Christopher Baker was one of the original hotel reviewers for Luxury Latin America, covering most of the luxury Costa Rica hotels for us. His new edition of the Moon Handbook Costa Rica is the seventh edition of this thorough guide and I caught up with him to ask what's new in the most popular destination in Central America.
Unlike a lot of guidebook writers who are thrown in with no experience, you've been covering Costa Rica for a very long time. What has been the most dramatic change since you started writing about the country?
Yes, in fact, I've been authoring the Moon Costa Rica guide since 1989. A full two decades. The most remarkable thing has been how Costa Rica's tourism product has kept evolving as a trend-setter for the rest of the world. First, with generic ecotourism promoting the wilderness and wildlife as a core reason to visit. This sponsored conservation, fueled by the arrival of savvy expatriate entrepreneurs with a conscience and vision. The number of superb wilderness lodges now astounds, many of them doubling as hip boutique hotels with a healthy eco-conscious component. As Costa Rica's became an ecotourism juggernaut, it also evolved as a Nirvana for adrenalin seekers. Surfing has boomed. So, too, dozens of components on the adventure theme: from exploring by ATV to ziplining, a forte invented in Costa Rica, and the most prominent of "canopy tour" options that now include dozens of outlets with aerial trams, boardwalks or zipline cables through and between rainforest treetops.
As a result, visitor arrivals have continued to surge. Two decades ago, Costa Rica was receiving well below one million visitors a year. It passed that threshold a decade now. Now visitor arrivals exceed two million annually.
Costa Rica slipped a bit in this year's National Geographic sustainability survey, while other destinations it competes with improved. Is this a case of heightened expectations or is overdevelopment in some areas soiling the country's eco-friendly travel reputation?
First let me say that it remains a top destination for eco-conscious travelers, and is ranked as such in the National Geographic survey. Moreover, Costa Rica was recently ranked the number one destination in Latin America by the World Economic Forum's annual travel competitiveness report, which indexes 133 countries according to their business environment and infrastructure; cultural, human, and natural resources; and their regulatory framework.
That said, there are definite reasons for concern with Costa Rica. That has always been the case in the two decades I've come to know it in depth. My main concerns are overdevelopment along the Nicoya coast, where an almost obscene amount of condo development (now stalled) has taken place within the past few years. This is Costa Rica's dry zone, and limited water supply is an ongoing concern. Money talks in Costa Rica, as do family connections. So for many years various administrations basically turned a blind eye to violations of the maritime laws restricting coastal construction.
I take heart that the current Oscar Arias administration seems to have taken a much firmer line in this regard. Many projects have been halted. Many existing buildings that were too close to the high-tide mark have been turned down. On another note, Costa Rica is also dealing more firmly with logging companies (a powerful political lobby), while the huge number of private reforestation projects has resulted in the nation actually reversing the trend of deforestation, and the amount of forested land in Costa Rica is increasing.
What are some interesting projects you've seen since the last edition in terms of green building, sustainable tourism, or good environmental practices?
Some clear trends stand out. The first is the success of the government's Certificate of Sustainable Tourism program. The program categorizes and certifies hotels and tour companies according to the degree to which each comply to a model of sustainability. Each entity is graded according to environmental, socio-economic, and other attributes, with 150 variables judged by independent investigators on a level of one to five. They are then awarded one to five "leafs" according to the total score, in much the same way that hotels worldwide are categorized by the well-known "stars" system. CST certification is now so widely recognized and coveted that hoteliers have been provided a real incentive to improve their practices, with an eye to earning the maximum leafs and therefore a competitive advantage. See this blog post of mine for more details. To date, only four hotels in the country have received five leafs. Foreign hoteliers are at the forefront, setting a model for savvy Costa Rican entrepreneurs to follow. More and more hotels are adopting projects that filter and recycle gray water, etc.
For example, Jim Damalas, owner of Hotel Si Como No and Villablanca Cloud Forest Resort & Spa (both are five-leaf winners) has ensured that virtually every aspect of his hotel operations is ecologically sound. Most recently, Jim has integrated an isolated mountain community into an ecological project. The "Santa Juana Mountain Tour" brings tourists to experience rural living first hand, generating income for the community, which now follows ecologically sound farming practices, including reforestation. It's a win-win all round.
A great number of the organized tours to Costa Rica pursue a very standard well-worn path of "greatest hits" areas. If you were making plans for a small group that has a week or 10 days, where would you send them instead?
Ha, I receive many a call or email from travelers asking for similar recommendations. Invariably after I recommend lesser-known spots, they end up by saying: "Ah, but we were planning on going to Monteverde, Manuel Antonio, and La Fortuna." This is the big triptych in Costa Rica. Many of the well-trodden paths, or places, continue to evolve fabulous new products along the original draws to those regions. Twenty years ago, the village of La Fortuna was a sleepy base for exploring Arenal Volcano National Park, for horseback rides, and bathing in Tabacon Hot Springs. There wasn't much else. Today the place is booming. Dozens of hotels have opened up, along with half a dozen adventure "theme parks," an equal number of canopy tours, and no end of adventure options, including in-town bungee jumping! Yet La Fortuna's appeal has been enhanced for this reason. The same goes for Monteverde and, to a lesser degree, Manuel Antonio. But if you really do want to shun the "crowds," then here's where I'd recommend as alternatives:
In Monteverde, the prime draw is the Monteverde Cloud Forest Biological Reserve. Costa Rica has many cloud-forest environments, most of them off-the-beaten-track. I'd recommend El Silencio Cloud Forest Reserve, near San Ramon and boasting the superlative Villablanca Cloud Forest Resort & Spa as a base; or San Gerardo de Dota, an exquisite and still relatively undiscovered Shangri-la valley where quetzal viewing (a prime draw for Monteverde) is virtually guaranteed and which has accommodations options from rustic to stylishly chic.
With Panama and Nicaragua having some of the same natural attributes and wildlife, what makes Costa Rica a better vacation destination?
I know Panama intimately. I love it. Panama City has the "big city" sophistication that Costa Rica lacks. It has the Canal, and the exoticism of intact Kuna and Embera indigenous cultures. Costa Rica has none of those. But whereas Panama boasts even more bird species, the same incredible wildlife, and an equal percent of its land protected in national parks, it pales significantly in comparison to Costa Rica in terms of the evolution of its tourist infrastructure, which in Panama is highly concentrated. And Nicaragua is only just beginning to tap into its equal potential. Costa Rica is Latin America's leader, bar none, when it comes to wilderness lodges and the sheer volume of choices for active and ecological travel.
Someone hands you $100,000 and tells you to spend it all in Costa Rica. What would you do with it?
Test me, please! Am I vacationing or investing? If the latter, I'd avoid the "teak project" deals like the plague. Costa Rica has attracted all manner of scammers and there is no shortage of deals gone bad for innocents. That includes land purchases. One of my biggest regrets is that I never bought land in Costa Rica when it was cheap. I'd still like to have a simple retreat in the mountains (I love San Gerardo de Dota, and that would be my first choice of locale) or by the beach (I'd opt for Manzanillo, on the Caribbean coast). But, selfish thinking aside, Costa Rica has all manner of social problems, not least of sexual abuse of children. I'd like to think I'd donate the entire sum to a project such as Casa Luz — a home for young mothers who have been physically abused and are at high social risk.
Christopher Baker has contributed to more than 150 publications worldwide including Caribbean Travel & Life, National Geographic Traveler, Robb Report, Los Angeles Times, and Elle. He appears frequently on radio and television talk shows and as a guest-lecturer aboard cruise ships, and has been privileged to address such organizations as the National Press Club, the World Affairs Council, and the National Geographic Society.
See more about Moon Handbook Costa Rica.
Luxury Hotels in Costa Rica
Costa Rica's Eco-luxe Spas.