News stories that praise Costa Rica’s use of ‘100 percent renewable energy’ for a growing number of days on end are focusing on the fact that the nation laudably generates a great deal (and sometimes all) of its electricity from wind, solar, hydro and sugarcane. As I discovered during a recent visit, the equivalence of ‘electricity’ with ‘energy’ is often made, but make no mistake — for some uses (i.e. cooking/heating) and transportation, natural gas and/or propane or conventional combustion engines are still the norm. A fair number of the diesel-powered buses and trucks are clearly (or rather not clearly) running on older engines. Add to that the beachfront ATVs and jet skis offered to tourists and the country is fast approaching a conundrum: how to balance environmental impact with the economic need to meet the growing number of tourists eager to experience this tropical paradise.
An example: Keeping the paradise ‘pure’ as possible while still allowing access are places such as Sensoria, which offers the chance to enter the rainforest and experience its splendor with minimal footprint. Indeed, the guides insisted that we stay on the carefully laid-out paths and that we touched nothing — neither plant nor animal — except in designated areas where we were allowed/encouraged to swim at the base of waterfalls, for example. Most of these areas were kept in their natural states but one (the thermal pool) did use a wooden barrier to create a larger soaking area.
Costa Rica embraces the night. Rather than light areas to the point of daylight clarity, the lower levels allow for visibility and do not spill outside (or over) the area where light is needed. On the coast where we stayed, the lights were yellow (rather than white) and kept at a distance from the beach to avoid disturbing sea turtles.
Also, I was there for a week and never saw, or was offered, a plastic straw with my beverage.
What about the people? While I have frequently seen litter along roadways in other places (including the US), the cleanliness of the place was impressive. While Liberia (the only city we visited) had a low amount of litter and graffiti (especially compared to other Central American countries and Caribbean Islands I have visited), the countryside was virtually free of roadside refuse. Even the beaches, where things tend to wash up, had very little on the shore (and we woke up early before any workers would have had a chance to clean the beaches, as they do in tourist towns). Indeed, along the coastline in Guanacaste (where we were based), there was remarkably and impressively little detritus from ‘civilization’ to be found.
In some places, there were separate bike lanes along major roads, but even on the smallest (and unpaved) ones, drivers were solicitous and slowed, stopped, even went into the opposite lane for pedestrians and cyclists (as they did for potholes and animals, as well). Part of the reason travel times between places were longer than the distance would indicate (based on US/European perceptions) was the fact that the ‘I have to get there NOW!’ mentality of so many developed nations was simply not there. In fact, I never heard a car horn during the entire visit. In addition, we found many places where roadwork was being done to improve/widen or add culverts and concrete pipes to channel water under (rather than over) the roadways. Although charmingly, this was not always the case.
A few years back, Costa Rica made the decision to eliminate its military; while police are evident and highly visible, the re-focus of money and emphasis on education were clear. Even the smallest towns had schools, all of which were protected with fences and barriers (we were told this is to prevent the child trafficking that plagues other nearby countries). Students in uniforms could be seen walking to their buses, on playgrounds or through open doors and windows in their classrooms.
Back to nature, there is an astounding profusion of plant, animal, bird, sea and insect life everywhere. Life practically explodes in this climate to the delight of both natives (Ticos) and tourists. Indeed, on our way to visit one location, the construction crew that was controlling 1-lane-access as they worked on the other half of the road gestured above so that our driver and guide knew to stop to show us the first of more than a dozen sloths we saw while there. We also saw howler and spider monkeys, parrots, toucans, a pair of nesting Pacific Screen Owls, other birds I couldn’t identify, variegated squirrels, bats, crabs, and a profusion of lizards ranging from tiny to black and green iguanas to crocodiles. Butterflies, dragonflies, beetles, leaf-cutter ants, red-eyed and blue-legged frogs; and, in the ocean, spotted eagle rays, a manta ray, four kinds of puffer fish, sergeant major fish, angel fish, trumpet fish, needlefish, etc.
Clear and clean air has aesthetic as well as health benefits. The lack of light and other pollution made the night sky spectacular (when it wasn’t cloudy). Our first night, at 4am, the stars glittered like diamonds on black velvet. And we could see across the water to land that was 35-40 miles away, and mountains that were even further.
“Pura vida” (“the simple life”) is more than just a catchphrase on t-shirts and tourist ads for Costa Rica — it is how the Ticos describe their lifestyle; it was even a response when I said ‘gracias’ to people. When people call you ‘amigo,’ there is a sense that they really mean it. The smiles of strangers who actually took the time (and effort) to remember our names when we saw them later in the week came off as genuine rather than creepy (or trying to sell something). Pura vida, indeed.
Disclaimer: This is not meant to be the definitive description of the sustainability in Costa Rica, nor is it a comprehensive guide. It is based on my own observations and impressions, centered around the province of Guanacaste. I welcome others’ comments — and if someone offers to make it possible for me to spend longer, go more places and write about it, I’d welcome that, too.