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Costa Rica

Rural community tourism is thriving in Costa Rica. Paul Belz describes how ecotourism, agriculture and wildlife conservation are growing hand in hand.

A Costa Rican bus carried my partner Kate and me from the agricultural city of Alejuela to the volcanic countryside around Bijagua. We traveled through heavily forested valleys and towns of pink, gold, and lavender houses. Vendors sold Cokes, pork rinds, and fruit we couldn’t name.

Bijagua included an internet café, a secondary school, several hotels, produce markets, and a barber shop called ‘The Modern Haircut’. We browsed a women’s collective craft store that sold colorful earrings made from soda can rings and bottle caps. Small brown and yellow birds called “Kiskadee!” from electric wires. Pure white butterflies danced with chocolate brown ones. Dogs ran out of tidy gardens to bark shrilly while cicadas rumbled like tambourines. It’s easy for travelers to believe that gorgeous, stable Costa Rica is a paradise!

The country works hard to preserve wild ecosystems, but forests have been cut to support ranches and plantations. Both deforestation and extreme poverty have been major challenges facing the country.


Foreign interests that dominate Costa Rican agriculture have contributed to these issues. The coffee industry connected this country with the world economy in the 1800s and early 1900s. This situation led to consolidation of agricultural land in fewer hands, and the development of plantations focusing on one crop.

Monocultural pineapple plantations still control much of the Caribbean coast, while palm oil is a major crop near the Pacific and on the southwestern Osa peninsula. Palm oil is used in margarine and cooking oils, cosmetics, soaps, shampoos, and biofuels. Its production has been implicated in deforestation, and in child and international migrant labor issues.

The government promoted the development of tree plantations on the Osa Peninsula and in other regions as a source of lumber, and as part of the Clean Development Mechanism of the Kyoto Protocol. Officials ignored indigenous people’s knowledge and input. Communities were reportedly displaced and wild lands cut in spite of disappointing timber yields.

Costa Rica

Top: agricultural field near Puerto Jimenez; above left: the road to Casitas Tenorio; above right: Bijuagua

Below: Casitas Tenorio

Dedicated Costa Ricans work hard to strengthen their country ecologically and socially. We stayed at Casitas Tenorio, an ecologically based farm near Bijagua. Crickets who’d rattled through the night grew silent as morning flowed through the field. Cicadas and uncountable birds greeted dawn with clicks, squeaks, hoots, and trills. Howler monkeys startled us, their voices resounding like maniacal dogs.


Small flocks of lime green parakeets circled our breakfast table, calling “Fweep?” Montezuma orioles answered them with songs like water drops ascending a scale. Clouds and morning fog slid around the twin volcanoes, Volcano Tenorio and Volcano Miravalles.  

“There are jaguars near Volcano Tenorio,” our host Donald Varela-Soto said as he refilled our cups with strong Costa Rican coffee. The meal included eggs with sweet and spicy beans and rice, or huevos con gallo pinto. We devoured slices of watermelon, papaya, and pineapple and drank guanabana nectar, which resembled grapefruit juice with a hint of Chablis.     

Costa Rica

A native of Bijagua, Donald met his wife Pip Kelly, who now teaches English locally, when she came from Australia as an environmental volunteer. They worked together at Heliconas Lodge, and bought the land for Casitas Tenorio in 2008.

“Plantations give their pineapples hormones to make sure they are all the same size when they are harvested,” Donald commented. “We use no hormones, and pick the pineapples when each appears ready.”

Casitas Tenorio produces organic corn, beans, coriander, yucca, pineapples, and medicinal plants for local residents and for guests.

Cattle, pigs, and free-range chickens add their unique personalities to the project. A bio digester shelters anaerobic bacteria, which convert farm animal’s manure into a gaseous fuel for stoves and electrical generators.

“I use scientific farming methods, and I also rely on traditional knowledge,” Donald said. He mentioned his grandfather’s practice of watering pineapples just before the full moon. Research shows that the moon’s gravitational pull helps draw water up the plant’s stem.


Donald has worked with the Consortium of Rural Tourism Cooperatives (COOPRENA) for more than 10 years. This non-governmental organization coordinates projects that focus on rural community tourism – an advanced form of ecotourism that supports farmers and other Costa Ricans who open and run lodges for travelers. This work helps farmers and others generate income and motivates them to share their knowledge about wildlife and protect local habitats, stabilize their communities, and preserve rural cultural traditions.

Tourism became a prominent activity in Costa Rica in the 1980s as travelers discovered the country’s natural beauty. Today people from other countries own 90 per cent of beach property. Many of the larger resorts were built without regard to their impact on water supply, sewage, the electrical supply, and plants’ and animals’ habitats.

Donald said, “In Tamarindo, everything is foreign owned, including soda stands and window washing businesses. While some resorts donate to schools, murals, and other social projects, they take large amounts of money out of the country. Costa Ricans who work in these hotels receive higher salaries than employees in other sectors, but their chances for advancement are scarce.”     

The Costa Rican Community Based Tourism Association (ACTUAR) works closely with COOPRENA; the United Nations Program for Development helps fund their efforts. ACTUAR states that farmers have been pressured to sell their farms to developers and work as low wage gardeners and maids in resorts.

Rural community tourism supports their efforts to keep their land, and share their knowledge of local ecosystems and sustainable agricultural practices with guests from many parts of the world.

Ifigenia Garita Canet –  who calls herself Ifi –  owns Osa Wild, a Puerto Jimenez-based organization that employs many Costa Ricans.

A university trained biologist, she offers tours of Corcovado National Park and other habitats for scarlet macaws, jaguars, and squirrel monkeys, which have disappeared in many other areas. She also strives to connect travelers with the peninsula’s farms and residents.

“Osa Wild only supports local projects,” she said. “We try to give local people confidence, and to keep money in the communities.”     


“Tourists can choose among eight projects,” Ifi told us. Visitors to Dream Valley find themselves on a working farm where they can hike, learn about agricultural practices, and milk cows. The Bella Nero family teaches travelers about livestock care and cheese production. Guests at Eduardo Cortez’s lodge ride horses, watch birds and frogs, and visit an Indian community. The Biological Station Amanda offers visitors cabins on a river, and opportunities to identify tropical trees and birds as they hike to waterfalls.

“Guests have more authentic experiences than tourists who hear lectures in resorts,” Donald said. He hires local residents who share their knowledge of birds and ecosystems, lead night hikes that focus on frogs, and take visitors on tours of sustainable farms.


Visitors to Casitas Tenorio can participate in farm work and care for the livestock. They can also volunteer with the Cooperative Juvenile de Bijagua – a group of 20 youths who focus on reforestation. These young people replant native trees to create a wildlife corridor between the two volcanoes and to counter climate change.

Dusk came to Puerto Jimenez by 6 pm. Parakeets stopped flying and found roosting spots. Pairs of scarlet macaws settled in almond trees. Geckos hiding in grass and short herbs beeped electronically, mimicking Packman. Bachata and other music flowed from houses with neat gardens, cars and tethered horses.


Kate and I met Ifi the next day at Puerto Jimenez’s bull ring, where bulls always survive their contests with human. Food stands sold pizza, hamburgers, and roast corn.

“This is the seventh Peña Cultural,” Ifi said. She is the president of ASCONA, a grassroots organization that sponsors the periodic Peñas which encourage children to take responsibility for their surroundings. Representatives also visit schools and present workshops on recycling, rainforest animals, and conservation. Ifi felt that ASCONA’s work would strengthen these children’s artistic and athletic skills and encourage them to strengthen their communities.


We watched children and adults gather to sing ‘Happy Birthday’ to a boy who received a new blue bicycle. One man taught children to juggle with pins, and the kids gathered for a capoeira lesson. Ifi said, “My father wonders why I don’t start a business that will make me more money, but I want to make the people of Costa Rica confident and strong!”  

Pineapple on its plant, Costa Rica © copyright Markus Leupold-Löwenthal

Scarlet macaws, Costa Rica, © copyright  David Dornbusch

Green Adventures July 2015

Grass roots


Eco travel Costa Rica

Paul Belz is an environmental educator and writer based in Oakland, California. Paul develops and teaches natural history workshops for preschool and school-age children, and their parents and teachers. His articles have been published by Terrain Magazine, East Bay Monthly, Childcare Exchange Magazine, Boots’n’All, Oakland Wild’s blog, and Green Global Travel. He is editing a book on bioregional education with Judy Goldhaft of San Francisco’s Planet Drum Foundation, and his poetry has appeared in a wide range of magazines.

Paul is a world traveler, and an enthusiastic backpacker and camper. His other interests include cooking vegetarian feasts, long walks around his hometown of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania and Beethoven. Paul can be contacted via His blog is at Twitter @PaulGBelz