Costa Rica has quietly become a magnet for North Americans. In 2019, the country reached its historic peak of tourism, when over 3.1 million visitors arrived in the country. Costa Rica, the size of Denmark or West Virginia, has about five million residents.
Like most destinations, Costa Rica suffered three down years of tourism in 2020, 2021, and 2022. But as pandemic panic receded, tourism rose to 2.35 million in 2022.
My wife and I visited Costa Rica for the first time in mid-March 2023. We went on an 11-day trip to celebrate our anniversary. Judging by our packed Alaska Airlines flight and the crowds in popular areas like Manuel Antonio National Park, tourism will continue to rebound in 2023.
The country is beautiful, and the people are friendly. The roads could use some work, but to widen them to superhighway size would destroy the charm that brings travelers to Costa Rica, a green country in both the “lush “and ecological sense of the word.
Costa Rica is also considered fairly safe (a “two” out of four on the U.S. State Department ‘danger map’). Female travelers outnumbered males on every local tour we went on. The country is also considered the birthplace of both ecotourism and ziplining, attracting everyone from adventure tourists and surfers to Sierra Club types. Asked what a facility under construction near surf town Jaco was, our driver said it was a skate park.
There was a lot of traffic getting out of San Jose, the largest city. Bu the six-lane highway looked new, and we passed many warehouses, homes, and other buildings und er construction. Most vehicles on the road appeared new or well-maintained.
Soon, the roads narrowed, and the countryside turned green as we drove towards Manuel Antonio. We stopped at a river where a pack of crocodiles was lazing. The largest is known locally as “Mike Tyson.” Caked in mud and sluggish, he nonetheless has allegedly fed upon those who insist on swimming with him.
Our driver, Sandra, expertly hugged the narrow roads. She said the country got 98% of its power from renewable sources, such as hydroelectric power and wind turbines. “If we don’t make a change, we’re going to ruin our earth.”
While Costa Rica seems fairly prosperous, the EV (electric vehicle) has yet to arrive. We saw neither a Tesla nor a charging station. Instead, the roads are full of conventional gas- and diesel-powered cars, trucks, and buses (like the omnipresent TURISMO gray stretch vans) and small motorcycles. Gasoline prices hover around $5 a gallon.
Our driver, Sandra, would occasionally point to a giant mini mansion behind gates and say, “Those are for you guys.” Later we would meet Americans and Canadians who either owned houses and condos or were diligently searching for their piece of paradise. One couple from Canada told us that they were staying at the Jardin de Eden (our wonderful hotel in Tamarindo) for 26 days while they searched up and down the coast for the perfect place.
The country is remarkably clean, with little visible trash in the countryside or the streets. A stiff recycling fee helps keep glass off the streets. In Manuel Antonio National Park, the backpacks of visitors were searched, not for weapons or drugs, but for wrapped snacks, disposable bottles and plastic bags that could end up on the ground or in the stomachs of sloths, monkeys, birds, and other animals.
For us, visiting Manuel Antonio National Park made clear potential issues with over-tourism. The park’s habitats include primary and secondary forest, mangroves, and vegetation along its white beaches.
The park’s beauty and unusual animals attracts visitors from all over the world. Unfortunately, that means the park is packed with tourists relying on their telescope equipped guides to find sloths, monkeys, deer, frogs, and iguanas hiding in the trees. The crowds combined with the heat and humidity made our visit less than delightful.
Most of the country’s roads are two-lane and often potholed. Speeds seldom rise above 40 miles per hour. It can be a four-hour drive between destinations like Monteverde (famed for its hanging, swaying bridges over the cloud forest) and the beaches and national park in Manuel Antonio. When we took a dirt road short cut, our driver referred to the experience as a “Costa Rica massage.”
Our visit to the imposing Arenal volcano was memorable. Our bus drove for hours up a two-lane road through the forest, then stopped at what looked like a cattle gate. The driver opened the gate, backed the bus down a dirt road, and stopped at the edge of a swamp. He handed the luggage out the window, and we waited by the swamp at the edge of a lake. A water taxi pulled up, and we climbed aboard with the aid of a stepstool. The boat proceeded up Lake Arenal with the volcano looming larger and larger as we got closer. It looked like we were voyaging towards mysterious Skull Island to encounter King Kong, or up the river to kill Colonel Kurtz, in Apocalypse Now.
Costa Rica is certainly cinematic. Michael Crichton’s Jurassic Park was set in Costa Rica’s Isla del Cocos. In real life, there are slots hanging in trees, turkeys strutting through subdivisions, troupes of racoon-like creatures at the roadside, and alligators in the hotel lagoon. While we were amazed at the antics of the monkeys rampaging on the roof of our Manuel Antonio hotel, the staff did not seem as enamored of the monkeys and iguana stealing the sugar off the table.
For Costa Rica, being “loved to death” is a possibility, with more than three million tourists and thousands of new residents every year. We stayed at a multimillion-dollar hotel in Monte Verde that would have been at home in West Hollywood, with gardens, classic, white walls, and a lounge upstairs to read and write.
Many travel providers are counting on continued growth in tourism in Costa Rica. Delta Airlines, for example, just doubled the frequency of flights from its Hartsfield Jackson hub in Atlanta for the 2023/2024 Christmas holiday period, from December 16 to January 7, 2024. Delta will double flights from ATL to Costa Rica’s San Jose International Airport (SJO) from one to two daily flights. The airline will also go from one to two flights daily from Atlanta to Costa Rica’s Liberia (LIR) airport.
Adding another 350 or so tourists a day doesn’t sound like an enormous number. But Costa Rica is increasingly embraced by international tourists and potential residents.
At the Jardin del Eden in Tamarindo, I picked up a copy of the Lonely Planet guide to Costa Rica, 9th edition, and read through it at the hotel’s private beach. Although the book turned out to be ten years old, its concerns are still current.
“The success of the ‘green revolution’ has created a new concern, namely the need for sustainable tourism. The increasing number of visitors to Costa Rica has led to more hotels, more transportation, and more infrastructure upgrade. The tourist driven encroachment on the rainforest inevitable places strain on the fragile ecosystem that people are flocking to see.”
Will increasing numbers of international travelers and new residents (including more than 50,000 Americans) love Costa Rica to death? So far, it seems that democratic Costa Rica is walking the tightrope of creating prosperity for its residents while preserving its environment.
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