The Osa Peninsula juts off southwestern Costa Rica and extends into the Pacific Ocean. Incredibly, at least half of all species living in Costa Rica can be found here. Corcovado National Park covers about a third of the peninsula and has been called “the most biologically intense place on Earth” by National Geographic. But to really understand what that means, you have to visit.
The Costa Rican government realizes this, and over the past few decades the area’s economy has begun to abandon gold mining and logging for more sustainable (and oftentimes more profitable) industries like ecotourism. Business is booming: more and more visitors travel to this region every year in the hopes of seeing rare wildlife like the endangered Baird’s tapir or the harpy eagle. They want to see crocodiles, spectacled caiman, and bull sharks swimming in the rivers. They know they can find endangered squirrel monkey, howler monkeys, spider monkeys, and sloths up in the trees. And they hope that they’ll glimpse the elusive jaguar, even when they know few longtime residents of the region have ever spotted one.
This winter I was one of those visitors. I flew in a single-engine plane, drove across riverbeds, and hitched a ride in the back of some Ticos’ trucks to get there. It was worth the trip. We saw white-faced capuchins, scrambled up waterfalls, swam with sharks, and watched a thousand bats pour out of a sea cave at dusk.
The Osa Peninsula is unlike any place I’ve been before, and probably unlike any other place that I’ll ever go. But it’s rapidly changing. English-language signs which advertise vacation rentals are becoming commonplace. In town, souvenir shops and tourism offices replace local bars. You can still feel the grit of this former frontier hanging in the air–this place was settled by tough people–but everything has been given a fresh coat of paint. Luckily, paint doesn’t last too long in the jungle.
The biodiversity of the Osa Peninsula is breathtaking, and it’s the reason so many of us travel to the region. In fact, Costa Rica is the most visited nation in Central America. In 1970, when Costa Rica established the National Park Service and began investing in ecotourism, the country’s GDP was about $100 million. By 2013 Costa Rica’s GDP had risen to almost $50 billion with a whopping 72 percent coming from the service industry. It received 2.42 million foreign visitors that year, and besides our open-mouthed gaping and poor grasp of the Spanish language we bring something with us: money. Each visitor spends an average of $1,000 throughout his/her stay.
And while this influx of foreign money has adverse affects (cost of living rises while wages remain stagnant), good does come from it, too. Ecotourism gives previously impoverished areas a steady stream of capital, which provides the government and its constituents with an incentive to protect land and wildlife. According to a survey conducted during the peak travel season of 1986 by the ICT (Costa Rican Institute of Tourism), 75 percent of tourists interviewed claimed to have come to Costa Rica because of its natural beauty. A lush, thriving ecosystem is now a valuable commodity. Which sounds like a good thing, right?