Costa Rica: Sustainable Adventures

I’ve never written about this before because words, well… they just don’t seem to do it justice.

But when I graduated from college I had an experience that would change my life forever.

I said goodbye to my friends and family and flew under the cover of night to Costa Rica. My wild daydreams of becoming an Adventure Guide in the jungles of Central America had actually come true. My parents thought I was insane, but I embarked on the crazy journey with little more than will and a prayer. It was a lot like The Secret. My relationship with my first love was on shaky ground. I was graduating soon. I would have to decide – and visualize – which direction my life was going to take. All I knew was that I needed nature, a spanish-speaking country, and the opportunity to learn and teach. I became obsessed with the idea that I should become an Adventure Guide.
Sort of like this without the guns (and add a horse, a bow, and some arrows).

Of course, I had no real qualifications (unless archaeological digs and riding horses with my dad counted as ‘experience’), but I scoured the internet regardless, reaching out to every single adventure company listed. Whales, turtles, rafting, sailing, ecology… you name it, I begged for the chance to learn the ropes.

I never heard back. I was a senior; unsure of what life – after graduation – might have in store, but somehow I saw – and willed – what would later become one of the most memorable experiences in my life. Strangely enough, I was on my way to see the movie Titanic, when I ran into Jordie, an old friend from freshman year. We hadn’t seen each other since we took a train from Philly to Madison Square Garden to see one of the last Grateful Dead shows in history. We stood outside the movie theater catching up… Jordie had taken a semester off to travel Costa Rica and clear his head, I had moved to Spain to study Spanish literature.

“Costa Rica… that’s amazing,” I said. “I just got back from Spain and I’ve been dreaming about becoming an Adventure Guide. Costa Rica would be the perfect place…”

As fate (or The Secret) would have it, Jordie responded:

“That’s what I did… and I think they’re hiring.”

The rest, as they say, is history. I willed my fate and the universe had finally heard me. Two weeks later, Jordie called to give me the phone number of Stephen Brooks, the 25 year-old eco-adventurer and owner of Costa Rican Adventures. Ten minutes later, Stephen offered me a job. Those two guys in the photo above, Brian (left) and Jupy (right), would be my fellow companions and guides throughout the Costa Rican jungle. Together, and with our passionate boss, Stephen, we studied poisonous dart frogs at a biological reserve, learned about sustainable farming, visited a co-op of women who farmed natural herbs, hiked steep mud-filled mountains to eat with a local tribe of Bribri, went white-water rafting (where I momentarily fell for a local river guide), and cooked yucca for high school and college students who were all there to learn – with us – about the miraculous beauty and plenitude that is… nature.

Peto and I leaving Manzanillo, the last stop before Punta.

Four months later, clarity came by way of rafting through Turrialba, picking and cooking my own food, listening the symphonic cascade of the jungle at night, and witnessing the first-hand struggle of a green turtle laying her eggs in the sand along the Panamanian border.
Since 1998, Costa Rican Adventures has certainly been thriving. What was once a run down treehouse where we camped and washed dishes in the ocean, is now Punta Mona or Monkey Point, a 30-acre organic farm and educational retreat dedicated to environmental consciousness by creating an example of sustainable living through permaculture design, eco-technology and organic farming. Located 6 km south of Manzanillo on the Southern Caribbean Coast, ‘Punta’ (as we called it) is surrounded by nothing, but monkeys, turtles, the jungle, coconut, and the Caribbean, complete with the locals that you can really only dream of…

Take Padi, a 70 year-old man who lives alone – with no electricity – on the border between Costa Rica and Panama. The nearest town is only accessible by boat or a two-hour hike with a machete through dense jungle and swarms of mosquitos. How long he’s been there… it’s a mystery. Thirty, maybe forty, years. Time here is dictated by the movement of the seasons, the migration of the turtles, and the tides. A remarkable man of almost Lama-esque peace and calm, Padi really is the old rasta man to your sea. He follows the turtles by the cycles of the moon and tides; consulting a lunar calendar as he tells you, before bedtime, just why there’s no place on earth he’d rather be… even if he’s got a few kids living in the big city.

Stephen Brooks knew something before most of us did. If you want to find some meaning in your life, really engage in the natural world and take refuge in the land that’s right there before you. ‘If you want to connect to the land, her resources, and her people, this is the place to do it,’ he says. Having farmed the soil, climbed the peaks, and witnessed a turtle struggle to lay her eggs in the sand… I can heartily say, Brooks was way ahead of his time. He knew – and fulfilled – what any person needs to encounter at least once, if not repeatedly and permanently, in life. An experience – or, better yet, a lifestyle – that really reminds you how to live. Naturally.

They’ll tailor trips for up to 40 people from one day to several weeks where you’ll hike, kayak, get massages, do some organic farming, swim, observe turtle nesting, get permaculture instruction, do yoga, and even… learn how to make chocolate!

They’ll even take care of all meals and snacks (the majority of food comes fresh from their organic gardens and the sea).

Last year, I covered the incredibly cool turtle sanctuary at the luxurious Le Meridien Bora Bora and, in addition to sustainable trips and organic farming with my alma mater, Costa Rican Adventures, I’m passionate about hunting down the best trips for the heart, the soul, and… the turtles.

So, if you’re in the mood for a more research/labor intensive trip focusing solely on these glorious Chelonia mydas, check out:

The Caribbean Conservation Corporation and Sea Turtle Survival League (CCC). For over 45 years, they’ve conducted sea turtle nest monitoring studies located on the most popular nesting sites for green turtles in the Western hemisphere. The area stretches along the twenty-mile black sand beach of Tortuguero and now provides the majority of the information on the reproductive ecology and migratory habits of sea turtles. Researchers (and volunteer guests like you) are based at CCC’s John H. Phipps Biological Field Station or the Landon T. Clay Scientists Residence where you’ll monitor nesting trends, growth rates, and reproductive success. You’ll walk along the large expanse of beach at night – just you and the world – tracking turtles and observing babies hatch while mother heads back to the shore.

The best part?

Through this conservation initiative, CCC has reversed the decline of green turtles in the Caribbean.

For centuries, the long beach draws the largest nesting population of green turtles hunted for their meat and eggs; still considered delicacies, regardless of the fact that, like shark and shark finning, it’s pretty tasteless and there’s a good deal of fresh fish, coconut, and vegetables around to eat instead. After all, it’s illegal to kill and eat these ancient turtles for a reason.

The sand is soft and the wind is smooth, but they recommend people in good health and physical condition. You’ll pull a 4-hour nightshift with a few others between 5 -7 miles a night, walking in the dark (with no flashlight as to avoid scaring the turtles). You’ll pick a shift that runs from 8am-12am or 12am-4am and then… get taggin’. When you’re not tracking the turtles and watching them lay eggs and hatch, you’ll have plenty of time to veg in a hammock and write plenty of Darwinian sonnets as you plan the next 10 years of your life.

Here’s a sample room:

$1,399 for a one week session – $2,699 for a three week session.
Contact CCC for details, fees and availability of the Scientist Residence or local Eco-Lodge options.

At the end of your sustainable adventures, when you’re ready to check out a bit more of the country, take a trip to the volcanic hot springs of Arenal and then treat yourself to Manuel Antonio/Quepos where you can really contribute to that Costa Rican economy. When my family came into town to visit me at the end of my eco-journey, we stayed at:

The Tulemar Bungalows (****), my personal favorite. Intimate and nestled in the jungle, monkeys will greet you in the morning and play in the trees as you sip a pina colada in the pool. You can choose from modern eco-friendly bungalows, private villas, and houses on the beach.

$128 (Green Season/Bungalows)-$11,000 (private villa that sleeps eight for a week)

Our plush eco-loving staff also recommends the only five-start property (and eco-reserve!) in Costa Rica, Gaia Hotel and Reserve.

$220-$970 (high season, 2-bedroom villa)

This place will not only remind you why you needed to lend your beautiful spirit to the earth and her creatures around you, but it will also remind you to appreciate the beauty, and the design, that is lovingly made by man. Now go farm the jungle and track some turtles already!

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