Costa Rica’s biodiversity has made it a leader in global ecotourism. The country’s government also announced an ambitious vow to become the first carbon-neutral destination, according to the International Ecotourism Society. Ten NMU students recently experienced Costa Rica’s effort to develop a local economy while preserving the natural environment and local culture that attract many visitors.
Health and Human Performance professor Scott Jordan led the group of outdoor recreation leadership and management majors to the western part of the country, where they focused on ecotourism and ecology.
“Costa Rica was a life-changing opportunity,” said NMU student Emily Gantner. “I got hands-on exposure to how ecotourism provides for the locals of Costa Rica. Ecotourism is responsible traveling to environments in hopes to learn more about conservation in that specific region. We got a chance to visit an organic coffee farm. The farmer lived right there and made his entire living off sustainable coffee-farming practices. It was a good contribution to my understanding of conservation and sustainable living. Throughout our trip we noticed many locals had a similar respect for the land and the need to preserve it for future generations. My experience has encouraged me to utilize my degree and be an educator of responsible outdoor recreation.”
The group spent the first few days at a research outpost operated by the University of Georgia, which has several cabanas for visitors.
“They led us on naturalist tours, told us about the history of development in that area and taught us about the cloud forest,” Jordan said. “Ecology was infused in all that we did. There were unique plants and animals everywhere we went. We talked a lot about biodiversity, which is important for the ecosystem and carbon offset. We did a project with the University of Georgia staff where we put soil in bags that eventually would hold tree seedlings to be planted to theoretically offset the carbon we used for the trip. Reforestation, clean water and decreasing fossil fuel use were big issues we addressed as well.”
At Playa Samara, the students experienced what Jordan calls the “traditional style of tourism.” They celebrated New Year’s Eve on the beach, ran into a former NMU student and participated in a guided kayak excursion to an island reserve that included snorkeling with sea turtles and squid. Jordan said they contrasted that model, which has a greater impact on the culture, with the ecotourism model elsewhere in the country.
Sea turtles are an endangered species in Costa Rica. There are efforts to protect them from poachers seeking to sell the eggs, meat and shells. The NMU group helped with a project focused on leatherback turtle nesting areas on the shore at Playa Nombre de Jesús.
“Because it’s not protected, people take the eggs and sell them,” he said. “The eggs are served with beer to tourists, so they’re popular and a moneymaker. We helped with a project that involved going out in the evenings and waiting for the turtles to lay their eggs. They leave trails in the sand so we could follow the path to their nests. We would bury the eggs elsewhere on the beach so people couldn’t raid the nests.”
Other destinations included Karen Mogeson Reserve, which required a strenuous hike up a Nicoya Peninsula mountain to a station where researchers are studying the area’s jungle. The NMU delegation went on naturalist-led hikes and awoke to the sounds of howler monkeys at about 4:30 each morning. The group also took Costa Rican dance lessons and ate traditional foods.
"I easily could have spent several weeks/months at every place that we went,” said NMU student Jarred Battles. "There was just so much to explore and learn about the country, its inhabitants and the culture. The people were extremely friendly and helpful.
"Snorkeling with sea turtles was a surreal experience that I will remember forever. I am so glad and thankful to have such an amazing instructor as Scott Jordan to be able to lead and create an engaging learning environment. I absolutely would recommend the class to anyone, not just outdoor recreation majors.”