It’s no surprise that Costa Rica is a country filled with beautiful natural ecosystems. Its coasts are bustling with marine life and its interior is blanketed with some of the most biodiverse forests in the world. Over half of Costa Rica is now forested, however, that wasn’t always the case.

In the 1940s, loggers cleared most of the land to grow crops and livestock, which destroyed nearly half of the forest cover in the country. The Costa Rican government saw the economic value in preserving its forests and decided to make it illegal to chop down forests without approval in the 1990s. This decision, coupled with incentivizing landowners with payments for the environmental services their lands produce when using sustainable practices, has allowed them to regrow their forests to the astonishing numbers today.

Travelers walking in the Costa Rican forest

© Noah Patterson / WWF

The impacts of these regulations were clear on our recent trip with Natural Habitat Adventures. Not only were we in awe at the natural beauty of Costa Rica, but we were also inspired by the passion of the people in the local communities we visited. It was so evident that they recognized the important role that the environment plays and how intertwined both people and nature are.

This concept first surfaced at the very beginning of our trip: Tortuguero. As we explored the magnificent canals in search of wildlife, our boat driver (a local in the village) never failed to spot even the smallest animal from miles away. He was so knowledgeable about every bird, fish, sloth, and monkey and you could see the excitement in his actions as he laid eyes on the next spectacle. We must have seen and learned about over 20 animals in just our short time on the water.

The hotel we stayed at also offered a service where you could watch a sea turtle lay her eggs on the beach at night. It was an incredible opportunity! We boarded another boat to the beach where we met our tour guide for the evening. She immediately welcomed us, and her passion shined through as she told us stories about the turtles on our way down the pitch-black beach. She even reminded us about how important these tours were for sea turtle conservation and emphasized how excited she was to be leading us on this journey. And the journey did not disappoint.

Our tour guide brought us to the nest where a sea turtle was laying her eggs and shown a very dim red light to not disturb her process. We rotated every few minutes to allow another group the opportunity but, during that time, we were able to ask questions. She answered every single one with enthusiasm and encouragement to ask more.

Our next stop was Corcovado National Park on the Pacific coast of Costa Rica. As we made our way up to the hotel which overlooked the water, we thought, what could be better? Our question was answered the next day once we embarked on our hike through the park. We were accompanied by a friend of our expedition leader who belonged to an indigenous community in the area. Not only did we learn about local flora and fauna, but we also got to hear his stories about how his tribe lived off the surrounding nature.

There was one time in particular when it began to rain. He ran over to a leaf and asked us to rub it against our skin. The wax from this type of plant was used to protect them from the rain. It made all of us on the trip feel so much more connected to the environment.

Beach on the coast of Costa Rica

© Noah Patterson / WWF

From Corcovado, we traveled by boat, plane, and bus to Costa Rica’s cloud forest in Monteverde. It was a beautiful road trip along windy roads. Our expedition leader told us stories about some of the spots on the way and we stopped at a local restaurant in the city of San Ramon. They were anticipating us and had the most delicious food prepared family style. The owners greeted us with smiles on their faces and were excited to show us their cuisine. It was a delightful experience filled with laughter and of course good food!

Once we made it to Monteverde, we settled into our rooms and then met with a representative of the Costa Rican Conservation Foundation. She was there to give us a brief presentation about a vulnerable bird in the region known as the Three Wattled Bellbird. The slides contained a lot of scientific information but also emphasized the importance of its role in the ecosystem. It was clear how much we needed to protect the bird. We would go on to search for the Three Wattled Bellbird on our hikes each day and finally saw one! As we peered through our binoculars in amazement, the lady’s message about protecting the bird remained top of mind.

The last stop on our visit was to the Arenal volcano, only a couple hours from Monteverde. We stayed at the observatory at the base of the volcano with the most scenic panoramic views. It was breathtaking. But it was also a reminder of how people and nature are so dependent on one another. The observatory was still very much used to monitor the impacts of volcanic activity on the surrounding area. We swam in hot springs that were fueled by the heat from underground. Everywhere we went, we were a part of nature – not the other way around.

Cloud forest with view of mountain in the distance in Costa Rica

© Noah Patterson / WWF

Costa Rica is a very popular tourist destination for many reasons. Most go to enjoy its beaches or explore its forests, but Natural Habitat Adventures instilled in us the cultural value of Costa Rica. We learned from the local communities at every stage of the trip and plan to carry those lessons forward in our everyday life. Sure – its natural beauty was spectacular, but its people and the “Pura Vida” lifestyle are something that we will never forget.

By Jack Boeve, Manager of Strategic Operations and Planning for WWF, and Noah Patterson, Digital Technical Lead/Developer, Web and Apps Lead Engineer for WWF