Eco-Travel Tales From Central America

5 years ago

If you’ve been shopping for a vacation destination lately, you have probably come across the term "eco-tourism". Brochures – made from recycled paper of course -  entice guests with panoramic views from private lounge chairs on teak-decked terraces. Zip lines traverse deep gorges over the rainforest canopy while Howler monkeys frolick in their natural habitat. These venues boast of private reserves, diverse ecosystems and an opportunity to experience nature in unprecedented fashion. Reef or rainforest, mountain or jungle - tourist locales around the world attempt to leverage travelers’ desires to be environmentally friendly. After a recent trip to Central America – well-known for its pioneering efforts in eco-tourism – here’s what you need to know before you book an eco-trip.

Image: V31S70 via Flickr

Wannabe eco-travelers quickly discover that the tourism industry, like many large industries, uses greenwashing to sell itself. Eco-tourism is used in so many different ways lately that it has become virtually meaningless. Is it reaching a summit via helicopter and getting out to take photographs or is it trekking to a volcanic hot spring using native guides and consuming locally prepared food? Are activities such as camping or snorkeling eco-tourism, whether or not much thought is given to the ecological impact or sustainability of the activities?

According to The International Ecotourism Society (TIES), ecotourism is "Responsible travel to natural areas that conserves the environment and improves the well-being of local people.” Intended as a low-impact and often small scale alternative to more commercial tourism, its purpose is to educate the traveler, to provide funds for ecological conservation, or to directly benefit the economic development of local communities.

Scuba tanks, Belize - photo credit Jane Schonberger

Being an eco-tourist, however, is somewhat of a contradiction. When traveling, I am  hyperconscious of trying to protect the environment while constantly reminded that my very existence is disrupting it. Unregulated, eco-tourism extends only marginal benefits to local communities while incurring serious environmental and social consequences.  As more travelers opt for comfort over conservation, the negative impact on the environment may be irreparable.

There was a time when remote nature destinations, such as the Galapagos, Mt. Everest and the Costa Rican cloud forest, were visited by only the most rugged of travelers (and when younger I counted myself among those adventurers).  With improved access, however, these destinations are marketed to the masses and not surprisingly, companies promote themselves as "eco" simply to sell more trips.

I spent three weeks over the summer in Central America, beginning with Belize, which is fast becoming one of the biggest boom areas of the Caribbean. Despite its small size, over 40% of Belize is protected territory known as a green zone. The country offers some of the most spectacular ecological environments including the largest barrier reef in the western hemisphere (if you're a diver the Blue Hole is a must).  Ancient Mayan ruins, vast cave systems, beaches and other natural attractions serve as a magnet for tourists from all over the world.

When booking tours (in Central America and elsewhere) try to avoid those that do little to educate the traveler and do nothing for conservation or local economic development. Most dive operators in Belize, for example, are well trained in reef protection and will probably deliver a lecture about protecting the reef before you even hit the water. (I'm looking at you Everett). This is essential at sites like Hol Chan Marine Reserve and Shark Ray Alley where filled-to-capacity boats ring the reef daily.

Other attractions, like the Actun Tunichil Muknal Cave in Belize (another highlight of my trip), allow only guided tours for the protection of both habitat and visitors. If you opt to forgo the packaged tours and explore independently, be sure to hire a licensed guide - both to learn more about the region’s heritage as well as to support the local economy.  ATM not only offers a memorable caving adventure, but is an ancient Mayan burial site rich with history. Think Indiana Jones (sans boulder) and you get an idea of what the experience is like.

With the rise in eco-tourism comes the emergence of new hotels and resorts that promote  socially responsible ideals. But here is where it gets a bit tricky.  I found a lot of establishments throw the word "eco" into their name or marketing materials in an effort to be relevant. Sometimes, however, an eco-lodge or eco-adventure is just a fancy way of saying rustic, natural or no frills.

If you want air conditioning in Central America, you probably won't find it at a true eco-lodge - the energy necessary to artificially cool a room is neither natural nor energy efficient.  Want lots of hot water and good water pressure? Chances are your accommodation is wasting precious resources providing it. Not crazy about bugs? Thatched roofs can’t really keep them out. A large luxury hotel in the middle of nowhere takes far more resources to build and maintain than a local inn.  So, if you have some romantic notion of an unadulterated adventure,  make sure you know what you're getting yourself into - especially if traveling in a third world country where there are few regulations and fewer standards.

After a quick side trip to Tikal in Guatemala, the next stop was Costa Rica, the site of my first surf vacation eight years ago.  I returned to the "rich coast",  an outdoor adventurer’s dream with pristine rivers, beaches, mountains, and tropical rain forest. Following 50 years of unrestricted logging, Costa Rica’s green era began in 1970 when lawmakers founded a national park system. The tiny country —smaller than West Virginia—boasts the highest density of species in the world. While there we spotted crocs sunning themselves under a bridge, iguanas clinging to hibiscus bushes, and numerous types of birds (and bugs).  We also surfed, hiked, saw an active volcano and soaked in natural hot springs, went zip lining, horseback riding and whitewater rafting. 

So, how exactly do you experience all these activities while limiting your impact on the environment?  First, understand the difference between "real" ecotourism and marketing hype.  Assuming you're not going to just string a hammock between a couple of trees, find out if the hotel or resort you're considering is merely located in a natural place or if the management demonstrates a true commitment to reducing their carbon footprint. If you’re concerned about an establishment’s legitimacy,  check if they have Green Globe certification or are a member of a reputable sustainable tourism organization. Also see if the hotel is built to LEED Gold green building certification.

More Eco Tips

Start your trip planning by defining what you want out of a holiday and be aware of trade-offs you're willing to make. Also be aware of budget - sometimes a lot less costs a lot more.  If you're well off the beaten path and arriving at your destination isn't easy, imagine how hard it is to cart in building supplies, furniture, menu ingredients, amenities, etc. The more remote the location, the more it likely costs to have access to the amenities you've come to expect.

Turtle Inn, Belize - photo credit Jane Schonberger

The biggest eye-opener during my recent travels was the range of supposedly eco-friendly places – in terms of both price and accommodation.  Francis Ford Coppola, for example, is well known for his branded resorts in Belize and Guatemala – and they are indeed beautiful destinations. But they don’t come cheap. The Turtle Inn, near Placencia in Belize, runs about $500/night and day trips to nearby natural attractions, including the must-see barrier reef – runs close to $200 per person. Coppola does train and employ a lot of locals and uses indigenous products and ingredients whenever possible in adhering to the eco theme but if you want to see the "real" Belize, you'll have to venture off the property.

At the other end of the scale are Mayan villages near Punta Gorda in the Toledo district of Belize where tourists stay in simple community huts and learn about local culture while sharing home-cooked meals with families.  This experience runs about $50 per person including meals but be forewarned, there may not be electricity (translation no fans or air-conditioning) and bugs are prevalent . Both fabulous experiences. Both fall under the broad heading of eco-tourism. But two very different price tags and tales to tell.

Intrigued? If you truly want to be a responsible traveler, there are a number of additional things you can do before, during and after your journey to minimize your impact and ensure your experience is in line with the values of eco-tourism.

Trip Preparation:  Educate yourself about your destination.  Look out for news and current events about the area. Learn about local history, customs and culture as well as vital ecosystems. Set up a Google alert or Twitter stream based on the desired location. Learn at least the basics of the local language.  Approach travel with the desire to learn rather than just observe. Are there programs that teach travelers to respect the local culture and habitat? Are there naturalists, biologists or botanists on staff at your destination to show visitors the flora and fauna?

Conservation:  Be aware of the resources that are used in conjunction with your trip.  This includes your personal consumption of items like water or specialty foods that have to be transported from afar.  Is the management of the establishment committed to water- and energy-conservation efforts?  Do staff members recycle garbage? Are soaps, shampoo and mouthwash offered from refillable bathroom dispensers rather than plastic bottles? Does the establishment use biodegradable cleaning products and toiletries? Do they use solar-heating for hot water? Some of the more conscientious  places use kitchen waste and other organic materials such as grass trimmings for compost  and give restaurant leftovers to local farmers as feed. You get the idea. 

Localization:  How will your visit directly benefit the local economy?  This is an integral part of true eco-tourism. Will you use local transportation, guides, inns, restaurants and markets? This helps create a buffer zone around natural areas by giving locals an economic alternative to potentially destructive practices.  Does the hotel or resort provide financial benefits and empowerment for local people? Is the local community involved with the establishment and do they receive income? Are they hired for construction and maintenance? Are they trained for managerial or other staff positions? If you're staying at a resort that has a spa, do they use local products? Can you unwind with a coffee scrub, a volcanic-mud body wrap, or another one of the spa’s treatments using local ingredients?

The goal in ecotourism is to minimize a visitor’s impact on the host country. A conscious attitude on the part of individual travelers directly affects the outcome. It is far easier to go on vacation as an uninformed tourist but that can have long-term effects on the planet. Bottom line: The more you put into your trip the more you'll get out of it. 

Here are some establishments I found on my most recent trip that do it right:

Chaa Creek Lodge – Cayo, Belize. Established as a small family farm in 1981, Chaa Creek has grown to be one of Belize’s most popular eco-lodges. The Cayo is an inland region known for its Mayan ruins and beautiful landscapes. Both Prince Harry and Bill Gates stayed at this rainforest resort a couple weeks before our visit.

Hamanasi Adventure and Dive Resort, Hopkins, Belize. A great spot for divers who want to get a bit off the beaten-path. It's a pleasant change from Ambergris Caye which has been overdeveloped recently (though there are still pockets of paradise). Hamanasi promotes responsible, sustainable tourism and is a real gem sitting right on the Caribbean coast.

Si Como No, Manuel Antonio, Costa Rica. This resort doesn't really sell itself as an eco-lodge but they are committed to sustainable tourism and do a great job with conservation and adhering to eco-friendly principles. It was a great base for exploring Manuel Antonio National Park with its great beaches (for surfing and sunning) and hiking (at one point we were on an isolated trail surrounded by no less than 50 Spider monkeys).

Lapa Ríos, Cabo Matapalo, Costa Rica. Considered one of the top eco-lodges in Costa Rica,  Lapa Rios provides sustainable hospitality and access to the 1,000 acres of forest in its private preserve edging Corcovado National Park. Definitely off the grid, this is for true nature lovers who want a one-of-a-kind experience.

Have you had an eco-vacation? Any suggestions for great hotels or tour operators?


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