The Pure Life

Visitors to Costa Rica discover awesome natural beauty that is
well preserved by its people.
By Diana Lambdin Meyer• Photos by Bruce N. Meyer

The soft crevasses and worn lines of 78-year-old Cecila Arga Aquila’s face are not typical of the images associated with sustainable tourism. Instead, we may envision howler monkeys swinging with abandon from tree to tree, eating sweet, ripe mangoes above the rickety table where Cecila and her colleagues work.


Tourists in Costa Rica can view wildlife on popular treetop tours. Amazing eco-systems draw visitors to this Central American country.


We may think of the pristine surf of the Pacific Ocean a few hundred yards away and the sea turtles now nesting here or the fat and aged iguana waddling down the dirt lane in front of Cecila’s home.

These are all the faces, images and reasons for sustainable tourism in Punta Islita, a remote village in the north Guanacaste region of Costa Rica. Punta Islita is the definition of sustainable tourism, a place where, until 1995, life was slowly disappearing.

What is sustainable tourism?

Sustainable tourism is the practice of allowing people from around the world to experience a place without doing damage to it while improving the natural and human environment.

This tiny country in Central America, neighbored by Panama and Nicaragua, has written the book on the subject, setting a bar and standard for the rest of the world to follow. Costa Rica represents only .01 percent of the planet’s surface, yet it is home to almost 4 percent of the existing world’s biodiversity. More than 25 percent of land in Costa Rica is in a nature preserve or natural park. Costa Rica has set a goal for itself to be carbon neutral–maintaining a balance between producing and using carbon–by 2021.

The first chapter in the sustainable tourism book is the Certificate for Sustainable Tourism Certification (, a mouthful of government lingo that basically assures travelers that the companies and services they access while in Costa Rica are as green and environmentally friendly as they say they are. The certification program grades tourism entities on four standards: impact on the natural habitat, management policies, opportunities for travelers to become involved, and socio-economic environment. Currently, the program has graded a little more than 100 tourist services.

Punta Islita

Forty-five-year-old Jose Angel Mendez Pizarro was born and raised in Punta Islita, but left the area as an adult to find meaningful work. A few local families made a subsistence living off of the land, but otherwise, the impact of deforestation had sounded the death knell for the small communities of this region. Yet, Pizarro returned a few years ago and now owns a modern, stylish and profitable restaurant called Cambute. Locals joke that it is the Studio 54 for Punta Islita–the place, albeit the only place, to see and be seen in Punta Islita.

Life began to change for people in this village in 1992 with the arrival of Eduardo Villafranca, a developer and champion of social responsibility and environmental stewardship. His father-in-law had begun developing a hotel in the area, but Villafranca quickly turned the property–Hotel Punta Islita–into an award-winning model for sustainable tourism.

They reforested the land, bought and hired local, installed state-of-the-art sewage treatment facilities, and implemented every fuel and energy conservation method possible. They worked with locals to teach them about protecting their environment at home and worked with neighboring developers to prevent run-off in the Pacific.

They brought in resources that helped develop entrepreneurial talents, resulting in the Punta Islita open-air art cooperative. This is where Cecila and dozens of women create and sell a variety of handcrafted products, thus helping improve the quality of life for their homes and building their self-esteem.

The result is that people started coming to Punta Islita, in part because it is a world-class resort, but because of what the environment, both human and natural, had to offer travelers to the region.

Experiencing that which is worth preserving

While local artisans are talented, accommodations at Hotel Punta Islita are pleasant, and Cambute serves delicious food, travelers come to Costa Rica for what Mother Nature originally gave the land. That includes the howler monkeys frolicking in the mango trees, the jaguars prowling in the depths of the jungle, and the multi-colored toucans soaring overhead.

Bounded by the Pacific Ocean on the west and the Caribbean on the east, there are more than 900 miles of beaches and waterfront properties. Some of the world’s best scuba diving, snorkeling and surfing takes place here, not to mention fabulous sunbathing on beaches of every hue. Kayaking through mangroves, sport fishing, horseback riding on the beach–the recreation options are endless.

Costa Rica is home to nine active volcanoes, an indication of the country’s mountainous nature and youthful geology. The most active and most easily accessible volcano is Arenal, the focal point of a national park by the same name, near La Fortuna in central Costa Rica. A maze of suspension bridges allows guests to walk at tree top level enjoying the richness and density of the rainforest from above.

Treetop tours, sometimes called canopy tours, as well as zipline tours, are incredibly popular in Costa Rica. The purpose of these is to get above the forest and witness the diversity of life living in the trees. In addition to numerous birds, monkeys and other creatures, the trees are home to ferns, orchids and other plants that use the tree as a host. Much of this is missed on a hike through the rainforest at ground level. This is the most fertile part of the world to witness such biodiversity.

The rich volcanic soil combined with rainfall and an endless growing season have made Costa Rica one of the world’s most renowned coffee growing countries. Coffee exports are the third largest contributor to the Costa Rican economy and integral to the culture and lifestyle of its people.

Finca Rosa Blanca, an environmentally-friendly boutique hotel and coffee plantation about 30 miles from the capital of San Jose, allows guests to participate in the harvest and processing of coffee beans and then offers instruction in making the perfect cappuccino, latte and espresso.

The people of Costa Rica

Costa Ricans in general are congenial people, proud of their beautiful homeland and becoming more personally engaged each day in the global efforts to protect Costa Rica for future generations.

When greeting friends or strangers in the Midwest, we often offer the standard “hello, how are you?” and respond appropriately.

In Costa Rica, they have a greeting that reflects the good life they enjoy in this part of the world. It is simply “pura vida,” which translates strictly to mean “pure life.” But for the ticos (men) and ticas (women), it means “all is well, things are good.” It means that life in this part of the world is as pure and natural as it can get, and that makes for a very good life.

Diana Lambdin Meyer is a contributor from Parkville, Mo.

Sept/Oct 2009 Issue


Winter in the Midwest is summer in Costa Rica, otherwise known as the dry season. Now until April is the best time to visit. While Spanish is the official language, a large portion of the population speaks English as their second language. Costa Rica’s currency is the colon (equals about 70 cents). This is a land of extremes, from arid highlands to steamy rainforests. Be certain of conditions for the area you will visit before packing. When traveling within the country via airlines, be aware of strict weight restrictions and be prepared to place your luggage–and yourself–on the scales before boarding a plane.

For more information, click on, and

AAA Travel and General Tours offer a variety of vacations to Costa Rica, including an all-inclusive four-day beach getaway in Guanacaste for $629 per person (plus airfare). See your AAA Travel agent for details. List of offices or call (888) 366-4222.

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