Costa Rica is a paradise, but can it remain so?
The jury’s out but there are some positive signs
Costa Rica is, by any measure, an extraordinary place. But it’s not one that was even on my radar for most of my years and like many people I’ve spoken to since, I’d probably have placed in as an island in the Caribbean.
But when my wife visited there in 2014, my ignorance turned to intrigue.
Geologically, it has a string of volcanos running along its spine, many of them active, and on either side, it is characterised by cloud forest, rainforest and beautiful beaches (the Pacific coast on the west side, the Caribbean on the east). And as well as being at the axis of the two great oceans, it links North America to South America.
But it turns out to be way more interesting and far more amazing than I could ever have imagined.
My attention was initially piqued when I learned that in 1949, this small nation of 5 million people – about the same size as Denmark – sandwiched between Nicaragua and Panama on the Central American mainland, had decided to abolish its army, and channel its money instead into health, education and conservation.
I was impressed. That’s a brave move for a little country. Especially when you’re surrounded by some pretty volatile neighbours.
Since 1949, Costa Rica has emerged as one of the most incredible places on the planet, and should serve as an inspiration to many other countries.
Compared to the global average of 4.4%, it spends 6.9% of its budget on education, and has one of the highest literacy rates in the world at 98%. Schooling is free up to the age of 16 for everyone, and all children – and teachers – are given free hot lunches. And the food everywhere is fabulous.
Its universal healthcare system is the envy of many first world nations, and life expectancy is 80 years – higher than the USA, the UAE and China.
While the country has only about 0.03% of the world's landmass, it contains 5% of the world's biodiversity. ONE TWENTIETH OF THE ENTIRE WORLD’S BIODIVERSITY!
It hosts no fewer than 12 climatic zones, and is home to jaguar, puma, sloths, monkeys, turtles, giant crocodiles, toucans, giant butterflies and iguana, amazing frogs and hummingbirds. 894 bird species have been recorded in Costa Rica, more than all of the United States and Canada combined.
Almost a third of the country's land area is in protected national parks and protected areas, the largest percentage of protected areas in the world (- compare that to the developing world average of 13%, and the developed world average of 8%). Costa Rica has successfully managed to diminish deforestation from some of the worst rates in the world from 1973 to 1989, to almost zero by 2005.
In May 2007, the Costa Rican government announced its intentions to become 100% carbon neutral by 2021. By 2015, 93 percent of the country's electricity came from renewable sources. In 2016, the country produced 98% of its electricity from renewable sources and ran completely on renewable sources for 110 continuous days.
Costa Rica was listed in the Ethical Traveler group's 2017 list of The World’s Ten Best Ethical Destinations.
Little wonder then, that in November 2017, National Geographic magazine named Costa Rica as the happiest country in the world.
I don’t know about you, but I think that’s flippin’ amazing.
But hang on…
Before you pack your bags, it’s important to recognise that Costa Rica has its problems, too.
The capital, San José, a bustling city nestled in the centre of the country, is packed full of cars and trucks, and is, architecturally, a mess. The main road that runs north-south (the Pan American Highway) is hopelessly inadequate, and the majority of the rural road network is still made up of dirt tracks that are often closed due to mud slides.
Economically, the country is still struggling, and the usual political pressures are biting hard. As with lots of emerging nations – particularly those with Latin roots in our experience – there’s a philosophy of ‘mañana’ and lots of things ‘just don’t work’.
Pollution comes from within, but is also evident along its coastlines, even in remote areas hundreds of miles from consumer-filled conurbations. Whilst walking along the beach at the Corcovada National Park – one of the remotest parts of the country, miles from anywhere, we were dismayed to see dozens – maybe hundreds – of plastic bottles washed up on the sand.
And this is a tropical country with two seasons: the wet season, and the very wet season!
Both hot, and rainy. But that’s why this entire land is so green and fertile, and why it supports
such a cornucopia of life.
We arrived in Costa Rica three weeks before Christmas, just as the festival is reaching its peak in the UK.
But we really weren’t prepared for the fact that in this strongly Catholic country it’s every bit as important, albeit in a more spiritual way.
And one evening, despite the rain and heat, we found ourselves in a remote village high in the cloud forest in the middle of the Christmas parade, surrounded by beautiful Costa Ricans wearing skimpy outfits
and Santa hats, singing Jingle Bells and Merry Christmas to a samba beat!
But back to the plastic
Having been blown away by everything we’d seen, but brought back down to Earth by the plastic bottles on the beach, our faith in this special place was restored when we reached the village of Tortugeuro on the north-east coast.
The children of the village had taken the issue on board, and were having a competition to see who could collect the most plastic from around the streets.
And once collected, they had used the bottles to highlight the problem of plastics by building a huge Christmas tree from them, right in the middle of the village.