Life Balance in Costa Rica

Pura Vida, Tourism, and Eco-Sustainability

A green-billed toucan rests in the jungle canopy, aloof, watching us watch him.

When the invite came, we canceled other plans, packed quickly, and headed for the airport. There are dozens of good reasons why travelers flock to Costa Rica–stunning natural beauty, friendly locals, a commitment to sustainability and conservation, among them—but, for us, it is a “no plan” zone, where we can relax, walk slowly, and cleanse our minds of schedules that always seem a little too tight and projects that somehow often get too heavy. The prospect of a few days of “no-plan” relaxation was irresistible. As it turned out, it was a week of pura vida-style living that was exactly what we needed.

“Pura Vida” is a phrase commonly heard in Costa Rica. It translates, freely, to “pure life” or “simple life.” The origins of the phrase “pura vida” are not entirely clear, but it is often associated with the country’s reputation for eco-tourism, sustainability, and outdoor adventure. For Costa Ricans, “Ticos” locally, it is more than just a saying–it is a way of life that embodies a positive attitude, an appreciation for nature, and a laid-back approach to living. By trying out this pura vida philosophy, we sought to immerse ourselves in the culture of Costa Rica and enjoy all that this beautiful country has to offer. A little more beauty and fewer phone calls were just what the doctor ordered, as they say.

When we touched down in San Jose, pura vida was all around us, but not yet in us. All that was certain was that after a couple of short meetings, we had no plan. We could have chosen to explore Costa Rica’s beautiful southern beaches, or the ethereal canopies in its jungle rainforests, but we had sampled those. We toured banana and coffee plantations. What we had not done was visit the northern volcanos, Poás and Arenal, both still active symbols of the country itself. These became our targets for this trip, discover life in the shadows of the volcano, and perhaps find our version of pura vida in the process.

One of the biggest draws of Costa Rica is its incredible biodiversity. The country is home to over 500,000 diverse species, including over 850 species of birds—toucans and parrots–and over 200 species of mammals, including the famous sloths and a rouge’s gallery of monkeys. Over millions of years, Costa Rica’s geographical positioning has allowed it to become a mixing bowl for North American and South American species. Its climate, mountains, and valleys allowed this enriched biological mix to grow and establish a sustainable balance within its ecosystems. The result is beautiful and amazing.

But anything beautiful and amazing presents its problems—in this case pressure on the ecosystems from human intervention—deforestation, land abuse, carbon dioxide emissions, climate change, and in no small measure, the tourism that results from beautiful and amazing biodiversity. Tourism is very profitable, and not difficult to accommodate. But developing and maintaining safeguards around tourism that moderate the trampling effect tourism brings to any ecosystem, aye, there’s the rub. Achieving a balance that allows both tourism and biodiversity to intersect and sustain themselves—getting that balance is not so easy, and therein lies a very big challenge for this very tiny country.

A monkey enjoying a gourmet lunch at the animal shelter at The Springs.

Costa Rica has become a leader in pursuing and developing sustainable tourism and biological conservation. The country has made a notable commitment to preserving its natural resources—over 25% of its land areas are protected, half again as much as other conservation-aware countries in the world–and has implemented policies to protect its wildlife and their habitats. This includes the creation of national parks and protected areas, as well as initiatives to promote renewable energy and reduce waste. Travelers will find plenty of eco-tourism and sustainable travel options in Costa Rica, including eco-lodges and resorts, many with tours and activities that support local communities. This sparked our interest.

The same friends who invited us to join them for a few days in Costa Rica, knowing our interest in conservation, but also our preference for resort-level accommodations, suggested we check out The Peace Lodge with its eco-friendly La Paz Waterfall Gardens and their rainforest-centric activities. They suggested we could combine a day trip to the La Paz Gardens and a hike up to an overlook of the Poás volcano. That kind of unstructured day trip was wholly consistent with our no-plan attitude and seemed to be pura vida living. We were off at the crack of dawn the next morning.

When we first arrived, The Peace Lodge was shrouded in a thick fog, not unusual for a Cloud and Rainforest environment. We could have walked down below the guest quarters to the La Paz River with its several waterfalls, but we’d seen waterfalls. With limited time, our alternate choice was to see the birds, butterflies, and night critters that were typical of Costa Rica, many maintained for viewing in the on-premises animal preserve. We were pleased to learn that all the animals at the La Paz Gardens were not taken from their local habitat, but were, instead, rescue animals received from the Costa Rican Wildlife Ministry which, in turn, had confiscated them from poachers and others engaged in the illegal exotic pet trade.

The night critters in the frog habitat were hardest to spot, well, because it was daytime. We had to look under leaves, behind stems, and into crevices, but we were rewarded with a glimpse of some sleeping green tree frogs and an insomniac “true frog” (Ranidae). The butterflies in the butterfly garden–there were a lot of them–seemed to float gently through the air, and occasionally one would land on your head, or an outstretched palm. Most interesting to me, however, was a line of cocoons from which newly hatching butterflies were emerging, drying their bodies before their first flight. The patterns and colors in their wings were mesmerizing. I could have whiled away the afternoon in this place but wanted to see the birds and the volcano, so we needed to get a move on. We hiked up to the aviary. The size and color patterns of birds common to the Costa Rica jungles, recreated within the aviary, were dazzling. Amazingly, one of the toucans let me get close enough for a quiet chat. He didn’t have much to say, and he didn’t stay too long, preferring the accustomed safety of a perch in the top branches of one of the trees, but he afforded us a close-up glimpse of jungle finery.

The Peace Lodge and La Paz Gardens are owned by Lee Banks, an American entrepreneur with a love for Costa Rica and a conservationist’s streak. Their shared Mission—Banks’, The Lodge’s and Banks’, The Garden’s–“is to preserve and protect the natural environment of the area for the education, entertainment, and enjoyment of all ages of people. Our strategy combines environmentally conscious design with maximum educational impact to the visitor.” Their property development and their actions reflect their words. As noted on their website, they offer, “3.5 kilometers of hiking trails and viewing platforms constructed from 1998-2000 designed and built without cutting one

The author tries to open a conversation with a neighborly toucan. Photo by Jorge Salizar.

tree or vine system. The materials for the trails and platforms were carried down on foot to avoid the use of heavy equipment in the forest. The credit for this tremendous accomplishment goes to Mr. Bernardo Picado who designed trails for the National Park System of Costa Rica before joining our team.” Actually, according to Roy Torres, General Manager of the property, it is Lee Banks himself who should get the lion’s share of the credit. It has been his vision that drives the property’s Mission. He is not just an owner; he continues to be directly involved in the ongoing development of the property. He designs many of the evolving features of The Peace Lodge; he is the environmental-supporter-in-chief, and the chief advocate for this premier, eco-sensitive property, one that helps keep the multitude of Costa Rican tourists each year in balance with the needs and sustainability of the ecosystem.

A spider’s handiwork revealed on a night walk at The Springs.

The Peace Lodge is about 20 kilometers drive from the entrance to the Poás viewing site, itself a short walk from parks’ parking, along a trail bordered by jungle foliage dominated by huge leaves and punctuated with brilliant flora. It turns out there are multiple craters here, the closest one filled with an azure acid bath, and surrounded by a wedding cake shoreline of bubbling fumaroles, belching warm sulfuric volatiles onto fog-swept, barren, mud-covered, grey-brown plateaus. Overall, what one sees is a severe, forbidding beauty. In its distinctive way, it appears as a life form, relentlessly preparing for a future eruption, biding its time to wreak havoc and bring aggressive change to its lush, green neighborhood. That this violent but natural change process was a real-time possibility was distinctly emphasized by the emergency evacuation instructions posted near the observation platform and the adjacent room full of hard hats (to protect against falling ricks blown out by the volcano!) and emergency rescue gear. We were constantly warned to not let the lava catch up—as it not only smells bad but is hot, hot, hot!

The Arenal volcano dominates the landscape 100 miles northwest of San Jose.

Motivated as I was by our day trip to The Peace Lodge and the observation of this effort to balance tourism and eco-conservation, I was curious to see what a few days-stay at an eco-resort would be like. I wanted to ask the Bank’s hospitality team how they could accommodate tourists, especially families, who wanted the eco-experience of Costa Rica, but without the challenges and rigors of a remote eco-lodge. The answer lay in a visit to The Springs, the other Banks-owned eco-resort, this one located on the slopes of the Arenal volcano, within one of the best-known views in Costa Rica’s portfolio of memorable images. We called at the last minute—part of my “no plan” approach–and a warm, efficient reservation staff member found a way to get us a room for a couple of nights’ stay even though it was a holiday weekend. I was impressed, anxious, and delighted all at once. Pura Vida!

The Springs is a full-on, five-star experience. The rooms were spacious and clean, the activities very much oriented to experiencing the magnificent Costa Rica rainforests, and the staff support was consistently excellent. I said I wanted to see frogs, and I was booked on a night tour that delivered the desired results. I wanted to see a sloth and the staff pointed out two in the wild, and then took me to see a third, a momma and baby, hanging out on the back of the property. I did not see a jaguar, but definitely, a local puma got my full attention! We hiked the trails and hung out in the local hot springs. This was pura vida living.

A puma at The Springs protects his territory.

Like The Peace Lodge, The Springs is owned and was developed by Lee Banks. More than any testimonial, this property speaks to his commitment to eco-conservation, and an ability to balance tourism with environmental sustainability. The Spring blends perfectly into its surrounding landscape. It routinely employs locals, training them to meet the demands of resort-level hospitality, simultaneously sustaining communities and creating futures for coming generations of Ticos. The resort’s design—thanks to Banks—relies exclusively on the heat of the volcano and solar power, making The Springs’ carbon footprint light indeed. Guests enjoy river rafting, a variety of natural hot pools, zip-lining, horseback riding, and hikes galore. Guests can immerse themselves in Costa Rica’s natural beauty within the boundaries of sustainable tourism while enjoying gourmet dining and a host of luxurious resort amenities. All in all, a remarkable, satisfying balance of interests that we found enhanced our Costa Rica experience.

Lee Banks is not the only conservation-minded entrepreneur, and The Peace Lodge and The Springs are not the only eco-friendly resorts. Costa Rica’s diversity includes many eco-responsible choices for the traveler. But Lee Banks and his properties mark the way and anchor the concept. It makes a “no plan” approach to traveling easy on the conscience and offers an exciting opportunity for discovery within a pura vida lifestyle. Viva! The balance.

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