Costa Rica is known as the Switzerland of Central America – it has the region’s longest history of political stability, its soundest economy and highest standard of living. During the past decades, it has also become somewhat of a Mecca for ecotourists – with a well-deserved reputation.
Costa Rica has a relatively small landmass spanning 51,000 square kilometres, similar in size to Denmark. This central American nation is sandwiched between the Pacific ocean and Caribbean, and shares land boarders with Panama to the South and Nicaragua to the North. As of 2015, Costa Rica had a population a tick over 5 million inhabitants, the capital of San Jose is home to 1.4 million people.
The country can boast more than a quarter of its territory as protected national park and forest reserve, and is justly proud of its enlightened environmental policy. Most of the national parks and conservation areas are easily accessible, and provide some of the continent’s best chances of encountering a bewildering array of exotic (and occasionally endangered) plant and animal species.
In 2014, 2.5 million international tourists visited Costa Rica, a figure which has increased rapidly over the past decade. In addition to the spectacular national parks, you can make trips to active volcanoes and hot springs, and then, of course, there isn’t just one ‘rich coast’ to see (here, decidedly, ends the Swiss comparison).
Both Costa Rica’s Caribbean and Pacific shores are lined with beautiful beaches (turtle-nesting included). Costa Rica is rich in local cultures, and you can feel the change as you move around – from the sabanero ‘cowboy’ culture of the northwest to the Afro- Caribbean feel of the east coast. Overwhelmingly, though, you will be impressed by the warmth and friendliness of the Costa Ricans, or ‘ticos’.
Ethical Travel Issues and advice
Sex Tourism & Drugs:
Sexual tourism is a serious threat with more than 50,000 sex tourists visiting Costa Rica annually, according to a report recently published in local newspaper “La Nacion”. Prostitution is often mixed with drug trafficking networks and in many cases involves minors. “Costa Rican women and children are subjected to sex trafficking within the country, being more vulnerable those living in coastal areas of northern and central Pacific” reads a report by the U.S State Department.
The international sex industry flourishes when first-world tourists holiday in faraway playgrounds and look for cheap sex – doing what they would not do at home in a fantasy world of moonlit nights on hot beaches. Children are particularly vulnerable and the international organization ECPAT campaigns to protect children from commercial sexual exploitation. HIV infection rates are also sometimes attributed to tourism. Tourists bring infection to remote places; infection rates flourishes alongside sex tourism.
Similarly, the tourist trade provides an infrastructure in which the drugs trade can flourish. Good communications systems provided by tourism make life convenient for drug traffickers. The social impact of tourism goes beyond the crude effects of drugs and sex. The arrogance of Western tourists who bring their own moral codes on holiday with them and expect locals to embrace them can create serious dislocation to distant cultures. Just seeing tourists wear inappropriate clothes can make local people feel marginalised.
Costa Rican indigenous population:
The Costa Rican indigenous population are behind in basic rights such as access to education, technology and labor while discrimination is still a serious problem. In Alto Telire of Talamanca, drugs have become a problem affecting this community. The “Law on Autonomous Development of Indigenous Peoples of Costa Rica” guarantee a multicultural education, in both the Spanish and the indigenous language be taught while contents of the educational programs in the country should include the contributions of indigenous cultures will be taken.
Privatisation of beaches & Displacement of local peoples:
Tourism development has caused many communities to be forcibly displaced. Indigenous groups, people living in informal settlements, or people who lack official title deeds to their lands are particularly vulnerable to displacement or loss of access to lands and waters essential for their livelihoods. This often happens with little or no warning, compensation or alternative provision.
Governments and private companies have forced many tribal peoples from their ancestral lands to make way for national parks and so called ‘eco-tourism’. Fishing communities are removed from their coastal villages and blocked from accessing the sea as hotels are built and beaches are privatised, destroying livelihoods and traditional ways of life. Informal settlements are bulldozed under beautification projects in the lead up to major international sporting events.
Privatization of beaches, although illegal in Costa Rica, has also become a problem. Public roads that are theoretically open to all people but which in reality are close with gates or guards paid by hoteliers, banning local people from passing, an example is in Guanacaste Bahia Pez Vela. Additionally, it has been reported favoritism in the granting of concessions to various legal entities that are controlled by the same people.
To learn more check out the following Tourism Concern articles on Land displacement:
Travelling presents an opportunity to photograph in lots of different destinations and situations, but sometimes there may be culturally sensitive issues to think about before reaching for the camera or other photo-taking device. There are lots of people in the world who do not have clean water, electricity, schooling or enough to eat, let alone access to mobile telephones, the internet and printed media, so they have no idea where their photograph may end up or how it could be used. Sadly, in this day and age, child prostitution, child trafficking and other crimes against children are facilitated via the Internet, and photography can play an unwitting and innocent role. Photography and its use is no longer straight forward, so perhaps it is time to stop and think a little about the ethics of photography.
Taking photos of friendly people of Costa Rica can be a highlight for many travellers and photographers. Smiles are universal ways to engage, as is showing people the photo you just took of them. If you show an interest in their work or ask them questions, they’ll be happy to have their picture taken. In some touristy places it has become common for people to ask for money for their photos to be taken. Do as you wish, but a photo of someone you shared a laugh with may have a better lasting impression than one you paid for. Don’t forget the same holds true for any porters and guides that may help you along the way. Take an interest in them and you’ll be rewarded with more great photo opportunities.
To learn more check out the following Tourism Concern articles on ethical photography: https://tourismconcern.wpengine.com/ethical-photography/
Celebrations that are not part of the culural heritage of the country have become more popular in recent years, maybe because of influence of the 70,000 americans living in the country by 2013. U.S festivities like Halloween and Thanksgiving have become more common; many stores are now celebrating the famous U.S. black Friday tradition. Fast food and big brand stores have visibly replaced many small stores and restaurants, favoured by a new generation of Costa Ricans.
Turtle egg lay watching: A recent massive intrusion of tourists in the biggest turtle migration to Ostional Beach has set an alarm on how observers can interrupt this delicate process. Turtles where not able to lay their eggs due to the amount of tourist that congregate on the beach to watch them. Therefore it is recommended to remember not to get too close to the turtles and not to use a flashlight on them when laying their eggs.
Turtle egg consumption: A quota has been set for turtle egg consumption in Ostional in the Pacific, a major hatching beach for Olive Ridley (Lepidochelys olivacea) turtles. However its consumption is not encouraged as there is a big black market benefiting from the quota, therefore we advised not to consume turtle eggs or its meat, common to find in the Caribbean.
Laws on Game Hunting & Cockfighting:
In December 2012, Costa Rica became the first Latin American country to ban hunting as a sport, following a unanimous and final vote in Congress. Some of the country’s most desirable animals are jaguars, pumas and sea turtles. Under this new law, those caught hunting can face fines of up to $3,000 or up to four months in jail. Penalties will also be imposed for anyone stealing wild animals or keeping them as pets.
Environment activist Diego Marin summed up: “We’re not just hoping to save the animals but we’re hoping to save the country’s economy, because if we destroy the wildlife there, tourists are not going to come anymore.” Around 300,000 tourists each year visit the country’s national parks.
However, Costa Rica also banned cockfighting in 1922 but an underground market still exists, mainly practiced in rural areas of the country. Concerns have been raised about dog fighting while legislation has been strengthened by the recent approval of new legislation condemning animal abuse.
See more at Right Tourism; http://right-tourism.com/issues/cruel-sports/game-hunting/#sthash.IZtKo2sA.dpbs
According to Right Tourism, in 2012, President Chinchilla signed an executive order banning shark finning in Costa Rica’s coastal waters. The new decree amends previous legislation that outlawed shark finning but continued to allow the transportation and importation of fins from other countries. Penalties under the ban include fines and the cancellation of fishing licenses for those who are caught finning sharks. Read more here.
Shark finning is the cruel practice of cutting off the shark’s fin, after which the shark is typically thrown overboard and left to die in the water. Fins are most often sold to the Asian market, where they are considered a delicacy.
Costa Rica is not exempt of wildlife trafficking; international tourists have been caught trying to leave with as much as 400 live animals through the International Airport. Less common is too see locals selling exotic species to tourists however it can happen, especially in rural areas. Denounce to the local authorities if you see anyone selling any form of wildlife.
Costa Rica has a version of bullfighting where the bull is not killed but tease by a crowd that joins the bull in the arena. Some consider it cruel to tease the animal, however it is common in rural and city fairs, especially popular in December’s “Corridas de Toros de Zapote”.
Tourism developments in dry areas like Guanacaste where large golf courses and big all-inclusive hotels have been built, contributing to the overexploitation of water resources, affecting local communities. Examples of these disputes are Conchal, Papagayo and Sardinal of Carrillo. Adding to the problem, many municipalities don’t have the capacity to manage domestic and industrial sewage and solid waste like plastic bottles therefore, and given the water in Costa Rica is generally save to drink, we advise you to re-use your water bottle and avoid plastics.
Destruction of local ecosystem for Tourism Development:
Tamarindo beach, in Santa Cruz de Guanacaste, 250 miles north of San Jose was once home to monkeys, turtles and other rare wildlife. This stretch of coast in northwest Costa Rica has experienced rapid tourism development and its reputation of a pristine natural destination is quickly being tarnished.
In 2008, it was reported that the countries reputation for natural parks, was being replaced by a vision of pungent brown sewage spewing into the Pacific ocean and in the background, cranes put up hotels and beachfront apartments. So what caused this rapid change? It is believed that the biggest stimulus came when the airport at nearby Liberia began handling international flights – the little-known Guanacaste province was all of a sudden within three hours of Miami.
National Parks or Mining?
Threats to the National Parks include illegal mining and artisanal gold digging which in some cases, like in Corcovado National Park, seems more industrial than artisanal; today there are 400 oreros within the park. Mangroove’s are also under constant threat, like in the case of Brasilito and Playa Potrero, also in Puntarenas, where poor coastal planning is one of the causes.
Climate Change Threats:
WWF reports that sea level rise, weather and climatic variability are very likely to have impacts on availability of drinking water in the Pacific coast penetrating 150 m to 500m affecting 60%-90% of urban areas.
Amphibianas are also at risk of extinction in mountain habitats due to climate-change induced disease outbreaks with temperature increase of 0.6°C above pre-industrial levels.
Mesoamerican coral reef is expected to be threatened, with consequences over a number of endangered species: e.g. the green, hawksbill and loggerhead turtles, the West Indian manatee and the American and Motelet’s species of crocodile with warmer Sea Surface Temperature of 1°C-3°C by the 2080s.
Climate in Costa Rica is as varied as its biodiversity. The weather is generally classified as “dry or high season” or “wet or green season”. With the Pacific Ocean on one side and the Caribbean Sea on the other, and the mountain range in the middle of the country, temperatures can range from 10C- 36C across the regions.
Rainy season lasts from May to November, with Septemeber and Octuber having the most rain fall. Dry Season goes from December to April, March and May being the warmest months with temperatures up to 36C in the north Pacific and 26C in the Central Valley.
The Caribbean side, Limon, seems to have its own unique rules where it is very humid and it can rain any time of the the year. Throughout the year, the sun rises between 5:30-5:45 am and sets at about 5:30-6:00pm.
Costa Rica is known for containing 6% of the world’s biodiversity with a system of National Parks and Biological Reserves covering an area of 1342 hectares (25.6% of its land). These areas include a variety of ecosystems: tropical rainforests, deciduous forests, cloud forest and mangrove forest.
Home to more than 500,000 species, including around 300,000 insects, the geographical position of the country acted like a bridge for the flora and fauna from the North and the South Continent to mix 3-5 million years ago. Biologists divide the regions in twelve climatic zones, home to a big diversity of species.
People in Costa Rica are very friendly and prompt to help, however not very good with confrontation – avoiding using the word “no” and substituting it for “maybe” or “tomorrow”. The phrase “Pura Vida”, literally “Pure Life” is used as a good morning, hello, good-bye, question and answer to the question depending on the tone used.
“Tico-time” is a well-known expression used in the country, which merely means that people will be late for around 30 minutes to the appointment at hand, unless it is a work related duty. It is always polite to bring a bottle of wine or hard liquor to a party and even something to snack on will be welcome.
Costa Rica is a catholic country and it can be very conservative with some subjects. Historically, a machista or male-dominant society, men don’t feel shy of openly complimenting women on the street. Sometimes this “compliments” are inoffensive, but others can be extremely inappropriate.
Costa Rican cuisine revolves around rice and beans. Presented in the form of “Gallo Pinto” for breakfast, re-fried beans mixed with rice and coriander and most likely “Lizano Sauce”. For lunch, rice and beans are presented in the form of a “Casado”, usually served with your choice of meat, chicken or fish with side dishes that varies from green salad, ripe fried plantain, a fried egg on top and even some pasta sometimes!
In the Caribbean, the local version is called “Rice and Beans” (in English) where the beans and the rice are cooked in coconut milk and served with spicy chicken or fish.
In all beach areas you can find fresh seafood and the famous Latin-American “Ceviche” in its Tico version. Fresh fruits and juices tend to accompany every meal as appetizers or desserts. Desserts like dulce de leche, cajetas, tres leches and others are widely offered and enjoyed.
Other spoken languages, although not so commonly heard around, are the indigenous peoples languages: Bribri, Maleku, Guaymí, Cabécar and Boruca.
In Limon, on the Caribbean Coast, most of its inhabitants are of Jamaican origin and a dialect called “patua” by the locals is widely spoken.
Catholicism is the state religion, with 76.3% of Costa Ricans identifying as Catholic. An additional 13.7% are Evangelical Christians, 1.3% are Jehovah’s Witness, and 0.7% are Protestant Christian. The remaining 8% either have no religion (3.2%) or are of other faiths (4.8%), including Mormonism, Judaism and Islam.
Every town in Costa Rica is home to at least one Catholic church, and Sunday Mass is an event for many specially in small towns. However, the country’s youngest generations are mostly secular and tend to practice the official religion on specific dates like the “Holy Week” (the week of Easter), Christmass and August 2nd when the “Romeria” takes place.
“La Romeria” is a religious holiday where devotees walk their way to the Patron’s Basilica de Cartago. Most fondly referred as “La Negrita de Cartago”, Costa Ricans are very devoted and some walk for weeks until reaching the church to see have a glimpse at “La Negrita”.