- Participated in two ecotours offered around Santa Elena: Coffee & Night Walk.
I found out there aren’t any tours offered in Santa Elena outside so I decided to book two ecotours around Santa Elena instead.
Having read so many articles about the marginalization of communities as a result of ecotourism, I began questioning the point of improving the visitor experience when all it does is perpetuate the social inequalities that come with the tourism industry. I was even thinking of abandoning my original plan of people-watching during an ecotour as part of my field research.
But I’m so glad I went.
To my surprise, I even enjoyed it.
The first tour I took was a coffee tour and my second was a night walk, Both were far away from Santa Elena, but transportation services were great and I got picked up, transferred between tours and dropped off at my host family’s home when we finished.
The coffee tour was divided into three parts with each part explaining the process of cultivating and making coffee, cacao and sugarcane.
At first I was critical, but I soon warmed up to the guide, who was well-intentioned and took the time to name the facts about each plants, including the growing and making process, the environmental impact, to the best of his knowledge, of each plant’s cultivation and the role the plants play in Costa Rican culture. He even made comparisons between the coffee, sugarcane and chocolate as well as with other agricultural crops such as pineapples and bananas.
I was in a group of 10 with 2 fresh out of college from Frankfurt, 2 from Amsterdam, 2 from Virginia, 2 from Paris and 1 from Vancouver. Though they sometimes made culturally insensitive comments, they were all genuinely interested in crops’ making and environmentalism, especially in composting and recycling. I grew to like them all and realized that it was just the lack of information circulated about Costa Rica and sustainability that made ecotourism, or rather tourism in general seem colonialist.
The coffee tour was very interactive as we joined in the process of “making” our own ground coffee, chocolate and sugarcane candy. We even got to have a snack at the end consisiting of real food, such as coffee, lemonade with sugarcane and picadillo de arracache. Nearly everyone took pictures of themselves being part of the process. Having began at the souvenir shop, we also ended up there , just in case we wanted to make any last-minute purchases. Nearly everyone, except me, bought something. Overall, I was actually impressed and didn’t feel ripped off, but had a pleasant experience learning some fun facts while drinking coffee.
Afterwards, I was then dropped off at the reception to begin my night walk. I was offered coffee and biscuits and there was no souvenirs to be sold. In fact, I only saw and mingled with a bunch of employees with their headlamps and rubber boots getting ready for the tour ahead. I already had a good impression of the people that work here because they did not seem to promise that you’ll see animals such as sloths during this night walk, but only the possibility of seeing them. There were twenty of us tourists and we were divided into two groups, one with an English-speaking guide and the other with a Spanish-speaking guide. I opted for the Spanish-speaking group because I wanted to observe a different tourists from a different demographic. Also, I wanted to practice my Spanish.
The tour guide was very informative and friendly. He told us at the beginning to stay on the trails to avoid ants and serpents. He also emphasized several times not to use flash, unless they were insects or spiders. We then proceeded walking on the trails and it was actually very pleasant and I think doable for any tourist wanting to take a walk into the forest at night.
We saw several frogs as well as bats, some serpents, a fox, possum and even a sleeping toucan. He had a walkie-talkie and explained to us that the guides not giving walks were on the lookout for animals on other trails and would inform him if they saw anything. I had fears that they would be planting animals up ahead in order to “stage” or create a spectacle for the tourists (i.e. the “audience”), but it wasn’t the case at all. In fact, when we ran to the place the guides ahead claimed to have seen something, the animals were usually long gone. Our guide also went ahead sometimes and told us to wait, instead of climbing a small hill, to see if there was anything there. Often times, he came back saying there was nothing. And we took the other trail everything instead. Everything was hit and miss, like any night walk really. If anything, I saw a lot more during the night walks my professors gave us, but then again they were experts and as our guide pointed out, it takes time and experience in the forest before you’re able to find animals routinely. Our guide, in his mid-twenties, tells us he learns more and more being in nature and still has a lot to learn considering he only has started giving night tours 4 years ago.
It started to rain and again, I was scared again that a tourist might complain or the tour will have to end. But everyone just pulled out their raincoat and continued on. It was really nice to see that my group was so curious about the plants and animals that existed in this forest, asking about their habitats, their geographical distribution and behavioral traits. I was in a group with 8 tourists from Spain and two from Brazil. Gender was divided evenly among the group and all except me were in their mid-thirties taking a short vacation. Nearly all came today and went on this tour on a whim and the length of their stay were generally from 2 to 4 nights. They were an easygoing group and I was glad they cared about identifying the animals just as much as identifying the plants, which the guide knew all the answers to. In fact, our guide talked a great deal about the flora that existed in the forest and took the time to give the natural history of the amazing strangler fig tree that seems to be everywhere here. Like the guide at the coffee tour, our guide was genuinely interested in illustrating what was unique about Costa Rica, in this case the wildlife such as the sloths.
Afterwards, we were given rides back home and on our way back we spotted a sloth on an electrical wire ironically in downtown Santa Elena. We saw the sloth, carrying an adorable baby sloth, had three limbs and the driver noted electrical wires are problem for animals in this town as she must have lost it from being electrocuted.
Overall, though I expected to be heavily critical of the way ecotours are run here, I immensely enjoyed both experiences and even concluded that ecotourism in Monteverde not only helps preserve the local biodiversity, but also boosts the economy in a sustainable way. Of course, not everything is perfect; there’s still the ignorant, and unknowingly patronizing tourist and the young guide who may not be well-informed, but that’s just a matter of the need for better infrastructure and education rather than the prevalence of exploitation.As a result of the today’s experiences, I have regained some hope that tourists can indeed help conservation efforts in a developing country such as Costa Rica.
I just hope they can somehow as well help beautify places such congested, littered Santa Elena instead of going so far out to experience a level of cultural identity and biodiversity that once existed there.
- Interview with Gisella on ecotourism!