by Shannon Farley
Ecotourism and Costa Rica are practically synonymous, especially since Costa Rica essentially pioneered the flourishing ecotourism trend.
In April of this year, Costa Rica was named the most popular eco-friendly destination in the world by TripAdvisor members. The country has been on the forefront of the eco-friendly travel movement ever since it developed its Certification for Sustainable Tourism (CST) program in 1999. The program grades the sustainability of a tourism entity based on specific criteria such as proper waste management, environmental protection, use of resources, respect for local cultures and support of local communities. The United Nations World Tourism Organization uses the CST program as the model for sustainable tourism practices in Latin America.
Ecotourism, however, is not just about travel to pretty places. The International Ecotourism Society defines ecotourism as “responsible travel to natural areas that conserves the environment and improves the well-being of local people.”
Veragua Rainforest Research & Adventure Park, in Costa Rica’s Caribbean mountains, is an ecotourism destination that means what it says. “We’re a perfect example of an ecotourism project,” says Veragua owner Marti Jimenez. “We’re located in a poor area that traditionally was involved in logging, mono-agriculture and hunting. We’re turning the region into a conservation-focused area, giving locals jobs and teaching them to protect their resources. We’re very involved in the community with education and infrastructure.”
Veragua Rainforest is a biology research center and adventure park, located about an hour inland from the historic Caribbean port town of Limon. It is an area of breathtaking tropical rainforest with views of the seemingly endless mountains of the Talamanca Range in the La Amistad (“Friendship”) International Park. La Amistad is the country’s largest and most remote national park and is shared by both Costa Rica and Panama.
Encompassing 1,300 hectares (3,212 acres), Veragua Rainforest Park is a one-stop total rainforest adventure and not-to-be-missed when visiting Costa Rica’s Caribbean area. There are walking trails through the rainforest, a river and waterfall, an aerial tram, a canopy zip line tour, a research station and many wildlife exhibits, plus a restaurant, café and souvenir shop.
Veragua Rainforest Park’s owners’ conservation-minded attitude fits right in with the International Ecotourism Society’s goals of protecting the natural and cultural heritage of the planet by empowering local communities around the world to fight against poverty and to achieve sustainable development.
“Part of our mission is to improve the quality of life around the area, especially in the schools. We are a big sponsor for the two schools closest to Veragua,” says Commercial Director Rocio Lopez. “We have helped improve their infrastructure, and have made an alliance with them to bring awareness to the children about conservation and its importance.” Now after four years of Veragua Rainforest Park operating in the area, Lopez says that when schoolchildren are asked “what do they want to be when they grow up,” they answer “a guide or biologist at Veragua Rainforest.”
Veragua Rainforest started in 2004 in the imagination of founders Jimenez and his friend Felipe Koberg, both Costa Rican entrepreneurs. They decided to create a tourism project focused on nature that promoted visitors to the Limon province with a low environmental impact. “We were two guys with no tourism experience, very little money, but a great idea,” said Jimenez. Veragua opened officially on July 4, 2008.
Today, four years after opening, Veragua Rainforest Park is a success. They have the endorsements of two of the world’s most renowned conservation and sustainability development NGO’s – Conservation International and The Nature Conservancy. They have won three architecture prizes for ecologically sustainable construction techniques – from Metalco in Costa Rica for the use of steel, and two from the Costa Rica Real Estate Chamber for employing sustainable architecture and for being “accessible without boundaries” (both physical and financial).
Sustainability and social responsibility are very important to Veragua’s owners. “Tourism is an industry that trickles into every community,” Jimenez says. “This is tourism at its best.”
Veragua Rainforest Park is open Tuesday to Saturday, from 8:00 am to 3:00 pm. Admission is $55 for adults and $45 for children/students; children under age 4 get in free. The admission price includes all park activities and attractions, with the exception of the canopy tour – which is an additional $34 for adults and $20 for students/children. Lunch in their restaurant is $10 per person. The Park is located 40 minutes from Limon and 2 ½ hours from San José, in Brisas de Veragua, 12 km south from the Liverpool entrance on the highway to Limón.