Adventures in Costa Rica

Margaret Atkins MunroLet's Talk About MoneyLeave a Comment

I have just returned from a week in Costa Rica, where the roads are bad, the food is fabulous, and the scenery is indescribable. I took a break from the winter chaos of my life, from the leaky plumbing and ice dams, and especially from my desk, buried under the weight of hundreds of tax files. Instead, I hiked through the rainforest, went nose-to-nose with inquisitive monkeys, watched birds and butterflies (and watched people watching birds and butterflies, which was almost as much fun), and mostly basked in the very warmth and humidity I’ll be cursing come July and August.

Besides swimming in the Pacific, and lounging in hot springs and under waterfalls, I kept my eyes and ears open. Because for me, a great part of the joy of travel is seeing how others live, how they deal with life’s challenges. And while a week spent with a group of Americans on a bus tour hardly gives one the full flavor and reality of a place, I did see far more than the four types of monkeys native to Costa Rica.

I learned, for example, that the Costa Ricans would far rather have the American dollar than the Costa Rican colón. Prices everywhere were quoted in dollars, and when you opted to pay in the local currency, you paid far more than the stated exchange rate. Costa Rica has a relatively high rate of inflation, and the dollar is a more stable currency than the colón.

I saw very clearly how dependent Costa Rica is on tourism, particularly ecotourism, and how much it has suffered from the worldwide recession. Unfortunately, when individuals feel economically threatened, non-essentials are jettisoned; vacations top that list. So hotels were not full –and this was President’s Day week, which is the traditional school break for most of the U.S.—restaurants were mostly empty, and the souvenir shops, which should have been bustling with business, were mostly still.

I saw a country that has been aggressive in its attempts to preserve biodiversity; almost ¼ of the land mass of Costa Rica is federally protected land and not available for development, and Costa Rica boasts an impressive array of all forms of wildlife, from iguanas, caimans and crocodiles to scorpions and the ever-present cucaracha. Orchids and hibiscus grow wild in the rainforest, blue morpho butterflies abound, and there appeared to be a three-toed sloth in almost every tree. At the same time, though, since so much of the country is not available for development, the resources necessary to maintain the infrastructure are not as abundant. Dirt roads cover much of the country, and they’re in very poor condition; destruction from an earthquake in January, 2009 was extensive, and much of that damage has not yet been repaired, due in no small part to the drop in the number of tourist dollars spent.

I also couldn’t help but notice how much of the Costa Rican economy was built around U.S. needs. Bananas, pineapple, coffee and sugar cane, grown for export to the U.S., were abundant, but at a cost. In order to feed our insatiable desire for lattes and smoothies, their rain forests are being clear cut, and toxic fertilizers and pesticides used, in order to increase yields and exports and keep the flow of U.S. dollars pouring into the country. Something like 500 species, most of them insects, per year are becoming extinct, due to the loss of natural habitat.

Most of all, I saw a country, the size of West Virginia, that is making a concerted effort to be respectful of its land, its resources, and its people. In fact, Costa Rica has pledged to become carbon neutral by 2021. Everywhere you looked, there were signs: mostly tiny houses, air conditioning only for the tourists, biodegradable soaps and shampoos, local produce and fish (if I never see sea bass again on a menu, it will be too soon). People biked up impossibly steep mountains, and walked along the side of the road (no sidewalks to be seen), but most cars seemed to be planted in driveways. We were constantly urged to look, but not touch, whether on a coffee plantation, or walking along the rim of an active volcano.

At the week’s end, I left behind the squirrel monkeys staring in my hotel window, the cloud forest with its lush, green tropical vegetation and its most elusive inhabitant, the Resplendent Quetzal with its multi-colored plumage, and all of Costa Rica’s other Technicolor™ glories, paid my $26 departure tax (you can’t leave the country without it), and came home to a wintry monochrome reality of snowstorms, gale winds, and work piled high and deep on my desk. My vacation was extraordinary—a true departure from my everyday life. But it was more – it was a look into a world that may hold answers for our own questions about our place on this planet, both economic and ecologic, and the exquisite, but necessary, balance we must strike between the two.