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As seen in Transitions Abroad Magazine March/April 2001
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Family Travel

Family Ecotourism in Costa Rica

Story by Katie Fawcett

Summer 1999. We were thinking ahead to spring break 2000. My son Dylan wanted to go to the rainforest. He dreamt of monkeys and cavorting in the treetops with creatures who spend their entire lives never touching the ground. I was hesitant at first, but after adding my own visions of being awakened by exotic bird song and rocked to sleep by the night rains, I was sold on the idea.

There was only one problem: My husband Michael’s idea of a rustic retreat in the wild is a cottage at the Greenbrier and a few days of fishing in some quasi-isolated trout stream: a package deal with gourmet meals and air conditioning.

What to do? I spent several months searching for the perfect vacation—an “Indiana Jones” adventure with monkeys in the trees and air conditioning in the house. After much research and consideration I settled on Costa Rica. We didn’t want to be regular tourists; we wanted a trip that would be an educational and cultural experience to broaden our own world without disrupting the world of others.

The trip I finally chose was an ecotour especially designed for families through Thomson Family Adventures in Boston (see page 45). We were assured that we would learn about the local culture, immerse ourselves in an awesome natural environment, and contribute to local conservation efforts—not exactly an “Indy” adventure, but with some of the same sights and sounds and scents. While Dylan and I explored biological reserves in the northern zone of the Caribbean lowlands and in the mountainous cloud forests along the continental divide, Michael could sit back, secure in the knowledge that the airstrip was only a few kilometers away. We were two groups, eight families total: 12 children and 12 adults, plus two drivers, two local guides, and two teacher/mentors for the children.

Ten Days Later . . .

We left for the trip home with both wondrous images and serious concerns. Will this kind of trip still be possible 25 years from now? Currently, an astonishing 27 percent of Costa Rican land is designated as national park, biological reserve, wildlife refuge, or other protected area. However, Costa Rica’s admirable conservation efforts are conflict with the country’s economic development. In the past few years, environmentalists from around the world have come to Costa Rica to support the country’s ecological efforts, but it is not clear yet whether it will be the conservationists or the big developers who prevail in the end.

Tourism fuels both fires: It encourages the leveling of forests for golf courses and resorts, but it also supports the preservation of rainforests. Costa Rica is currently among the most popular ecotourism destinations in the world. More than half a million tourists visit this tiny country every year. Some come to surf the spectacular waves off Jaco Beach; others come to see the famous mountains of fire (there are nine active volcanoes and some 200 dormant and extinct ones); fishermen come in search of tarpon, snook, gar, white drum, bobo, mojarra, and other exotic species. A few people come to San Jose on business. It is the ecotourists to Costa Rica who support the national parks system most—by staying at the private reserves and by working for and making contributions to the many foundations working to preserve rainforests around the world.

Will Costa Rica become a successful environmental model for the nations of the world or another failed experiment in ecological idealism? It’s hard to tell. But I like to believe that 25 years hence a traveler may still find howler monkeys playing in the big fig trees along the Sarapiqui River and machaca fish dancing in the early morning sunlight. It is wishful thinking, perhaps, but I also want to believe the green sea turtles will always come back to Tortuguero to lay their eggs.

As for us, we tried to leave the forest as we had found it, devoid of any evidence of our presence. Though we may have left a few boot prints behind in the muddy Caribbean lowlands, I doubt it, since I cannot recall a single moment during those nine days in the rainforest when our feet actually touched the ground.

KATIE FAWCETT writes from McLean, VA.

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