San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

Costa Rica takes a step toward inclusive tourism

Costa Rica has long been known as a destination for adventure, with thoughts of surfing, hiking through rain forests and tranquil beaches coming to mind, but this iconic image of the country has long been out of reach for Ticos and tourists in wheelchairs or with other disabilities.

Innovative design in all-terrain wheelchairs and a growing social awareness of accessibility issues in Costa Rica, however, are poised to make the country’s national wonders available to people of all abilities and ages. 

Fernán González of Sistemas de Accesibilidad Total, an architecture and consulting company specializing in accessible design, unveiled two unique wheelchairs, perhaps the only of their kind in Costa Rica, during the Expo Travel trade show in San José last week. 

At first glance, the so-called “amphibious chairs” look like something left over from NASA’s Mars rover mission. Large, balloon-like yellow tires help stabilize the chairs over uneven surfaces and keep it from sinking into the sand. Another larger version equipped with life preservers can go into the ocean, allowing others to float alongside the person sitting down.

“The topic of accessible tourism isn’t really addressed here in Costa Rica because everyone focuses on buildings, not in the enjoyment of tourism,” said González. 

Carara pathway

Carara National Park is one of the few protected areas in Costa Rica designed for people of all abilities, including low-incline paved trails, Braille and other information aids, and handicap-accessible bathrooms. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

But that may be changing. With several laws in effect requiring handicap accessibility in hotels and other public places, and pending legislation that would punish those who fail to comply with accessibility requirements, there is more pressure on the tourist industry to address accessibility issues for foreign and domestic visitors. 

The National System of Conservation Areas (SINAC) met this week with González to see how they could make Manuel Antonio, a national park on the Pacific coast, more accessible to people of all abilities.

Cecilia Montero of SINAC told The Tico Times that there are two national parks that are up to code for complete accessibility: Poás Volcano National Park and Carara National Park. Both parks have ramps, paved pathways, wayfinding and information aids.

Montero said that SINAC hopes to make similar additions to six national parks total, including Izarú Volcano, Gayabo, Guanacaste, and Manuel Antonio. 

The SINAC representative said that they are exploring options to develop a wheel-chair accessible walkway to Manuel Antonio’s mangroves and beach, including a gangway that would allow wheelchair access to the ocean.

But redesigning national parks does not come cheap: “The most difficult thing is to find funding for these projects,” observed Montero.

Rita Chaves Casanova, leader of the Accessibility without Exclusion Party, PASE, agreed. The lawmaker told The Tico Times that there has been progress making the country’s iconic national parks more accessible to people of all abilities but funding remains a problem.

“Often there are no resources to maintain a certain standard [of accessibility], much less adapt the parks,” Chaves said.

The lawmaker pointed out that because the protected areas are public they too fall under the law’s accessibility requirements. Chaves added that PASE has proposed bill 18,238 that would give “teeth” to the country’s principal disability legislation, Law 7600, empowering authorities to sanction businesses or public places that do not comply with the law’s accessibility requirements.

González hopes that these considerations will make Costa Rica more accessible to Ticos and create a new tourism niche for visitors who thought the country’s rugged image was out of reach.

“You can put [a handicapped person] under a palm tree but they’re not really getting a chance to fully enjoy the experience,” González said, “People need to understand that the true value of a tourist destination is that everyone can enjoy it.”  

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