Think of Costa Rica and the first thing that may come to mind is idyllic surf beaches and tropical jungles – or for the caffeine-addicted, its much sought-after coffee beans. Lately, though, this country of just 4.9 million has been making waves as a hub for sustainability. Already running on 98-percent renewable electricity sources, Costa Rica has plans to be entirely carbon-neutral within the next three years – a lofty goal that many countries are far from reaching, which proves that big ideas can sometimes come from unexpected places. So I set off to discover how everyday Costa Ricans, from individual tour guides to hoteliers and fashion designers, are personally committed to helping their country reach its eco goals.
After travelling from San José to the country’s verdant northern lowlands, I arrive at Tabacón Thermal Resort & Spa, where a series of interconnecting mineral streams and waterfalls is the perfect spot to relax after my flight. Built with minimal impact on the surrounding environment, the streams are naturally heated by underground geothermal activity from the nearby Arenal Volcano. This means water temperatures range between 25°C and 40°C year-round, without drawing on any electricity. While soaking in the springs, my peace is only disturbed by an emerald-green basilisk lizard running across the surface of the water. The way the streams are built into the rainforest itself means that encounters like this are the norm.
With over 1.7 million tourists (including some 200,000 Canadians) visiting the country every year, Costa Ricans have been hard at work making sure their most precious resource doesn’t disappear, creating initiatives like the Five Leaves Certification for Sustainable Tourism – which Tabacón holds. It’s an easy way for eco-responsible travellers to ensure they cause minimal impact during their stay, and it’s initiatives like this that have made Costa Rica a favourite destination among environmentally conscious visitors, who head to resorts like Villa Manzu. Built with Five Leaves criteria in mind – such as promoting local traditions and workers – the property, arguably one of the country’s most luxurious, was designed by Costa Rican architect Abraham Valenzuela and features custom copper doors (made by his brother Carlos), as well as furniture and sculptures all created by local small-production art studios.
First in fashion
Since the late 1940s, a series of socially progressive policies (like shuttering the Costa Rican army and reallocating military funding to education and health care) has created a country with an almost unprecedented sense of community responsibility. And this even extends to the notoriously eco-unfriendly fashion industry. In fact, Costa Rica is turning itself into a world hub for sustainable luxury fashion. Mercedes-Benz Fashion Week San José is an entirely plastic-free event, and eco accessory brands like Vogue-approved Nomadic Collector and Cruda create products from reforested wood and responsible leather.
Oscar Ruiz-Schmidt, the creative director behind local label Obra Gris, which exhibits at Fashion Week, returned home after studying fashion in Berlin and working in New York with the likes of Zac Posen. His thick-framed glasses, bearded face and androgynous style would look at home in Brooklyn or Montreal’s Mile End, but he works in his studio on a quiet residential street in San José. Outside, there’s a garden with tangerine and lemon trees, a coffee plant and vibrant heliconias – his black and tan dachshund, Pantera (panther), keeps careful watch underfoot. Describing how the environment impacts his work, he says, “The green surroundings are very soothing – I want my clothes to have the same effect on those who wear them.”
As a country, we have a strong point of view regarding nature, respecting it, using it and giving back.” Oscar Ruiz-Schmidt, creative director of Obra Gris
Around 20 people, mostly women, create his loosely draped clothing in small workshops around the capital. All items, from pants to tunics and kimonos, are made to be wrapped and styled differently each time they’re worn. They’re also seasonless and created from natural fibre with zero material waste. He says empowering locals – and consumers – is an important part of his ethos. “I feel an immense responsibility for my output as a designer,” he says, adding, “it is every person’s issue to become aware of the choices they make regarding what they buy, and where and how things are made. As a country, we have a strong point of view regarding nature, respecting it, using it and giving back.”
Nothing reveals how much Costa Ricans respect nature like spending an evening with locals who make their livelihood from the jungle itself. So on my last night I head out on a nighttime rainforest walk led by a nearby family. By the time I arrive at their property in La Fortuna, a 15-minute drive from Tabacón, an evening orchestra of cicadas and frogs has already begun.
I’m met by owners José Adan Diaz Chavarria and his wife Patricia Alfaro Zuñiga, as well as their two children. Their property, Ecogarden Arenal, is a mix of primary (or old-growth) rainforest and secondary rainforest (much of which has been planted by the family), and is home to sloths, boat-billed herons and strawberry poison dart frogs. The diversity here highlights the real effect of Costa Rica’s environmental policies, which help ensure that wildlife is seen in its natural setting, and provides opportunities for small operators like the Ecogarden – as well as an incentive to keep the habitat pristine.
Nature here is unpredictable and moves at its own pace.
As he leads me through thick rainforest with his two children in tow, Chavarria’s enthusiasm quickly spreads. I can’t spot anything, but then I don’t have his eagle eyes. He stops abruptly, reaching down to show me the underside of a broad-leafed plant that reveals a glass frog and its eggs. I pull back a bit and ask if they’re poisonous. He smiles and says, “We’re more poisonous than them!”
We continue, heading toward a riverbank where Chavarria starts slapping the water to mimic an injured bird. His seven-year-old daughter, Anna Claudia, is shining her flashlight out onto the water when I spot two eyes popping up from under the surface. He’s caught the attention of the local caiman, a two-metre-long alligator-like reptile. Even from a distance, it gives me a shiver – not to mention a good story for when I’m back home.
The next day, I’m up at sunrise for yoga in Tabacón’s open-air studio when I hear a croaking call coming from the foliage. I scan the surrounding trees, catching a glimpse of a brightly coloured creature – my first toucan of the trip. It turns its head to the side, making direct eye contact for a moment, hopping off before I can even think of reaching for my phone. But instead of being disappointed, I’m grateful for this private moment. Nature here is unpredictable and moves at its own pace, and that’s just the way it should be.