Eco-Travel Tales From Central America
After a quick side trip to Tikal in Guatemala, the next stop was Costa Rica, the site of my first surf vacation eight years ago. I returned to the "rich coast", an outdoor adventurer’s dream with pristine rivers, beaches, mountains, and tropical rain forest. Following 50 years of unrestricted logging, Costa Rica’s green era began in 1970 when lawmakers founded a national park system. The tiny country —smaller than West Virginia—boasts the highest density of species in the world. While there we spotted crocs sunning themselves under a bridge, iguanas clinging to hibiscus bushes, and numerous types of birds (and bugs). We also surfed, hiked, saw an active volcano and soaked in natural hot springs, went zip lining, horseback riding and whitewater rafting.
So, how exactly do you experience all these activities while limiting your impact on the environment? First, understand the difference between "real" ecotourism and marketing hype. Assuming you're not going to just string a hammock between a couple of trees, find out if the hotel or resort you're considering is merely located in a natural place or if the management demonstrates a true commitment to reducing their carbon footprint. If you’re concerned about an establishment’s legitimacy, check if they have Green Globe certification or are a member of a reputable sustainable tourism organization. Also see if the hotel is built to LEED Gold green building certification.
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Start your trip planning by defining what you want out of a holiday and be aware of trade-offs you're willing to make. Also be aware of budget - sometimes a lot less costs a lot more. If you're well off the beaten path and arriving at your destination isn't easy, imagine how hard it is to cart in building supplies, furniture, menu ingredients, amenities, etc. The more remote the location, the more it likely costs to have access to the amenities you've come to expect.
Turtle Inn, Belize - photo credit Jane Schonberger
The biggest eye-opener during my recent travels was the range of supposedly eco-friendly places – in terms of both price and accommodation. Francis Ford Coppola, for example, is well known for his branded resorts in Belize and Guatemala – and they are indeed beautiful destinations. But they don’t come cheap. The Turtle Inn, near Placencia in Belize, runs about $500/night and day trips to nearby natural attractions, including the must-see barrier reef – runs close to $200 per person. Coppola does train and employ a lot of locals and uses indigenous products and ingredients whenever possible in adhering to the eco theme but if you want to see the "real" Belize, you'll have to venture off the property.
At the other end of the scale are Mayan villages near Punta Gorda in the Toledo district of Belize where tourists stay in simple community huts and learn about local culture while sharing home-cooked meals with families. This experience runs about $50 per person including meals but be forewarned, there may not be electricity (translation no fans or air-conditioning) and bugs are prevalent . Both fabulous experiences. Both fall under the broad heading of eco-tourism. But two very different price tags and tales to tell.
Intrigued? If you truly want to be a responsible traveler, there are a number of additional things you can do before, during and after your journey to minimize your impact and ensure your experience is in line with the values of eco-tourism.
Trip Preparation: Educate yourself about your destination. Look out for news and current events about the area. Learn about local history, customs and culture as well as vital ecosystems. Set up a Google alert or Twitter stream based on the desired location. Learn at least the basics of the local language. Approach travel with the desire to learn rather than just observe. Are there programs that teach travelers to respect the local culture and habitat? Are there naturalists, biologists or botanists on staff at your destination to show visitors the flora and fauna?
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