and home.

Author Bio: Carmel is a rising junior at Cornell University studying Hotel Administration from New York City. She has worked for eight hotels in four different countries, and is passionate about using tourism as an agent of environmental, social, and economic change. She loves salsa dancing, theater, and of course, traveling! Connect with her here.

Let us know what you think