by Claire Kredens
According to the Happy Planet Index, Costa Rica ranks #1 and was given the title of happiest country in the world. This index considers factors like quality of life, inequality of outcomes, ecological footprint, and life expectancy. Well, I had the pleasure of going on an ecotourism trip with my major at the University of Illinois there to see this for myself; it’s accurate.
Why wouldn’t I say that America is the happiest country in the world? Living in Illinois, I have never seen the sheer amount of wildlife that I did in Costa Rica; it was truly magical. War is destructive to the planet and countries in and of themselves, but Costa Rica doesn’t have an army; they put that money into social programs to benefit their people. The country is safe despite American judgement. Every person I interacted with, in Spanish or English, was nothing but kind and accommodating to my every need. Some of our guides who led us through Cahuita National Park found it laughable that we didn’t have universal healthcare and asked why our country wouldn’t want to help its people. They also explained that people care for their environment because they are surrounded by it and have felt climate change’s effects firsthand (flooding, dry periods, species redistribution) along with nature being one of the reasons for the country’s economic status. From my experience, people were more relaxed, easygoing, friendly, eco-friendly, and had less of the American “all work, no play” lifestyle.
Upon entering the country, I was greeted by airport staff and shots of rum by the baggage claim. The warm air embraced me and lifted away all my stress and seasonal depression. I was about to have the experience of a lifetime.
At a third of the size of Illinois, Costa Rica has 12 different life zones. By this I mean we traveled for an hour and saw completely different flora and fauna. We went from a cloud forest to a very dry and hot climate that had different wildlife. This small country also has 5-10 times the biodiversity (just of mammals) than Illinois. I consider myself well-traveled for only being 21 years of age, but I have never experienced nature like I have in Costa Rica. I got to see the apparently “most beautiful bird in the Americas” – the resplendent quetzal. I got to see toucans, motmots, capuchin monkeys, sloths, and a 400-year-old tree; this tree was one of the biggest things I have ever seen. The rainforest is simply inexplainable, but I can say it needs to be protected at all costs. The density of plants (many medicinal), animals, insects, etc. is something the earth cannot afford to lose, which is why Costa Rica reforested much of its land that they lost to deforestation for agriculture. Now, 26% of their land is set aside for National Parks and conservation, and they pledge to be carbon neutral by 2021. Did I mention there wasn’t plastic and trash anywhere? Look at how pristine the beaches are compared to our Spring Break ravaged beaches (you know what I’m talking about).
Being on an ecotourism trip, we didn’t stay in typical, Americanized places. Ecotourism is the practice of tourism that benefits the country in which you are visiting, not companies from America or Europe. For Costa Rica to continue thriving in the tourism economy, they need to see the benefits rather than Americans or Europeans just taking advantage of this country’s assets. That said, the places we stayed had more of a local feel. The culture shock was rough for a few people on the trip, including myself with my fear of bugs, but I adapted quickly to things like cold showers, checking my shoes and bedding for scorpions, and having lizards in my bedroom. The first morning at Atlantida Lodge, we were awoken by howler monkeys, and I walked to breakfast in awe of the rainforest surrounding me.
At Rancho Margot, a self-sustaining eco-ranch, I saw my first toucan, red eyed leaf frog, and found my favorite place on my trip. This place taught us that you can still have a beautiful life, be surrounded by nature, and not harm the environment like most places do. They showed us how they generate hydropower and kitchen fuels, compost, recycle, make their green roofs, harvest their food and livestock, among other things. The people who called Rancho Margot home nor their visitors had to sacrifice anything to be eco-friendly. America, take notes.
I could ramble on about every day I spent in Costa Rica, but the overall lesson is the same. Costa Rica isn’t without its problems like monocultures and negative effects of tourism like resource strain and strain on local culture, but they are thriving nonetheless. Though many see Costa Rica with judgement and turn a blind eye, I can promise you we need to be more like them. Not only do we need to realize we are one with nature and we are just a small piece of the natural world, but we need to be more like the people. I would recommend this experience for anyone, as I learned more in 9 days than I have the rest of my semester. I, a college student who takes 3-hour naps, woke up at 4:30am to hike to see the sunrise; I have seen things I would never see anyplace else. I will carry this experience into my career in environmental sustainability and hopefully make America a little more like Costa Rica.
A special thanks to our tour guide Maikol Cruz (who knew everything I had a question about) and the Monteverde Institute for making this experience truly unforgettable.