In 2001 I visited Mexico City and Costa Rica on a 16 day trip. Mexico City and Costa Rica are developing countries that both have issues of people versus the environment. Both places were reminders of the world as a large, delicately balanced ecosystem that is shared.
Mexico City was as polluted, populated, and seemingly dangerous as it’s reputed. While I was careful and didn’t have any bad experiences, seeing lots of security so conspicuously armed with very large guns was unsettling. I guess it’s a simple matter of economics between the very obvious few with wealth, evident in the opulent shops of the city centre, versus the overwhelming masses of squatters living under crates and pieces of tin, without water or electricity, for miles and miles of shanty towns that extend far into the horizon. It’s one of the world’s most populated cities, built on a lake, with water that has been ruined beyond drinkability by man. I thought Los Angeles was poor city planning, but it’s paradise in comparison. I imagined the hardships of farming in a hot, dry desert minus technology, tractors, power, or irrigation. It’s reduced to putting pieces of dry corn in the ground and waiting for rain. No wonder they made so many sacrificial offerings to gods. It is evidence of what happens when there are scarce resources, poorly regulated growth, inadequate education and a lack of sustainable infrastructure. Despite that, I met some really nice people and saw what I had only been able to read about for years: several UNESCO World Heritage Sites, the cathedrals, ancient city and pyramids at Teotihuacan, works by Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera, beautiful avenues and parks, plus I ate lots of good food. The National Museum of Anthropology is stunning and it alone is good reason to make the trip there. Museo Nacional de Antropología – Wikipedia with information in English. (Official site in Spanish: Bienvenidos Museo Nacional de Antropología.)
Costa Rica was a wealth of environments in a compact country: oceans, volcanoes, mountains, forests, and lots of nature. Definitely paradise, but not without it’s own problems. Unlike Mexico, Costa Rica’s population is more evenly middle class and peaceful, though economic and living standards are still that of a developing country. Twenty percent of the land has been made into national parks and wildlife reserves and it’s probably one of the pioneering countries to demonstrate rainforest and environmental preservation. While everything requires a bit of compromise, Costa Rica is doing it’s best to explore ways of sustainably preserving it’s natural resources. Most of it is done by accommodating tourism in ways that make preserving the animals and nature more valuable than cutting it down. Some of it works, but all of it needs to be carefully watched and supported.
Manuel Antonio is really beautiful and I could sit on the beach and watch monkeys and cool birds in the trees, but it’s also getting pretty touristy and the huge increase in tourism is not being monitored well enough for the increasing hotels and developments that are impacting the area. I went on a snorkelling trip and saw huge bat rays and dolphins. Supposedly a dolphin organization encourages companies to not chase them and to use sailboats that don’t make as much noise, but I felt really bad thinking about how that must happen to the dolphins every day. At another place, Uvita, the guys there told me stories of how they used to shoot Toucans and monkeys when they were young because they didn’t realize those animals were rare. It’s good to hear that awareness has been raised, but I also had an experience where a dog was brutally killed and no one seemed even concerned. The other dog that was there was clearly shaken in realizing his friend was dead, but the people there seemed to take the death so lightly.
I also visited the northern lowlands, where my brother worked as a biology volunteer in a remote rainforest reserve connected to the Baulio Carrillo National Park. It’s the stuff you see in National Geographic and getting there was an adventure in itself. It’s a three-and-a-half hour, rainy and bumpy tractor ride from the nearest town of Horquetas, located in the northeastern slopes of the Cordillera Central. The road there is so rough from being washed out and flooded, that the tractor hit a rut and broke down and we had to hike the rest of the way there. A professor and his family were also making the trip to the reserve and his wife commented that she wondered why we couldn’t just take the “other road” and I had to bite back a laugh as I explained that there is no “other road” because she thought that the food and supplies went on another route and we were riding the tractor-pulled wagon for “the experience.”
I saw lots of monkey’s, toucans, frogs (including the colorful poison dart frogs), different types of snakes, coatis, enormous metallic blue butterflies, lots of cool lizards, little parrots, various wild orchid species, and this really cute anteater. Lots of other amazingly beautiful things along with more insects than I liked, even a few scorpions. There are these leaf cutter ants that are interesting to watch. They work really hard and are so specialized. It’s a huge civilization with roads that they’ve cut through growth and it looks like a highway with little flags of leaves. There are soldiers, workers, leaf cutters, and scouts- all with noticeable physical differentiation. The ants cut down leaves to feed the mushrooms, which they cultivate in their hill for food. Somehow they know which leaves are bad (have too many toxins) so next to their hill, is usually a garbage heap of discarded leaf cuttings.
The lodge is rustic, but beautiful and includes great home cooked food and waterfalls with natural pools that you can swim in. Everything there runs on solar or hydropower, so that means lukewarm, solar heated showers and kerosene lamps, but the rooms are nice and comfortable and there’s a balcony and hammock for every room. The guides take you on two hikes a day and it’s a great way to learn about rainforest ecology. The place is called Rara Avis: http://www.rara-avis.com/. It’s a privately owned reserve adjacent to the national park. It demonstrates how uncut rainforest and wildlife are more important than clear cutting for farms or mining. One thing that I really liked was its impact on local awareness of the environment. It’s great that citizens from developing nations are concerned and go visit, but at the end of the day, it’s the locals that ultimately decide what is cared for and what gets neglected or destroyed. Rara Avis makes a point of employing locals not only for work, but also to share education and financial benefits with the community. They are also exploring ways to naturally use products that come out of the rainforest for sustainable profit.
“Pura Vida” is a phrase frequently use throughout Costa Rica. In Spanish it literally translates to mean “pure life” but it also implies “full of life” and “plenty of life.” I found evidence of all of those meanings in Costa Rica and hope they continue to use it as their “mantra” to guide them towards a sustainable future in caring for their amazing wealth of natural resources.