FrogShutterstock/Peter WollingaBy Dannielle Hayes

Costa Rica is synonymous with conservation and leads the world in sustainable tourism practices. At the EXPOTUR Travel Market held in San Jose in May, Costa Rica’s Minister of Tourism, Carlos Ricardo Benavides stated very simply “sustainability is an obligation of all of us on this planet.” For travel agents and tour operators selling Costa Rica, it is especially important that they know the sustainability level of the lodgings and in-bound tour operators they are booking for their clients.

More than a decade ago, the Costa Rican Tourism Institute or ICT set up the Certificate of Sustainable Tourism or CST. It is a voluntary certification program open to lodgings, tour operators, airlines and car rental agencies within Costa Rica. Briefly, the CST is a rating system based on a scale of 0 to 5 green leaves, with level 5 green leaves considered a model of sustainable tourism.

Hardly anyone is more informed about sustainable tourism than Glenn Jampol, President of the National Ecotourism Society or Camara Nacional de Ecoturismo (CANAECO) “The CST guidelines are very strict,” said Jampol in a private interview. “Every set of questions, and there are about 1,000 of them, have to be backed up by evidence. Our guests are also part of the process in that we ask them to evaluate their experience during their stay and now 12 to 15 per cent choose sustainability as the most important element of their trip. Sustainability is about saving money too and that’s good business. Our goal at the National Ecotourism Society is that we won’t need the society anymore, because everything will be sustainable.”

Just 15 to 20 minutes from the airport is one of the country’s top eco-lodges, the Finca Rosa Coffee Plantation and Country Inn. The first boutique hotel, Finca Rosa Blanca offers 13 unique suites focused on coffee culture, comfort, art and design. Inn guests may have a private tour of the surrounding coffee plantation, a guided volcano tour, bird watching, nature walks, horseback tour or choose to relax in the spa, the chemical-free infinity swimming pool or Jacuzzi hot tub. The Inn’s bar and restaurant featuring local produce, has magnificent views of the Central Valley. Quite naturally the Finca Rosa has achieved the highest CST status of 5 green leaves.

Within San Jose, an excellent green choice would be the Hotel Grano de Oro situated on a shady street just off Paseo Colon, the city’s main thoroughfare. The Grano de Oro was converted from a tropical Victorian mansion to a 40-room hotel and maintains the warmth of a private home. A member of the Small Distinctive Hotels of Costa Rica, this charming property also has an extensive sustainability program and is in the process of getting their CST status.

If you are in San Jose for just a few days, the Gold Museum tops the “must-see” list. Beneath the plaza next to the elegant National Theatre, the museum exhibits the Indigenous people’s pre-Columbian culture in fine cast gold pieces and ancient ceramics. A half-day wandering the Central Market sheds light on contemporary Costa Rican or “Tico” culture in a veritable feast for the senses. Listen to the vendors chanting. Drink in the dazzling colours of fresh produce and taste some delicious local fare like gallo pinto (painted rooster) or casado (husband).

Costa RicaShutterstock/Eduardo RiveroTo experience Costa Rica’s beautiful Pacific coast, fly either NatureAir or SANSA, both domestic airlines qualifying for CST status. NatureAir along with the Rainforest Alliance provides information on eco-friendly lodgings for conservation-minded travellers, ( and uses bio-diesel in their trucks.

Central to this coast is the splendid new Arenas del Mar and Nature Resort, the first hotel to be built according to the strict CST standards. The resort, tucked into 4.5 hectares of rainforest above two tree-shaded white-sand beaches, offers spectacular views of nearby Manuel Antonio National Park and the Pacific. Naturally, Arenas del Mar achieves all 5 CST green leaves.

Further south on the Osa Peninsula (soon to be named a UNESCO World Heritage Site), Lapa Rios Ecolodge is another excellent green choice. Lapa Rios is an upscale 16-bungalow eco-lodge protecting over 400 hectares of preserved rainforest prized for its biodiversity. The 60-plus staff members are from the local isolated area, and environmental education is fundamental to the employees and international guests’ experiences. The development of the local primary school is mostly funded by the lodge’s Traveler’s Philanthropic outreach. Lapa Rios has the full 5 leaves CST status and is consistently voted one of Latin America’s top resorts by Conde Nast Traveler, Travel & Leisure and Andrew Harper.

Costa Rica Tourism has also been encouraging the reclamation of rural areas that had been cleared for cattle and dairy farms to become sustainable. A good example of this is Rancho Margot started about six years ago by Juan Sostheim and his family. “It was 400 acres with no trees, but I saw it for what it could be,” said Sostheim, a former chemist. “My goal was to create a self-sufficient ranch integral to the community. With education, tourism and production we work with students and tourists to experience agro-tourism in a sustainable way. We produce our own energy using bio-digesters and we use kitchen waste oil to make soaps and bio-diesel fuel. We also have an extensive Spanish language program and yoga teacher training. We are totally sustainable.”

Another successful family-run sustainable property is the beautiful Savegre Hotel, Natural Reserve and Spa in the Talamanca Mountains south of San Jose. Owner Efran Chacon first saw the property in the early 1960s when he and his brother were hunting tapir in the primary tropical cloud forest. From a simple family farm, the Savegre has grown to a 5-star property with a 4 leaves CST status. The Savegre offers 20 suites and 20 standard rooms surrounded by lush gardens. The Bromelias Restaurant specializes in trout caught from the Savegre River, and at Les Robles Bar and Café, guests may share the day’s adventures or stay in touch with friends via Wi-Fi internet. The Savegre’s 400-hectare Private Reserve property is neighbour to Los Quetzales National Park, the best place to sight the Resplendent Quetzale. Matilde Chacon, the founder’s granddaughter runs the Rio Spa.

There are a number of tour operators that have gained top CST status as well. Actuar Rural Adventures helps travellers plan adventurous, enjoyable and educational trips with sustainable tourism businesses. Horizontes Nature Tours has been designing travel programs to Costa Rica’s biodiversity-rich destinations since 1984, including tours to see the Bri-Bri Indigenous people. Simbiosis Tours specializes in sustainable rural tourism.

Costa Rica is participating in a joint effort with France, the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP), the United Nations World Tourism Organization (UNWTO) and other U.N. agencies in the creation of the U.N. Global Partnership for Sustainable Tourism. This organization aims to help governments and businesses make all tourism, everywhere, become more environmentally, socially and economically sustainable. Once again, Costa Rica leads the way.

For more information on Costa Rica, visit

The 411

Costa Rican Tourism Institute or ICT,
Certificate of Sustainable Tourism or CST,
Finca Rosa Coffee Plantation and Country Inn,
Hotel Grano de Oro,
Rainforest Alliance,
Arenas del Mar and Nature Resort,
Lapa Rios Ecolodge,
Rancho Margot,
Savegre Hotel, Natural Reserve and Spa,
Actuar Rural Adventures,
Horizontes Nature Tours,
Simbiosis Tours,