San José, Costa Rica, since 1956
Costa Rica's Green Image

Travel Guide Highlights Rural, Community-based Ecotourism

DON’T let thetitle fool you;“The New Key toCosta Rica” isactually the country’soldest travelguide, founded in1976 by longtimeresident and eventualCosta Ricancitizen JeanWallace. Still,Beatrice Blake,Wallace’s daughter,who has editedthe guide for 22years, gave the latestedition a newfocus: rural, community-based ecotourism.Blake, a resident of Maine but a frequentvisitor and tour guide in Costa Rica,visited the country earlier this month forthe third annual Rural CommunityTourism Fair, held at INBioparque, northwestof San José, Dec. 3-5, and spoke withThe Tico Times about the most recentaddition to the “New Key” series.Excerpts:What inspired you to focus on ruralecotourism in the latest edition?The last edition came out in November2002, but soon after that I realized therewere great things going on with rural ecotourismprojects in Costa Rica. The UnitedNations Development Program, through itsSmall-Grants Program, had begun fundingvarious community projects, and the communitieswere ready to begin receiving visitors,so I began the process of researchingthese initiatives.The idea of community-based, ruralecotourism is that these (the owners andoperators of the hotels, tours and services)are the people who live in the areas beingvisited, who grew up there and who, whengiven the opportunity, want to conservetheir own resources.The tourists can experience how thingshave changed in a very short time becauseof local initiatives, and it’s wonderful forcommunities, too, because they see thatothers are interested in them and theirhomes.Many ecolodgeshave been in operationin Costa Rica foryears. What is differentabout recentdevelopments?Many of the wonderfulenvironmentallyowned ecolodgeshave traditionallybeen foreign-owned,while Tico hotels didn’ttend to have thatkind of contact withnature; they weresomewhat sterile,maybe because ownersthought that wouldappeal more totourists. Foreignownedeco-lodges dobenefit the community and are owned bypeople who love Costa Rica, but in thisissue we focused more on sustainabilitythrough local ownership. In recent yearswe’ve seen an entrance into ecotourism bycampe-sinos, because now they have theirown lodges.What has allow-ed this kind oftourism to become so widespread inCosta Rica?What’s amazing is that the U.N. Small-Grants Program only donates to establishedgroups with a board of directors, anaction plan and so forth, so rural communitiesmust reach a certain level of organizationbefore they can get any funding.People working with rural ecotourism inother countries often visit Costa Rica andask me, “What is it about Costa Rica thatempowers these communities to do this?”The answer is that past governmentsset the stage, especially (President Daniel)Oduber in the 1970s, who sent healthworkers and experts in community developmentall over Costa Rica. They went bybus, by motorcycle, however they neededto get there. As a result, today you can goto the farthest ends of the country and finda community association.What other differences will previous“New Key” readers notice in the newedition?A completely new introduction highlightsecotourism. Also, each chapterincludes a narrative about an adventure Ihad in the region that the chapter isfocused on. There are new photos, includingmore wildlife photos than in previousguides. There’s also a map showing thelocation of rural ecotourism sites.However, I wanted to make sure theguide would work for any traveler, or fortravelers on their way to rural locationswho need to spend a night in a city or at abig hotel.So, although I had to streamline thosesections to make room for more on ruralecotourism, there is still information onmy favorite places in San José andPuntarenas, for example, and quite a lot ofdetail on Alajuela, since the JuanSantamaría International Airport is there.How expensive are the rural optionsin your book?Oh, they’re very inexpensive! Theecolodges are often $35 per night, includingincredibly good food and often tours.What can cost more is the transportation toget there, since many of the lodges are inisolated locations. But there are options allover Costa Rica. Really, in any place youwant to visit in Costa Rica, you couldinclude communitybasedecotourism inyour travels.What are some ofthe most memorableprojects you’veseen?At Isla Chira, inthe Golfo de Nicoyaoff the north-centralPacific coast, a groupof women wanted tostart a tourism projectand faced stiff oppositionfrom their husbandsand from therest of the community(TT, June 18).People said, “Whydo you want to bringtourists here? They’lldrink, they’ll throw trash. And why wouldanyone want to come here, anyway?”They persisted, and it’s amazing whatit’s done for the community and thewomen. One woman told me, “Now, if Ineed to do something (related to the touristbusiness) and I need my husband to stayhome and care for the kids, he’ll do it.”There’s more collaboration, and thecommunity has learned more about conservation.They changed their practices forreef fishing, for example, to preserve thefish population.Aside from buying “The New Key,”how can those interested in rural ecotourismget started on planning a trip?There are lots of options. Actuar(, 228-5695) isan umbrella group of community-basedecotourism lodges and is therefore a goodplace to start.They also run wonderful meditationweekends where you can travel from SanJosé to the coast, stay at a communitylodge, and have yoga instruction andexcursions, all for around $90.There are also a few rural tour agenciessuch as Simbiosis Tours (, 248-2538), a real pioneer inthe field, and Cultourica (, 249-1761).I have also been leading tours in conjunctionwith Horizontes Nature Tours.Information about those can be found or on the “NewKey” Web site, also offer a consultation service tohelp people plan their vacations in CostaRica. Those interested can contact methrough the Web site.The 17th edition of “The New Key toCosta Rica” is available at 7th StreetBooks in downtown San José (256-8251),online at, or inthe United States at Barnes & Noble orBorders.

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