Costa Rica: Ecotourism and Outdoor Adventure

By Laurie Ellis

Shooting the Pacuare – photo courtesy of Explornatura
Shooting the Pacuare – photo courtesy of Explornatura

When I got the invitation to go to Costa Rica in November, I jumped at the opportunity. Hey, it’s getting cold here in New England; I wouldn’t mind another week of warmth. Then I read the small print at the bottom of the email: Extreme Ecotourism.

Uh-oh. What have I gotten myself into? I mean, I’m in ok shape, commute to work by bike (all of three miles each way), swim regularly, go to the gym once in a while. But “extreme”? I wasn’t so sure.

Luckily it turns out that the most popular activities are manageable for just about anybody. You only need an adventurous attitude, and a willingness to try and trust.

First, the “Eco” part

You can’t visit Costa Rica without learning about sustainability. Roughly the size of West Virginia – or New Hampshire and Vermont combined – this small Central American country boasts close to 4% of the world’s plant and animal species.

Depending on whom you talk to, that number may be a little higher or lower. At any rate, that’s a whole lot of plant and animal life in a small place.

To maintain such variety, a little more than 25% of the country is protected to some extent, and Costa Rica is striving to become the first 100% sustainable tourist destination. The goal: to be carbon neutral by 2021.

Although it's a small country, Costa Rica close to 4% of the world’s plant and animal species. Photo courtesy of Exploranatura
Although it’s a small country, Costa Rica boasts close to 4% of the world’s plant and animal species. Photo courtesy of Exploranatura

The Certification in Sustainable Tourism (CST) program was created in 1999 by the Costa Rica Tourism Institute (ICT) to work toward achieving this goal. Participating establishments are evaluated for their sustainability efforts in four areas (physical-biological parameters, infrastructure and services, external clients, and socio-economic environment) and are assigned a level – 0-5 leaves – based on their score.

The hope is that the rating system will motivate companies to conserve resources, and that tourists will reward the more eco-friendly companies with their patronage. So far, 99 companies are certified under the program.

Adventure in the Northwest

My first destination for fun was in the Guanacaste region, 135 miles northwest of San Jose. This is cowboy land: vast plains and lots of cattle. You’ll also find volcanoes here.

Home base for my first taste of extreme adventure was the Hotel Hacienda Guachipelin on the edge of Rincon de la Vieja National Park.

Guanacaste cowboy country - photo by Laurie Ellis
Guanacaste cowboy country – photo by Laurie Ellis

Actually the adventure started even before I got to Guanacaste. The main road, Highway 1, also known as the Pan-American Highway, is a two-lane highway that winds through the Costa Rican countryside.

The landscape is varied: flat, hilly, interesting, but not great if you get carsick. Between the twists and turns, and being stuck behind exhaust-spewing slower vehicles, I was wishing I had flown directly into the international airport in Liberia rather than into San Jose. Oh well. Next time.

All geared up and ready to go - photo by Laurie Ellis
All geared up and ready to go – photo by Laurie Ellis

The Hacienda is located 14 miles outside of Liberia down a rutted dirt road, so if you drive, it’s best to arrive before dark.

Rooms at Hacienda Guachipelin are simple and clean. In keeping with sustainability, some amenities that you might normally expect at a hotel aren’t given out. Bring your own shampoo if you’re fussy about that kind of stuff.

At the time of this writing, the hotel has one leaf and plans are in place to become more sustainable. The restaurant, as at many Costa Rican lodges, is open and airy: a covered terrace. I ate from the buffet – nothing special in a gourmet sense, but lots of good healthy food. Before, during, and after a full day of activities, it was perfect.

I’m sure there are higher and lower end places, but you really can’t beat the location: Adventure Tours is based right across the road from the hotel. All activities start practically at your doorstep, and the horse stables are right behind one section of guest rooms.

The guides kept us safely clipped in – photo courtesy of Adventure Tours
The guides kept us safely clipped in – photo courtesy of Adventure Tours

Activities Galore – so many choices

I ended up having a non-stop, action-packed day: canopy tour, tubing, and horseback ride to a waterfall, followed by a visit to the spa where I enjoyed a sauna, mud application, and soaked in a warm tub. If you want more pampering, the spa offers massages and other specialized treatments.

Canopy Tour – quintessential Costa Rica

Also called zip-lining, a canopy tour allows you to see the landscape from a new angle: from above. You soar through the treetops suspended from a cable.

On the Adventure Tours course, there can be up to twenty guides stationed on the various platforms to hook, unhook, push, pull, and direct you along. Over trees, over streams and rivers, along waterfalls… I can’t even remember all the stations.

Author takes a ride – photo courtesy of Adventure Tours
Author takes a ride – photo courtesy of Adventure Tours

Zip, drop, climb, rockwall handholds, metal bars until – flying, screaming – you come to the end. Your harness is always attached to something, whether a safety line while standing on a platform, or the zip-line itself while cruising through the treetops.

If you’ve never been on a zip-line, you’re in for a treat: it’s like an amusement ride, but with more connection to nature.

Extreme Tubing – I never knew!

This was not the lazy float-down-the-Farmington-River-with-a-beer that I remember from my youth. Careening down the Rio Negro rapids like a pinball gone wild, the ride was more intense than I expected.

Safety first, though: we had helmets and life preservers, and there were guides behind us, in front of us, and often on the sides of the river. Everyone made it through with minimal bumps and bruises, and maximum adrenalin rush!

“Move along, move along…”

The Adventure Tours operation runs like clockwork. Transitions between activities are smooth. There is time to change, if a change of gear is necessary, and lockers are provided if you want to stash any personal items. For instance, you probably won’t want a camera while tubing, but might want one for the horseback ride to the waterfall.

Extreme Tubing - photo courtesy of Adventure Tours
Extreme tubing – photo courtesy of Adventure Tours

Videos and photos of the canopy and tubing tours are available for a fee if you want proof for your friends back home –- and for yourself -– that you actually did these crazy things.

Adventure in the Central Highlands

Located 40 miles east of San Jose, Turrialba is another great place for outdoor adventure.
My base this time was Espino Blanco Lodge situated in the Espino Blanco Biological Reserve. This newest addition to the Wagelia family of hotels was built with sustainability in mind. Sister hotel, Wagelia Turrialba, has three leaves already –- apparently they know what they’re doing eco-wise.

The cabins, restaurant and other structures seem to rise up out of the forest, and there are nature trails throughout the grounds. The food is delicious and the staff is extremely helpful and knowledgeable.

Espino Blanco Lodge: Restaurant in the forest - photo by Laurie Ellis
Espino Blanco Lodge: Restaurant in the forest – photo by Laurie Ellis

Although the cabins are very well-appointed, there’s no escaping the fact that the hotel is 1000 meters (3,281 feet) up in the cloud forest.

Be prepared: it can be cool, warm, rainy, and there are spiders the size of… well you get the idea. Experience the forest in all its noisy, primeval, crawling, smelling, gorgeous green growing glory.

Forest Fun

There are many tour companies in the area and the guides all seem to know and respect each other. I doubt you could go too far wrong with any of them.

I went on my adventures with Explornatura and highly recommend this outfit. It’s the only company in Costa Rica that is accredited by the American Canyoneering Association.

Massi DeVoto, the owner, has been guiding for more than 12 years and masterminded the canyoning circuit he uses which is a mix of zip-lines, waterfall rappelling, and an Indiana Jones-like suspension bridge. Fun! And it’s suitable for kids ages 8 and up.

Canyoning: lean back and go! - photo courtesy of Explornatura
Canyoning: lean back and go! – photo courtesy of Explornatura

Canyoning – if I can do it…

I’m not a daredevil, so what was I doing leaning backwards over a cliff, ready to drop down about 50 feet to the pool at the bottom of a waterfall? Rappelling, of course!

I was securely harnessed and helmeted (yet again) and trusted the guides above and below to stop me if I fell. Look back and sight, let out rope, step. Look back, release, step. Repeat as necessary until feet are securely planted in the water.

Explornatura offers a bunch of other adventure activities besides canyoning, like hiking up to the Turrialba volcano (3340 meters/10,958 feet), mountain biking, and whitewater rafting (one- and two-day trips).

If you do the volcano hike, you might luck out and get a glimpse of the crater through the clouds; it makes the tough trek worth the effort.

The bike ride I went on was a mellow spin through CATIE, the Center for Tropical Agriculture Investigation and Learning, a leading research station and botanical garden, but if you want a more rugged biking experience, the guides can easily find a route difficult enough to challenge any rider.

Whitewater Rafting – the other quintessential Costa Rica experience

A moment of calm on the river – photo courtesy of Explornatura
A moment of calm on the river – photo courtesy of Explornatura

In addition to Canopy Tours, Costa Rica is known for whitewater rafting. The Pacuare River ranks as one of the top five rivers for commercial rafting in the world. What a treasure!

A few years ago, though, there was a push to dam the river for hydroelectric power. Luckily the measure was defeated, but the river is still in danger and tour companies remain vigilant in an effort to keep the river alive.

Rock and Roll

The two-day Explornatura rafting excursion down the Pacuare was definitely a highlight of my week in Costa Rica. I was nervous about this part of the trip. Yeah, I like being in and on water, but I didn’t want to get thrown from the raft or smashed against a rock.

The exceptional guiding put me at ease and made for an enjoyable experience. I was expecting to paddle ‘til my arms fell off, but really all we had to do was an occasional stroke here and there, and pay attention to simple commands like “GET DOWN!” as we shot through the series of class III and IV rapids. The hardest part was probably getting our group coordinated enough to function as a team.

Pacuare river camp – photo courtesy of Explornatura
Pacuare river camp – photo courtesy of Explornatura

Roughing it – hardly!

The camp where we spent the night was a treat, too: dinner cooked by the guides, mattresses with sheets and blankets in the tents, and running water. I could get used to this kind of camping. And the morning hike was a bonus.

For those who do not want to camp, the 18-mile journey can be done in one day, with a stop for lunch along the way. Rafting is suitable for kids 12 and up.

The Pacuare and Pejibaye rivers are the stomping grounds of world-class kayaker Mario Huevo Vargas. A local kayak instructor, guide and photographer, Mario accompanied our group, and treated us to a kayaking demonstration. So THAT’S how the pros do it…

Down time

Yum! Costa Rican Coffee - photo by Laurie Ellis
Yum! Costa Rican Coffee – photo by Laurie Ellis

If you need a break from running around, go for a tour of the Golden Bean Coffee Co. See how great Costa Rican coffee is produced. Oh, and Turrialba cheese is fantastic! Make sure to try some while you’re in the area.


In Guanacaste, the dry season runs roughly from the end of November to April. This is the busy tourist season, so if you want to go, make reservations early.

Unlike the Northwest, the Central Highlands cloud forest doesn’t really have a distinct dry season. According to our guide, it tends to be less soggy in August and September. But whenever you go, make sure to bring quick-drying clothes, and an extra pair of shoes! Oh, and you might want to stock up on bug spray.

Make plans to visit Costa Rica

Costa Rica has a lot to offer visitors. A small country with big Eco goals, it’s a perfect destination for the environment-conscious traveler, extreme or otherwise.

And, get this, there’s no army –- hasn’t been since 1949. Also, you can drink the water just about anywhere. How about that for an enlightened society?!


Mario Vargas shows his stuff – photo courtesy of Explornatura
Mario Vargas shows his stuff – photo courtesy of Explornatura

Costa Rica Tourism Institute

Hotel Hacienda Guachipelin

Rincon de la Vieja National Park


American Canyoneering Association

Center for Tropical Agriculture Investigation and LearningCenter for Tropical Agriculture Investigation and Learning

Golden Bean Coffee Company

Laurie Ellis

Laurie Ellis is a massage therapist in Cambridge, Massachusetts. She lives in Arlington with her husband, Shady Hartshorne

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