Cultural Tourism in Costa Rica

Have boat, will travel

According to the United Nations Environment Programme, an instigator of change in global environmental practices, there are 10 key sectors to making the world greener. They are inter-related and include construction, agriculture, fishing, tourism and water management.  But environmental awareness is not just a “moral” issue, it’s also an economic one. Sustainable tourism can be both profitable and have a momentous influence in eradicating poverty.

The premise of sustainable tourism has been the cornerstone of Costa Rica’s policies towards tourism, and the primordial reason for the country’s high marks in competitiveness and offerings.  The World Economic Forum’s Report on Competitiveness in Tourism ranks Costa Rica 5th in the Americas, after the US, Canada, Barbados and Mexico.

Amongst all the accolades, Costa Rica invests greatly in an industry that alongside commerce and services represents 68% of GDP and generates more than $1.6 billion, making tourism the country’s first income-earner.

But beyond the numbers and facts, Costa Rica is privileged by its geography, its green approach to tourism, and above all, by a people whose cultural legacy is deeply steeped in a love of the land and its history of non-violence. (Costa Rica, along with a handful of sovereign states like Palau and Liechtenstein, has no standing army.)

Costa Rica rainforest evokes pre-history

This unique combination of endowments promises the visitor a glimpse of paradise in the awe-inspiring rainforests, volcanoes, oceans, plains, and over half a million species of wildlife (four per cent of the world’s biodiversity).  It also promises a sensorial cultural joyride, from sounds encompassing the soulful Calypso notes of the Caribbean and the strident percussion bands of Guanacaste; from the coconut imbued rice and beans of the Atlantic to succulent pork steamed in banana leaves—the lofty tamale. From the Spanish colonial legacy of a fervent Catholic faith, majestic colonial architecture and the dark-haired, mestizo beauty of its women, to the black and native cultural diversity expressed in the paganism of the mascaradas (giant papiermâché heads of devils and other mythical monsters), the statue of a black Christ called the “Negrito of Esquipulas,” carried on the shoulders of penitents during religious processions; and the inherited pre-Columbian craftsmanship of the pottery of the town of Guaitil.

Hand-painted in Guaitil

These tangible traces of the history of a people are the building blocks of cultural tourism, the darling of sustainability in the tourism industry.  Cultural tourism promises the visitor a full experience. It urges the tourist to explore different lifestyles, to see the uniqueness of the country/region visited, to seek understanding of other cultures.

In Guanacaste, for instance, the province is a rural wonderland.  Unpaved roads cut through what were once vast tracts of undivided land, and waves of heat shimmer across open plains that stop at the ocean.  Cattle and scattered indigenous trees are the focal points of the plains. Guanacaste’s character was forged by this harsh land cleared of dry tropical primary forests in the last two hundred years.  Like the Argentine pampas created the gaucho, or the Venezuelan and Colombian grasslands the llanero, Guanacaste’s plains have created their own personification: the sabanero.  The sabanero sits atop a horse with utmost flair, as if he was born a centaur.  His machete is his weapon of choice and his hobby is bullriding. His fearlessness is put to the test in the province’s every Fiesta, when he goes into the ring, and faces a 600 kg bucking, irate bull.

Sabanero, legendary cowboy of Guanacaste

Surely, the cultural experiences of Guanacaste are beyond all expectations: culture is the ultimate excitement (unless you truly just want to hang out  by the pool under a scorching sun; in this case an all-inclusive in the Bahamas or Timbuktu will do).  Cultural tourism is the extreme sport of the industry.  Options include: swinging in the canopy of pristine forests; a visit to a hacienda in the bajura (the alluvial plains of the province) to see dexterous cowboys putting a pin through a ring as small as your finger at full gallop; a stroll through a coffee plantation to understand how that cup of coffee you die for in the mornings came to be; putting on a cowboy hat and watching bulls toss men around like dolls in the ring (this graphic sport is guaranteed to make your heart pound!).

To visit Guanacaste is to live fully, and in doing so, the visitor becomes part of the community.  Through the exchange of local foods, traditions and beliefs, the community benefits monetarily and long term.  Given the rise of tourism as the country’s main industry (2.2 million foreigners arrived in Costa Rica in 2010, an almost 10% increase over the previous year), the challenge lies in handling growth so that cultural tourism becomes the true incentive for visiting Costa Rica.

–Zoraida Diaz